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Reviewed: Sing the Delta by Iris Dement

(Flariella Records, October 2012)

iris dement

Photo by Pieta Brown. 

After an eight year hiatus Iris Dement released her fifth album, Sing the Delta, in October. Her last album, 2004’s Lifeline, was a collection of gospel covers. For a long time she wasn’t certain she would put out another album of her own music; some of her new songs have been percolating for over sixteen years as a result. Dement explains, “Songs would come along here and there…I just didn’t know what would become of any of them.” That is until, in a bout of inspiration artists everywhere pray for, “a door kinda opened up, and a handful of songs walked through and a few unfinished ones came together and I knew I had a record.”

Much of the music on the album explores varying kinds of loss. Dement was born in the Arkansas Delta, and although she moved to California as a child, the influence of the region on her is apparent, both sonically and thematically. On the title track Dement asks someone to sing the Delta a love song for her, an unnecessary request as “Sing the Delta” is exactly that: It’s an ode to a land that Dement “used to know and vividly recall.” She laments that the “Delta lived in my mama’s voice and in her hands,” a mama who was at the end of her life during the recording of the album. The song pays tribute to a place that increasingly resides in memories and people who are slipping away. Throughout the record Dement constructs an alluring synthesis of gospel, blues, folk, and country. “Sing the Delta” begins with a simple hymn-like melody played on the piano, and after a few bars Dement’s bright, clear warble breaks in and arrests the song. Merle Haggard once said that Iris Dement is the best singer he’s ever heard; a claim that Dement has once again affirmed.

Religion is another reoccurring theme throughout Dement’s music (she’s the youngest of fourteen children raised in a conservative, tight-knit Pentecostal family). On Sing the Delta Dement examines her lapsed faith while still managing to find solace in the world around her. In “There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven” she sings, “We don’t have a prophet to tell us what our future holds / We’ve only got each other and the love we carry in our souls.” Losing one’s childhood faith is a painful experience, but Dement offers hope: “There’s still this whole lotta heaven shinin’ in a river of tears.” 

Iris Dement is the best kind of artist. She doesn’t force her material, and like an intuitive chef she knows how long to let the ingredients simmer until the sum is much greater than the parts. Sing the Delta is an album that only gets better with each listen, only gets better the longer it marinates inside your head. Give it time and it will work on you. 

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