Regular listeners to Iain Anderson’s Radio Scotland show might be familiar with Kris Delmhorst as Iain has played her songs regularly over the years. I was surprised to discover that Blood Test is her first album since 2008’s Shotgun Singer. Since then she’s encountered motherhood but thankfully she’s now back with this excellent slice of simmering songs that are in turns tender and fiery. She’s very ably supported in this endeavour by two crack musicians in the shape of Mark Spencer and Anders Parker with Parker on guitars and bass and Spencer also on guitars, bass, pedal steel, vibraphone and keyboards. Konrad Meissner supplies percussion throughout. Together they create a hermetic world that occasionally pulses with menacing electronics in the shape of the guitars and brooding organ but otherwise glides along with acoustic murmurings as Delmhorst’s fine voice rings clear.
The album opens with the title song, a simple strummed acoustic guitar supports Delmhorst initially before the pedal steel swoons in and the band settle into a country lope much in a Neil young vein. Homeless is similarly stripped back with Delmhorst’s voice much to the fore and the music restrained with gentle piano chords and rippling guitar. The lyrics muse on the temporary human condition reminding us that in a sense we are all “homeless,” merely passing through, meandering through life and to reinforce this there’s a wonderfully meandering guitar solo from Parker that recalls Ollie Halsall’s work with Kevin Ayers. 92nd St. revisits Delmhorst’s childhood N.Y. stomping grounds and it’s a grittier affair here despite the tenderness of the opening verses as Delmhorst paints a wonderfully vivid picture of a wintry New York as (presumably) a boyfriend spends his time listening to Monk and ‘Trane. The lyrics recall the likes of Janis Ian or Paul Simon and as the song builds up steam with bass and drums piling in it moves into Patti Smith territory before Parker rips out on guitar. Saw It All glowers balefully at the rape of the environment as it oozes menacingly from the speakers, a slow burning blues with fervid organ and biting guitar breaks it has a sense of a sixties psychedelia around it. Bees continues the environmental bent, a hymn to our striped little friends while We Deliver praises the cycle of rain and the sun on another sixties sounding anthem. Delmhorst dips into confessional mode for Little Frame which allows her voice the opportunity to shine while the band lay down a fine shuffle behind her before they launch into the almost folk rock Byrds/Fairport mold that is Bright Green World while the early seventies country rock sound appears to be the template for the very brief Temporary Sun where Mark Spencer lets loose on some fine guitar. Delmhorst comes back to earth with the simple city song of Hushabye with Spencer adding some fine piano and the nostalgic bent continues in the yearning My Ohio which shimmers with restrained pedal steel. Finally, Delmhorst revisits Mother Nature with the closing song, Lighthouse, with the drums laying down a firm beat as organ swirls around like waves swishing around rocks.
Blood Test is a great album that has a maturity in the lyrics while the band players are all excellent, perfect for a late night listen.
Coincidentally Anders Parker has just released his latest album, There’s A Bluebird In My Heart. As you can hear on Delmhorst’s album, he’s a very fine guitarist. Under the name Varnaline he’s released a slew of albums while we reviewed his collaboration with Kendall Meade here. There’s A Bluebird In my Heart is being considered a return to Parker’s earlier work with Varnaline with a rockier sound harking back to mid nineties alternative rock and it’s true that his guitar work drips all over the album, riffing and rippling while he proves he can write some fine love songs as well as tackling bigger issues. The album opens with the epic eight minutes plus of The Road, a song that has as many byways and turn offs as the A9. A sly guitar leads into a mild mannered intro that again harks back to simpler times before the song picks up speed and piledrives to a Crazy Horse type ending. Animals is a down and dirty blues song that reminded me for some reason of the grand old days when The Groundhogs could get into the charts with supersonic amped up blues guitar riffs, it’s powerful stuff. Don’t Let The Darkness In is surprisibly sunny although Parker again plays around with tempos while Unspoken is an ethereal acoustic guitar laced ballad. The down-home feel is maintained in the ukulele tune Silver Yonder. Feel It is an impressive and joyous song with guitar sparkling throughout and reminiscent of Rich Hopkins’ churning and gurning guitar epics. The wonderfully named Jackbooted Thugs (Have All The best Drugs) returns to the expansiveness of the opening song and repeats its portmanteau style as Parker weaves various melodies into a powerful whole with his curling guitar lines creating an air of menace. After this sonic maelstrom, he ends the album with another ukulele ditty, See You On The Other Side, which is short and acts as a postscript to the album and sums up his philosophy. A challenging but ultimately rewarding listen.