Album review

Iris Dement - Sing The Delta

Iris Dement - Sing The Delta

Bringing it all back home: Arkansas dazzler's first original music in 16 years...

From her down-home, straight-outta-Appalachia Loretta Lynn voice, to the rolling piano and Carter Family lilt of her country/gospel moorings, to songs that delve deep into the tapestry of family, home, and faith, Iris DeMent is a one-woman calling card for so-called "country music" to do some serious soul-searching.

Sing The Delta - just her fifth album in a 20-year career - is jaw-dropping southern gothic, music out of time, a heady return to her early-1990s prime but deeper. In fact, DeMent's voice has never sounded quite this freewheeling, this purely expressive, rising from whispers to whoops and back again, over a dozen stunning, earthy numbers.

Aided by a cast of studio pros (e.g., guitarist Al Perkins and keyboardist Reese Wynans), Delta is a cagey mix of organic real-old-time country, early-'60s Nashville heartbreak-and-honky-tonk (think Ray Price's “Night Life”), a dollop of toe-tapping church music, plus a touch of blues, R&B, and Memphis soul. Yet it's DeMent's extraordinary songwriting--from celebratory to gut-wrenching, taking listeners on a kind of spiritual quest--that are front and center: From the parlor-song piano opening of "Go Ahead and Go Home" (death never sounded so joyous), to the expansive, deeply personal meditation on the South of the title cut, she cuts straight to the bone.

In the heart-shattering “The Night I Learned Not To Pray,” wherein the protagonist’s baby brother falls down a flight of stairs to his death, DeMent borrows a bit of rhythmic phrasing and detailed storytelling from Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Jo," unfolding a devastating narrative with a heart-stopping twist--the questioning of religion. The sepia-toned "Before the Colors Fade," on the other hand, is all interiors, a dreamlike rumination on love and mortality, DeMent delivering the song's fragile beauty with a delicate, almost shuddering intimacy. Elsewhere, "Makin' My Way Back Home," is a pure country lament, melodically akin to Tammy Wynette's early hit "Apartment Number Nine," while the rolling, soaring swing of "There's A Whole Lotta Heaven," DeMent leaning into the humanistic lyric with relish, clinches a startling, inspirational comeback.
Luke Torn

Rating: 9 / 10

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