Goodwill to All Men
Nashville duo looks on the bright side
By Michael McCall
July 21, 1997: On "This Engine Runs on Faith," brothers Bob and Mike Delevante tell of a man loading his family into a car and driving South in search of work. Set to a chiming, folk-rock arrangement, the song uses a few concise and vivid details--a mattress strapped to the roof of an old car, a beaten-up trailer hitched to the bumper, fried chicken and Moon Pies from a Phillips 66 for dinner--to signify that this is a working-class family facing hard times.
Most songwriters would use this setup to make blatant comments about unfair social conditions for blue-collar workers, about decaying ghost towns of the industrial North, or about the resentment and defeat a man might feel at losing a job or having to leave his roots and his loved ones. But in this song and throughout their second album, Postcards From Along the Way, The Delevantes focus on American optimism and on the strength people derive from bonds of love. In "This Engine," the duo portrays a man full of immense pride and determination. As the miles go by and his wife falls asleep against his arm, he sips his cold coffee, rolls up the car window, keeps his foot on the pedal, and thinks to himself, "There was a time in the past/This engine used to run on oil and gas/But nowadays you know it seems/It runs on every beat of my heart and every dream I dream."
That's a beautiful set of lines, and Bob Delevante's scratchy tenor expresses the words with resolve and a hint of bravado--the kind that men use when they must fight fear and press forward. The passage demonstrates what makes this duo's songwriting so original and commendable: They balance optimism and realism to create sparkling, largely upbeat songs packed with observations about family and community, relationships and responsibility.
The Delevantes ignore most of popular music's current conventions: They don't employ electronic effects, ponderous musical passages, fashionable irony, or heavy-handed angst. Instead, the pair performs with conviction and compassion, writing in crisp detail and setting their effortless melodies to concise, guitar-driven arrangements. Here, for a change, is a roots-flavored band, signed to a Nashville label, that builds songs around love and small-town life without resorting to drippy sentimentality. They manage to accentuate the earthy twang of electric and steel guitars without putting on cowboy hats, mentioning pickup trucks, or evoking any cornball stereotypes.
Simply put, the Delevantes give earnestness a good name. They're somewhat unusual for modern-day musicians in that they're well-adjusted and content. Both happily married, the two grew up in a supportive, suburban environment in Rutherford, N.J. "We were brought up in a normal, loving family--I can't kid myself about that," says Bob Delevante, who is three years older than his only sibling. "If we were to try and sound real dark, it would seem more forced than anything."
The brothers moved to Nashville in 1993 because their initial tapes (under an old band name, Who's Your Daddy) received a better response here than in New York. One of the first music-industry insiders they met in Nashville was Garry Tallent, a fellow New Jersey native and a former bassist for the E Street Band. Tallent approached the duo at a nightclub after hearing their accents and pegging them as fellow New Jerseyites. He wound up coproducing and playing bass on Long About That Time, the band's 1995 debut on Rounder Records. He also produced Postcards Along the Way, which features the other collaborators from the first album: drummer Mike Porter, steel guitarist John Noreen, and keyboardist Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers). "We've always liked to work within ongoing relationships," Mike Delevante says. "It makes for a continuity that we like and are comfortable with."
Indeed, that continuity accounts for the confident, consistent sound of the album. Although as catchy and as accessible as anything produced on Music Row, Postcards Along the Way lacks the saccharine slickness and uninspired uniformity that mars most modern country records. The Delevantes' albums, both of which were primarily recorded live in the studio, capture the sound of a small group of accomplished friends feeding off each other's energy. That's a refreshing change of pace in a town where well-versed studio professionals tend to sit in isolation booths trying to find new wrinkles in a formula they've all repeated too often.
Throughout the duo's engaging arrangements runs an observant lyricism that gives the music its heart. The Delevantes sing about love with unbridled joyfulness--"I'm Your Man," "Right About Now," "Heart Shaped Locket," "Reminds Me of You," and the wonderfully Zen-like "If I Was (I Would Be Love)" all soar with the liberating energy that comes from good love. But each tale stands alone as well; the brothers continually find fresh ways to combine individual stories with universal sentiments.
Not every song is blithely cheerful, but they're all based on people with bedrock values. The album's most gorgeous selection is its most heartbreaking: "I Know I Promised" is a tender, Everly Brothers-style ballad about a man who acknowledges that his lack of faithfulness and responsibility has hurt the woman he loves--and, as a result, his own heart as well. Showing similar depth, "Blame It on the Horizon Line" captures a young man's thoughts as he comes to realize that he must get out from his mother's smothering love and explore the world on his own. Otherwise, he's likely to become locked into the same numbing life that made an alcoholic of his father. While the song communicates his wanderlust, it also imparts the difficulty of confronting his mother: The young man knows his words and his departure will hurt her deeply.
"Most of our songs are based on something we've experienced," explains Bob Delevante, who cowrote seven of the album's songs with his brother and wrote the other five by himself. "We write story-songs, and they're mostly stories we know or have heard. We were always intrigued by the characters around the town we grew up in."
But it's more than realistic situations and hummable melodies that makes the Delevantes' music so memorable. Pulsing through these songs is a good-hearted empathy for mankind--for people's joys, their problems, and their desires. In an age when so much of popular entertainment is dehumanizing, the Delevantes present music that uplifts listeners by reminding them there are still people in the world who strive to do the right thing.
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