Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas - Secret Evil

Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas’ long-anticipated debut record shines with vocal prowess but remains subpar in other areas.

Additional Info

6.9

ALBUM: Secret Evil

ARTIST: Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas

2014

Alternative

These may not be delta blues, but Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas harbor a bluesy energy. They’ve finally arrived on the scene with their debut full-length Secret Evil, released after a label merger halted the process. In the wake of a blues-rock revival, The White Stripes and The Black Keys commanders of the twenty-first century audience, bands like Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas are looking to pave the way to their own niches. The band describes itself as dark soul, citing influences like Tom Waits and Gogol Bordello, though it’s easy to compare them also to contemporary female-fronted blues rock bands like Deap Vally and the Dead Weather. What makes the Deltas grounded, though, is that they also look back to the predecessors of the genre, to the soul greats and sassy girl groups of the 60s, to inform their sound. On this record, their expansive musical depth in terms of influence translates to only a surface-level interpretation. The product is musically lukewarm, but the soulful and passionate croons of Jessica Hernandez manage to keep it afloat.

It’s no secret that Jessica Hernandez is the driving force behind this record. After all, separating her name from her band’s implicates that she’s somehow in charge, and doubtlessly, she is. Her voice has the vibrato and quality of a more polished Aretha Franklin or even Amy Winehouse, but her own unique vocal qualities make her a force to be reckoned with. On the album opener, “No Place Left To Hide,” she has this special lilt to her delivery that twists and turns at every note before she lets loose with a soulful and soaring yell. This lilt resurfaces in “Cry Cry Cry,” a heart-heavy ballad where it is loaded with a heavy emotional weight. Hernandez is an equally talented vocalist and lyricist.

Her phrasing is impeccable especially in her fierce wails in “Caught Up.” The songs aren’t interrelated, but many focus on motifs and actions of the body, like “Cry Cry Cry,” “Dead Brains,” “Neck Tattoo,” and “Run Run Run.” In relation to the record’s title Secret Evil, perhaps these themes—in conjunction with the allusions to past failed relationships—could point to Hernandez finding this “evil” within herself and others, and she’s seeking to combat it. This rings true especially in the final song “Lovers First,” with her crooning, “I won’t be a damn fool.” Her emotional progression is captivating. “Damn” is the only curse on the whole record, loading the lyric and reinforcing the declarative.

With Hernandez in the lead, though, the music falls behind. There’s so much pressure on her voice to be the standout feature of each song that the cracks start to show. The Deltas’ contributions in each song are hit or miss, but on the whole, they remain very bland. The band has a strong range of instruments from piano to guitar to horn to organ to tambourine, but the repetitive chords and simple rhythms deny the Deltas the synergy they’re after. “Run Run Run” is a highlight for the band as the carnival-esque hook and strong horn section combine well with Hernandez’s powerful vocals. Other pairings aren’t so symbiotic, though. The frequently vanilla instrumentations create a divide between them and the vocals that force Hernandez to overcompensate vocally. Sometimes, this comes in the form of some slick production as is the case in “Dead Brains.” The unfortunate consequence of this studio polish is that it diminishes the raw soulfulness of Hernandez’s voice. Still, through these shortcomings and imbalances, they manage to craft a solid batch of songs that are as catchy as ever and demonstrate great promise for growth in their future endeavors.

“I will always try to fight for something.”

