Delphia Blize,
West River
(independent, 2010)

If Joni Mitchell had persisted in the vaguely folkish acoustic-pop style of her early career and her first two albums, she might sound today as Delphia Blize does. Mitchell has been always an artist I've found easier to admire than to like, someone whose oversized talent too often seems tied to an undersized heart, and not just because she called Bob Dylan a "plagiarist" not all that long ago. That was merely stupid, nothing next to the esthetic crime of freezing songs to death.

A Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter, Delphia Blize is unlikely ever to be as famous as Mitchell has been, but that doesn't mean she doesn't deserve as much attention -- a lot -- as this stunning CD should bring her, or at least would in a just world. Listening to West River on a number of occasions until I felt comfortable enough with it to write about it, I feel the winter chill, physical and psychic, that we Minnesotans know all too well. Beneath River's icy surface, however, lie love, loss, faith and a profound connectedness with the world. Not to mention the amazing grace to pull it off without ever sounding self-centered or mopish or ridiculous. (In case the geographical mention gives you the wrong impression: no, I do not know Blize personally.)

As a general rule, singer-songwriters, thick as thieves these days, are not good for my good nature. As another broad principle, I have limited interest in those for whom traditional -- which is to say actual -- folk music is not a prominent influence. This has nothing to do, of course, with anything except my own cranky listening preferences. If Blize is not a "folk singer" in the sense I think of one (the Beatles are a periodic, albeit muted, reference), she is a masterly, precise word- and tune-master who creates a distinctive adult-pop sound out of found materials. Under the direction of Evan Brubaker, a respected figure in the Seattle roots scene (the album was recorded in Tacoma), the production is evocative, thoroughly modern, yet sometimes skeletally spare. And, in the middle of it all, what a voice; it contains multitudes. At once ethereal and grounded, cool and warm, distant and close, always where it needs to be, and defiantly memorable, it sings inside your head when you've finished listening.

A Christian sensibility infuses several songs, for one example "Calling," which also bears a certain melodic resemblance to something like an old ballad or a 19th-century hymn. With a different set of lyrics, it might even pass for one or the other. (The same can be said of the touching title song.) Blize's faith, however, transcends brainless Bible-beating, and it speaks to spiritual longings even we non-believers experience. Other songs explore relationships of various definitions: friends, lovers, family, oneself, the cosmos. None of this hasn't been done before, but rarely is it done with such aching, piercing perfection.

music review by
Jerome Clark

2 April 2011

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