There I was, combing through unmarked boxes of 45s at Euclid Records in New Orleans, when I came across a pristine 1968 Arthur Conley single on Atco: “Otis Sleep On” appears on one side and is backed by a cover of the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Producer Tom Dowd, who cut it at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, slowed down the groove from the Beatles original to a ska pulse built around David Hood’s bass line. When Conley hits the bridge, an amazing ten-note guitar lick reimagines the melody with an against-the-grain rhythmic twist, almost as if Thelonious Monk were interpreting the figure.
“Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?” asks the old saloon song, recorded most famously by Louis Armstrong. Speaking personally, my answer is “no.” I’ve been there a number of times, eaten passably well, and seen the sights, but I haven’t been in ages, and I don’t miss it one bit. In the period since my last visit, I’ve been to Cajun country dozens of times, most recently a few weeks ago, and as always, I’m ready to go back. But New Orleans? Not so much.
“He Is My Story” is a magnificent, long-neglected 1928 gospel recording by Texas-born African-American Pentecostal singer and pianist Arizona Dranes, who was the first person to play piano on a gospel recording and whose prowess as a singer and performer has been acknowledged by such gospel musicians as Thomas A. Dorsey, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Mahalia Jackson.
“Twee” is often a pejorative, but the term is wonderfully apt here. Built mostly around twinkling guitars and keys, Levesque’s airy, winsome voice, and beats that range from being snappy enough to set hips to shakin’ to being as brittle as glass, the songs are soft, bright, and inoffensive (don’t call them “bourgeois”), with woodwinds and strings stopping by occasionally to complete the wistful spell that the band has cast.
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.