Neal Casal

Sweeten the Distance

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"Sweet" is the operative word on singer/songwriter Neal Casal's tenth studio set. It is not only used in the title and title track, but describes his lovely tenor voice, which drives this and his previous material. Don't mistake sweet for sugary, though, as these songs reverberate with a vibrant, determined, soulful feel that floats and occasionally stings. Even Casal's ex-employer Ryan Adams can't come up with tunes this impressive. The music crafts great hooks, sharp words, and ringing, often Byrds-like riffs such as those in the shimmering "The Gyrls of Wynter," with Casal's honeyed yet sturdy voice yielding songs that are tuneful, timeless, and easily cross-pollinate folk, pop, country, and rock without a hint of pretension. Some credit goes to producer/mixer/engineer Thom Monahan who juggles and layers the instruments, providing a very Buffalo Springfield-styled combination that shifts tone and mood, but stays rooted in the Americana that Casal has always reveled in. Songs such as "White Fence Round House" belie their somewhat clunky titles to reveal a sumptuous, laid-back but never bland beauty that increases and heightens on repeated plays. The thumping drums of "How Quiet It Got" bring a subtle swamp stomp to a laid-back boiler of a tune that builds in intensity until the guitars crash in on the rocking chorus. There's a bit of early Eagles in songs like "So Many Enemies" (without the vocal harmonies) and any of these selections would sound great blasting out of a '70s pop/rock radio station. Headphones greatly enhance the experience as the listener can pick out details of the production which, in the case of the beautiful ballad "Feathers of Bakersfield," includes steel guitar and strings. It's unusual when an artist who has recorded for 20 years finally releases what is arguably their finest work, but that's the case here. If anyone deserves to break out of cult status it's Casal, and despite the murky, unrepresentative cover art, this disc can, and should, be the release to finally accomplish that.

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