The Graham Weekly Album Review #1013
Neal Casal: FADE AWAY DIAMOND TIME -- by George Graham
(Zoo Records 11110 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/17/96)
It seems that anymore, the quality I have come to respect most in pop music, beyond of course artistic and musical ability, is honesty and lack of pretense. This can take the form of being iconoclastic or downright quirky -- so long as it's not a put-on, or doing music that draws on the most familiar influences that have been mined by thousands of artists before. It's not hard to tell if someone is making music that he or she has a great love for, or just trying to hop on the stylistic bandwagon and be trendy. And unfortunately, the vast majority of mainstream commercial pop music exemplifies the latter -- artists who may have had some originality and passion, but who by the time get put out a record, lose it in a fit of stylistic imitation that fails to ring true, either from the performance, or most often due to a record production process aimed at the mass market.
Fortunately, we seem to be in a period, however brief, that has made it possible for relatively unpretentious music to have a shot at commercial success. Hootie and the Blowfish, and Del Amitri who scored a surprise hit after 10 years of recording, have made large record labels a little more open to music that is not processed to the point of lacking any artistic integrity.
This week's album is one of those enjoyable recordings that seems to have been made possible by the current opportunities for honest, unassuming music, or what has come to be called "roots rock" or "Americana." It's by singer-songwriter Neal Casal, a recording entitled Fade Away Diamond Time.
Casal is one of those performers who covers familiar ground, but does it in such a way that he makes it sound fresh. In fact, as a relatively young performer Casal influences go 'way back, to the late Sixties and early Seventies. But instead of sounding intentionally or artificially "retro," this sort of thing seems perfectly natural with Casal. He does love songs reminiscent of Jackson Browne, with a casual high tenor vocal and an intimate-sounding little electric band to back him up. The sound hints at the Band with Bob Dylan. Also prominent on the album is a pedal steel guitar, giving the music a hint of country influence, but again more like Jackson Browne and early Linda Ronstadt than Nashville in the Nineties. And further echoing the Woodstock days is Casal's Dylanesque harmonica.
There's a bit of a personnel connection to the early '70s LA country-rock scene through the presence of bassist Bob Glaub, who had played with Ronstadt on a couple of albums. Otherwise the band includes Casal on the electric and acoustic guitars, John Ginty on piano or organ -- no synthesizers, Don Heffington on the drums, and a pedal steel player named Fooch Fischetti.
Casal's easy-going songs sound as if they could have been written anytime in the past quarter-century -- the style is simple, direct and completely ignores 90s pop music trends. Most of the time, the topic is personal relationships. Casal's lyrical style is usually vague and poetic in the 60s tradition. Another factor really contributing to this album's appeal is the production by Jim Scott. The photos in the CD booklet show the recording taking place in a house in Santa Ynez, California, and the relaxed feel comes across in the recording. Another really nice aspect of Fade Away Diamond Time is the sonic treatment. Scott used virtually no reverb or other electronic effects, so the recording sounds very intimate. Casal has an appealing voice that doesn't need effects, and recording him that way further underscores the album's musical honesty.
Fade Away Diamond Time leads off with one of its better songs, Day in the Sun, a piece whose lyrics are meant to cheer up someone who is downhearted. The instrumental backing has a really timeless quality that could easily have come from anytime since the 1960s. <<>>
Bringing in some of the countryish steel guitar is the following track Maybe California, another of those classic-sounding songs Casal writes. Here, the lyrics are more bittersweet. <<>>
Another highlight of the album is the somewhat folkier-sounding piece called Bird in Hand. Casal's lyrics are especially well-written. <<>>
As mentioned, almost album's lyrics deal with relationships of one sort or another. Naturally, one would expect a song or two about the end of an affair. The longest track on the CD addresses the topic directly. The song is called Free to Go, and musically I am reminded of early Neil Young. <<>>
Casal shows a bit of his Dylan influence on Cincinnati Motel, lyrically and down to a little harmonica here and there. <<>>
One of the more interesting sets of lyrics on the CD comes on Open Ground, a vignette about two people whose lives may or may not be intertwined. <<>>
There is one non-original song on the CD, Detroit or Buffalo was written by Barbara Keith, but it fits in with the rest of the tunes perfectly. <<>>
The album ends with a melancholy country-influenced waltz called Sunday River, featuring good wordcraft, and a particularly engaging vocal performance by Casal.
