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Music has always reflected the mechanical sounds of the era it's made in. Roger McGuinn noted as much in the liner notes to the Byrds' debut, using a lot of made up words like "rrrrrrrrooooaaaaahhhhh" and "krrrrrrriiiiiisssssshhhhhh" to illustrate his point. As annoying as that sounds, he was right. Early bluesmen tried to approximate the tenor of a locomotive with harmonica and slide. Big bands used horns to emulate the roar of '40s air travel just as rock guitarists used feedback to simulate the jet age of the 1960s. And when we put a man on the moon, moog synthesizer albums started selling in appreciable numbers.
So where does that leave us in the 21st century? With a lot of people making music that sounds like fax machines and modems, that's where. And folks with computers and sequencers trying to sound like Booker T. and the MGs. All healthy signs that music is moving forward and keeping its sense of history. But where are the people making modem sounds with real guitars and Hammond organics?
Look no further than Delta 72's latest album, 000. Cue up the opener, "Are You Ready," and you'll hear what sounds like a modem linking up to an oncoming train. These blips and throttles build up a powerful head of steam that's finally released when rooster-haired singer Gregg Foreman lets out a mighty "woooooooh" -- the kind you don't hear on records anymore. It's heartfelt, it's live and it distorts like a speaker in need of repair every time. The kind of "woooooooh" Rod the Mod used to pitch all the time before he surrounded himself with Face-less sidemen.
Speaking of which, Ian McLagan, keyboardist for the Faces, met the similarly rooster-maned Foreman at a record show following this year's South by Southwest conference, and the two exchanged coiffuring tips. "I was just kidding around with him," laughs Foreman. "Y'know, 'How's my hair looking?' 'A lot better than mine, mate.' He'd read a review of our South by Southwest show in the paper the next day and said, 'Sorry man, they gave you a real good review but they compared you to the "r" word,' he said. He's really not into Rod Stewart. He wouldn't even say his name."
If there's an "r" word Foreman finds more distressing to read in a review than "Rod," it's "retro." The minute you apply that term to a band, people stop looking for new things the group might be bringing to the table and instead decide to play connect-the-dots with old influences.
It's really a pointless exercise because all music is derivative, born from the same buncha notes. Even "rootless" music is a reaction to something that came before. So let's stop the nonsense, turn back the calendar to year 000 and recognize Delta 72 as one of the finest of the "post-retro" bands around.
Why "post retro"? Because Delta 72 is one of the few groups that's genuinely honest about its influences. Yet other artists who set out to re-create Gang of Four and Public Image seem to escape the retro tag, since they're only pilfering a sound 20 years old instead of 40.
Delta 72 began in 1994, opening its first album The R&B of Membership with a sound bite off of James Brown's 1962 Live at the Apolloalbum. Though born too late to catch the great black Old Soul revues, the band nonetheless became enamored of the trappings of the era and began dressing in suits. As Foreman told Raygunin 1997, "It's exciting to come and see a band come out and play in suits. Jazz musicians used to wear suits out of respect for the audience."
It was also an easy gauge to see how hard a band was working to win over an audience. When the O'Jays took off their jackets, you knew they were just starting to get serious.
"Right," agrees Foreman. "They start off more suave, and as they get into it, they start removing their cummerbunds. We used to all wear the same kind of matching suits, but we abandoned that so we can be taken more seriously, less shtick rock. It seemed to be tired. A lot of bands like Rocket From the Crypt, Boss Hog, the Makeup, were all wearing suits. It's cool where it's coming from, but for us, we just wanted it to be about the music, not uniformity.
"We're trying to play music for the younger sisters and brothers, people who are just coming up and have no reference points. I think people want to identify with you, and it's kind of hard to identify with cats in suits. People really know when you're working or not, and hopefully we'll start getting more recognition for that." As for stage gear, the band has opted for something a little less formal this go-round. "We all have something we wear every night just to keep our day clothes from being completely smelly."
Having spent two albums sweating out an edgy punk-informed style of R&B that most critics likened to Jon Spencer's blues retooling, Delta 72 has now embraced the instrumentation of rock and soul circa 1972 (Stones, Faces, Humble Pie, Ike and Tina Turner, J. Geils Band). Where once there were Farfisas, now there are monstrous Hammond organ, clavinet and electric piano sounds calling the shots. The addition of Mark Boyce (also a member of Boss Hog) has changed the role of keyboards from mere coloring to a distinctive voice. And the band's new album -- which also throws female gospel singers into the mix -- was recorded on the same board as Exile on Main Street and Purple Rain.