American musical pioneers at the East Coast’s westernmost boundaries, New York City’s Del-Lords stood in the forefront of back-to-the-roots countryfied urban rock’n’roll, skipping any particular stylistic imitation to enthusiastically bang out perceptive tunes of hard times and true love. With guitarist Scott Kempner (once Top Ten of the Dictators) penning the material but occasionally relinquishing lead vocals to guitarist Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, the Del-Lords embraced rock’s basic components with such skill and verve that they outshone most everyone else on the scene. (Actually, they prefigured an entire realm of bands, just as the Dix had years earlier.) The best tracks on Frontier Days — “Burning in the Flame of Love,” “Feel Like Going Home” and a cover of Alfred Reed’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” — are true-blue and brilliant.
The songs on Johnny Comes Marching Home — produced with no ill effects by Pat Benatar’s husband, Neil Giraldo — are better and the playing is even more confident and enthusiastic. Lyrical topics stretch from the sunny optimism of “Heaven” to the misery of “Love Lies Dying,” with stops along the way for a kidnapped victim of terrorism (“Against My Will”), a love letter to a real-life ’60s radio DJ (“Saint Jake”) and a veteran’s wistful view of militarism (“Soldier’s Home”). The music runs from a greasy Link Wray instrumental to a wittily disguised rewrite of “If I Had a Hammer.” Not trendy, twangy, corny or selfconscious, the Del-Lords simply play the old-fashioned way, with a sharp ear for melody and choruses that don’t evaporate after a few listens. Considering that the quartet’s roots are essentially a quarter-century old, they sure make it sound fresh and young.
Giraldo’s commercially conscious production work loses sight of the Del-Lords’ essence — making them sound in spots like a bland bar band straining to cop a chart hit — but Based on a True Story is generally another proud blast from the Bronx heartland. “We don’t follow fashion,” writes Kempner (in “The Cool and the Crazy”), “Who needs it when you got style?” Oddly, the band’s intrinsic savoir faire is less apparent than ever before, perhaps a casualty of too many guest stars. Mojo Nixon’s participation in “River of Justice” adds helpful absurdity to the proceedings, but when a multi-tracked Syd Straw and others sing the chorus, it’s easy to forget exactly whose record this is. “Judas Kiss” (a Kempner composition sung by Ambel) is a tremendous song despite the wrongheaded treatment, and others — “Whole Lotta Nothin’ Goin’ On,” “Cheyenne” and the twelve-bar “A Lover’s Prayer” — find the Lords firmly in charge.
Despite a good head of electric steam, the seven live cuts captured on Howlin’ at the Halloween Moon don’t raise much dust. Somewhere between the weak choice of material (so-so originals like “I Play the Drums” and “The Cool and the Crazy,” plus the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Jumpin’ in the Night” and “Tallahassee Lassie”) and the energetic but ineffectual performances, the record winds up flat and plain. Even the magnificent “Judas Kiss” comes off routine. And who stole the Del Lords’ hyphen?
With Kempner delivering the most passionate and mature songs of his career, Lovers Who Wander, co-produced by Thom Panunzio and bassist Manny Caiati, eliminates the commercial anxiety to focus all of the band’s strengths onto one great record. Besides the haunting “Learn to Let Go” (lyrics by David Roter), the melancholy “Wild Boys” and the sensuous, organ-cheesed “About You,” the album features a remarkable choogling translation of the Dictators’ classic “Stay with Me,” slowing the song down to reveal new emotional depths that make it wholly appropriate to this resonant, downcast album.
Soon after the release of Lovers Who Wander, Ambel left the Del Lords to devote himself to solo work and record production. He had already tested the waters in 1988 with Roscoe’s Gang, a casual good-time rock’n’roll session with the Skeletons, Peter Holsapple and likeminded friends. Co-produced by Ambel and Lou Whitney, cover versions of Swamp Dogg, Bob Dylan and Neil Young songs meld with Whitney, Kempner and Ambel originals in the joyful party atmosphere.