Laughing, Mostly

Let me tell you, it came as no small surprise, hearing James Roberts' voice come wafting from the speakers in the Virgin megastore. If you'd said to me thirteen years ago (Christ! Thirteen years!), when I wrote the name of Roberts' previous band The Sea Urchins in the sand of Troon beach, that I'd be hearing that voice in a Virgin store, hell I'd have told you that your brain was as full of jumbled rubbish as that very beach; The Sea Urchins of course being even then beloved mythic beasts who made the maddest psych-indie-pop that of course no-one outside of the indie hoi-polloi was remotely interested in.

The Sea Urchins had the unnerving knack of making records that could sound uniquely irritating and dynamically addictive almost at the same time. At their best, as on the achingly doleful 'Clingfilm' with it's yearning, desolate 'why weren't you special' refrain tearing open the heavens; on the awesomely, unfairly catchy 'Pristine Christine'; or covering Badfinger's 'No Matter What' on their last single, The Sea Urchins were untouchable as contemporary purveyors of psych-pop. At their worst, as on the cloyingly obvious and irritating 'Wild Grass Pictures', they were just another bunch of dodgy indie-chancers with too many '60s hang-ups and obsessions. Oh, how we used to laugh at their Chelsea boots and polka-dot shirts, whilst secretly longing to look as good of course.

When the Sea Urchins dissolved in the early '90s, Roberts and assorted other Urchins formed Delta. Delta released a couple of singles on the Dishy label, and I gave them no more than a cursory listen at the time, being much more enamoured with their label mates, the mighty Hellfire Sermons. I remember only that the Delta singles sounded tired and old; that their traditional rock/folk structures with psych overtones sounded dull and jaded next to the Sermons' discordant, wailing deconstructed Pop alchemy.

As is the way of the world, however, it was of course the trad sounds made by Delta that eventually became fashionable with the equally trad music industry. In the dust stirred by the coat-tails of the likes of Oasis and the reinvented roots-rock Weller, Delta's sixties drenched sounds became the kinds of sounds journalists had to notice at the start of the new millennium; became the noises to tell the world had been terrific all along.

And in fact Delta's sound of the early 21st Century isn't half bad. Their Slippin' Out album of 2000 on Dishy, bought tonight on impulse, actually sounds pretty fine, breathing with a life that is perhaps unsurprising given that, according to the sleeve notes at least, it was recorded in a mere 15 days. There are some fine moments, like the opener 'Color Madre' with its driving groove a mesh of guitars and madly oscillating keyboards, or 'We Come Back' with its lovely strings and Roberts' now trademark reaching for the notes and scraping to get there in marvellously strained manner vocals stretching over five and a half minutes of Autumnal rock. Less successful and more irritating, as with those Urchins before them, are the moments when Delta travel in more obvious waters, as on the dubious 'Elephant Man' or the title track, which sound too much like the Beatles, or a thousand other Psych-Beat pretenders for comfort. But that's okay because what did they invent the program function on CD players for anyway?

I don't know if Delta are still actively writing, recording and playing, but I hope so. Because somehow it feels comforting to know that somewhere out there their spirit of Chelsea boots and polka-dot shirts might still be moving in the darkness, to both delight and amuse in equal measure.

Alistair Fitchett 2001

More on the Sea Urchins and Delta can be found on the Bliss Aquamarine website.


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