Anyone lucky enough to have heard The Delines’ debut album, the country-soul concept album Colfax ,upon its somewhat low-key release last year will already know that the world owes Willy Vlautin a handsome favour (over and above our gratitude for his essential quartet of novels that is ), for bringing the band’s wonderful singer Amy Boone to our attention. Hopefully, the combo’s equally impressive follow up Scenic Sessions will win a few more converts to The Damnations’ singer’s cause.
The album, a limited edition “road” release only on sale during the band’s current European tour, picks up exactly where Colfax left off with Vlautin continuing his attempt to single-handedly re-kindle our love affair with the torch song. There is a fine line between happiness and heartache in Vlautin’s songs and his leading ladies often find themselves with one foot either side of that ever-shifting border, unsure whether to stand by their man or head for the lonesome highway. It’s testimony to Vlautin’s particular genius as a songwriter that he’s able to realise this world of restless despair without ever appearing to strike a false note.
Vlautin, of course, writes outside of the parameters of everyday pop, eschewing rock’s romantic vernacular and the quest for a queasily memorable chorus. Each of the vignettes that comprised Colfax were finely crafted character studies, tales told by worn-out waitresses and wasted war veterans; a world seen entirely through the eyes of three-time losers long ago destabilised by life’s low blows, as with the inimitable “I Won’t Slip Up” –
I get so tired of people always worrying about me
My mom won’t stop lecturing me
Forty five hours a week my boss double checks me
He counts the till in front of everyone before I leave.
The evidence of Scenic Sessions, though, is that a change is in the air and we might even surmise that Vlautin has passed through the eye of the storm. The record is palpably lighter in tone than its predecessor, more concerned with affairs of the heart than with affairs of state, and whilst the songs here are still deep rooted in the everyday alienation of working people there are one or two numbers “Gold Dreaming” and the cover of Sparklehorse’s “Sunshine”, for instance, where the arrangements might generously be described as lush, even opulent!
Vlautin has spoken frankly of how writing The Free ‘about killed me, about drove me insane’. As a result, his next book is destined to be a about a ‘happy go lucky rancher’. It’s a deliberate change of pace and one that, on the evidence of Scenic Sessions, has been carried over into his songwriting (a theory given credence at The Delines’ gig in Newport last week, when Boone introduced “Gold Dreaming” as a ‘feel good song’!)
Scenic Sessions opens with the breezy “Cool Your Jets” and Boone’s serene delivery here is a far cry from the careworn vocal that characterised much of Colfax. Lyrically, though, we’re still on familiar ground –
Eddie’s been on the phone all night with his wife
she said she’d leave if he didn’t quit the life
He was crying, begging her to stay
but the moment he sets his bag down he’ll get the itch to get away.
Boone doesn’t so much sing on “Cool Your Jets” as whisper sweet nothings in the listener’s ear. It’s an intimate, understated approach, (the band are careful throughout not to step on Amy’s toes) repeated to good effect on the steadfastly sad “Sirens in the Night”, as well as Vlautin’s favourite track , the short narrative piece “Friday Night”, co written with the groups multi-instrumentalist Cory Gray. Its Boone’s own composition, however, “I Wasn’t Looking”, a traditional country ballad that the likes of Crystal Gayle or Linda Ronstadt might be well advised to cover in the future, that provides the albums real highlight.
Given that Scenic Sessions sprang organically out of a recording session that was designed solely to cut a summer single, with the band having already set aside a dozen of their strongest tracks for the official second album due for release early next year, the quality of song on show here is remarkable. As far as stop-gap recordings go Scenic Sessions is unbeatable.