The Delines’ first album—2014’s Colfax—was a pleasant surprise from one of the most familiar musical faces in Portland: songwriter (and author) Willy Vlautin. On a break from his beloved (and now defunct) Americana band Richmond Fontaine, Vlautin penned a bunch of doleful tunes about down-and-out characters, then handed them over to Amy Boone of the longstanding roots-rock band Damnations, TX, who brought them to life with her sturdy, stirring voice. The results were positively sumptuous.
The band’s follow-up, The Imperial, is finally out, delayed for years after Boone was hit by a car while walking in Austin, Texas. She broke both her legs, had several major surgeries, and the Delines went into deep freeze while she recovered.
It’s time to welcome them back. On The Imperial, the band expertly fleshes out Vlautin’s grainy short stories, surrounding his train wrecks with a combo of easygoing country, pillowy soul, and slo-mo rock ’n’ roll. Bassist Freddy Trujillo and drummer Sean Oldham anchor the sound with confident restraint, while Tucker Jackson adds the ache of pedal steel guitar in all the right spots. And Cory Gray is an expert in musical accessories, using keyboards to drive songs like “Holly the Hustle” and horns to brighten up “Cheer Up Charley.” Gray is the Delines’ “ace in the hole”—those are Vlautin’s words, and he’s right.
A band full of skilled, seasoned players is a beauty to behold, of course. But the thing about The Imperial that’ll reel people in is all the tiny collisions between Vlautin’s sharp details and Boone’s perfectly fine-grit alto. “Where Are You Sonny” unspools a story of violence and desperation in a snowy Walgreen’s parking lot. “Eddie & Polly” notes the small-but-important difference between “desperately in love” and “desperate and in love” in the warm glow of vintage soul. And Boone is stunning on the title track as she spins a tale of risky rekindled love with vocal nuance that recalls the legendary Sam Cooke. She and Vlautin go together like a hurtled bottle of booze and a cracked windshield. Their band kills, too, and on The Imperial, they put it all together again. It was well worth the wait.