Neal Casal's new album Fade Away Diamond Time is a record that features almost no ingredients that haven't been used many times before. But the album's charm is in its execution. Casal draws on tried-and-true influences and sounds that have kept singer-songwriters engaged since the 1960s, and adopts them in a style that somehow does not come off as sounding intentionally nostalgic. Instead, the album has a thoroughly honest and unpretentious quality from its literate lyrics, to Casal's laid-back vocals, to the timeless-sounding instrumentation, that all comes off as completely natural and sincere.
Sonically, the album is also a real gem. Its almost complete lack of electronic effects further gives it a warm, intimate sound that enhances Casal's easy-going musical persona. Producer Jim Scott deserves a lot of praise for his sonic restraint.
Fade Away Diamond Time is the kind of record whose music Baby Boomers will swear they have heard before somewhere in the distant past, but at the same time, the album is very much the work of a younger performer in the 1990s. About the only complaint I might have is with the musical similarity among some of the songs, but taken as a whole, the album is the sonic equivalent of a favorite old pair of slippers that turn out to be brand new.
This is George Graham.
(c) Copyright 1996 George D. Graham
The Graham Weekly Album Review #1068.5 Neal Casal: Rain, Wind and Speed -- by George Graham
(Buy or Die Records 9601 Special to this Web Site 5/31/97)
Much like many things in life, music has a tendency to be cyclical. What goes around comes around, as the cliché goes. While the alternative rock scene has sharpened the edges of pop music and diverted the focus away from lyrical content, the 1990s have also seen a renaissance of the folk-influenced singer-songwriter. Occasionally someone like Tracy Chapman will take to the charts, but most of today's singer-songwriters tend to operate out the commercial pop limelight, making their music to relatively small but appreciative audiences. Once in a while, a major label will sign a promising "folkie," but when platinum record sales fail to materialize quickly, such artists are likely to be cut from the roster and cast adrift, so to speak. Sometimes, the relationship can last for a few albums, such as the recent case of David Wilcox, a fine singer-songwriter with several albums on A&M, now plying the independent route. Sometimes, a promising artist is given the old heave-ho not long after a debut release.
Such is the case with Neal Casal, a fine New-Jersey-based singer-songwriter in his mid-20s, who epitomizes being chewed up and spit out by the media-conglomerate behemoth. In late 1995, the Zoo division of RCA/BMG released Casal's debut Fade Away Diamond Time, an absolute gem (forgive the pun) of an album that featured Casal's sometimes ruminating, alternately melancholy and optimistic lyrics in a delightfully tasteful small-group setting that had an uncannily timeless quality. It was music that could easily have come from a time before the artist was born, recalling the electric folk-rock of Dylan, Crosby, Stills & Nash, early Jackson Browne, Tim Hardin, early Jerry Jeff Walker, Tom Rush, etc.
Then while in the midst of a cross-country tour in support of the record, Casal got a call announcing the termination of his recording deal, pulling the plug on his tour support. Other harrowing experiences were to follow (noted in his "luxury liner notes" to his current release) that might have led one to hang it up, but Casal, "a bit dazed but still restless and smiling" as he puts it, persisted, not losing sight of why one makes music in the first place -- art, not business.
