When Delta Spirit arrived on the scene two years ago, they did so with a sort of fiery retro-rock sound that was about impossible to ignore. Ode to Sunshine, their debut, was as bombastic as it was melodic, with crunchy guitars, clanging piano and singer Matt Vasquez's emphatic wail making for an enjoyably noisy racket. So subtlety wasn't part of the equation, but their lack of restraint is part of what made the record such a great listen. This time around however, with History From Below, Delta Spirit take a decidedly different approach. There are still moments of the brash rock 'n' roll that characterized the band's first effort, but the new album is generally much more subdued than its predecessor, focusing on songwriting and lyricism over instant impact. The results are less immediate, but ultimately more powerful.
Starting the record are a couple tracks that remain relatively more true to the band's initial formula. "911" rolls along with Dr. Dog-esque harmonies and a 70s rock vibe while "Bushwick" rumbles with a smoother edge than before but to a similarly successful end. But then "Salt in the Wind" takes an early detour with a lengthy ballad-style folk aesthetic featuring gentle percussion and arpeggiated piano lines. It's the first of many unusual moves for the band, including a smoldering psych-rock number ("White Table"), a deceptively gentle kidnapping tale ("Ransom Man") and a beautiful goodbye to a friend ("Devil Knows You're Dead"), all of which appear in sequence following "Salt in the Wind." Eventually the band gets back to traditional business with the fantastic rocker "Golden State," but the songs before and after that will surely be received with mixed feelings from Delta Spirit fans given the music's more deliberate pace and restrained nature. After a few listens, however, and after coming to the terms with the fact that History From Below is in no way intended to be Ode to Sunshine part II, the quality of the songwriting and breadth of ideas here ultimately proves worth the changes the band underwent to present them.
Only once does Delta Spirit truly miss the mark (the dragging "Vivian"), but there's no shortage of great tunes on this sophomore effort, and together they form a cohesive and consistent whole that reveals a remarkable amount of maturity from this young crew. The lyrical and musical growth exhibited throughout the record's 11 tracks may only serve to disappoint or frustrate some, and that's a shame not only because it produces some fantastic results, but because it's impossible to deny the good things it bodes for the band's future. History From Below is an album following a blueprint that likely won't be nearly as effective if used a second time around, and I would imagine the band will return to stompin' and hollerin' on disc three, but the risks they've taken here pay off at almost every turn.