Album review: Iris DeMent, 'Sing the Delta'

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3.5 stars (out of 4)

Iris DeMent made a dramatic impression in the ‘90s with two stark albums that blended hard-core country and gospel, sparse string-band arrangements and a  pristine voice. “Infamous Angel” (1992) and “My Life” (1994) brimmed with timeless meditations on family, spirituality and death. She released a third, more fully arranged album in 1996 (“The Way I Should”), then essentially stopped recording original material. She appeared on a duets album with John Prine, and released an album of gospel standards in 2004. Though she has continued to perform steadily, “Sing the Delta” (Flariella) marks her first album of original songs in 16 years.

Little has changed, and that’s good news. DeMent’s nasal twang is a touch deeper, but still bears an open-hearted warmth, investing every note she sings with an ancient sincerity. Her songs continue to point back to her rural, Arkansas upbringing; she was one of 14 children in a deeply religious family. But she’s also a skeptic and critical thinker; for all the empathy in her songs, she rarely succumbs to sentimentality or cheap bromides. She openly struggles with her faith (“The Night I Learned How Not to Pray”), mortality (“Before the Colors Fade”) and depression (“Livin’ on the Inside,” “Out of the Fire”). The music is wider ranging than her early records, touching on Southern soul, country and gospel with subtle horn ornamentation. But the mostly midtempo melodies are centered on DeMent’s voice and piano, as they should be. On this quiet beauty of an album, she once again makes a virtue of her modesty.

greg@gregkot.com

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The Grammys 2011