After about 20 seconds of silence at the close of what's listed as the final track on Carry the Fire, the voice of Ian Hölljes rises from the stillness, doused in reverb and alone: "In the morning, in the morning, sometimes I think about the way you held me," he sings, aching from a distance and echoing the chorus of the album's opener. His brother and sister, Eric and Brittany, soon join him, along with the sextet's fiery fourth singer, Liz Hopkins; together, they add comfort to his a cappella loneliness, shaping an ad hoc choral support group.
This hidden Easter egg is both necessary and telling: It's needed mostly because "Hey, Hey, Hey," the debut's nominal closer, is simply a terrible song, its hand drums, fluttering guitar licks and sliding harmonies suggesting The Lion King rearranged for Rascal Flatts, but more cloying and cringing than that might actually sound. It's telling, though, because it's a flagrant imitation of Robin Pecknold and his band, Fleet Foxes, indie rockers who have combined rich harmonies and prototypically folk-rock arrangements to reach the amphitheater masses.
And Carry the Fire is nothing if not an album with gargantuan ambition, where arms-outstretched, eyes-closed, steering wheel-pounding choruses arrive only four minutes in, and extreme dynamics consistently squash subtlety with melodrama. In a recent rising tide of sophisticated, accessible and very popular variations on folk music, from Iron & Wine's humble mumble to The Avett Brothers' increasingly careful barnstormers, Carry the Fire is an embarrassment of expectations and enthusiasms, where musical and lyrical platitudes dovetail for 48 overwrought and unrelenting minutes. If Music for Starbucks were ever an accepted canon, Delta Rae would likely be its newest—and one of its least fascinating—stars.
There is, as the necessary cliché appropriately goes, something here for everyone: "Morning Comes" is a recession anthem for the working class, with symbols of toil and hope, loss and renewal written and delivered with such earnest force that one might expect at least one Shepard Fairey reference in an accompanying music video. "Fire" delivers mad-at-you, Miranda Lambert-large vitriol, the din of electric guitars and stacked piano tracks adding obvious abrasion beneath the outsized attitude. "Dance in the Graveyards" essentially recasts Dave Matthews Band's "Tripping Billies" for listeners reared on religious rock. "If I Loved You" distills every diary page ever into mixtape-ready nods to Carole King and makes, by comparison, Leslie Feist sound like the most soulful singer in the world.
Worse still is the chain-gang minstrelsy of "Bottom of the River"—so far, Delta Rae's minor hit. A song that seems custom-built for a world ostensibly demanding something resembling authenticity, "River" turns Southern vernacular (lyrically and musically) into a tawdry chorus-line bauble. It's possible to envision Terry Gross asking the band about the "palpable essence" of modern race relations in the New South, as NPR listeners dutifully aim their browsers toward the history-baiting music video. "Forgive the Children We Once Were" and "Unlike Any Other" both twinkle open with a delicacy swiped from Sufjan Stevens; the latter at least has the decency to end that way, an isolated incident for a band with a pornographic dependence upon complete climax. All of these songs speak to remarkable vocal talent and a keen understanding of what it takes to get a song to stick. But Delta Rae's void of restraint, subversion and nuance quickly sours those attributes.
According to their official biography, Delta Rae are "the inheritors of a great musical mantle, carrying forth such tradition, but bringing to it their own flame and ignition, the wisdom of their own generation, and the promise of so much to come." And indeed, the sounds and stories of the South serve as one surface of Carry the Fire, an album that equates the ghosts of slavery with the specter of a new lover's old flings and often uses an acoustic guitar as an easy-listening inlet to FM-dial bombast. Delta Rae is nothing more than one methodical conclusion of its geography's endemic sounds. They are a band that sadly treats tropes with reverence only long enough to turn them into commercial springboards.
"Children born tomorrow/ may never know the language we speak," sings Ian Hölljes during "Is There Anyone Out There." "The wisdom that they borrow/ Will hint at something buried too deep." The irony, of course, is that, at least on their debut, the members of Delta Rae appear as the children, offering vacuous if vivid appropriations of languages that they've heard but have not mastered.