One of the biggest pitfalls of being an album reviewer is when you find a record you have favorable regard for, but just can’t find the words to express how you feel about it, or how to fairly describe the project for readers. Sometimes this lack of expressing an opinion can be misconstrued as not caring, not liking, or not being aware of the album, which is not always the case. With the overwhelming amount of releases in music, even when you cull them down to a specific genre, you still can’t cover everything.
The second pitfall for a reviewer is when you feel more favorable about an album than not, but the majority of your opinions happen to be of the critical variety. This is the reason some fans of artists such as John Moreland and Lydia Loveless think a site like Saving Country Music is mud, even though historically the opinion of these artists remains favorable.
That’s why I decided to drop back 20 yards and punt on reviewing Anderson East’s Delilah when it was initially released in July, 2015. Besides, it’s not a country record. Sure, there’s some mutual friends here. It was produced by Dave Cobb, and despite his more high-profile work with Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Chris Stapleton, Anderson East is Dave Cobb’s true pet project, and the initial signee to Cobb’s Elektra imprint. East has also toured and opened for Sturgill Simpson and other country performers, and though he’s not country, his throwback sound is fair to file in the “roots” category, or “Americana” if you prefer. No matter your regard for his music, Anderson is part of the extended family.
The mathematics of everything dramatically changed when it was revealed that Anderson was dating country music superstar Miranda Lambert. Talk about a sea change from Blake Shelton. All of a sudden Anderson’s name recognition skyrocketed, his social network footprint doubled, and folks like Entertainment Weekly and Bobby Bones are featuring him, where before he was barely known even in Americana. There’s a reason entertainers like to date each other. Not to diminish any true flames that might exist between the two—that perhaps were stoked during the recording of Dave Cobb’s conceptualized Southern Family on which they both appear—but Anderson gets a big boost in popularity, and Miranda walks away with significantly more street cred. It’s a win win from a marketing standpoint.
But this is an album review, not a celebrity dating analysis. Give Anderson “Two Guns Up,” and 10 out of 10 for picking who to date when it comes to furthering his career, but when it comes to Delilah, it leaves a little bit to be desired. It doesn’t mean it’s not good. Delilah squarely fits in the slot as one of those trap albums that is better than it is bad. But as a reviewer, it’s hard to not focus on its shortcomings.
Delilah is a classic old school throwback rock and roll, rhythm and blues record—which is the super hot thing in music right now, whether you’re working the indie fest circuit like The Alabama Shakes or Leon Bridges, all the way to huge mainstream acts like Bruno Mars, or Thomas Rhett and Brett Eldredge in mainstream country. Hell, even Corb Lund and Lindi Ortega’s last albums (also produced by Dave Cobb) were full of these yesteryear Motown/Muscle Shoals influences. They’re sexy; I get it. But at some point it can become too much, especially when it seems like nearly every record you listen to is leaning on this approach.
With Anderson, the throwback vibe is his native sound though. That’s who he is as an artist, instead of something he’s chasing because it’s hot. Guys like Anderson East are who posers like Thomas Rhett are trying to emulate. So whether it’s a trend or not, East has a stronger claim to it, making whatever trendiness Delilah might contain more forgivable.
What isn’t forgivable are some moments that are frankly just lazy songwriting. When you’re working in nostalgic hues as Anderson is, there’s going to be some moments that are more about re-interpreting old classic themes as opposed to imbuing more originality into the music, and that’s understandable. But you still can’t be clichÃ©. And unfortunately, that’s exactly what East is in snippets, like the opening verse of the opening track, “Only You.”
Baby, I’m burning, yearning inside
I can’t get you off my mind
I got a fever, 110
You’re my only, only medicine
How many times have we heard this before? I don’t care how cool you are in east Nashville or who you’re dating, if you want to be regarded as a hot up-and-coming songwriter, you need to do better than this—and Anderson East can. You can get away with waxing nostalgia in spurts, but with Delilah, it’s most every song. And sonically, it doesn’t get much better. Most of the album resides in this narrow texture field, with horns and fairly predicable chord progressions that may not be directly filched from previous songs, but refer heavily back to them instead of trying to strike their own chord. By the time you get to the beginning of the sixth track “Quit You,” you feel like you’ve already heard this same exact song on this album before, let alone all the albums that sound similar.
Meanwhile most of the variety on Delilah is in the character and mood with which Anderson East sings, which is not always a good thing. His voice is Anderson’s #1 asset, but he’s not Tom Waits who can flip characters and eras track after track and pull it off. Each texture Anderson looks to inflect in his voice is effective, if not enchanting. But there’s a solid three versions of Anderson East, and it begins to feel more like an act than authentic expressions. Even though this is officially Anderson’s 3rd release, it still feels like he’s searching for his own voice, and at times using the inflected voices of others in the interim.
See, I told you I had some unhappy things to say about Delilah and Anderson East, but I hold steady in insisting that the redeeming qualities raise this effort to being more fair than foul. For example, the song “What A Woman Wants to Hear” is an excellent bout of songwriting matched with perfect production and Anderson’s authentic voice until the song positively drips with seduction and insight.
Calico quilt and muscadine wine
Silver moon, candlelights
Pretty little girl, come here
I want to tell you what a woman, tell you what a woman wants to hear
The entirety of human courtship, however superficial, is built around a man making a woman feel special, and this is expertly encapsulated by Anderson in this song.
The final song, “Lying In Her Arms,” is another excellent offering, and again, much more within what feels like Anderson’s original voice, with production that fits the song and the sentiment instead of getting swept up in the idea of making some retro expression itself and losing touch on what’s being said. It’s just a “song,” and doesn’t let styling get in the way.
And hey, the reason this retro, throwback rhythm and blues approach works so well is because it hearkens back to a time in popular music when it didn’t suck and the expressions were heartfelt and real, and most music wasn’t created on commercial pretenses. That’s why Delilah, despite some faux pas, is overall a slightly higher than a passable effort. And even though some things may feel a little formulaic, whether in the writing or the musical approach, it doesn’t mean they still can’t be fun and enjoyable to listen to, which is what music is all about, and the underlying rule even jaded music reviewers must remember.
Anderson’s re-imagination of “Find ‘Em, Fool ‘Em, “Forget ‘Em” is pretty infectious from its 70’s-vibe piano an wah wah guitar. And by the second chorus of “Satisfy Me,” you’re rightly sucked in, even if you’ve heard songs like it before.
The reason an artist like Anderson East works, similarly to Leon Bridges and many others, is because he’s got a evocative, old-school coolness about him that reminds folks of a time when music and life wasn’t so superficial. So there may be some borrowing of ideas here, but it’s innocent, and better than most of what is influenced by more modern textures.
1 1/4 of 2 Guns Up (6/10)
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