Thursday, August 25, 2011

Do The Needle Drop

(One of New York's finest, albeit a cult band of sorts, The Del-Lords, will be playing in an unidentified backyard in South County this Saturday afternoon. For those interested, in what will be an undeniable rocking (and special) good time, contact Dan [].)

The Del-Lords
by Michael Tanaka

For a very long time-- decades, now that I think about it, I’ve been making a semi-annual pilgrimage to a used record shop just outside Hartford, in Weathersfield, Ct.

I go to Ed Krech’s “Integrity n’ Music” mostly for out-of-print and obscure jazz records. That’s his specialty. But over the years I’ve also discovered many hidden treasures tucked away in the bins of the rock section. Now I’m not talking uber-collector shit here—if you just went scrambling off for your copy of “Goldmine” and your rarities want-list, forget it. I’m talking about cool stuff you don’t see much anymore—mostly uncommon and forgotten LP’s that fell through the cracks in the 1980’s when vinyl began its slow death.

Example… a few years ago, while rifling the bins at Integrity, I happened upon the first three Replacements LP’s on Twin-Tone (Sorry, Ma…, Let It Be, and Hootenanny) as well as Tim and a couple of later titles on Sire. Each one was virtually unplayed and under three bucks each. Sure, I’ve got that stuff on cd—who doesn’t? But believe me when I tell you that vinyl really does sound warmer—it sounds better. And in addition, when you drop that needle and start to listen to an analog recording on vinyl, it has a certain magic way of really taking you back.

So a few weeks ago, I hit another major vein in the rock memory mine when I flipped through the bins and uncovered the first three records by the Del-Lords. Now the Del-Lords have come up in conversation many times in the past. My pal Scott Duhamel is a huge fan of both the Dictators and Del-Lords’ Scott Kempner and has long sung the praises of Joan Jett/Steve Earle guitarist Eric Ambel. But like most of you, I suspect, I hadn’t done a lot of in-depth listening to the Del-Lords in close to twenty-plus years. So scoring the first three LP’s by this critically acclaimed, yet relatively unsung band gave me the perfect opportunity to crack open a cold one, do the needle-drop, sit back and listen. And what a treat it was.

Of course, like a nerd, I played the records in order, so when I caught the opening track of the Del-Lords’ first album, Frontier Days, (1984), I was spun around when I heard their hard-rocking cover of “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” Like a line-drive double off the first pitch, this song comes out of the box strong, with incredibly tight playing, great energy and a muscular sense of swing. And as I listened to the lyrics, I was reminded of how socially conscious Scott Kempner and the boys were—I mean “are.” The song they picked to kick-off their debut, a Ry Cooder cover of a 1929 depression-era folk song (some say it was the first “protest” song) is even more relevant today than it was when the Del-Lords blistered through the track during the reign of Reagan. The song has been done plenty of times before and since-- even Bruce Springsteen added the song to his Seeger Sessions tour and subsequent American Land Edition recording in 2006. I recommend you listen to all three versions— by Cooder, Bruce, and the Del-Lords—and I guarantee the one recorded by the Lords is the one that will make you sit up and take notice. And to make that song your very first album cut—that’s balls.

And there are more Del-Lords songs from Scott Kempner’s pen that tackle tough topics directly, and manage to escape being sappy or sentimental—songs about serious stuff that still rock. “Soldier’s Home,” from the second album, “Johnny Comes Marching Home” is a blatant anti-war statement wrapped in a catchy, hook-laden package, and later in the album, “Against My Will” is a first-person account of a hostage held by terrorists.

But the Del-Lords are far, far more than a rock band with a conscience. In fact, thinking of them in that way sort of does them a disservice. This is a band that just rocks, straight up. in a no-frills, no posturing manner, with great guitar playing totally devoid of typical 1980’s riff-histrionics. This band is, in many ways, less about what they are than about what they are not. Make a list of all the things that annoy you about 80’s rock (synthesizers, fake drums, over-production, over-compression, digital delay, big hair, spandex—you could go on and on), and it is amazing how much of that is not the Del-Lords sound.

You can’t deny the Del-Lords’ ability to rock it in those first three albums, and you can clearly hear the influences of rockabilly, folk, country and punk—all enhanced with clean, uncluttered guitar solos and smart, funny, often tongue-in-cheek lyrics (another hallmark of the earlier, under-appreciated Dictators). In the garage-band flavored, near surf-parody “I Play the Drums” from their first album, Kempner writes of typical rock angst and alienation with deadpan humor: “When I hate everyone / Instead of going for my gun / I play the drums.” And in “The Cool and the Crazy,” on their third record, the first-person song spews self-indulgent hip babble, delivered without a trace of irony: “We’re the outsiders / Watching the whole show. / It’s amazing how much it resembles TV / An L-7 world lost in mediocrity.”

All I can say is that’s beautiful, daddy-O!

But when it’s time to play it straight, honest and cut it close to the bone, Kempner makes it simple and direct. “Judas Kiss” is a great screed about betrayal, and “Pledge of Love” is a love song that, in anyone else’s hands, could dance close to the edge of the corn-field, but listen to the Lords bring it, and it’s pure rock n’ roll.
Those first three Del-Lords records I found were recorded and released in 1984, 1986 and 1988. A live EP and another studio records later, and they were essentially done by 1990. But you can listen to all these great songs again, re-released recently on cd, with lots of cool, additional info and liner notes written by Scott Kempner. And three of the four original members of the band-- Kempner and Eric Ambel on guitars, with Frank Funaro on drums are playing out live again. Last year they played a house concert locally, somewhere in Wakefield, RI, before taking off for a tour of Europe. They’re doing it again this year, and I plan to be there for the house concert show. That’s even better than listening to the LP’s.

There’s a line from The Cool and the Crazy that sums up the Del-Lords in my book— “We don’t follow fashion / Who needs it when you got style.”

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