Somehow, I'm not on the mailing list of a certain "underground" speakeasy on the west side of town — how'd that happen? — so, sadly, I didn't hear that Delta 88 was playing there on a lovely May night until the show was almost over. But I've made do with a preview copy of Delta 88's new CD that proves that this band — not heard from much in recent years, at least around here — is making music that is true to the serene, sweeping-yet-intimate Americana sensibility that made it so popular a few years back but that also goes in new directions. I'm glad Danny Kline is writing songs.

Delta 88 got rolling in 1998 when Kline started jamming with guitarist Alex Anest and bassist John Sperendi down in Bowling Green, Ohio. Something clicked — a soft, brooding, singularly Delta 88 click — and the three started playing out, delivering Kline's spare, sad, fascinating songs in arrangements that stood proudly apart from the usual thrashing antics of young men in bands. When I saw them in Ypsilanti several years after that, they were playing to a packed house that paid close attention to every word. In December 2001, when Ann Arbor musicians banded together at the Ark to raise money for local peace initiatives, the band played a powerful, impeccably paced version of Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" that just about knocked the place down. A compilation record came out of that night; I have it and always jump ahead to that track. It's a stunner.

Kline's own songs are the landscapes, inner and outer, that have sped or crawled past his very watchful eyes. Moonlit nights, bald tires, rivers, love, and hopelessness are the America he tells us about in a softer-than-soft voice that often just whispers away to silence. You wouldn't go to a Delta 88 show expecting to get rowdy or participate in any sort of sing-along — and the new material suggests that the band is still mining its distinctive vein of compelling, atmospheric restraint.

In the opening track, "Ones and Zeros," Kline sings:

I'm waiting on a letter in a town without a name
Washing in a river but I never come clean
Living on a dollar, hoping something will remain
If only for a day

The band's new material — often set just to simple guitar or piano tracks — shows off Kline's melodic richness and curiosity. There are many moments of startling and poetic lyricism, and Kline gives it all to you almost reluctantly, drawing out the words, almost daring you to hear what he's saying. By the time a rocker, "P.S.," comes on — and it's the eighth track — you realize how hard you've been listening, almost holding your breath. Suddenly, exuberance . . . and you can't help but take a real deep breath and thank God once again for rock 'n' roll.

Delta 88 is at the Ark on Thursday, June 7.

[Review published June 2007]