A drunk, an atheist and a poet walk into a bar. They’re all the same guy, and there is no punchline. Welcome to Del Amitri!
Anchored by the stereotypically “dour Scot” Justin Currie, Del Amitri has always been an overlooked gem of a band. Actually, perhaps not “overlooked” so much as “quickly dismissed.” It isn’t because the Dels lacked hooks â€“ their catalogue brims with catchy, well-crafted, smart and hummable pop. It’s just that this pop is laced with lyrics that would drive Hello Kitty to drink. Heartbreak, loneliness, loss and resentment all play major roles, only stepping aside for the occasional swipe at God. Hence the Del Amitri gem: Picked up for its pretty shimmer, dropped when the edges draw blood.
One wonders if that’s why the band never scored any lasting chart success â€“ by staying relentlessly bleak, they reduced whole albums to one single note. A Del Amitri release would lure you in with sunny hooks, then frown and spit at you for an hour, dipping behind dark clouds. It’s exhausting, and not for everyone.
Of course, the band wasn’t helped by the fact that their sole U.S. hit was a monster, paired with a tragically goofy video and played more often than Nintendo. Or that critics and hipsters couldn’t stomach such mainstream music â€“ at least not from a band they’d once praised as quirky.
However. Downer moods, MOR sounds and one-hit-wonderment aside, for this reviewer’s money, when Currie (often with writing partner/guitarist Iain Harvie) is at his best, he can hang with Westerberg, Louris or even Finn. If you like your intelligent, sunshiny pop leavened with bile and bite, mope no further than this five-piece from Scotland-by-way-of-the-heartland.
Let’s find ’em on the jukebox, buy a round of bitters, and see why they deserve a closer look.
Never trust first impressions. If you did, you’d swear Del Amitri were really the Smiths led by Elvis Costello.
A jangly, sneering affair, this eponymous ’85 release surprises most casual fans. While heralded in England (Melody Maker anticipated its release with a drooling cover story, a move that would summon the demons of backlash and doom the LP on arrival), it didn’t make much of a splash on American shores. It’s been all but disavowed by the band, and wasn’t reissued on CD until 2003.
Likely because it sounds nothing like the Dels would just one album later.
So what does it sound like, other than awkward growth? Well, it’s new wavy. Wholly British. And desperately trying to wedge in between the Smiths and XTC. Take a listen to “Hammering Heart” (download), and try not to think of “William It Was Really Nothing.” It’s tough. It’s harder still to hear what Del Amitri would become. The signature bite in Currie’s lyrics is there, though delivered in a chirpy voice at too many beats-per-minute. Otherwise, good luck recognizing anything. When rock writers write of reinvention, this is exhibit A.
Wait, there is something you might recognize â€“ Peter Buck’s guitar sound from 1984: “Heard Through a Wall” (download).
Most consider this disc Del Amitri’s proper launch. That or a desperate sell-out to the Powers That Program Playlists. Legend has it the band, on a fan-financed tour of the States, began to refine their sound by embracing the Yankee influence around them. Tempos were slowed, accents were ditched, and arrangements were opened up to include Hammond organ, steel guitar, accordion and harmonica. Guitar chords rang out where once were busy runs, and keyboardist Andy Alston brought his piano to the fore. There’s still a touch of Gaelic countryside in the band’s folksy approach, but this is the sound of single malt Scotch giving way to Kentucky bourbon.
One American influence the band chose to ignore was democracy. Gone were group songwriting credits, in favor of “Currie/Harvie.” And whether or not the duo wished to be on American radio, it was patently clear they’d been listening to it non-stop while here on tour. By the time of this release, the Smiths and XTC in their music had given way to a warmer, backwards-looking, classic FM sound. Van Morrison, the Beatles, Gram Parsons, Steve Earle, “Maggie May” and middle-era Dylan â€¦ stir it all up and you have the new Del Amitri, just as you’d have Counting Crows a few years later.
