DELTA Slippin' Out (Dishy)

Delta are a Birmingham five-piece, who, like the unlucky likes of Shack and Doves before them, seem to have been permanently plagued by misfortune. Once known as The Sea Urchins, they adopted their current moniker in 1993 and got themselves signed to, of all people, Acid Jazz. For the next seven years, nada, their momentum sapped by record company matters, complications with band members and grinding poverty. (The sleeve of their discful of demos and b-sides, "Laughing Mostly" - and yes, I'm on the hunt for it, although with rank irony it appears to have been deleted - apparently contains the plea "Will somebody give us some fucking money?"). Finally, Dishy have given them a whole album of their own to play with, banged out in 15 days at UB40's studios.

Why does all this matter? Delta's tale of woe must strike a chord with the experiences of hundreds, if not thousands, of crushed, aspirant bands the length and breadth of this isle. Why should you care? Because, and it's the biggest because I can imagine, Delta's music is utterly sublime. Whilst the inkie hacks spent most of last twelve months banging on about how Doves were "this year's Shack", Delta were quietly living the life, making their gorgeous music on the margins. They sound like a three-way tie between Shack, The Byrds and hometown heroes Electric Light Orchestra, and before you sneer and scoff observe that the long-overdue repatriation of ELO in stylish circles is at last with us, with support and encouragement from the likes of The Divine Comedy and Grandaddy. And Delta have a greater claim to their fame than most, because their keyboard player, Louis J Clark, is none other than the son of string arranger Louis Clark, who worked on every ELO album between the time they decided that there was no future in frantically overdubbing their three string players and the miserable synth-pop disaster of their final long player, "Balance Of Power". (He was also guilty of masterminding the interminable "Mona Lisa on a tea towel" cultural desecration of the "Hooked On Classics" albums, a connection that Delta, quite rightly, seem reluctant to draw attention to.)

Fittingly, there are moments when "Slippin' Out" is heavily redolent of its parentage: the arrangement on "Yampee" is a dead ringer for the bridge of ELO's "Mission (A World Record)", and the Roberts brothers' singing reminds this listener a little of a lighter timbred Jeff Lynne. But there's also the thick, interleaving wads of rippling, Byrdsian guitars on stunning opener "Color Madr", the chunky singalong "na-na-na"s of "Don't Bring It Home", doomed romanticism on "Bra", bleary goodbyes on "Cuckoo" and the vicious examination of bulimia that is "Elephant Man". All this is swathed in the best melodies Shack never wrote and a production that's just vodka-clear enough to send every last jangle and harmony rattling through your head.

If "Slippin' Out" has a fault (barring the fact that, at an hour long, it's way too short, and its unavailability (so far) on vinyl) it's that Delta sometimes overreach themselves, an example being Clark's five minute orchestration that closes the album. It sounds like Rimsky-Korsakov with a migraine, and though it may well have its time and place, for me here and now aren't either of them. But just prior to that mildly disappointing conclusion is "I Want You", Delta's bestest song in a consistently fantastic bunch. It sounds like ruminations on lost love, the possibility of redemption and all the disasters awaiting on that long rocky road ("Don't give it to me if you want it back/'Cos I can't live like that/And I want you home again"), it's blessed with possibly the finest of Delta's wonderful melodies, and it chokes me every time I hear it.

If you bought any, or preferably all, of last year's trio of classic British debut albums (and, for those who've been napping at the back, they were the first outings from Badly Drawn Boy, Coldplay and Doves), or even took a risk on Shack after all my banging on about them, I humbly suggest you check out Delta, for the good of your heart and soul. They're as brilliant, if not better, as all the aforementioned: give them some fucking money, they deserve it more than any other band written about here.

DELTA All My Life (Dishy)

DELTA Make It Right (Dishy)

My continued attempts to get hold of Delta's discful of demos, singles and b-sides "Laughing Mostly" have yet to bear fruit, but I have turned up a handful of the CD singles that preceded last year's magnificent "Slippin' Out" long-playing debut.

"All My Life" is riddled with the same combination of harmony and humility that makes latter-day Delta such an engaging listen. It's a "Wild Horses"-style swayathon that evokes the likes of Embrace or Oasis at their most eloquent, although as it dates from 1994 it arguably precedes the whole spark-sapping curse of Noelrock. In typical Delta fashion it then drifts into the kind of backward guitar territory that suggests The Byrds around the time their psychedelic explorations were first beginning to take flight. Marvellous, and naturally enough a complete flop at the time. Of the other two tracks "Low Flying" is aptly-titled, uninspiring b-side fodder, but "Fall Apart" redresses the balance somewhat, sounding like a tear-choked, broken-hearted country cousin to Oasis' "Sad Song", remembering that it dates from a time when that could be considered a compliment.

"Make It Right", originally released in 1995, acquits itself a little less impressively to my ears. It sounds as if it wants to be a raging, squalling epic like the magical "Don't Bring It Home" from their debut album, but somehow it never really gets going. The guitar work, which you might expect to approximate that of Neil Young when he's really, really angry, seems to just bubble along in the background, with insufficient strength of hook to make up the lack. Elsewhere on this CD single even the title of "Cowboy Raga" allows those Byrds influences to float a little too close to the surface, and the drab "In The Final End" seems to be here just to fill up space.

