Last updated on November 20, 2020
Van Darien’s Levee is a reminder of the roots of country music. Not Nashville, but deeper, into the grit and dust, whose emotions create an ache that resonates through each note. For me, it’s a clear reminder of the Chicago Tribune’s 1998 article from staff writer Dahleen Glanton, which reminds us that this genre was born in the blues, wrapped with folk. Darien’s move to Nashville may have put her in the lap of country music, but the soulful Texas blues of Levee make this songwriter shine.
Did the isolation of her youth growing up west of Fort Worth in Weatherford, Texas, contribute to the folk-rock edge of her haunting, Stevie Nicks vocal quality? Her deep alto vocals, recorded mixed simply at Nashville’s Glass Onion Studio by producers Steven Cooper and JD Tiner, keeps everything simple, like sunsets across the vast Texas horizon.
After opener “Ponderosa,” the percussive force of “Gone” maintains a rock edge reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt. Guitars may overpower the vocals in the mix here, but in the end, what resonates is the sweet spots of Van Darien’s vocals woven through like leather and lace. Title track “Levee” bleeds strong yet feminine perseverance; authentic emotions soar with connections roaring like a river through the soul. This vulnerable yet strong sound defines the album.
“American Steel” serves as a metaphor for the current situation: adapting to a new normal economically, socially, and culturally. The lyrics, stunning mix and masterful musicality create a folk Americana gold in its blend of instruments each working in harmony. Pure magic! Haunting that moment with the blues-rocker “Twisted Metal” is a bit of sequencing genius. Lulled into a state, grinding like Marcus King was nearby, this cut’s gritty vocals are priceless strut, Texas-style. “Low Road” rests in that New Orleans / East Texas blues space quite comfortably. Bringing piano up into the forefront, sultry jazz club stylings emerge from this multi-talented vocalist.
Heading out of the album, “Insanity” may be the only song that feels like a contemporary Nashville power-pop country compromise; a song where vocals could have literally gone crazy but don’t. Darien makes up for lost opportunities with “Cardboard Boxes” and shows the power of her voice when given free rein to breathe emotions out with each note. Rising and falling like each step into a new future, it’s easy to fall into that place where we have all been: walking into a new moment warmed by the memories of the past. “The Sparrow & The Sea” plays on the imagery of the two apart, a beautiful love story in duet.
Van Darien’s Levee lands in ta sweet spot formerly inhabited only by the likes great rock vocalists like Stevie Nicks: right between rock, blues rock, folk-rock and Americana. Some might say that’s country, but I think it reaches older and farther back to the core elements that make country what it is. —Lisa Whealy