Pursuing the independent route, Casal returned to California to record more songs with the fine band that played on Fade Away Diamond Time, but then decided to reduce the songs to their purest form, and worked in a studio near home for just five days, joined by some musical friends and neighbors, to create the largely-solo, acoustic Rain, Wind and Speed. The result is another auditory delight, showing that very good songs, performed by a very good artist will come across regardless of the setting. Once again, Casal has created music that sounds as if it could have come from any time in the last 25 to 30 years.
Released in the summer of 1996, Rain, Wind and Speed features an acoustic setting providing us with a reminder of Casal's allegiance to the "old values" of the folk scene: thoughtful, poetic, often vague lyrics with some "killer" lines and turns of phrase, along the kind of acoustic guitar lines that would make a Sixties folkie proud, topped off with hummable melody lines. Casal delivers his songs in a high, airy, but surprisingly soulful tenor, while he fingerpicks on his old Gibson guitar (bought for a song as a basket-case and lovingly rebuilt). He is joined by the low-keyed support of keyboardist John Ginty (who was part of Fade Away Diamond Time) subtly churning away on a Hammond organ. The backing also includes a touch of steel guitar, mandolin and banjo here and there. Casal also does one song at the piano.
As on his previous album, Casal's warm, engaging style can sometimes contrast with lyrics that often run toward the melancholy or bittersweet. Parting is often a theme, such as on the beautiful Virginia Dare, and Annabelle with Andy Goessling's banjo adding a distant echo of some old sad traditional country song.
Often Casal runs toward the metaphorical or impressionistic in his lyrics creating songs may at first hearing seem opaque, but like the work of the best such songwriters, the songs can find themselves lending to situations that hit close to home for many different listeners. Hands on the Plow -- epitomizing the easy-going guitar-organ-Dylanesque-harmonica sound of this record -- from which I (possibly incorrectly) infer impressions on the passage of time, and Best to Believe -- done solo -- are the stuff of which academic treatises could be written by Casalologists of the future. (The closest thing Casal had to a hit, Maybe California from Fade Away Diamond Time contains an interesting reference to Best to Believe.) A particular favorite of mine is All The Luck in the World, another strikingly pretty song contrasting with a sad lyrical mood.
The album ends with its little masterpiece. I Will Weep No More started out as a poem by Casal's friend Robbi Robb, which the performer set to music and added a couple of extra verses. One can almost hear the lyrical style change when Casal's lyrics come in, while the song's title and refrain leave one with a positive note.
(One outstanding song not included in this CD, that I had the chance to hear Casal perform live, is Fell on Hard Times, an undoubtedly autobiographically-inspired piece, some of whose lines are woven into Casal's liner notes. It's all the more reason to see him live.)
Sonically, Rain, Wind and Speed is as intimate as its musical setting. The acoustic guitar is bright and clean, the added instrumentation is mixed subtly and tastefully, and Casal's vocals, though somewhat compressed, are unencumbered by any needless effects that would interfere with his appealing style. The album could have been mastered with a bit less overall compression, as well.
Some, who became fans of Casal (and might have thought he was a long-lost veteran folkie from the 1960s), might initially be taken by the stark, stripped-down sound of Rain, Wind and Speed. But an additional listen or two shows how effectively this album frames his songs -- which he intended -- and allows one to focus even more on his exemplary songwriting. It represents another facet of a performer from whom I hope we hear much more in the future, despite his travails with the music-industrial complex. Rain,Wind and Speed may be harder to find, with its independent release -- like many independent artists Casal also sells his CDs on the gig -- but it is worth searching out.
Writer's note: Most of the reviews on my Web site are taken from my radio album review series, which deals with CDs within a week or two or their release. This recording, released in mid-1996 did not come to my attention until early 1997, too late to qualify for a radio review feature. Having picked Fade Away Diamond Time as one of the "Graham Award" best debut releases of 1995, I wanted to share with my Web Surfing friends my enthusiasm for this artist, whom I have since had the pleasure of inviting to appear on the WVIA's Homegrown Music series.
(c) Copyright 1997 George D. Graham
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