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Published: 2012/04/04
by Brian Robbins

Neal Casal
Sweeten The Distance

The Royal Potato Family

How about we all agree to discontinue the use of the phrase “former guitarist for Ryan Adams” when it comes to describing Neal Casal? I know, I know: it makes for a great reference point, but an album like Casal’s new Sweeten The Distance stands on its own two legs all by itself, thank you very much.

Casal establishes the strength of his solo album right off the bat with the title track leading the way – a sweet little thing of a melody over top of much heavier thumpwump underpinnings. His lyrics and vocal delivery are hopeful; the added harmonies of Hannah Cohen on the choruses shine some added light on the situation. As talented a picker as Casal is, there are no extended guitar heroics on “Sweeten The Distance” (nor any to be found on the rest of the album); for most of the tune, a lovely acoustic guitar walks hand-in-hand down a dirt road with some shimmering organ. With about a minute to go, there’s a pause, a little bit of tension as if things were being reconsidered, then a deep breath and a gentle wash of sound to take things home. Nice.

Not to say that there isn’t some cool guitar work to be found on Casal’s album; it’s all over the thing – just not in your face, that’s all. There’s gorgeous acoustic fingerpicking underneath Jon Grabhoff’s tasty pedal steel on “Need Shelter” (Casal weaves in some nice electric six-string in the final moments). There’s a little indie crunch and churn on “How Quiet It Got” and “Let It All Begin”. Heck, “Time and Trouble” even manages to blend some Small Faces-flavored pop bounce with a bit of psych twang in a most pleasing manner.

There are moments when Casal’s work puts you in mind of Roger McGuinn. “White Fence Round House” hints at what McGuinn, Clark & Hillman might’ve been if just left to be back in 1979; “Bird With No Name” has a bit of modal Byrd swirl.

Much credit goes to Thom Monahan for the triple-hatted production, engineering, and mixing work on Sweeten The Distance. The album’s sound has nice dimension to it, allowing for some fairly deep layers of sound that never come across as cluttered. In the end, what you have here are 11 damn good tunes – the work of a right now talented musician and not a former anybody.

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