Discoveries like this don’t happen often. There’s plenty of great weird bands with limited cults we do our best to recruit for, but as far as superstars go, we usually show up late to the party. Still skeptical and scoffing at the hype. But every once in awhile, something indisputably special wanders into our yard and stops us dead in our tracks. Some big news. Not since Reignwolf has an artist impressed us like Detroit’s Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas.
A couple EPs & maxi-singles barely held me over for Jessica’s debut full-length Secret Evil, out this week via the indie Instant Records. I had been fiending for it since putting Jessica on our SXSW showcase this year, after being floored by the only blind pitch out of hundreds to result in a placement on our bill. Her live performances there and recently here in LA have only reinforced my conviction that this girl is the real deal.
Comparisons to Amy Winehouse were inevitable, though it’s a thin judgment beyond some contralto vocals and a Motown influence that feels far more genuine and unique, and not to mention comes from Motown. As great as Amy’s singles were, her few albums were far from consistent overall, and not to take away from the beauty of her voice, but it’s hard to argue that her genius extended farther than the ability to channel other troubled spirits. In contrast, Jessica has a considerably wider vocal range, and a perfect batting record when it comes to writing great songs.
Cry Cry Cry and album closer Lovers First are heartfelt lullabies that are beautiful in context, though they’re exceptions to the accomplishment of an LP full of potential hits, friendly enough to get on the radio, and bold enough to stand out. Sorry I Stole Your Man is begging to break out into the mainstream by anchoring some Cameron Diaz rom-com or some shit, but its lyrics are cocky and witty well beyond the quick zing of the bumper sticker title: Oh you’re pretty like a devil’s hound / Sweet like a lemon tree / But you ain’t enough of what you need to be…
There’s only one “recycled” song on Secret Evil (namely, Caught Up from the Demons EP); The rest are previously unreleased, though originally recorded in late 2012. The band has been playing several of these live, and their evolution through the band’s shows brings the only complaint worth making. It’s not the worst problem for an album to have by any means, but some of the best songs on Secret Evil sound only almost as good as they do when the band is playing them in front of you.
Dead Brains, my personal favorite, is one in particular that the band agonized themselves to properly capture in the studio, and I don’t know how they could have done better, all things considered; The album version still reaches into your soul and pets it like a dog. So I suppose it’s more of a credit for the band than an issue with the album to note that the band happened to record an even more touching version in one take, cramped into a car driving around Detroit.
That said, what you always hope for but rarely get, when you first play the debut album for an artist you already love, is a few surprises. There are the good songs you already know and hope have been faithfully recorded, and then there are the wildcards, that all too often wind up being filler. It’s especially rare that the best songs are the ones you didn’t even know about, but Tired Oak is perhaps objectively the best song on Secret Evil, one of Jessica’s most mature compositions to date. It proves that she has already found the perfect balances between Detroit garage rock, Motown soul, and that gypsy/carnie quirkiness which, while being part of her unique charm, was occasionally wobbling on a tightrope between inspired and gimmicky on the Demons EP.
I keep going on and on about all of these rare things that Jessica is and that Secret Evil is, and I could easily continue to do that. It’s surprising enough that a debut album earns such high marks. It’s no criticism of Milo Froideval’s production to note that the worst thing that can be said of these recordings, the only issue, is that they only do an exceptional live band justice most of the time. But artists like Jessica Hernandez are the reason we keep clicking the links that come in, why we’re still out here in this polluted river of audio streams with our gold pans out. Every once in awhile, something priceless comes along.
Secret Evil is out now, so you can find it on iTunes and Spotify, or direct from Jessica’s official site at jessicahernandez.net. You’ll find a lot of tour dates there as well, and if you dig the album, you’re not going to want to miss her when she rolls through your ‘hood.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.