12 tracks / 59:11
When folks talk about Delta music they are usually referring to the Mississippi River Delta, so it is a change of pace to receive an album of new music from the New Jersey Delta. Maybe (like me) you did not know that there is a rich music scene to be found there, but fine musicians such as harmonica ace Rob Paparozzi, Al Chez (David Letterman Orchestra), Pat DiNizio (The Smithereens), Glen Burtnik (ELO and Styx), and Jack Daley (Lenny Kravitz) all hail from the Delta.
Hard Luck Stories is the debut CD from The Jackson Whites, a loose collaborative of musicians from the New Jersey Delta. Over the course of five years, more than 25 musicians (most of them locals) recorded the dozen tracks on this album. This project was produced by two native sons, Benny Harrison and Bob Zaleski, and was fronted by Robert Van Kull, who wrote all of the songs. Their music is pure Americana, meaning that there are many diverse influences to be found here: blues, folk, country, rock, mountain music, and maybe even Irish drinking songs for good measure. Blending all of these together with smart and witty lyrics results in a powerful piece of work.
“Water,” the first track, has an upbeat melody that contrasts well with Van Kull’s earthy vocal style. There are elements of folk, bluegrass, Louisiana roots thanks to layers of guitars and peppy accordion as played by Kraig Greff. The lyrics are sharp and locally inspired, and in the chorus you will hear a style that is repeated throughout the disc as there are group vocals and harmonies that tie the song together (in this case from Harrison and Leslie Wagner). This segues into “Hard Luck Story,” a light rocker with organ from Harrison and a mandolin break from Jeff Hemmerlin that lends a Tom Petty/Springsteen vibe to the song. Burtnik lays down the bass line for this one, and pitches in on the backing vocals. One of the best lines from the album can heard here: “I’m a hard luck story, I wrote it page by page, I built it bar by bar like an iron cage.”
Ron Paparozzi appears on “Rhythm,” a neat bit of hard rock with distorted guitars and cool harmonica accents. I have to agree with Van Kull that “Rhythm is the hardest word to spell,” but instead of spelling it out the Jackson Whites make it happen with a great backline and solid drumming. You will not usually hear harmonica on songs like this, but Rob does a great job of working it in. He also appears on “Pagan Blues,” a song that provides a heavy dose of today’s reality. The laconic drawl that the lyrics are delivered in also give a bit of a folk or country feel to this blues-rock tune.
The standout track from Hard Luck Stories is “My Laotian Bride” which has a loping folk vibe that starts out with the fiddle introduction from Tim Carbone. This is not the most complicated music in the world, but it is a catchy tune and the narrative is breathtakingly honest and vivid. It details a young woman’s assimilation into American culture, to the point where “she’s as Jersey as a tool booth, never tells the whole truth…” Amen.
The second half of the album is as solid as the first, with some fabulous horns from Brian Benninghove, Al Chez, and Nick Finzer on the super-funky “Yesternight.” To finish the set, the band chose “The Road in the Waxing Moon,” a countrified acoustic song with lovely vocal harmonies, and a bit more pedal steel from Jim Ryan and fiddle from Carbone. This is a cool way to bring a really different album to a close.
Listening to Hard Luck Stories as a whole, it is hard to believe that it took over half a decade to record it as everything sounds like it was cut at the same time. All of the songs have a similar feel and they flow seamlessly from one to another to form a single entity. The lyrics can be gritty and raw at times, but the stories are full of truth and are drawn directly from soul of the Garden State. Head to Jersey Delta Records website to learn some history, and to check out The Jackson Whites for yourself.