Iris DeMent has waited sixteen years to deliver this precious gift of an album. Her bitter-sweet voice graces these twelve new compositions like a long-lost friend; a voice both in and out of time telling it how it is with pathos and the kind of fragile grace which will tangle up your heart in a ball of knots if you'll just let it in to find a home.
That Ms DeMent understands the true nature of the blues (even though her soul is clearly rooted deep in country soil) is self-evident in these seasoned performances. Her grasp of the traditions of her chosen genre are effortlessly displayed in the beautiful melodies and uncluttered and refined arrangements. Her supporting cast of players recognises how best to accompany her with both sympathy and consummate instrumental skill. Music to make you feel warm inside.
Top tracks would have to include 'Before The Colors Fade', a beautifully crafted composition full of love and restrained emotion; a box full of fond and deeply personal memories about the artist's Mother. A sublime invention. So too title track 'Sing The Delta' with its elegant sweeping and swooping vocal line, warm brass and gently lilting rhythm. Of the up-tempo numbers 'The Night I Learned How Not To Pray' and 'There's A Whole Lotta Heaven' lift our spirits (especially the latter with its fruity Hammond organ decorations) but for my money the melancholy final track 'Out Of The Fire' saves the best til last. A song to rank with the loveliest we'll hear this year.
Sometimes the simplest things bring the greatest joys.
Iris Dement is not the most prolific of recording artistes and this collection of original songs is her first album since 2004 and only her fifth release in 20 years.
Iris shares with Lucinda Williams an aching quality to her voice that enables her to deliver the bittersweet sentiments of her songs with such passion and emotion. She writes about those things that, like many of us, we carry as memories throughout our lives: her mother, her father, her brothers and sisters, her childhood and sorrow, love and grief.
The songs are led by her own piano accompaniment which somehow gives the album the feel of belonging to a different age - the blend of old timey country and gospel, or perhaps it's because her songs express sentiments that are no longer fashionable.
The wistful, melancholy lyrics of each song are underpinned by that haunting piano and some glorious but understated Hammond B3, tenor sax, trumpet, bass, 12 string guitar and a National steel guitar. The band is never intrusive but delicately echoes the beauty of the melodies and the tender readings of her poetry.
She recalls her mother in "Before The Colours Fade":
"Before the colours fade from view I sit alone remembering you And all those things you'd say and do. And the feel of being next to you The angles of your sweet old face The voice that filled my life with grace I walk as through a sacred place Before the colours fade"
with piano and National steel playing an accompaniment of such subtle beauty.
"Morning Glory" has the verse:
"Mornin' Glory, fuschia in green You sweet little Jezebel in my garden of dreams. Petals clenched tightly in the late morning sun My day is just starting, your day is done.
Performed with just a simple piano accompaniment this beautiful song typifies a glorious album of maturity, intelligence and beauty.
I normally love Iris' albums but this one was a little disappointing. About half of the songs are great but others are only average. The style is a return to her roots and the songs seem a little bit samey. Her voice is as good as ever and the recording is fine so everything sounds as it should when you listen. But the magic of Infamous Angel and songs like My Town are largely missing here. It has grown on me over time so maybe eventually I'll rate it higher but after 2 weeks of listening I'm definitely disappointed. Although its good to have a new release after such a long wait I'm wondering if it would have been worth waiting a little bit longer for an even stronger set.
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.
As the title of this review would suggest, I was a little disappointed with this CD. The music is great and there is some amazing stuff on it, but I was really struggling to understand what she was saying. I can sit and listen to it over and over, the sound is beautiful, it is just the sheer frustration of not being able to understand every word she is saying. It is not that she is new to me, I've listened to her often and never had this problem in the past. Don't let my opinion put you off, it IS a beautiful sound, and maybe it is just my hearing!!!