With six decades of rock & roll in our slipstream, music fans are used to the notion that the future is sounding more and more like the past. Spend some time with Delta Spirit, though, and you get the feeling the city is starting to sound an awful lot like the country.
Like the indie blues of their Long Beach brethren Cold War Kids, the tender folk of Malibu-bred Dawes and the roughed-up twang of Deer Tick (from Providence, R.I.), Delta Spirit's soulful, bluesy Americana finds its antecedents in musicians who played on rustic back porches, not suburban lawns. But if that suggests a creative disconnect, Delta Spirit singer Matt Vasquez doesn't see it.
“Even if you hail from suburbia and not the middle of America, you still see and feel the same things,” says Vasquez, who was living in Orange County and busking in San Diego when he hooked up with bandmates Kelly Winrich, Jon Jameson and Brandon Young in 2005. “If you love that kind of music and that's what you want to play, can't that be enough?”
The DNA of Delta Spirit's sophomore album, History From Below, which came out on Rounder Records in June, can be traced to Wilco and the Walkmen, to be sure, and even beyond to the likes of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. “But I hope that when people look at Bob Dylan, they look at Woody Guthrie and they look at Leadbelly, and so on,” Vasquez says.
It's an example of young songwriters digging beyond their parents' record collections, says Elijah Thomson, who, with My Morning Jacket's Bo Kester, co-produced the album at Waits' favorite locale, Prairie Sun Studios in Cotati. Thomson points out that, abetted by the Internet and easy access to vintage recordings, 20-somethings are connecting their influences' influences' influences.
“It's so much easier to explore,” Thomson says. “The genres from the past have just become ingredients for new recipes. You take one element from here, one element from there, and you have a new hybrid. If the Beatles had all this stuff at their disposal, they'd have used it too.”
It helps that Delta Spirit is absolutely fearless in its explorations, Thomson adds. “They have a burning desire to be a great band,” he says. “They want to be as great as the bands they admire.”
Both sonically and thematically, that ambition is reflected in History From Below, which is a mature follow-up to 2008's well-received but only modestly successful Ode to Sunshine (it sold 30,000 copies).
The title nods to author/historian Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, and to the concept, says Vasquez, that “it wasn't Alexander the Great who conquered the world, it was the people who built the roads, and it's not the emperors who were responsible for the Great Wall of China but the people who built the wall.”
History From Below is built from the bottom up, too, with a warm melodic sense and urgent rhythms — topped by Vasquez's woozy, soaring tenor — supporting the kind of storytelling and commentary intrinsic to the folk-rock tradition.
Delta Spirit dances dangerously with heavy-handedness on “911,” but Vasquez felt compelled to weigh in on the Everyman's innate distrust of government.
“I was 18 when 9/11 happened, and it shook me up,” he says. “We're pushing the nine-year anniversary and there's still an enormous amount of frustration. I really wanted to give that song to Dr. Zinn [who died in January] and say, 'Thank you for affecting me.' His books empowered my patriotism toward my country, and not in a nationalistic way.”
Other moments on the album meditate, sometimes with startling clarity, on regret, fear and tragedy. The rollicking single “Bushwick Blues” was inspired by “that one ideal romantic New York night that you know can never happen again,” Vasquez says. The echoey entreaty “Devil Knows You're Dead” aches with spirituality. “Ballad of Vitaly” tells a story that, at eight minutes, doesn't seem long enough. And the acoustic “Scarecrow” — made as a field recording with two mikes (one in the trees to capture the birds) — reveals Delta Spirit at its most tender.
Lest the album sag from its own weight, though, there's “Golden State,” a buoyant anthem that's “an homage to the people who put us up on our first tours, who let us sleep on their couches or floors,” Vasquez says. “Those people are saints in my eyes.”
Thomson, who produced and engineered the band's debut, made at a cabin near Julian, California, remembers the kids from those early tours.
“Where they were coming from at the time, that was fine,” he says. “Now they've just grown as human beings.”