When I picked the Delta Routine’s “More About You” as one of the ten best records of last year, I worried that I also might be penning a premature obituary for one of my favorite bands. How in the hell were they going to replace co-writer and lead guitarist Kevin Topel, one of the most exciting virtuosos in Milwaukee rock, whose lusty, palpitating riffs played the part of the curvy temptress driving singer-songwriter Nick Amadeus through a boom-bust cycle of sweaty desire and lonely heartbreak? What’s Mick without Keith? Bono without the Edge? Thom without the Greenwoods? Amadeus without Topel?
The title track off new record “Cigarettes and Caffeine Nightmares” is the kind of song I worried the Delta Routine might not be able to pull off any more, and happily, I was wrong: it bop-bops to life with what I take for a sing-a-long wink of serial infidelity, then shuffles itself into a funky, stuttering groove, and finally busts out of its self-destructive lovers’ rut with a classic Delta Routine rush of drums and guitars careening after each other. Yes, like its predecessor, “Cigarettes and Caffeine Nightmares” is a break-up record, although it sounds like the irresistible women torturing Amadeus’s every waking songwriterly moment have more to do with that than the lineup change -- Topel makes a couple cameos and by all accounts departed amicably to focus on his work in the Ragadors. And while I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a few extra measures crying out for one of Topel’s frantic gallops up and down the frets, I also can’t say I listened to “Waste Your Time,” “Rachael St. Joe” or “Around Your Neck” and thought they were anything but top shelf Delta Routine blues pop, with Amadeus’ whiskey-throated hound still getting his vulnerable romantic into trouble, and the music navigating the wobbly territory in between.
Instead, to the band’s credit, what makes “Cigarettes” stand out from previous Delta Routine records isn’t who’s missing so much as what’s new: “Switchblade” throbbing with the violent menace of Evan Paydon’s bass line and Kyle Ciske’s drums; Al Kraemer’s keys prancing around “Don’t Wanna Let You Down”; Kraemer’s organ and Peter Thomas’ cello adding Jon Brion pomp to Amadeus’ lonely stroll down “New York Avenue”; Amadeus’ bare vocals on “I Wait Alone,” his bandmates stepping in one-by-one to lift him up.
Call it necessity, call it reinvention, call it evolution -- the hows and whys fade from thought when you’re hearing hooks this good, experiments this surprising, and a singer this addicted to pleasures and wary of the pains. Which is to say that “Cigarettes and Caffeine Nightmares” is, to my relief, a real, honest to God Delta Routine record.