My wife used to work at a popular Mexican restaurant for a highly principled and expressive owner/chef. The running joke among co-workers was that during the high-volume lunch rush, the only answers to any question that wouldn’t incur his wrath were “Yes, no, chicken, or beef.” It’s been years, but I chuckled at that memory while listening to Walter Salas-Humara’s latest album Curve and Shake. During “Uncomplicated”, he sings, “chicken or beef?” I don’t expect this anecdote to be particularly humorous to anyone reading this, but choose it to open this review because that’s the kind of songwriter Salas-Humara has been for going on 30 years now. He has a knack for capturing those little details of life that resonate in common among his listeners.
Over the course of 12 albums with his band the Silos and three solo albums, including this latest, Salas-Humara has perfected his art of crafting songs from wryly observed small details, those quirks that add the depth to ourselves and our interactions. Way back on the Silos song “Margaret”, the simple observation of different bedtimes but shared time waking amplified the depth of connection between the lovers without need for further embellishment. Oftentimes among the 11 tracks on this album pulls off the same trick.
The stunning title song tells the tale of a sudden love affair at a 30-year high school reunion without need to state the obvious, offering instead the spark of a first look after long absence and conversation that “steals sleep from the night”. There’s joy, fear, and hope all wrapped up in the fragments of narrative that Salas-Humara weaves for listeners, and strength of resolve in the repeated declaration of “I’m taking this gift, I’m taking this gamble.” It’s an impressionistic yet beautifully complete mini-story of a song.
Questions of communication tie several of the album’s songs. “Two Inches Two Hours” examines the uncertainty in expressing one’s feelings, the simultaneous fear of action and rejection: “I just called to say / I’m two inches away / from not even making this call.” “Satellite”, too, ponders how something so basic can be so complicated. Salas-Humara uses a gigging metaphor to make his point, singing, “I brought the wrong guitar / And I don’t know how I messed that up.” In affairs of the heart, no matter how well prepared or experienced one is, something is bound to go wrong, and it is usually self-inflicted. But it all comes back to hope, and taking a chance, in the end. In “Hoping for a Comeback”, he declares, “I’m going to get arrested in this town again / I’m going to have a chance to be your friend.”
Another strong song, and less usual among his general subjects, “What Can We Bring” addresses the growing equity gap in America, focusing on our treatment of poor children in particular. Drawing attention to an Arizona schoolhouse, Salas-Humara calls us out on our collective hypocrisies, our “no child left behind” platitudes, and our “no new taxes” selfishness. “Either they are one or they are nothing,” he sings, “Either they are us or we are them.” Salas-Humara is rarely so direct, singing “We don’t ever seem to care / We don’t ever seem to share a thing,” but even here, his final plea is framed as a question: “Can’t we ever sacrifice the things we know / To see what we can bring?”
The song is also unusual in featuring a couple of extended guitar solos, almost a guitar battle, something Salas-Humara has usually avoided in his straightforward simplicity. But, he is well accompanied on the album and makes effective use of his partners. Jerry Joseph & the Jackmormons provide the backing on “What Can We Bring” and also on “The Craziest Feeling” while the band Groove Session backs him up on “Satellite” and “Uncomplicated.” Other players include Marius Libman, Ryan Williams, Sarven Manguiat, and Walter’s nephew Charlie Salas-Humara.
Like so much of Walter Salas-Humara’s previous work, Curve and Shake takes its time to make its deepest impressions. When those impressions are made, they become fully formed and lasting within the listener.