The difference with Del Amitri, though, is that Justin Currie is sharper than Adam Duritz. Not only his lyrics, but his mood. Album titles sneer at you like a snotty, humorless cynic: “Kiss This Thing Goodbye.” “You’re Gone.” “Empty.” “Hatful of Rain.” Nearly every song is a prickly paean to loss or apathy; a cracked and dirty window into Currie’s worldview. Take “Nothing Ever Happens” (download):
Telephone exchanges click while there’s nobody there
The Martians could land in the car park and no one would care
Close-circuit cameras in department stores
Shoot the same movie every day
And the stars of these films neither die nor get killed
Just survive constant action replay
And nothing ever happens
Nothing happens at all
The needle returns to the start of the song
And we all sing along like before
And we’ll all be lonely tonight and lonely tomorrow
Fun guy, eh? The song is a slower piece, one of several ballads to balance the band’s bouncier side. Here’s another, which captures the Dels’ sound quite nicely: “Move Away Jimmy Blue” (download).
Winner of the coveted “Irony In Titles” award. Given the growth between albums one and two, you have to salute the stubborn streak on display for this third release. The band didn’t change their formula one iota; if anything, this collection has less range than that of Waking Hours. All in all it’s a stronger set, though, as Currie and company stretch and flex with ease in their newfound style. The guitars growl a bit more, the singing’s a touch more expressive (Currie’s a damn fine vocalist), and the hooks are sprinkled liberally throughout. Once again the sweet-and-sour approach runs through each song, as chiming guitars and cheery piano play backdrop to tales of woe. To wit, “As Soon as the Tide Comes In” (download).
Even when Currie drops his defenses and writes a (gasp) tender love song, he still has to couch things in unhappiness. “Sometimes I Just Have to Say Your Name” (download), the album’s standout closing track, pairs stacked guitars and bouncy piano to awfully rosy lyrics. If by “rosy” you mean “hiding thorns”:
With the sweet drip of every raindrop
Time brings you closer to me
And with each new sign at every train stop
Another hour without you is consigned to history
Ah, that’s sweet. What? Oh â€“ he’s still singing:
So this morning I picked up the paper
In the useless descent of the rain
While partners in heartbreak the whole world over
Lie and cheat just the same
And the headlines proclaim everything has changed
Love can’t save you now
Oh. Right. Sorry, Justin. Didn’t mean to get sentimental on you. (In any event, It’s a great song, and features some fine falsetto in the sing-out.)
Twisted marks the U.S. commercial and critical peak of the Dels, which, in typical fashion, probably hurt them as much as it helped. The leadoff single, the aforementioned “Roll to Me,” was a pleasant, throwaway hook lodged in the Top 40’s lip all summer. It brought the band wealth, acclaim and exposure, and eventually a wave of backlash to rival the mess from Melody Maker. Clocking in at a cheery 2:05, it nonetheless feels interminable once you’ve heard it a million times. (Several thousand of which will be the grocery store Muzak version.)
Meanwhile, much better songs once again failed to get attention, though one (the sweet “Tell Her This”) does pop up now and again on TV. All in all, the Dels’ fourth release was a respectable showing, perhaps not as strong on the whole as Change Everything but nonetheless boasting some of the band’s best songs. “Driving With The Brakes On” (download) is a heartbreaking, achingly honest look at abortion, while “Here And Now” (download) is about as joyous as Del Amitri gets. There’s a point just after the bridge where Currie soars over backing vocals, everything goes falsetto and is doubled by the organ, Currie floats back to Earth on couplets celebrating the moment, and competing lead guitars come in to trade some tasty lines…heck, it’s damn near transcendent:
I don’t wanna waste time thinking â€˜bout it here and now
Nothin’ else matters but what we’ve got here and now, babe
You can burn paper
You can turn a wheel
But you can’t change later
Here and now just how good we can feel
Yeah you turn traitor
You can turn on your heels
But you can’t change later
Just how good we can feel â€¦
Then you get back to scanning song titles, and again you have to wonder: Who hurt you, man? “It Might As Well Be You,” “It’s Never To Late To Be Alone,” “Crashing Down,” “Never Enough”…please, somebody get this guy a Xanax.
A small step backwards, if only because the ruts were starting to show. The uptempo numbers don’t quite have the hooks that the Dels have displayed in the past, perhaps because the band felt typecast by the slight trifle of “Roll.” At the same time, the slower numbers come off as more aimless than mournful. Was Currie finally outgrowing Angry Young Man? Whatever the case, it’s almost a shame that “Roll To Me” didn’t come sooner, as any momentum the breakthrough brought faced a very steep hill of band weariness.
