Monday, March 11, 2013

Album Review: The Delta Saints - Death Letter Jubilee

Album Rating: B+
Sometimes, good music is all about personality. Sure, you can wax lyrical about the social message, or the texture, or the innovations of an artist, but at the end of the day, it’s people who make the songs that resonate with us, and it's people, fictional or otherwise, who we see reflected in them. Ultimately, it's the character of Death Letter Jubilee that makes for an engaging listen, whether from the absolutely blistering performance from lead singer Ben Ringel or from the poetic lyrics and instrumentation. No plane ticket is required here; this is soul-rock that anybody will be able to lose themselves in.

Despite its name, The Delta Saints cover material that's not…hmm, sterile, to say the least. The tropes covered here should be familiar to basically every fan of music ever: connecting with women, the search for an identity in a city that doesn't give a damn, the difficulties of spirituality, and the joys of irresponsible drinking (though to be fair, this isn’t played straight). Granted, these aren't exactly themes exclusive to 2013, but the band sells the material here with a fresh urgency, playing as if its life is on the line. It's an apt approach considering the album's source material: though many of the stories woven here are largely artifacts of Biblical times (as are song titles like "Jezebel" and "Jericho"), they're also the stories we humans find ourselves in the midst of time after time, and the band bridges the gap from past to present poignantly. 

Be warned, though: the music here is anything but holy. The guitars run the gamut from chunky and full of attitude to soft-spoken and lonesome, the harmonica spurts melodies fearlessly everywhere, the brass is bold and brash (as brass should always be), and the percussion manages to get you clapping along every time (speaking of handclaps, they're a ton of fun here). It's vocalist Ben Ringel who carries the show, though, giving a no-frills, barren performance that's all the more intense for how forthcoming he is about everything. Granted, Death Letter Jubilee doesn't use all of these elements to their fullest potential, as the songwriting isn't always as tightly focused as it could be, but it’s certainly an immersive experience throughout. 

The Delta Saints is just as genuine lyrically as it is musically, as seen in the often poetic sentiments splattered all over this album. "Out To Sea" is a forlorn portrait of a runaway looking for a better life, replete with anecdotes about abuse and abandonment and the possibility of redemption through love. "Devil's Creek" and "River" both deal explicitly with spiritual themes, the former warning of corruption (albeit delivered with a touch of sarcasm), the latter demanding redemption, replete with choir chants that manage to be stirring and ominous in equal measure; the songs aren't so much an endorsement or a condemnation of old-school religion as they are an attempt to get into the heads of those who believe in it. Ringel shows a costume store’s worth of faces on Death Letter Jubilee, spanning a wide range of emotions from triumphant ("Chicago"), defiant (the title track), and wild (“Boogie”) to lonely (“Old Man”) and vulnerable ("Jezebel"). Oftentimes, the narrator seems just as confused by his surroundings as we are, and the album, to its credit, never simplifies—it shows instead of telling. 

Death Letter Jubilee’s best attribute is its sincerity. The thirteen songs here may stem from the heartland of Tennessee, but The Delta Saints distills the complexities of spirituality, youth, and connection into a statement both entirely unique and completely relatable. Sure, it may not the best-constructed or the most controversial album you'll hear this year, but it just may be the one that you'll keep going back to long after 2013 has passed.

1. Liar
2. Chicago
3. Death Letter Jubilee
4. Jezebel
5. Boogie
6. Out To Sea
7. Sing To Me
9. From The Dirt
10. The Devil's Creek
11. River
12. Old Man
13. Jericho

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