Straight away The Delines’ music on debut album, Colfax, is believable, gorgeous, soaring – these songs seem to take the likes of Witchita Lineman and Rainy Night In Georgia as their cues, mining that same sort of country-soul territory. These are late-night weepies, you imagine the character of Alice Hyatt from Scorcese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore cutting these on her second album; it’s all post-Stand By Your Man and moving towards the sonics that people are forever calling alt-country even though that tagline kicked the bucket after getting too drunk at the funeral of print magazines.
Amy Boone, formerly of The Damnations, is the siren here – the voice. And what a voice. She imbibes the role, she imbues these songs, you believe her all the way, every time. She’s playing characters here, the hapless and luckless, the stand-proud-even-though/because–of-the-shit-of-a-life; she’s the sound you might have heard on those final Cardigans records or the Rilo Kiley material. But she’s the very true version. The one that doesn’t just sound nice. It sounds real.
So I’m happy knowing that, my first couple of listens to Colfax and I was enjoying the soft twang of country-ish guitars and a couple of weepy steel moments, a slight shimmer of ride cymbal to propel the tunes and that voice. But I really didn’t know anything about this band – just the music. That alone was telling me this was good. But how were these songs so good? Why were they so good?
Something nagged at me about the writing. The songs were just so strong.
Then I find that this is the new project from Willy Vlautin. He of Richmond Fontaine, he of four fantastic novels and – hopefully – one day the best set of short-stories since Hemingway and Carver got down with their strongest. Vlautin’s as happy to set short-stories to music, he did that with Richmond Fontaine and though his weary voice told enough of the tale it’s a revelation to hear him, to have him, writing for someone else. Here he is free to just write. To imagine. There are no limitations when he has someone like Boone in his corner.
Carried over from the Richmond days is drummer Sean Oldham, a crucial presence. As with his touch on the Fontaine records he never ever plays too much but always – always – plays just right. That’s his default setting.
A cover of Sandman’s Coming (Randy Newman), surely one of the world’s most sullen lullabies, arrives at the half-way mark of the album. You imagine Boone standing up to sing this shyly after last calls at open-mic. She’s the one who never would have thought to sing her song but then steps up and pours her soul out to the cast of Springsteen’s Glory Days. When Stateline kicks in immediately after, it’s as if an encore to that bar-room performance, the band joining in all its glory, Boone doing Lucinda Williams and James Carr and Loretta Lynn all in one; growing stronger with each line.
Singing busted-up, broken-down Americana might – now – seem a cliché. But that’s only when they’re doing it wrong. Vlautin writes it right. And Boone does it right, she sings her heart out, tears these songs from her soul.