A set of bleak, cinematic, country soul short stories. Oscar winning material.
The Delines have described themselves in the past as a “retro-country band.” On ‘The Sea Drift’ you can see why. Built around guitarist/writer Willy Vlautin and singer Amy Boone, this is their first new material since a car accident sidelined Boone in hospital for over a year. ‘The Sea Drift’ is their third album and continues Vlautin’s narrative style of writing that has taken him from Richmond Fontaine through two novels to songs like ‘Little Earl.’ “Little Earl is driving down the gulf coast, sitting on a pillow so he can see the road” would make as good an opening line to a book as this song. The music a relaxed country soul groove with horn stabs accenting the pay offline of each verse. The tension builds through to the shop raid gone wrong that leaves Little Earl’s brother “bleeding in the back seat.”
The cinematic feel of the songs here is enhanced by the string and brass arrangements of Cory Gray, the music reflecting the hot oppressive subtropical Gulf Coast climate, the setting for these stories . It’s quite hard to pluck out individual songs for attention as the album is such an integrated piece of work. Scenes from a musical movie. In fact, Boone says of them: “When Willy would talk to me about his new batch of songs set on the Gulf Coast, I remember thinking, ‘is he talking about The Delines’ next record or is he writing a screenplay?’”. ‘Surfers in Twilight’ could be a great lost Tom Waits song and sets the tone for the desolate ‘Past The Shadows’ “Let’s disappear past the shadows. Where only the damaged stay.” In ‘This Ain’t No Getaway’ a woman leaves her abusive partner: “My sister warned me not come. But I ain’t giving anything else away. I’m gonna leave, not just escape”.
Contrasting with the vocal songs are two instrumentals. ‘Lynett’s Lament’ which divides up the two acts of the album and features a trumpet piece from Gray that is straight off a mid-50s Miles Davis soundtrack. ‘The Gulf Drift Lament’ also comes in around two minutes and again features Gray’s trumpet in place of the vocal line in other songs.
There are three heroes of this tale. Vlautin’s songs. Boone’s singing which is the perfect vehicle for those songs and Gray’s playing and arranging, particularly his electric piano work. Vlautin says ‘The idea for the ‘The Sea Drift’ began with Amy and my mutual love of Tony Joe White. We used to have conversations about his records, and she’d always joke, ‘Just write me ‘Rainy Night in Georgia.’ Jesus, what a tall order, but I guess in my own way I started trying.”
There are very few times when you can listen to an album especially one by an artist you are only familiar with by reputation (they are a favourite of some AUK colleagues) and find yourself gripped by the stories in the songs, as much as by their soundtrack. As they acknowledge themselves the album is rooted firmly in the past drawing from Tony Joe White and ‘Ode to Billy Joe’ but the characters they chronicle can still be found in any American town. It’s hard to imagine hearing a better album this year.