Music

Delta Spirit: Ode to Sunshine

Andrew Martin

Every year there is one album that comes out of nowhere, kicks you in the ass, and demands your attention. For me, Delta Spirit’s Ode to Sunshine is just that album.


Delta Spirit

Ode to Sunshine

Label: Rounder
US Release Date: 2008-08-26
UK Release Date: Available as import
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Every year there is one album that comes out of nowhere, kicks you in the ass, and demands your attention. It finds itself on your iPod, inside your CD player, and blaring out of your headphones or speakers. Then, you commit to spreading the word about the album to anyone and everyone. Because, just like how misery loves company, so does a music lover who has just discovered a fantastic new album. For me, and others I am sure, Delta Spirit’s Ode to Sunshine is just that album. These five guys from San Diego blend soul, folk, blues, and Americana across their debut for 11 of this year’s most intriguing and enjoyable songs. If comparisons are your type of things, think Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff’s emotional delivery mixed with some surfer-folk-blues guitar riffs and spiritual lyrical undertones. And it all comes together to make tracks that range from devastating to fun-loving to gorgeous.

Delta Spirit began gaining exposure after releasing their self-titled debut EP in 2006 while on tour. They were praised for their energetic live shows and, obviously, excellent music. Then, they began crafting Ode to Sunshine, which was re-released late last August with new cover art. And even though it technically came out during the summer, it’s the epitome of an autumn album. Singer Matthew Vasquez’s strained, gripping vocals are chilling when matched with the cool breeze coming off his bandmates’ instruments.

That feeling hits you immediately when "Tomorrow Goes Away", Ode to Sunshine’s opener, begins. Besides setting the tone for the rest of the album, the track also provides an ample introduction to the band’s sound. Vasquez’s tender singing grabs your ear while the acoustic guitar behind him hypnotizes you, making for a deadly combination. And then it all changes for "Trashcan", a rollicking fun track that oozes southern soul and folk. It’s also just a great take on the pop anthems crafted by musical giants of the past. But none of it sounds forced, familiar, or phony. And musically, "Trashcan" is just a hell of a good time. The drums, the piano, and the vocals are the standouts, but none of them are overpowering. They simply work together to make this track a strong contender on the inevitable "best of" lists we’ll see by the year’s end. It might not reach the same heights, but "People C'Mon" is another toe-tapping beauty. This time around, the piano steals the show, though the handclaps and dirty guitar riffs come close. Challenging these two tracks for the best one-two punch are "Strange Vine" and "Streetwalker". First, you have the beautifully crafted former, which is a killer demonstration of how to write a topnotch song. It’s a folky romp through California’s cooler temperatures. And that feeling is accentuated by the vibrant guitars and crashing percussion, which paint a picture of a brisk night on the beach. And the latter, though not as strong, closely follows the path traversed by "Strange Vine".

But, like with any talented group of musicians, the mellow points on Ode to Sunshine are just as interesting, if not even more so, than the upbeat jams. There’s the anti-war "People Turn Around", for example, that sounds like it crept right out of the 1960s. And much of the same goes for "Children". But they are bested by the heartfelt "Bleeding Bells". At first, Vasquez is paired with just an acoustic guitar, a match that could have worked for the whole song. When the horns hit, however, the track becomes something bigger. They add a layer that wasn’t even needed, but I'll be damned if they aren’t fitting. If "Bleeding Bells" sounds breathtaking, just wait until you hear "House Built for Two", perhaps the best track on here. It’s a heart-wrenching ballad driven by a somber piano, as Vasquez bares his soul: "It’s true, I built this for you, a house fit for two, is too small for you; it’s a shame, leave you to blame, changing your name, and left him insane." They might seem like lyrics you've heard before, but they're delivered with the right type of emotion and pain to make the words that much more crushing. And the little jam at the end of the song is a nice bonus.

What Ode to Sunshine really boils down to is excellent songwriting. And it only helps that the album’s pacing is fantastic and hardly ever drags. Even though many of the tracks carry the same tone, you never think you're listening to the same song again. You are also left feeling satisfied by the time the title-track ends the album. So what are you waiting for? Go out, maybe grab some wine, called a loved one, and give Ode to Sunshine a spin. Or listen to it alone. Either way, you are going to enjoy it.

9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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