Over the past decade and half a dozen albums, Atlanta-based roots 'n' blues outfit Delta Moon has quietly made a name for itself as a sturdy, Delta blues-inspired outfit. Driven by the creative vision of singer, songwriter, and guitarist Tom Gray (who, in another life, wrote the Cyndi Lauper hit "Money Changes Everything" while fronting 1980s-era new wave band the Brains) and his musical partner, guitarist Mark Johnson have built upon a hallowed Mississippi blues tradition by heaping on roots-rock, folk, and gospel flavors.
With the band's 7th album, the refreshingly-erudite Black Cat Oil, Gray and Johnson continue to expand the band's trademark sound by imbuing their already heady musical brew with a little bit o' soul and some old-school rhythm & blues. The scrappy acoustic Delta blues influences from which the band takes its name are still obvious and ever-present, as are Gray and Johnson's well-written and whip-smart lyrics, but in expanding their musical palette, if only a little, they open new doors of possibility for the band in the future.
Delta Moon's Black Cat Oil
A big drumbeat and locomotive rhythm opens "Down and Dirty," a working class tale of romantic woe featuring Gray's slinky guitar lines and gruff vocals. The backing accompaniment is sparse, but the guitars are layered in thickly and offer a bit of swampy malevolence not unlike John Campbell's trademark haunted blues sound. "Blues In A Bottle" is equally Mississippi muddy and kudzu-clad, with a smoky buzz 'n' rattle emanating from Gray's six-string drone. Lyrically, the song is a clever but deceptively simple construct, but the emotion swells as violently as the song's jarring fretwork, the instrumental break three-minutes in shattering the trancelike quality of the performance as Gray and Mark Johnson swap fiery guitar licks.
The album's title track veers off only slightly from the first four, mixing up the previous swamp-blues ambiance with a little Memphis soul and a minimalist funk groove courtesy drummer Darren Stanley and bassist Franher Joseph. Gray's solos here shine brightly, taut and wiry like a rockabilly king from the 1950s, reminding more of Jimmie Vaughan's hot licks than Stevie Ray's incendiary riffs. The song is low-slung and greasy, spiced up a bit by Gray's Booker T-styled keyboard notes. The romantic turmoil continues with the story-song "Wishbone," a gripping narrative where Gray's gravel-throated vocals hypnotize, riding high above his barbed-wire guitarplay. The following "Black Coffee" picks up on the previous song's late-night vibe, Gray's fretwork resonating with bluesy echo on a semi-biographical diary of life on the road. Drummer Marlon Patton lays down a slight rhythmic shuffle as Gray picks out the lonely tune.
Write Me A Few Of Your Lines
"Neon Jesus" is the album's roots-rock heartbeat, the song evincing more of a high lonesome Bakersfield vibe than a Nashville/Music Row commercial ambience. Gray sets his considerable songwriting skills to work on a salvation-seeking, soul-searching hymnal, his yearning vocals backed by jangly guitar and a brassy drumbeat. It's an introspective number, something you'd expect from, say, a Guy Clark type of scribe, but Gray pulls it off admirably. The lively "Jukin'," by contrast, is a jaunty lil' houserocker with an undeniable spirit and spry fretwork that blends the best of both juke-joint and honky-tonk traditions with a sly groove and a barely-subdued performance.
"Applejack" sounds a lot like Memphis to me, or a James Dickinson sort of bluesy, blue-eyed soul to be more specific, a fluid groove rolling out beneath Gray's deep-fried vocals and Southern rock guitar that draws upon Duane Allman (reckless R&B) and Marshall Tucker Band's Toy Caldwell (Dixie jazz-rock) but with plenty of Gray's own unique vocabulary thrown in to mark him as a vastly-underrated stylist in his own right. The album's lone cover, of Mississippi Fred McDowell's "Write Me A Few Of Your Lines," bolsters this guitar argument, Gray's fretwork crackling and popping like a downed electric line above Patton's steady drumbeats, the singer capturing, and building upon the hypnotic North Mississippi Hill Country riffing style that McDowell passed on to R.L. Burnside and, by association, Luther Dickinson, Jack White, the Black Keys, and a generation of contemporary blues-rock players.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Tom Gray's songwriting skills have never been at question, and he excels at the sort of lyrical and melodic stories told by the songs on Black Cat Oil. Small-town life and romances, the rigors of the road, the old South slipping beneath the steamroller of modern life – these are all grist for Gray (and Johnson's) wandering pen. Musically, the album builds upon past triumphs, cautiously fusing the band's trademark swamp-blues sound with other significant influences, creating an entertaining and engaging work that honors blues traditions while nodding vigorously towards new musical horizons. (Red Parlor Records, released May 22, 2012)
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