[3 August 2005]
It seems hard to believe that Neal Casal is already seven albums into his career. What’s harder still, though, is the fact that so many people have just had the question “Who the hell is Neal Casal?” pop into their heads. Well, for the record, Casal is a very competent and capable singer-songwriter who may always be under the radar of media and labels. But if you’re lucky enough to come across one of his albums, you would be wise to pick it up and enjoy the fine alt.country tunes at times, the barren folksy nuggets he can come up with, and the occasional pop gem. However, what he has done is present these songs as if they were his own. In fact, they are his greatest influences, be it Johnny Thunders, Royal Trux, Doug Sahm, or Gene Clark. Leading things off is the tender, alt.country, pedal steel-tinted “Debris”, originally done by the Faces. Casal, with some help from Eric Heywood, breaks things down into a reflective, small-town, get me out of here vibe that is something you would expect deeper into the album. Still gorgeous in the vein of the Replacements “Here Comes a Regular” but a bit of a surprise so early, that’s all.
What isn’t surprising is how well these tracks come off, although at times Casal is a bit too fancy or highbrow for his own good. The violin and strings lacing “With Tomorrow” are almost too rich for an intro, but he is able to stay true to the tune with a somber and tender vocal performance that is somewhat lullaby-esque. His version of “Too Late”, which was done by the Consoles, has that slow ballad, swaying flavor consisting of Casal’s pipes and him most likely sitting down on a stool and strumming when not picking his guitar, repeating the word “suffered” again and again early on. Done in perhaps one take, Casal captures the tune quickly and effectively. However, it’s the cover of Doug Sahm’s ditty “Be Real” which really sees Casal come out of his shell and nail the tune with a slow, wistful, classic country style. “That’s all I ask of you baby, be real”, he sings.
“It’s Not Enough”, known as a Johnny Thunders song, is reworked into a piano-driven song that has Casal at the top of his game without his guitar nearby. The singer-songwriter aura shines through on this effort as Casal seems content to belt out some lines while playing others close to the vest, especially the line “just lay my cards down”. The conclusion exceeds the earlier moments without going over the top or being too melancholic. From there, Casal ventures into Springsteen’s Nebraska territory on “Miss Direction”, with the slight audible hiss that comes only from a barren recording studio or homemade demo. Close and enthralling, Casal’s simple playing of the melody invites the listener in immediately and never lets him or her go until it’s over. And even then he or she will probably be hitting replay or repeat.
If there’s one song that doesn’t live up to the others, it is probably “It Won’t Hurt”, which Casal seems to give the same treatment as “Debris”—with less than successful results. Heywood gives great accents to the song, but it just doesn’t pack the same oomph or punch that the opening number seemed to have. Another one which seems to hit a wall is “The Portland Water”, as Casal here offers a rather high quality yet run-of-the-mill performance. His version of Royal Trux’s “Yellow Kid” corrects the path of the album quickly by keeping it simple and working his strengths perfectly. Casal will write more songs for future albums, but it’s a nice change of pace to cover some of his influences.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/casalneal-return/