A new album from Iris Dement is a must-have for anyone who still finds that songs from her earlier Infamous Angel ringing around there heads. In Sing the Delta, that mournful, totally distinctive Dement voice sings on - the essence of small-town 1950s America where poor families struggle to make ends meet, tragedies happen to those who are already living desparate lives and prayers are said (but with not much hope of them being answered).
This album presents a very smooth Iris - most of the songs are slow, sad creations and Iris's voice seems to be the very essence of sorrow. The final track, Out of the Fire, is a seven minute classic Dement song, an evocation of gravel roads where grandpa lived with his rusted-out car, a little girl sitting on the seat next to her Mom as they drive home through the back-roads.
One or two of the tracks are a little thin - when she gets a good line she sometimes repeats it rather too often - for example, "there's a Whole lot of heaven shining in this river of tears" gets drummed into your head over and over again and begins to lose its novelty. Generally there is no one song to equal Our Town on Infamous Angel (which has become staple fair for amateur country-folk bands up and down the country). These songs are good, but don't quite have that something extra which will make everyone want to sing them.
In Mama Was Always Telling Her Truth we hear of Iris's mother who had a hard life in rural Arkansas but spoke her mind on every occasion -
"I was sitting in church I was right there beside her
Mama would move as the spirit would guide her
Waving her hands up to heaven singing her tune
If the preacher said something and she didn't like it
Heaven gonna shake, and she just wouldn't fight it
That was momma and she just told her truth"
Iris seems to have picked up her mother's free thinking ways: unusually for an album which will sell in vast quantities to middle-America, Iris likes singing about her religous doubts. In The Kingdom has Already Come, Iris tells us that she doesn't even know if she believes in God because heaven is found in the relationships you have on earth. In The Night I Learned How Not To Pray, her baby brother tumbles down the stairs and cracks his head open. She prayed until the evening, that God would make it right, but that night, Iris learned that "God does what he wants to anyway".
I was tempted to give this album four stars because it's a little samey throughout. The tracks all seem to merge into one another, with similar backing and that lonely, quirky, sorrowful voice soaring above what could be seen as a slightly bland backing band. I would have preferred there to be a little more stand-out instrumental work - the musicians are very fine but they concentrate on supporting Iris rather than doing anything particularly memorable themselves. The horns sound very smooth particularly on the title track Sing the Delta. Occasional Hammond-style keyboard provides just that perfect 1960s feel to tracks like There's a Whole Lot of Heaven. But the guitarists are restricted to the occasional linking phrase - there is no evidence of the sort of amazing instrumental work as appears on Sarah Jarosz's album Follow Me Down where Jerry Douglas's dobro provides such masterly backing.
Having said that, I've given it five because Sing the Delta is definitely a land-mark album with very high production values, tons of classic Dement vocals and also fantastic value for money with at least four of its dozen tracks being over five minutes long.