[Rounder Records; 2012]

Hoping to break free from that “rootsy Americana” label with which critics love to pigeonhole Delta Spirit, singer and frontman Matt Vasquez explains that the San Diego rockers are out to encapsulate the zeitgeist on their eponymous 3rd LP. Yet, even after enlisting vogue producer Chris Coady (Smith Westerns, Beach House, Islands) to help shake up the band’s sound, Delta Spirit merely tweaks the vibe of their previous offerings. A laudable blend of socially-conscious lyrics, kinetic guitar riffs, and scorching vocals, the album nonetheless falls short of establishing Delta Spirit as a trailblazing modern rock band. Considering the band’s creative trajectory, this aurally appealing album is a mild letdown.

After breaking onto the scene in 2006 with the youthfully exuberant I Think I’ve Found It EP, Delta Spirit leveraged a successful triumvirate of tours with Cold War Kids, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and Dr. Dog to draw the attention of Rounder Records. Sustaining this momentum, 2008’s Ode to Sunshine was a deeply personal blend of urgent rock ditties and paralyzing waltzes. Infused with a remarkably bold and distinctive pulse, it was an exceptionally mature statement from such a fresh-faced band. Expectations were high.

Unfortunately, straining from their grueling 290-show onslaught of 2009, the band stalled in 2010 with History From Below. Though the LP did help Delta Spirit ascend to Billboard’s Top 200, its up-tempo cuts came off as uninteresting and formulaic, while Vasquez’s subdued, poignant ballads never quite evolved into anything more than mellifluous filler.

Rebounding from their last effort, roughly half the tracks off Delta Spirit are crisp and enthralling. Coady’s modernistic hand is immediately apparent on opener “Empty House,” which indisputably ranks among the group’s most compelling. Standing in the boots of a lowly construction worker, Vasquez searches for purpose in brutally thankless work: “Glinting gems, in the concrete I paved / One every couple of feet / They got mixed up, in the lyme and the sand / Nobody noticed, but me.” Despite questioning the significance of his trade, our blue-collar protagonist strives for perfection in the mundane: “How could one little speck make a difference to the rest? / When it doesn’t, no one cared / Except me!” The singer’s potent, cathartic yowl emerges from a fray of scintillating guitar hooks and drum machines, as Delta Spirit champions the simple spirituality of menial labor.

Anatomizing an ill-fated long distance affair, “California” channels a sense of helpless longing from behind a transparent façade of resilience. “Idaho,” an otherwise laborious, repetitive number, is salvaged by pithy lyrics of communal backbone and harsh economic realities: “The suits they dropped the ball again / Well pass the hat, make another plan.” Brimming with rambunctious vocals, “Tear It Up” weds tantalizing guitar lines with abrupt rhythmic bursts.

But Vasquez’s raging voice, for all its glorious hues of indignation, lacks the naked emotional fragility to carry a ballad that really yanks at our heartstrings. As on “Vivian” off History From Below, “Home” and “Time Bomb” feel limp and lethargic. While the singer’s puissant pipes are perfectly tailored for screaming at cheating lovers and complacent pimps until they shatter like glass, Vasquez is out of his element when mourning past failures and doting on comely sweethearts.

The album regains steam amidst melodic howling and a simplistic punk pump on “Money Saves.” Shredding the unfulfilled promises of everyday life, angst-ridden vocals echo over the instrumental barrage. “Yamaha,” set to celestial electronic effects, has a fantastically dreamy, transcendental quality that ends the album on a high note.

Delta Spirit delivers a handful of superb cuts that have the band taking a modest step forward. Still, Vasquez’s raspy, scathing voice and multi-instrumentalist Kelly Winrich’s nuanced, dense lyricism offer the promise of a greater leap to come.

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