Riley Downing of The Deslondes Debuts Solo Via Upbeat ‘Start It Over’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Riley Downing, one of the lead vocalists and songwriters of the New Orleans-based roots rockers Deslondes is making his solo debut with Start It Over.  His bandmate, Sam Doores, has already pursued a similar course but Downing does a good job of “keeping it in the family.” His co-writer on all selections and co-producer is John James Tourville, a multi-instrumentalist, who typically plays pedal steel and fiddle in the main band but an even wider array of guitars here. The Deslondes producer, Andrijia Tokic, is the other co-producer.

The lingering question is the difference between Downing’s material and that of the band. This writer, familiar with The Deslondes 2015 debut but not their 2017 follow-up, finds Downing’s songs more laid back and laconic, less distinctly country yet due to his baritone voice and the ease of his presentation, there are echoes of Johnny Cash buried in Downing’s grit and burnished delivery. He also exudes a warmth and comfort as if to say it will all be okay as he says in “Deep Breath” – “Take a deep breath. It’s gonna be alright.”  Downing carries an undaunted, reassuring demeanor. The overall vibe adds up to an iced tea or beer on the porch on a lazy, pleasant afternoon.

Downing hails from Missouri but if one was unaware of that, they might guess Oklahoma as many of these songs have a similar easy irresistible shuffle, we’ve long associated with J.J. Cale and the Tulsa sound. Like that, this one is informed by blues, country, and early R&B. There’s a clear Johnny Cash Sun Records echo to the love song “Coleman Rose,” especially in the line “It burns like a wildfire.” The gentle stomp of “Good to See Ya” epitomizes his don’t worry-be happy approach. The waltzing “Looking Forward” could be an anthem for emerging from the pandemic, with the chorus – “It’s a great big world/Spinning in blue/Everybody needs something/To look forward to.” Those plainspoken lyrics are emblematic of the album – almost a John Prine-like simplicity that when married to the rootsy, sturdy, substantive instrumentation, proves infectious. 

The title track speaks to Downing’s avid passion for collecting records, primarily 45 rpm singles. In fact, that’s the genesis of this project. Downing and Tourville decided it would be fun to make a single.  Songs kept coming, though the two were collaborating remotely. They brought Tokic in to complete the circle, considering arrangements and production ideas to flesh out the songs, with Downing in Missouri, Tourville, in North Carolina, and Tokic in Tennessee during the lockdown until they were able to record at Tokic’s Bomb Shelter Studios.

The second half picks up in tempo with steady rock n’ roll infusing “Never Coming Home” and a pulsating rhythm that belies the sarcastic commentary of the boredom of being trapped in a small town.  Then the tone downshifts dramatically to an ethereal melancholy plea of “Won’t somebody play/The kinda song I wanna hear.” The blend of Peter Keys’ vibraphone and Tourville’s electric guitars here creates one of the album’s best soundscapes. “Doing It Wrong” is an exquisitely slow waltz just chock full of stock phrases such as “Don’t quit your day job” and “Don’t try to tell me it will all work out” but it never becomes maudlin as Downing sings as if he’s been-there-and-done-that multiple times. “Crazy” is a nod to letting go, imbued by a wealth of instrumentation ranging from fiddle to Moog and a host of background vocalists. “Right There with You’” closes with sweet Southern country soul, the essence of Downing’s reassuring disposition. 

<P>The album plays simply in terms of rhythms and chord structures but there’s a potpourri of instruments carried off remarkably subtly in most of these songs as Tourville often plays two or three-stringed instruments, surrounded by some first-call musicians. They are electric bassist Jack Lawrence (The Raconteurs, Greenhornes), standup bassist Dennis Crouch (Johnny Cash Dolly Parton, The Time Jumpers), Peter Keys (P-Funk and Lynyrd Skynyrd) on mellotron and vibraphone, Meg Coleman (Yola) and Jimmy Lester (Los Straightjackets) on drums, Jeff Taylor (George strait, The Time Jumpers) on keyboards, Derry Deborja (Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit) on Farfisa, and several background vocalists, most notably Kyshona Armstrong.

<P>Undoubtedly, you’ll be lured in by this project that will have you wondering how it could feel so comforting and familiar on one level and completely refreshing on another.

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