Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Delta 72. The R&B of Membership (Touch and Go, 1996)

"Stolen nights and borrowed time."

Washington, DC sits below the Mason-Dixon line, and its south shows. The District is a city of soul food and soul music, the hometown of Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack, and Chuck Brown, and occasionally these influences find their way into DC's hardcore and postpunk scenes. A handful of DC groups -- the Make-Up, the Delta 72, the Dismemberment Plan, the Fort Knox Five -- have always been drawn to the r'n'b, soul, and gospel sounds native to the nation's capital, combining punk volume and abandon with a street-wise strut and deep-fried swagger.

The Delta 72 burst out of DC in the early '90s peddling a fiery mix of brash Capitol City hardcore and gritty southern soul, relentlessly distorted guitar rumble and bruising postpunk rhythms bolted to greasy Farfisa organ riffs, blasted harmonica blares, and screaming blues slides. It was an exciting, bracing sound, taking some cues from the sleep-deprived fervor of the Nation of Ulysses and the high calorie blues-punk of Jon Spencer, but without Jon Spencer's smirkiness or the Nation of Ulysses's mock-revolutionary manifestos. The Delta 72 sounded dead serious, throwing their backs into hi-octane rock, filtering r'n'b through blown amps and youthful exuberance and glowering aggression, shaking assess out of seats and hips out of sockets.

The Delta 72 (who would eventually relocate to Philly before breaking up in 2001) were initially a two-piece, with drummer Ben Azzara backing up guitarist/vocalist/harmonica player Gregg Foreman. In short order, Azzara and Foreman's skeletal line-up added some muscle in the form of organist Sarah Stolfa and ex-Cupid Car Club (which also featured Nation of Ulysses's hipster messiah Ian Svenonius) bassist Kim Thompson, rounding out the Delta 72's sound and giving the group a substantial amount of low-end power and rave-up potential.

In 1994, the Delta 72 debuted with the On the Rocks 7", a joint Kill Rock Stars/Dischord release. Shortly thereafter, Azzara split to join the more straight-ahead DC punk outfit the Capitol City Dusters. New drummer Jason Kourkounis assumed the throne, and the Delta 72 joined the venerable Touch and Go roster, where they would stay for the remainder of their existence.

Three LPs and a few EPs and 7"s later, the Delta 72 had earned a rep for blistering live sets, developing into a feral soul-punk beast whipping kids into a frenzy of battered abandon and exhausted, sweat wet joy. They were a party band for a party that was definitely gonna get broken up by the cops, a party which might see some bloody noses and broken bones, a party that everyone would remember as one of the best parties ever, man.

1996's The R&B of Membership finds the Delta 72 at their crazy-eyed best, churning out syrup-thick riffs over pounding beats and panicky organ lines, bass and drums committed to a pummeling swing while the guitars scream and cry. Each of the LP's twelve tracks nails the sweet spot between punk and soul, coming across as reverent and respectful instead of kitschy or mocking. The R&B of Membership is no joke.

The music speaks for itself. "On The Lam" rides waves of stun-ray guitar and Farfisa funhouse chords into oblivion, bruising ribs and blacking eyes. The hyped slide of "Rich Girls Like to Steal" is backed up with a nicely circular central riff, crashing ride cymbals, and hectic harmonica work, an album standout. "On The Rocks" uses tribal rhythms and shouted vocals to underscore the vaguely spy-themed melody and mood, while "Capitol Contingency" gets started with a droney organ line before metastasizing into an Addams Family punk orgy. "7 & 7" gets drunk off its own sonic cocktail of driving drums and squalling six-string mayhem, one of the album's most infectious hipshakers. And "Hustler" is just that, a slyly insinuating tune that knows all the angles, copping wise and casing squares to a mid-tempo prowl.

The Delta 72 found a sound a stuck to it, perfecting their approach and never taking the piss. They prayed at the same r'n'b altar they set to tear down, paying respect while simultaneously lighting the joint on fire. And on The R&B of Membership, the destruction sounds great.

The Delta 72 -- The R&B of Membership