BY STEVE PICK
Nirvana changed everything. The story has been told again and again of the way Nirvana’s Nevermind slashed through the popular music of 1991, ending the hold of hair metal on the public imagination, and opening the doors for whole new strains of punk-influenced sounds. But that wasn’t all that happened. I remember waking up the morning after Nirvana appeared on Saturday Night Live, and seeing thirteen-year-old girls acting out the moves of Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic . It was obvious immediately that bands with a sense of rock’n’roll history were doomed.
The Del-Lords broke up right around the same time that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ruled the world. They had released four studio albums in the preceding seven years, none of which did much on the charts. But other guitar-based roots-influenced rock bands had broken through, notably the Long Ryders and the Georgia Satellites, and Tom Petty and John Mellencamp were selling plenty of records. The dream was alive for musicians who stuck to the basics, who punched up their guitars, who were glad to see people dancing when they played, and who sang hook-filled sagas of love and loss and the occasional nod to economic injustice. And then, with a flurry of overpowering angst and a loud dismissal of rock traditions, Nirvana came along and the industry lost interest in anybody who owned records recorded before 1976.
Today, the pop charts are but one tiny fragment of the music world, which is divided into hundreds of small niches with no hope of or interest in becoming gigantically popular. One such niche is the nostalgia circuit, in which anybody who has ever made a record can connect, thanks to the internet, with those whose lives were affected by their music. Into this fragment come the Del-Lords once again, reunited to play the occasional show in front of their most loyal fans, and now to deliver a new album which, believe it or not, just might be the most solid front-to-finish effort they’ve ever done.
It’s definitely the best sounding album from the band. Lead guitarist and sometime vocalist Eric “Roscoe” Ambel has become one of the go-to producers over the last 20 years for musicians who want their guitar-based rock to snap, crackle, and jump right out of the speakers. Freed entirely from the attempt to conform to radio-friendly sounds of the late 1980s, Elvis Club has an energetic, raucous, and purely electric tone that the Del-Lords achieved on stage back in the day, but only allowed to hint at on record.
Songwriter and chief lead singer Scott Kempner never stopped writing and singing, having released two excellent (and criminally ignored, even by Del-Lords standards of low sales) solo albums and working in virtually unheard bands the Little Kings and the Paradise Brothers. So it’s no surprise that he still has the gift of conjuring up instantly memorable rock’n’roll magic. “When the Drugs Kick In” is the kind of thing he does so well, containing a buzzworthy hook that demands being sung out loud, a nicely crafted melody, lyrics of introspection and frustration, and a guitar riff of simple design yet muscular insistence. “Chicks Man” is a frantic jumping blues that should fill dance floors instantly, yet the lyrics examine the push and pull of a relationship going around in circles in a humorous and simultaneously sad manner.
Ambel gets to sing three songs, the most winning of which is “Me and the Lord Blues,” a tough riff rocker which obliquely takes on the desire for economic justice, a recurring theme in Kempner’s songs going all the way back to his rewriting of “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” way back on Frontier Days in 1984. Ambel’s guitar rules on “You Can Make a Mistake One Time,” which sounds capable of standing toe to toe with the heavy blues riffage of latter-day ZZ Top. Original drummer Frank Funaro shines on this one, too, as does fill-in bassist Jason Mercer, one of four guys to man the low end on the record.
There are no expectations for gigantic success, just hugely enjoyable music from a veteran band that loves what it’s doing and knows rock’n’roll is too important to leave behind. Those who loved the Del-Lords in the 1980s will be delighted, as should anybody who missed them but thinks passion, skill, and commitment are a pretty good combination in music.
DOWNLOAD: “When The Drugs Kick In,” “Chicks, Man,” “Me and the Lord Blues.”