But these, remember, are the early works, and as precursors to the full-flowering glory of "Slippin' Out" I wouldn't want to be without them.

DELTA The City's Bigger Than Both Of Us (Dell'Orso)

What's the matter here? This four track 10" single contains Delta's first new material since last year's devotional, inspirational debut album "Slippin' Out", berthed in the same studio (UB40's D.E.P. International) with the same producer (Lenny Franchi), but for some strange reason there's really nothing happening. The music, beyond that accompanying the mildly perky title tune, is unmemorable, the lyrics don't crackle and snap with the emotional fumbling, repression and decay that made "Slippin' Out" such a towering achievement and the production and pressing quality are co-conspirators against the entertainment-questing listener. All told, a bitter, but thankfully brief, disappointment.

DELTA Could You (Mercury)

Finally Delta's first major label release is with us, nearly a decade overdue but better late than never. And, breathe a sigh of relief, after the disappointing "This City's Bigger Than Both Of Us" EP "Could You" arrives in as warm, lilting and friendly a fashion as you could hope for. True, it's not as brilliant as 90% of their astonishing debut album "Slippin' Out", but nevertheless it's the kind of woozy, waterlogged guitar music that reminds of other finally-come-good bands such as Shack and Doves, propelled by a mysterious "My doctor said this is nowhere" hookline (which may or may not be a Neil Young reference) and a chiming riff that could almost be played by one of the strange new machines the Aphex Twin used extensively throughout "Drukqs". The new b-sides spread across the two CD single, 7" and hen's teeth-rare 12" formats aren't so brilliant, but compensated for by a brace of cracking remixes from the fingers of Bent and Alpha. "Could You" isn't exactly a triumphant return, but it's Delta, and it's good enough.

DELTA Laughing Mostly (Dishy)

I'm delighted to report that I've finally found a copy of Delta's odds-and-ends compilation CD "Laughing Mostly" (title swiped from the Byrds song "What's Happening?!?!", incidentally), which presaged the release of their debut album proper (quite rightly described by their label boss in the sleevenotes here as "gobsmackingly beautiful") "Slippin' Out". The guerrilla nature of the tracks assembled on "Laughing Mostly" is amply underlined in the booklet, which claims they were "recorded mostly live on extremely low budget down time, inbetween contractual wranglings, punch-ups, broken bones, fallings over psychotic episodes and general fuck-ups in the hope that someone would let us finish them one day". Who'd be in a band, eh?

Expectations duly lowered, it turns out that most of "Laughing Mostly" is perfectly competent what-we-used-to-call Britpop, jangly, guitar-based stuff that holds The Byrds, The Beatles and The Electric Light Orchestra in equal reverence. (The week before "Laughing Mostly" arrived Peter mentioned that "Slippin' Out" sounded rather Lennon-y, a comparison that had somehow passed me by. Lo and behold, the opening track here, "Beautiful", is strongly reminiscent of Lennon's/The Beatles' "Real Love".) But, in common with all the other Delta material I've heard outside of that astonishing debut album, there are no melodies that haunt you here; it's all fumbling, formative stuff that doesn't carry itself over its influences with the considerable majesty and finesse that "Slippin' Out" manages, ending up stumbling over the feet of greatness. Fine music, as important as any other great band's early years, but "Laughing Mostly" should be the second Delta CD you buy, not the first.

DELTA Hardlight (Dell'Orso)

Beleaguered as ever, "Hardlight" would have been Delta's debut major label long player had Mercury - clearly having learned nothing from their scandalous treatment of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci - not dumped them after releasing only one single. Yet "Hardlight" seems to reflect - or perhaps more accurately anticipate - the trials ahead, being one downbeat, bitter, melancholic shrug of an album. Having successfully chased away any last vestiges of their chief influences - The Byrds, Electric Light Orchestra - Delta haven't really anything to offer in their stead, making "Hardlight" sound like an album with a hole at its centre (quite apart from the literal one in the middle of the CD, of course).

"One last ride then we're all checking out" keens a Roberts brother in the opener "Nothing Happened", and proceedings don't get much more hopeful during the next 45 minutes. "Could You" - that single Mercury single - sounds as good as ever: if Neil Young were a Brummie, this would be the musical embodiment of his stooped shuffle on the cover of "After The Gold Rush". "Funny Looking Angels" has a kind of McCartneyesque glint to it, which in this company is enough to make it worthy of passing comment, and "Antique Bells" is perhaps "Hardlight"'s highlight, tender and vulnerable, with a mysterious "My ship is falling back to earth" hookline.

But there are moments such as the raucous, discordant "Pump Action" and "Not What I'm Sayin'", that verge on being unpleasant. "Survive" might have sounded triumphant and valedictory in concert a year ago, but time has given us Doves' "Pounding", which punches a higher floor altogether. And Louis J Clark's string arrangements don't seem to have the eloquence of old, lapsing into the kind of spread-on-cred so beloved of bands such as Embrace and Oasis.

So what prevents "Hardlight" being dismissed as just another not particularly memorable British rock album? Because Delta's previous work, "Slippin' Out", is to my mind one of the finest records ever made, a fusion of naggingly addictive tunes, witty lyrics and incisively articulated emotion. One day Delta's greatness will be recognised: "Hardlight" just postpones that day for a while, that's all.

Ben & Jason/Delta The Barfly, Cardiff 15 February 2002