By Jonah Covell
These five veterans have got back to the basics of who they are and why they play together, and the results speak for themselves.
“I guess I’m all in / I always have been” sings Riley Downing on ‘Good to Go’, the first track of the Deslondes' new record, Ways and Means. He sounds proud, comfortable and ready for anything. He regales us with a hardscrabble tale of backyards and bars, and you wonder if he’s chosen to live it that way. It’s clear he’s simply figured out this is where he and his group can do what they do best.
After 2017’s strong Hurry Home, the five-piece band went on a “quiet break”. As individuals, they remained prolific: Sam Doores released a self-titled solo debut, while Downing put out a debut of his own, Start it Over. But something changed in 2021, and fiddle/steel player John James reached out to what he’s called his “family” to get back together and make some music.
The band’s promotion of the record has emphasized their democratic approach to singing and writing duties. Each of the band’s singers (Downing, Doores and Dan Cutler) set down the lead vocal for one of the three pre-release tracks, and they consistently alternate throughout the album. For that, the record has a worn-in family feel. Each player knows his roles and seems to know exactly when to take and cede the spotlight.
The band co-produced the album with Andrija Tokic at the Bomb Shelter in Nashville. Tokic, who also produced Ian Noe’s brilliant March release River Fools and Mountain Saints, leaves his mark here. The sound is balanced and clear, with an occasional filter of hazy timelessness, especially within the opening of ‘Wild Eden’ and the dancing flute parts of 'Standing Still'.
Though flutes and saxophone are welcome arrivals, the band stick close to the core of their signature sound throughout, mixing the sounds and textures of gritty Americana with the rhythmic backbone of a proto-r&b piano. It’s notable that they’ve added a full drum kit for the first time, with percussionist Cameron Snyder keeping the band’s grooves tighter than ever.
The album’s best songs come at you right out the gate. Sam Doores sings with an earnest mix of hope and helplessness on ‘Five Year Plan’, while the infectious title track romps in as Dan Cutler begins to bewail a former lover with the help of some clever wordplay (“you got your ways and means / you never say what you mean”). It’s topped off with the beautiful 'South Dakota Wild One', an ode to music and the people who love it.
Yet it’s Downing’s songs that stick out the most - the sound of his growl encompassing the spirit of the album best. Though his set here is less personal than what he shared on Start it Over, the questions he ponders over on ‘Standing Still’ (Stop and eject, I hope the parachute's been checked / Cause I wonder where you're gonna land this year) makes clear the necessity of home, family and solid ground.
If the album has a major flaw, it might simply be that it provides too much of a good thing. Keeping family close often requires compromises; through Ways and Means, the band rest on the strengths of their oneness, rarely pushing each other to experiment or lean deeper into the questions at the heart of their songs. A result of this is that the penultimate pair of love songs - ‘Bound by Love’ and ‘Sweet Release’, almost bleed into one.
Regardless, Ways and Means remains a pleasurable listen throughout. These five veterans are back to the basics of who they are and why they play together, and the results speak for themselves.
8.5 / 10.
The Deslondes' 2022 album, Ways & Means, is out 7/8 via New West Records. You can purchase the record from one of our selected partners below.