By: Dennis Cook
One of the more enduring chapters in modern American music is the lovely stretch of recordings that came out of California in the early 1970s, a period that saw the emergence of Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Michael Nesmith, The Eagles, Poco, John David Souther and Chris Darrow, amongst many other greats. This music, without much flash, crept into the DNA of things, resurfacing as an ancestral wind in groups like Wilco, My Morning Jacket, Vetiver and other celebrated contemporaries. While linked to a "Peaceful Easy Feeling," what gives this period such endurance and influence is the display of raw talent, sharply refined songwriting and the rich yet fanfare free production, a thing of abiding warmth and invitation. It doesn't hurt that many songs directly address the heart and its wants & needs. As self-awareness and popular psychology rose to prominence, so too did this music develop an uncanny inward bent. Many have attempted to recreate or borrow from this period but few have nailed it with as much aplomb as Neal Casal, and he's rarely done so with such sustained, organic skill as Roots and Wings (released February 17 on Fargo Records).
While an active musician for two decades – both in his own extensive catalog and as a sideman with many (see our 2003 feature for more background) – Casal has recently achieved some greater recognition in the U.S. as part of The Cardinals with Ryan Adams. While the U.K., Europe and Japan have been onto his many, many charms for ages, perhaps it's this jewel of a song cycle that will finally put his name at the top of a few marquees Stateside. Casal's ninth studio album moves with unrushed confidence, all the life and sessions and endless tour miles filtering into a statement of purpose to rival his 1995 debut, Fade Away Diamond Time - one of that decade's best if lesser known offerings. There's density and flowing dexterity to every aspect here. Each touch, each sonic choice, each turn of phrase is beautifully placed in a way that accentuates the other elements. As popular music devolves into a series of randomly grabbed snippets, single tracks divorced from some larger vision more the norm than the exception. Roots and Wings resolutely refuses such parsing, offering instead a cohesive album in the classic sense, a work that evokes the grand, broad geology of both California and the human interior life. Big stuff sure, but it goes down so easily it never feels like work for the listener. Instead, we are washed and fluffed from the inside out by Casal's thoughtfully rambling ruminations.
Casal is a sensitive soul, and unapologetically so. His ready embrace of feeling immediately sets him apart from the walls and subterfuge of so much modern rock 'n' roll. He shoots straight and lets his emotions hang out, rarely more readily than this set. Yet, he never comes across as mopey or weepy. Such honesty actually requires tremendous strength, and Casal does his SoCal ancestors proud by excavating the bright and dark in us with such resonant acumen. On a tactile level, one feels this aspect most clearly in his voice, a turquoise and silver marvel that's lost nothing over the years and gained a lovely patina that only time and experience can produce.
Beyond all this fluttering around high air, it's worth landing for a second to point out just what a pleasure Roots and Wings is to listen to. Press play and you enter a really, really nice atmosphere. Many of its depths will only open up with time but there's plenty of visceral delights to lure you back in again & again – the bohemian gospel of "Cold & The Darkness," the echoes of "Uncle John's Band" on "Losing End Again," the sinewy roll of "Superhighway," the George Harrison-esque lilt of "Hereby The Sea," the iridescent sparkle of "Chasing Her Ghost" and the abiding intimacy and ache of "Turn For The Worse" being just a few examples. Roots and Wings is the kind of album where one's favorite cut will change from spin to spin, and in this way it rewards and surprises one each listen. In terms of pure, well-executed, heartfelt singer-songwriter fare, Roots and Wings is as good as it gets, another flash of burnished sunshine from one of today's brightest lights.
JamBase | Coastal Travelin'
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