The left hand invented rock'n'roll. That’s the hand that plays the bass lines on piano, the hand used by early keys pounders like Jerry Lee Lewis, Moon Mullican, and Fats Domino to put a little bit of boogie in their blues. That left hand gave "Great Balls of Fire" its lusty pep and "Blueberry Hill" its making-time thrill. So, when the Deslondes open their self-titled debut with a walking piano line played way, way down the left side of the keyboard, they’re not just playing a rhythm that sounds distinctive in 2015 but also conveying an entire pop history that spans New Orleans rhythm and blues, early Memphis rock, Louisiana Hayride country, and every pick-up jazz band ever to busk on Royal Street.
Plus, it just sounds damn good. "Fought the Blues and Won" lopes along on that syncopated bass line, which makes the band’s hangdog harmonies come off a bit more determined, even if they don’t sound quite triumphant. The blues will just show up again tomorrow, and they’re bracing for another fight. “It might hit you from all sides, or right between the eyes,” sings Sam Doores, one of four singers and five songwriters in the Deslondes. “Keep on going.”
Using the piano as a rhythm section instrument certainly distinguishes the band from a lot of their country peers, who more often use it for melody or atmosphere. The Deslondes are highlights of an unlikely country scene based in New Orleans of all places, a city with a rich and renowned music history that includes everything but country. But a new generation of acts—including Hurray for the Riff Raff, Luke Winslow King, the Longtime Goners, and the late, lamented Sundown Songs—is marrying twang with Crescent City rhythms. The Deslondes cut their teeth in street bands busking for tourist change and in pick-up acts playing backyard barbecues, both of which can be laboratories for testing new ideas and distilling songs down to their essence.
So their debut introduces a band that sounds confident and fully formed. Every song contains some new flourish or some new idea to distinguish it, whether it’s the spidery pedal steel of "Low Down Soul", the spiky guitar riff that comes out of nowhere on "The Real Deal", or even the quiet clarinet solo that illuminates closer "Out on the Rise" from the inside. They take nothing about country or R&B or New Orleans for granted, but consider everything anew. "Less Honkin’ More Tonkin’" is too fast to really honkytonk to, and that’s okay because it’s about a traffic jam. Even "Louise", the most traditionally brokenhearted song here, is interrupted by a shuffling two-step guitar rhythm, as though the Deslondes know that the best thing about Johnny Cash wasn’t the clothes or the myth but the men backing him.
Somehow the country gospel of "Those Were (Could’ve Been) the Days" and the Morricone-on-the-cowboy-trail arrangement of "Time to Believe In" actually sound fresh in 2015. Even as these songs delve deep into the past, they never sound calculated or revivalist, which is refreshing after the parade of tweed jackets and uplifting choruses that have defined Americana for the last several years. Instead, The Deslondes sounds like something scavenged and salvaged, as though the band members found that walking bass line or that rockabilly rhythm just lying around on the street, unused and abandoned. They know it’d be a shame to let it go to waste.