“Contemplating peace can be exhausting,” sings Janet Simpson in the opening lines of “Be Sweet” by Delicate Cutters. The four-piece rock group ruminates on the bitter/sweet bits of life- the moments that demand some real reflection to understand. Dire, not dreary, serious, but not too cerebral, Delicate Cutters can tap into a sense of vulnerability and stab straight for the raw emotions.
Janet Simpson fronts the group, handling songwriting duties as well as vocals, guitar, and keys. The rhythm is provided by Chance Shirley on drums and Brian Moon on bass. The three have a healthy rock and roll cohesion in their playing, with influences from their Southern surroundings. Traditional Irish fiddler Kevin Nicholson adds a folk-spirit to the mix, and can provide a very ghostly quality to the more melancholy melodies.
The band formed in 2002 following one of Simpson’s gigs. “I’d just played a solo set at the late, great Barnstormer’s Pizza in Montevallo, and Chance suggested maybe it was time for me to have a backing band” she says. “It wasn’t a project I ever envisioned would last for eleven years (and counting) and three full-length albums, but everyone keeps showing up!” Nicholson joined the following year. The name, with its own series of implications, is in part a nod to Simpson’s favorite band, Throwing Muses.
From the start, Delicate Cutters have been defined by a moody, overcast tone. Simpson’s songwriting dwells on contemplative subjects like memories of childhood, relationships, life, and death. The music that compliments these thoughts is dark and slow, often sorrowful, sometimes hopeful, and always capable of stirring the right emotion to receive their words.
The band’s latest album, 2012’s Ring, features some of the deepest cuts of Simpson’s storytelling, drawing from an attitude of vulnerability. “Warm Day in April” comes out from a difficult past. “I’d been waiting at a friend’s house for a break in this series of tornadoes, which had been spinning through Alabama and Georgia for a full twenty-four hours by this point, but didn’t quite wait long enough,” she says. Her story tells of a stormy event in 1998, her voice floating through the scene and recounting moments with a dreamlike detachment. Everything about the song, from the progressing of the story to the percussive click carries an air of inevitability. When the violin returns nearly four minutes in, it emerges like a siren wail.
Delicate Cutters are wise in their use of open space, sometimes choosing to leave a little breathing room within their music. That’s room to think and let the instruments resonate into the ether. The final track on Ring, “Resurrection Fern,” drifts in on subtle guitar and a phantasmal electric echo. This sparing instrumentation serves to focus attention on Simpson’s questioning lyrics.
It’s not the band’s intention to leave you feeling gloomy, though. Their clouds do have silver linings. Tracks like “Tilt-A-Whirl” employ a faster tempo and punchier chords to stay on the band’s lighter side. “Whenever U R Broken” stands out as one of Ring’s more upbeat numbers with a simple but infectious refrain. “You Want Her” is about as chipper as Ring can get, with hi hat, spritely violin, and clapping in the back. “We Are Not Lovers,” the title track from the band’s first album, keeps the mood light even as the words protest any notion of a romantic relationship.
Each of the band members is also involved elsewhere in the local music scene. Simpson co-fronts Teen Getaway and contributes keys, bass, and voice to Wooden Wand’s recording and tour efforts. Shirley plays double duty with The Exhibits and The Maisleys. He’s also a filmmaker, handling several Delicate Cutters videos and a few big-time projects. Moon plays in The Maisleys as well, and is an accomplished composer. He is an active member of the Birmingham Art Music Alliance. Nicholson lends his lifetime-honed talents to various other bands like Vulcan Eejits and Jasper Coal.
Delicate Cutters operate on the Skybucket label, who now releases the previous DC records as well as Ring. While their first two albums were home studio productions, Ring was recorded at Ole Elegante with Skybucket musician Les Nuby. They are currently planning a new EP featuring previously unreleased tunes and “outtakes” from past records. Stay tuned to see their progress and find out what the members are up to. “All of us have so many exciting projects individually,” says Simpson, “so I’d be on the lookout for what’s happening there as well.”
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Title image (color) by Arik Sokol.
Feature image (B&W) by Jonathan Purvis.