To inject some fresh energy into the mix, the bulk of SOSP was recorded live â€“ the only overdubs were the vocals and a handful of solos. There is a slightly brasher feel to things as a result; the drums are up in the mix and the guitars edge into raw. But it isn’t quite enough to save the album. Singles “Not Where It’s At” (download) and “Some Other Sucker’s Parade” were up to old standards, and the gentle resignation of “What I Think She Sees” (download) was pretty, but the rest of these songs had the sound of a band running out of steam.
A quick word about these paired releases, even though they compile old songs:
Hatful of Rain, Del Amitri’s singles collection, is a must-own for casual fans. Collecting all of the band’s big hits (and the plural applies, overseas), it’s a great overview of a great singles band â€“ even if the singles flopped stateside, and even if the band was really so much more than singles. At 17 tracks, it spans every album but the first, even adding a few transatlantic rarities (“Cry to Be Found,” “Spit in the Rain,” “Don’t Come Home Too Soon”).
And what of Lousy With Love? Well, if it weren’t enough to claim that Del deep cuts were as good as the singles, out we go onto this limb labeled “great non-album B-sides.” Frankly, any band brave enough to package 13 leftovers deserves a little love for their effort and moxie. Especially a band most Brits found woefully overexposed, and most Americans couldn’t find at all. But really, if you like what you’ve heard up to now, you’re going to wonder why “The Verb to Do” (download), “In the Frame” (download) and several other tracks didn’t make earlier albums.
Del Amitri wound down the ’90s in an odd position. After gaining attention as indies, they were hailed but quickly dismissed. Thus they embraced the mainstream, and by decade’s end found success. Only to be pigeonholed stateside, or abandoned in Great Britain because they were so…well, mainstream and successful. What’s a band of snotty Scots to do? After all, it’s a little late in the game for further reinvention.
Maybe, but you can play around at the edges. Can You Do Me Good? finds Del Amitri in flux, experimenting with styles while staying Lions of the Mainstream. “Baby It’s Me” and “Just Before You Leave” (download) both slink along with a groovy, soulful vibe, while “Drunk in a Band” checks finesse at the door to bury you in a three-car garage of distortion. Production bells and whistles pop up elsewhere to push the band’s sound; odd keyboards here and a programmed drum there, just enough to give the impression the band (or the label) was restless. In fact, shortly after this release A&M dropped the Dels, as their last two releases had failed to clear the sales bar set by Twisted.
Fortunately, they went out on a high note. “Buttons On My Clothes” (download), though not a single, certainly would have charted in some alternate, tasteful reality. The lyrics here could well have been an ode to the band’s fleeting glory:
I’m a man of reputation in this rocker’s town
I have lived it up so long I’ll never live it down
Every back room bet I’ve made
Every all night thrill room-service bill I’ve paid
Looks cheap today
‘Cause everybody knows she ain’t coming back
The buttons on my clothes are as plain to see as that
From great indie hope to also-rans to ubiquitous European “sell-outs,” Del Amitri had finally had enough. Or had they?
After parting with their label, the next step was parting ways with each other. Sidemen took back day jobs as they had throughout the years (tracking Del Amitri drummers is a lot like watching Spinal Tap), while Currie and Harvie, meanwhile, took gigs as producer (Harvie, for Eileen Rose and The Maccabees) and parodist (Currie, in the faux-novelty Uncle Devil Show. “She Cuts Her Own Fringe,” from the band’s A Terrible Beauty, is prime Del Amitri pop.)
At some point in 2005 or so, the two regrouped to pen a series of songs and cut some demos. The project quickly split into two, with several of the slower tracks landing on Justin’s 2007 release, What Is Love For.
And the other songs? They remain on ice as Del Amitri shops for a label. A handful were posted then pulled from the MySpace, including “Freedom’s Drag,” “Some Of Those Tears” and “Thaw Freeze Thaw.” The last of these is especially good, with a haunting glass harp bed and a lot of near-whisper falsetto. Anxious fans will love it, should the band ever let them have it.
Not that I’m being cynical. That’s Currie’s job.