Recording of October 1997: Postcards from Along the Way

The Delevantes: Postcards from Along the Way
Capitol 8 56179 2 (CD). 1997. Gary Tallent, prod.; The Delevantes, Mike Porter, assoc. prods.; Mike Clute, Peter Miskinis, engs. AAD? TT: 43:34
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

If you can play a guitar and you're from New Jersey, you're automatically doomed to a lifetime of answering one question: How much have you been influenced by Bruce Springsteen? How much "Jungleland" do you feel is lodged in your unconscious mind?

The brothers Delevante decided to have their Springsteen but also devour a whole range of other influences too. They have also tapped the inexplicable magic that comes from two siblings singing together. Using the Everly and Louvin brothers as their models, Mike and Bob Delevante began playing in their hometown of Rutherford, and later in Hoboken, New Jersey in the early '80s. In their teens they'd been smitten by bluegrass—their set list included familiar Monkees and Beatles tunes done in the style of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley.

Eventually their own originals evolved into an unlikely hybrid of jangly guitars and Springsteen-flavored (for lack of less overworked cliché) heartland rock crossed with the alternative country of Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, and Lyle Lovett. Echoes of all the great brotherly duos—the Stanleys, the Everlys, the Delmores, the Louvins—are also vital elements of their sound. The secret ingredient to their music, however, comes from deep inside—where, like a lot of people who grew up on a steady diet of Top 40 radio, the brothers are suckers for pop music of all kinds. They know a hook when they hear it.

In 1993 the Delevantes left Jersey for Nashville, a town that values songwriters more than any other place in the US, and where country music's long history of brother duos gave them a ready context to work within. As everyone who's ever been there can attest, you can leave New Jersey, but somehow, some way—it usually takes the form of a greasy stain on your favorite shirt—you can never actually escape. Accordingly, upon arriving in Music City, Bob and Mike formed an alliance with Garry Tallent, a New Jersey native and the bass player for Springsteen's legendary but now-defunct E Street Band.

The band signed to Rounder; their first record, the Tallent-produced Long About That Time, was one of the sleepers of 1996. Critics were swept into vapors. Entertainment Weekly called it a combination of "big-city toughness with bluegrass twang." The Village Voice (being The Village Voice) sensed the album's inner life as being "pub-rock mysticized by ephemeral steel guitar and roadside magic realism." Several aficionados, including Wes Phillips of Stereophile, have found that their hands shake uncontrollably when they try to remove the CD from their transports.

That debut album's critical splash convinced Capitol Nashville, a label then undergoing a complete overhaul of staff and talent (one that did not include cash cow Garth Brooks), to ink these Jersey Boys to a deal. The result, Postcards from Along The Way, manages not only to sail over another inexplicable phenomenon—the sophomore jinx—but also to break new ground in terms of richer songs, more detailed arrangements, and, hopefully, increased sales and airplay. To those who say there just isn't any good music anymore, I say listen to the Delevantes—rootsy pop has rarely sounded this good.

Postcards from Along the Way opens with three straight road tunes—appropriate not only because of the disc's title, but also because if there ever was a band that was going somewhere, it's the Delevantes. The opener "Suitcase of Leather," as well as "My Daddy's Cadillac" and "This Engine Runs On Faith," are traveling songs in the best tradition of that overstuffed genre. In "Engine," the brothers' vocal chemistry makes the relevatory chorus soar.

But it's in four other tracks that Postcards from Along The Way hits its highest point. "I Know I Promised" borrows the good-hearted loser that populates Springsteen's lyrics, and adds a moody arrangement and another gorgeous duo chorus (whose careful modulation in the rising second line bespeaks lots of thought and rehearsal) to fashion a knockout ballad. Bob and Mike follow this with their best jangler on the disc, "It Reminds Me of You"—according to writer Bob Delevante, the song flattered his wife until he told her it was about the brothers' hometown.

Eight of the 12 tunes here are co-written by the brothers; the rest are by Bob Delevante alone. The brothers' growing ability to write lyrics and choruses to fit their particular vocal blend is apparent on "Heart Shaped Locket," where they somehow work the awkward "A heart-shaped locket on angel's wings" into a captivating triple-repeat chorus. "I'm Your Man" is a guitar-driven adventure through Austin-styled roots rock. The loopy, closing-time ballad "If I Was" also has a Texas connection, if only lyrically. With each line asking, then answering, questions like "If I was the morning I'd be the crack of dawn," this tune is reminiscent of Austin-via-Lubbock singer/songwriter Butch Hancock's "If you were a Bluebird."

This smashing success of a disc closes with another improbably titled tune and chorus, "John Wayne Lives in Hoboken"—Bob Delevante's affectionate portrait of a colorful Hoboken neighbor whose claims to fame included meeting "a young Francis Albert" and speaking one line in the film On the Waterfront.

Recorded by Garry Tallent (who also plays on the disc) and Mike Clute, the disc has a crisp, well-articulated sound. As John Atkinson can attest, having a bass player as producer means that the bass lines will finally (and, as John would certainly say, rightfully) get their due. But to Tallent's credit, the brothers' acoustic guitars get equal play with his tasteful, anchoring rhythmic support.—Robert Baird