Delta Spirit – History From Below
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Let’s just get this out of the way and onto the table. I flat-out fell in love with Delta Spirit’s soul/folk/bar-rock masterpiece of a debut. Ode to Sunshine played like an aural trip back to the late ’60s, when folk music actually still meant something and wasn’t being whored out as a breathy dude with an acoustic guitar. In particular, frontman Matthew Vasquez’s enrapturing vocals truly caught my ear, though the rhythm section of bassist Jon Jameson and percussionist Brandon Young deserves ample credit. Vasquez let loose streams of lyrics with raw emotion propelled by the organic instrumentation of his band mates, who had the acoustics of a log cabin to help further capture the folk-y vibe.
But the inevitable issue of what they would do next ultimately came upon the announcement of their sophomore record, History From Below. Would they maintain the grittiness of their debut or would Delta Spirit opt for a high-stakes dive into a more mainstream and altogether more palatable sound? To answer the question honestly, I would offer both yes and no.
It’s clear from the jump, also known as “911”, that these are the same five musicians who created Ode to Sunshine. The track is everything you would expect from a group that created such an Americana-influenced record. And the same goes for a later cut, “Vivian”, which is an achy, booming song for either a lost love or family member. These two tracks especially are Delta Spirit at their most individualistic and removed. They are also two of the best, along with the introspective “Salt in the Wound” and the epic, story-telling grandiosity of “Ballad of Vitality”. Similarly, the barebones finger-picking burner “Scarecrow” takes Vasquez right back to his busking days. As his fingers move across the guitar-neck, you can almost feel the cool breeze blowing past as he sits on a city sidewalk.
Elsewhere, though, the band is clearly reaching for stadium-status with gigantic hooks and builds. Tracks like the beyond-catchy “Bushwick Blues” and “Golden State” are anthemic cuts that play much like they are more primed for Top 40 radio rather than hipster iPods and laptop speakers. Likewise, “Devil Knows You’re Dead”, an otherwise fun track, is loaded with lyrical clichés that read like Vasquez spent the past year or so reading college students’ favorite quotations on Facebook. These more mainstream tracks aren’t complete losses, though. “Ransom Man” bridges the gap between polished and rugged while “St. Francis” launches from a laid-back burner into a foot-stomping sing-along.
Unfortunately, these more refined tracks are what bring down the overall flavor and essence of History From Below. While it’s again a solid exercise in precise and cohesive songwriting, Delta Spirit clearly had new ambitions with this record that take away from the listening experience. Yet, that being written, this album still contains flashes of soulful folk brilliance that permeated throughout the band’s debut. It’s just become apparent that these guys might be looking for greener, more easily digestible pastures soon.