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Big Black Delta, ‘Big Black Delta’ – Album Review

When asked about Big Black Delta’s self-titled album as a whole, mastermind and former Mellowdrone leader Johnathan Bates’ stock answer has been that he prefers not to think of it that way. Rather, Bates sees it as a collection of songs written around the same time and released together.

Fair enough, but stripping an album of its “albumness” almost puts an added pressure on each song to really stand on its own. Low points can’t be forgiven as transitions, and missteps aren’t viewed as tools for advancing some overarching narrative. In a sense, cumulative analysis seems unfair for an album like ‘Big Black Delta,’ the follow-up to 2011′s ‘BBDLP1.’ It’s like judging a greatest-hits album. And in a sense, the notion of Big Black Delta releasing an LP that wasn’t conceived with that intention seems almost misleading, or even like a concession.

Eight of the nine ‘BBDLP1′ tracks have resurfaced here, begging the question of why this is being called a debut LP by its publicist and most publications. On his Facebook, Bates has addressed the issue by stating that the six additional tracks (though it only appears to be five on our count) “make the album complete.” Considering his assertions about not crafting an album in the first place, how does it have a sense of completion?

These, quite simply, are questions you don’t want to deal with when listening to music. This is not unheard of, as debuts can be re-debuted on bigger labels or with better recording quality, but neither is true in the case of Big Black Delta, which makes the whole thing harder to wrap your head around. Essentially, Big Black Delta gave away a digital nine-track collection in 2011 and sold the album as well, and now, Bates is selling that collection again with five added songs. Good news for established fans is that the new songs will also be packaged as an EP for a later release, but talk about a confusing process.

Still, it must be said that Big Black Delta’s songs, at least, are strong enough to warrant repeated releases, with the larger-than-life screamer ‘IF—INGLOVEYOU’ and two others floating around since 2010′s ‘BBDEP1.’ Bates hasn’t done much to revise the songs, but his stints opening for Jane’s Addiction and M83 (the latter of which he backed up and shares striking similarities in aesthetic and instrumentation) may have inspired him to give these tracks one more run through the mill.

Of the new songs, ‘Side of the Road’ finds Bates experimenting with a robotic voice, pushing beyond the auto-tune standard into something otherworldly. He takes a clumsy but earnestly lovable turn on chorus, which could be mistaken as a duet between David Byrne and a suddenly English-speaking R2-D2. ‘Money Rains Down’ takes the Talking Heads comparison to new levels, with a gently tooting sax completing the portrait that could easily be called a rip-off if not for the fact it’s better than a lot of Talking Heads songs.

Unfortunately, the remaining three new additions bring little to the tried and true favorites, with ‘x22′ actually hurting the collection by taking Big Black Delta’s flirtation with abrasiveness and, seemingly, multiplying it by 22.

Why the two strong new tracks weren’t just released as stand-alones while Bates crafts new music is anyone’s guess, but he does continue to increase his exposure, and his bright and expansive electro-pop style might be at its marketable peak, given M83′s current standing. The problem is Big Black Delta’s records are starting to look less like examples of how musicians typically make and release music and more like how people in marketing might try to get something to sell if left to their own devices. Renaming and repackaging may work in a lot of areas, and it might even work in music, but it’s a slippery slope in a field where integrity is currency.

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