Bob Delevante: Porchlight
by George Graham
(Relay Records 99-0001 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/15/99)
The music scene variously known as "roots rock," "Americana," "alt.country," and "new folk-rock," continues to flourish, no doubt as a direct reaction to the slick, trendy manufactured commercial pop that dominates the media. The now-proliferating roots-rock scene is being driven by musicians who were hardly born when the folk, rock and country that inspired them was unfolding in the late 1950s to early 1970s. But they have embraced the tried-and-true traditions that have made such music so durable -- honesty, intelligent lyrics and tasteful, generally understated musicianship that implies the sound of a live performance. The number of bands and performers making such music has become dizzying -- the style has become a bit trendy itself, and thus has fallen victim to also-rans who as a kind of oxymoron, wear their musical sincerity on their cuffs to the point of being pretentious.
This week, though, we have an album that is a reminder of what makes the roots-rock scene so appealing, with all the good traits it has to offer. It's the new release by Bob Delevante called Porchlight.
Bob Delevante grew up in New Jersey just outside of New York, and started his career there. Bob and his brother Mark formed a band called the Delevantes, which began to attract attention, and eventually released first an independent, then a major-label album in 1995 and 1997 respectively. But in typical fashion for major labels in recent years, the Delevante brothers were soon dropped, despite the critical praise their CD brought.
After their record deal fell apart, apparently leaving them disenchanted, the pair decided to take some time off and postpone any new Delevantes album. According to Bob, "Mike knew I had some songs ready, so he said, 'Why don't you do this record, and we'll keep writing for the next (Delevantes) record?'" So Bob, living in Nashville, started working on a new recording in the attic of his home, where he also has a art studio. He invited some friends and notable guests in, including Emmylou Harris, Greg Trooper, and fellow New Jersey natives Gary Tallent and Southside Johnny, both bandmates of Bruce Springsteen, along with brother Mike Delevante. The result is one of those records on which everything comes together just right with excellent musicianship, great songs -- musically memorable and lyrically literate -- and very tasteful production. The sound ranges from mostly acoustic folk to all-out rockers to some country with a little of the jangly guitars reminiscent of the Byrds thrown in -- the kind of classic roots rock mix. But despite the familiar ingredients, the result never sounds clichéd.
Bob Delevante plays many of the instruments himself. Apparently, the album started as a do-it-yourself project. But his guests include Gary Tallent and Dave Jacques alternating on the bass, Bryan Owings on drums and guest guitarists Duane Jarvis, Mike Delevante, Mike McAdam, John Sieger and Buddy Miller. Miller, a respected singer-songwriter and producer in his own right, also mixed and mastered Porchlight. Despite the way the CD was recorded, with a lot of overdubbing by Bob Delevante, and the guest musicians coming in individually and putting on their parts, the album maintains an organic, nearly-live sound. Delevante produced the CD himself, and specifically selected players who are used to playing live to aim for spontaneity.
As for the songs, Delevante creates material ranging from straight-out love songs to some cryptic lyrics that could be about any number of topics. The songwriter specifically does not explain his songs, taking delight in learning how listeners interpret his words.
Porchlight gets under way with an all-around great piece of writing, a track called 1000 Miles to Go. It has an almost anthem-like quality, with lyrics that are both philosophical and optimistic in mood. <<>>
With a more folky sound is the following track Penny Black. This is one of those interesting, elliptical sets of lyrics, containing references to apologies, despite the upbeat, bouncy musical mood of the track. <<>>
One of the more musically intriguing songs is Broken Kite, which at times, hints at Beatles-style psychedelia. <<>>
The title piece Porchlight, not to be confused with the Robert Cray song of the same name, is another wonderful example of Delevante's knack for intriguing writing. The lyrics, about facing a bright light in a strange place, could be about anything from dealing with a new experience or change to visiting a girlfriend. <<>>
Getting surprisingly bluesy, with Southside Johnny on the harmonica is Knockerboy whose central character is apparently a demolition contractor -- in more ways than one. <<>>
One Moment with You, as the title implies, is a straight-out love song, or in this case a song of longing for someone who isn't there. <<>>
Also on the subject of personal relationships is the laid-back Why Don't You Love Me, on which Emmylou Harris makes her appearance. <<>>
End of the Day is the strongest rocker, which despite Delevante's typically worthwhile, almost defiant lyrics, borders in its sound on grungy alternative rock. <<>>
The album ends with a kind of musical prayer of thanksgiving, called Count Your Blessings, very tastefully done with most of the instruments played by Delevante himself. <<>>
Bob Delevante's new solo album Porchlight is a roots-rock gem combining excellent songwriting, fine musicianship and the kind of musical honesty that forms the whole premise behind the Americana scene. For those who are fans of the Delevantes band, with Bob's brother Mike, this independently-released CD represents just a side project for Bob, and not the end of the Delevantes. In fact, Mike appears on several tracks doing backing vocals and some guitar work, along with the other well-known guests. But most of what is heard on the CD, instrumentally and vocally is from Bob himself.
In terms of production and sound, the recording wins a solid grade "A" from us. The CD shows no hints of having been a home recording -- everything sounds first-class. There are some interesting sonic treatments in Buddy Miller's mix, in terms of stereo perspective and the like, but it's subtle and creative and not especially quirky. There's also a decent dynamic range for a rock album.
Nashville-based New Jersey-native Bob Delevante shows that even in these days of a roots-rock glut, a good album, with all the right ingredients can really stand out from the pack.
(c) Copyright 1999 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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