To be so organic, so uninhibited and free — during the song “Amen,” Rocco DeLuca actually turns from the microphone, filling the room around him with a howling lament — Drugs ‘n Hymns is often grounded by the familiar.
That gives this record both its magic, and its heft.
DeLuca, who’s been leading a blues rock-informed outfit called the Burden for the last few years, unplugs for this idiosyncratic solo excursion, due on March 6 from 429 Records. That brings him nose to nose with his finely drawn characters’ highs and lows, the moments when something life altering is understood for the first time.
Still, as distinctive as Drugs ‘n Hymns can sometimes be, with its echoing Dobro amidst spacious settings, DeLuca is clearly aware of the long path that brought him to this place. You hear bits and pieces of his musical influences, and these strands serve as buttresses when DeLuca starts playing fast and loose with song structures.
Tracks like “My My” and “Snake Oil Salesman” boast the same kind of barely controlled anger found on fellow Californian Lindsey Buckingham’s 1970s-era acoustic sides, right down to the banjo-inspired guitar signatures. The instrumental “Sibylle,” with its solemnly looped rhythm backing, resonates like the best atmospheric rock of Daniel Lanois. The trippy “The Stride Like Gods,” later in the album, takes this concept to its apocalyptic endgame, stirring in backwards snippets of music that sweep from one end of the audio spectrum to the other, all over an ominously rumbling backbeat, until the song eventually dissolves into a wordless hum. “Gorky,” the final instrumental on Drugs ‘n’ Hymns, sounds like a far-off moan, barely heard but distinctly felt.
DeLuca straps his guitar back on for the gruff country honesty of “Amen,” singing in a high, raw register that blends the brittle beauty of Jeff Buckley with Boz Scaggs’ early blues-soaked gruffness. “Pray On” arrives then, like a burst of spirit-filled joy. DeLuca is joined here by the Echo Park Jubilee Tambo Flower Unsung Heroes Choir, who march through the track like a second-line parade — clapping and testifying one moment, and then suddenly gone the next. The vocal connection to Buckley is even more pronounced on the subsequent “Windows,” but the song is soon overtaken by DeLuca’s sawing, brilliantly dissonant slide work.
Finally, there’s the title track, which lopes out like an amiable friend, but nevertheless holds these hypnotically disturbing images. Recounting a drug-addled descent, DeLuca is joined again by the Unsung Heroes Choir, who arrive to bolster the song toward an arching, almost balletic sweep that connects back to Freddie Mercury.
In this way, Drugs ‘n Hymns — soul exploring, and individualistic, but still very much rooted in what came before — finds a way to connect across a broad spectrum of emotions. Rocco DeLuca’s record ends up sounding both lived in and utterly brand new.