In the case where a band releases their first album in 23 years, it’s typically either a reissue, a grab-bag of rarities or a half-baked attempt to revisit the group’s glory years, assuming they had any. In the case of the Del-Lords, had they never made their new album Elvis Club- their first since 1990’s Lovers Who Wander- their place in rock history would be secure. They came up as a fiery highway rock band with deep roots in Americana, in an era when theose roots were being rediscovered and a four-star review in Rolling Stone actually helped a band sell records. If it’s possible to say that a band had a huge cult following, the Del-Lords had one. Their live performances are legendary, including a series of 1987 New York shows where they opened for Lou Reed and his band and blew them off the stage. The new album – as well as two albums’ worth of rarities and esoterica – is streaming at the Del-Lords Bandcamp page. Much as it might sound extreme to declare it the ballsiest Del-Lords album ever, it just might be. The band is playing the album release show on June 27 at 9 PM at Bowery Electric with excellent female-fronted Americana punk rockers Spanking Charlene opening the night at 8; advance tickets are still available as of today but won’t last much longer.
The irony is that this probably wouldn’t have happened had a promoter not contacted them in 2010 and persuaded them into doing a brief Spanish tour. The quartet – guitarists Scott Kempner and Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, bassist Manny Caiati and drummer Frank Funaro – reunited, played a handful of reunion gigs at the now-shuttered Lakeside Lounge to warm up for the tour (under the pseudonym the Elvis Club, which explains the album title), and decided, what the hell, let’s pull some new songs together. It’s a good thing they did. Kempner’s tunesmithing is as strong as ever and as it turns out both he and Ambel have never sung better. The songs run the gamut from anthemic Willie Nile-ish janglerock to fiery riff-rock to various rootsy styles, with a choice Neil Young cover to cap it off.
The music is a rich blend of jangle, twang, clang and roar. Layers of guitar get tweaked artfully for just the right tinge of reverb or distortion or tremolo; the playing is terse and powerful. This time around, Ambel handles all the leads except one; almost all of them go on for no more than a couple of bars. He always leaves you wanting more. He also produced the album with his usual purist touch (the inside cd cover shot is an early morning view of the East River from inside Ambel’s Cowbow Technical Services studio, home to scores of great albums in the years since the Del-Lords first disbanded). That has a lot to do with why it sounds as good as it does: strong as the band’s albums from the 80s were, there’s a distinct 80s feel to them, while this one sounds timeless. The rest of the band is as strong as they were 23 years ago, in the case of Kempner maybe stronger. This time out, Caiaiti wasn’t available, so a rotating cast of bassists including Ambel’s Yayhoos bandmate Keith Christopher, Jason Mercer, Steve Almaas and new fulltime member Michael DuClos share the four-string chair.
The opening track, When the Drugs Kick In sets the stage for what’s to come with its wickedly catchy four-chord hook and beefed-up janglerock vibe. The second track, Princess might be the strongest one: the beat is deceptively funky, the reverb-fueled minor-key riffage burns and slashes, with a couple of searing Ambel solos fueled by resonant chords and nonchalantly savage tremolo-picking. The sardonic Chicks, Man is one of those classic one-chord songs (give it a listen, it’s true), while Flying works some vintage Memphis licks into a gorgeous, midtempo anthem in the same vein as Kempner’s classic Forever Came Today (from the 1986 Roscoe’s Gang album), with a sudden, explosive crescendo midway through.
Fueled by more of that soul guitar, All of My Life is a casually celebratory ballad from the point of view of a survivor who never expected to get as far as he has, Rob Arthur’s lush Hammond organ picking it up out of a thoughtful Ambel solo. Everyday – co-written with early rock legend Dion DiMucci – is the closest thing to Willie Nile here. Ambel takes over the vocals on Me & the Lord Blues, an evil, slinky, slow-burning tune that builds to a sunbaked Ron Asheton-like wah guitar solo.
The low-key but catchy Letter (Unmailed) sways along with a hint of Tex-Mex and a subtle reference to the Church, followed by You Can Make a Mistake One Time, which has the feel of an oldtime chain gang song set to raw, electric rock, Ambel getting a rare opportunty to cut loose for more than a couple of bars and making the most of it, Funaro’s snare drum like a sniper in the dark.
Silverlake evokes Steve Wynn with Kempner’s brooding lyric – “It’s just a matter of trying, it’s just a matter of crying, it’s just a matter of lying to yourself” – and forceful, jangly tune. The album winds up with a take of Neil Young’s Southern Pacific – the best song from the 1981 Reactor album – which turns out to be a lot more sonically diverse than the original while maintaining an angry mood all the way through. Considering that it’s told from the point of view of a guy who worked his whole life only to get laid off, it’s an apt way to wind up an album released in these new depression days. It’s inspiring to see a bunch of guys who’ve been going as long as these guys have continuing to put out music that’s as vital and entertaining as what they were doing almost three decades ago.