Essentially a collection of atmospheric short stories set along the Gulf Coast, the 11-track Sea Drift by the Delines is the kind of album that, in another era, would have emanated from Muscle Shoals, Ala., or American Sound Studio in Memphis. The notes and chords linger in the air like humidity on a sweltering night, while a weary singer drawls—and draws—vivid minuscules from sharply honed lyrics. Some songs are less stories than character studies; others are slice-of-life vignettes; and all focus on people who feel trapped in their lives.
I should back up, I suppose, and fill in some blanks for folks who—like me a month ago—aren’t familiar with the band, which released its debut album in 2014. The weary singer is one Amy Boone, while the songwriter/guitarist is acclaimed novelist Willy Vlautin, who previously led the band Richmond Fontaine. Cory Gray handles keyboards and trumpet, while Freddy Trujillo plays bass and Sean Oldham keeps the beat on drums. I stumbled upon them by way of the lone playlist I sometimes listen to, Apple Music’s algorithm-driven “New Music Mix,” which relies on my past plays to predict new music I might like. On the day in question, “Little Earl” closed the 25-song set.
At first listen, I heard echoes of Dusty in Memphis within the sinewy rhythms, Boone’s delivery and the backing vocals, which conjure the Sweet Inspirations in spots. I sought out their earlier albums and, wow. Why hadn’t I heard them before now?! I put on a mix of their songs while making dinner the next week and Diane was besotted by them, too. Boone’s drawl reminded her at times of Lucinda Williams, while it occurred to me that there was a tad of Shelby Lynne coursing through her tone and texture.
None of those comparisons would much matter if the songs themselves weren’t compelling unto themselves, of course. Vlautin relies upon a filbert brush to paint his portraits, honing in on specifics to tell a larger story, while matching them to melodies that permeate the mind like remnants of memories. His characters, for the most part, have been beaten down by life; some have given up. Others, like Little Earl, are just starting out, but one can already see the direction they’re heading, while the namesake of “Kid Codeine” refuses to acknowledge the sorry state of her life…
…though the song is less about her and more about the narrator, who yearns to live in self-denial like her. That’s the genius of it, I think. The other songs, empathic all, explore similar syncopated existences, from a woman who’s “Drowning in Plain Sight” to another who yearns to disappear “Past the Shadows.” Resolutions for their problems aren’t offered; choruses don’t provide hope. Pessimism exudes from the pores of these characters, just as they do for many in real life; when one’s man is arrested just as he’s about to pick her up from work, she instinctively knows that “whatever they think he’s done, he’s guilty.” A reprieve comes near album’s end with “Saved from the Sea,” when a woman relates how her man “makes me feel like the world ain’t dying,” yet a sadness exudes from her all the same. She knows escape is fleeting, at best.
I’ve made The Sea Drift sound grim and depressing, I suppose, but it’s not. It’s a compelling listen. The songs may never top the charts, but they ably reflect the hearts and souls of their subjects in ways that shed insight into the lives of the forgotten class. Set my usual “give it a go” recommendation to the side; this one is a must. It’s a great album.