I am always bowled over by one-man creative dynamos. John Blangero’s Sun King Rising project isn’t a “real” band, it’s true, but he brings such all-encompassing passion and musical vision to bear on the album’s ten cuts that it is a complete listening experience. There’s no holes in this release. It isn’t a concept album, per se, but Blangero wrote and designed the album with several central themes in mind and you hear a fully realized thread running through these performances. It makes the album a more rewarding experience for me and the bonus of appreciating how one man plants the seeds from which all this springs.
Hitting listeners with “The Snake” sets an immediate tone. It is entertaining, without a doubt, and connects with listeners from the first. He funks up this late sixties R&B original without ever surrendering the song’s original spirit and its synthesis of instruments will cut deep into many listeners. I am a big fan of the song’s guitar, vocals, and supporting vocals. It also benefits from balanced production capturing the tactile quality of players interacting with their instruments. “Milkweed and Thistle” pulls in the reins compared to the opener and turns a spotlight on the personal side of his songwriting. We are, of course, assuming moments such as this are strictly biographical, a dangerous leap, when they may be fully imagined or else threaded into being from a variety of details. His piano playing lights the song with a brilliant warm white glow that never wavers.
“Free Will in China Blue” falls within the rock ballad subgenre, superficially at least, but Sun King Rising’s music is larger than labels. Some listeners may hear songs such as this as a bit plotted out, predictable, and perhaps that’s a fair criticism in some respects. There is nothing new under the sun – at least according to the Bible. Sun King Rising, however, has a distinct voice coming across during songs such as this and the joy of their predictability comes with hearing them execute these songs with such vigor. Basing much of the album on a foundation of piano playing is one of the key cornerstones of internal consistency making this release a stronger experience. “Take It Down” moves at a steady simmer, never biting off more than it can chew, and Blangero shows here how he can manipulate his voice without striking a false note. It’s a guitar showcase for this album, as well, and never overreaches in that area.
“Beneath the Southern Sun” is one of my favorite moments. Sun King Rising escalates the song at an attention-grabbing pace, shifting into a higher gear at the right time, and never places a musical foot wrong along the way. It is a much more overtly commercial tune, in my view, because its intended effects are so self-conscious yet affecting. The key is taste and Blangero has plenty of it. The sparse and moody opening for “Drive Me to Nashville” focuses our attention on his voice and the echoing pedal steel ratchets up the emotional stakes with subtle finesse.
The song takes flight when the percussion enters. It rolls along at a near shuffle pace, seemingly ready to break out at any moment, but Blangero prefers nuance over the obvious. His direct language communicates emotion through both universality, the confessional slant of his lyrics, and well-chosen details. “Let There Be Light”, the album’s finale, has every quality you want in a memorable curtain closer. The same gradual build distinguishing earlier songs serves this well and its message is appropriate for ending Delta Tales. They are internal and external tales but, ultimately, even the songs about other subjects end up saying far more about the author. This collection is one of the most vivid personal statements I can remember hearing for some time.