1. No Place Left To Hide
A singular guitar thump sets the languid yet driving pace of this mid-tempo romp with Hernandez wasting no time jumping right into the mix. Her lilted croon dances around the lower register in a jaunty melody until complete vocal explosion. The power she harnessed during the verse is released in her dramatically triumphant jump of the octave with just a hint of snarl. The high energy fades as the cycle repeats, and though her second go at the octave jump is just as awesome, it doesn’t feel as fresh as the first time. All in all, her crystal-cut performance makes the bland instrumentation pale in comparison. The guitar chugs while the monotony of occasional horns and buzzing organs jeopardizes an otherwise compelling track. They do, however, work well as background to the prowess of Hernandez. It’s an apt introduction to the band.7.7
2. Sorry I Stole Your Man
After the mildly explosive opener, this one slows the tempo and ups the sass. Starting off with a few jazzy piano chords, it continues on into the tried and true methods of the girl group-esque lament, complete with the classically kooky minor key jaunt and sticky sweet “oooh” section. Hernandez’s vocals stand out smokier than ever, delivering some dramatically biting lyrics about “stealing” someone else’s boyfriend. “Sorry I stole your man; sorry he loved me best,” she sings with a snarl. The chorus brings some nice touches of harmony and layered backing vocals, but taking the song as a whole, it’s way too similar in chord progression and structure to many other songs, especially The Like’s “Wishing He Was Dead.” And frankly, it’s not the best interpretation of the bunch.6.8
3. Cry Cry Cry
A simple keyboard lurch that cycles throughout the song accompanies Hernandez in her most sublimely wonderful vocal work so far. While she soars to tonal heights, her sense of control and tenderness conveys ultimate heartache with a great melody. “Baby don’t you cry; baby I won’t go too far,” she intones over the 1-2 beat and tambourine percussion. There’s something about the production that drives a divide between her vocals and the backing track that sounds odd, especially because the instrumentation is very sparse and not well-articulated. Her vocals are the cornerstone, as they have been.7.2
4. Dead Brains
The fun guitar work of this one is a breath of fresh air after the emotional heaviness of the last number. The whole vibe, down to the surfy guitar noodling and kooky psychedelic accents, is a lot breezier in general, driven largely by guitars (for the first time) and her pointedly bright vocals. Here, her vocals start to ride the line between bright and overprocessed without the bassiness of the rest of the instrumentation and percussion to balance her out, which is an unfortunate byproduct of the slick production. The lyrics verge on the morbid, about the dead brains of a former flame stuck in her bones. If you get past the semi-grating nature of her vocals, the rest of the song is a fun little romp.7.4
5. Tired Oak
Jokes about the title aside, there’s something about this that feels, well, tired. For something that should feel fresh, it feels awfully stale. There’s no doubt Jessica Hernandez is an amazing singer, and here, she delivers some heart-heavy lyrics about getting older. But once again, the music behind her adds nothing to the table. She’s done well with compensating for this fact in songs prior, but here, she’s lacking the extra oomph that would get the song afloat. It’s an easy 2/2 beat with the occasional shift to triplets that brings a bit of fun into the chorus. All in all, it’s a basic minor key piano romp that shows some promise by the end in the vocal crescendo, but not enough to save it completely.6.5
6. Over
As before, the band takes a modest approach to their arrangement here. But there’s something about this minimalist instrumentation that is peculiar, in a good way. It seems like a majority, if not all, of the musical accompaniment during the verse is drums and this interesting buzzing noise that ebbs and flows and feels like it could be a guitar or a synth. The chorus is like flipping a switch to on in terms of production tricks. It’s bathed in this dark ethereal sheen, almost haunting, and her vocals are compressed a bit to give some eerie vibes. The bridge also houses some great sounds, with Hernandez spitting lyrics with acid riffs under her. Unfortunately, all these novel ideas taken as a whole don’t really break out of the bland pop sensibilities with which they’ve been struggling.7.1
7. Caught Up
On "Caught Up", a reverbed guitar and whirling organ anchor the bluesy number while tambourine-laced percussion gives it an air of playfulness. Hernandez’s vocal delivery has a sassy edge, but here, she’s more introspective about her past mistakes rather than focusing on fun wordplay. In fact, she’s very reminiscent of a handful of soul greats of the 60s. The only downside, very small, is that the guitar lick sounds almost too much like one The Black Keys would write. Maybe it is one? Maybe I’m just hearing things? Overall, it’s just very a well-written and well-executed blues song—they’re not reinventing the wheel here, but they sure build it better than before.7.4
8. Neck Tattoo
You might have some ideas about what a song called “Neck Tattoo” would sound like, but I’m sure that this won’t fulfill any of those expectations. It’s actually an ethereal ballad that opens with, quite simply, Hernandez’s vocals and an airy keyboard tone under. It’s really quite sublime for a bit until it starts to sound like “Cry Cry Cry” earlier in the record. It’s not a bad thing, but it sounds like tired songwriting to hear the same ideas again this far into the record. There’s a small eruption of guitars and percussion during the chorus, which feeds in to some particularly sultry notes that raise the song to its high point. The breakdown has Hernandez repeating, “I know they’re going to wish us well,” with some slick layering effects on the vocals. The repetition stokes the listeners empathy (“Will they wish them well?”), but musically, its recycling of ideas lessens it.6.9
9. Run Run Run
So far, this is hands down the Deltas’ best use of slick production and their diverse instrument lineup. It’s used robustly and well. The song starts off with a carnival-esque keyboard line played on a groovy organ setting. They go all-in here, and the sharpness and playfulness amidst the bells and skitter drums really get the shoulders moving. Hernandez sings this song like it’s her anthem, employing the power harnessed by the coyly sassy girl groups of the 60s and 70s. They tried to execute this idea back on “Sorry I Stole Your Man,” but not to the same effect. Here, they’ve mastered the craft. It seems like it may be related to “Cry Cry Cry,” perhaps in a chronological progression of events. The horns add the best touch, and the intensity in her vocals is impeccable. The energy and beat are so driving throughout the song that it’s a shame the verse slows down, and in turn, halts the momentum. Overall, though, the effort pays off.7.9
10. Downtown Man
It turns out the brass explosion in “Run Run Run” didn’t fade when the song was over. It shows up in this one full force, and it’s another breath of fresh air. A smooth bass line leads into a playful sexy sax line, which in turn erupts into something bigger, like an entire brass orchestra behind the vocal prowess of Hernandez, aided in percussion by a persistent tambourine jingle. The fullness of sound unfortunately starts to taper off by the second verse in exchange for a more minimal approach, which pales in comparison to the tour de force the song was earlier. Dynamic shifts can be a good thing, but the lower side of the spectrum is not on the same level as the high side. The good news is that her vocals show an amazing range, and the band joins in for some backing vox.7.5
11. Lovers First
In a record of ups and down, ending on a languid note is a bold but understandable choice. The songwriting is so simple, but not in a bland way. Earlier, relying on the phrasings of pop conventions met with some bland results, but this song’s simplicity transcends those early examples. The melodic guitar, couched in a hazy atmosphere and Hernandez’s achingly emotional vocals, loop in a sweet cycle that doesn’t seem to get repetitive. The lushness is partly counteracted with her firm convictions—“I won’t be a damn fool” ringing out two thirds of the way in. Such decisive statements work so well in album closers; it completes the triumphal narrative arc.8.0
Written by Hailey Simpson
Now attending college at UC Berkeley, Hailey's main passions in life are attending every concert she possibly can while keeping up with her studies, drinking copious amounts of Philz Coffee, and spinning tunes on her college radio station KALX.

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