Future musical archaeologists sifting through the detritus of the 1990s are likely to have an easy time fixing a date to what they find. With trends coming and going with revolving-door regularity, a certain kind of sampled sound or a particular synthesizer squawk can pin down the date of a pop record to within weeks.
Neal Casal, however, is likely to confound fossil hunters. Someone unearthing the New Jersey singer-songwriters fourth release The Sun Rises Here, or indeed any of his previous recordings, is likely to label it: circa 1968-2028. The honest, unpretentious songs that inhabit this record might have come from any time in the past 30 years, and will likely stay fresh for another thirty. Casals secret to time-defiance is rather simple in principle, but rare in execution: good, literate, melodic songs with tasteful understated arrangements, sung by one of the most appealingly sincere voices youll likely hear.
Interestingly, it was an early teenage Epiphany that set Casal on his path.
Born on November 2, 1968, Casal has a musical pedigree that goes back to his grandfather, big band drummer and leader Graeme Gardiner. After Casals parents separated when he was three, he led a nomadic childhood in New Jersey, New York, Georgia, California, Michigan, and Florida. For a Christmas gift following his thirteenth birthday, his father gave Neal a guitar. His brothers gift that same day was a copy of the Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street. It was a nexus that precipitated an early career choice. Once I had that guitar and that copy of Exile on Main Street, I knew where my life was going, Casal recalls, and I havent veered from that path ever since.
Casal was fronting his own band by age 17, while working on writing and doing demo tapes. By 1991, his music attracted the attention of publishers, leading to a contract with Warner/Chappell Music. By 1994, he was signed to the BMG-distributed Zoo Records, which the following year released his critically-acclaimed Jim-Scott-produced debut Fade Away Diamond Time. The album arrived just at a time when there was renewed interest in guitar- and song-based Americana, with groups like the Jayhawks. But for Casal, it was just a natural outgrowth of his lifelong style. He may have been a child of the 80s but, All these years down the line, I am still very close to the music that I started out listening to, which was late 60s, early 70s rock & roll. Those influences were the ones that really stayed with me. The Stones he says, led him down stylistic paths to the country-rock of Gram Parsons, the reggae of Peter Tosh, and the blues of Mississippi Fred McDowell.
With such august publications as the Washington Post calling Fade Away Diamond Time one of 1995s best, the future indeed looked bright for Casal. But Zoo Records was in the midst of downsizing, and the team who brought Casal to the label were among those let go. In December 1995, shortly after the release of his album and during the midst of a tour, Casal was one of several Zoo artists whose association with the label came to an end.
After Casal returned home to reassess his recording career, a trip to the West Coast in February 1996 for sessions with Jim Scott and the Fade Away Diamond Time band was arranged, and some songs were committed to tape. (One of which, Midway was eventually released in 1997 on Field Recordings.) But at the time, the direction was not right for Casal. Instead, working with the independent label Buy-Or-Die Records, whose founder was one of his many fans, Casal made Rain, Wind and Speed with a small budget and only five days in the studio. It was a stark, largely solo record, with all the vocals and guitars recorded live. He calls the album one made out of survival. It was the only way I could move on after my departure from Zoo and the tour ending abruptly. In retrospect, he says, Theres a desperation on that record that I dont hear on all my other work. It amazes me that I finished it at all. But it showed how well Casals songs, stripped of all but the essentials, could still make their mark. Up close were his poetic, impressionistic lyrics (Casal cites Garbriel Garcia Marquez and Paul Bolles as literary influences), comfortably folky acoustic guitar, and above all those vocals that somehow seem to bare his soul through his disarmingly airy tenor.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Reinhard Holstein, founder of Glitterhouse Records sought out Casal, after discovering that the followup to Fade Away Diamond Time, one of Holsteins desert island discs, was on a small independent label. Glitterhouse arranged to release Rain, Wind and Speed in Europe and in the spring of 1997, brought Casal to the Continent for a whirlwind tour. He soon discovered the generous reception given to literate singer-songwriters even in non-English-speaking countries. It was there that Casal met with Holstein with his amazing record collection of all these obscure American bands. But after a while, it dawned on me that Im also one of these obscure musicians myself. Glitterhouse commissioned Field Recordings, released in the summer of 1997, a fascinating collection of odds and ends from unreleased Jim Scott-produced gems to a basement recording of a 14-year-old Casal with his first band doing a cathartic Black Sabbath cover.
Casal was originally set to have Scott produce his next effort, but when the busy producer/engineer became unavailable, Casal at first considered postponing the album, then realized that my vision for this record was a strong one and that ultimately I could realize that vision on my own. Casal enlisted some of the blue chip players who appeared on Fade Away Diamond Time, including keyboard man John Ginty (Jewel), multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz (Matthew Sweet, Victoria Williams) and drummer Don Heffington (Lone Justice, Jayhawks), along with legendary bassist James Hutch Hutchinson of Bonnie Raitts band. Though The Sun Rises Here was recorded and mixed during one week (June 30-July 6, 1997) in Burbank, CA, the process was a rather easy experience musically. The extraordinary sensitivity of the players, and the fact that, except for Hutchinson, Neal knew them all well from previous recordings, meant that we didnt have to discuss a lot before recording. They interpreted my songs so well, Casal enthuses. He also brought an intentionally relaxed work-ethic to the sessions: This was the only record Ive made where the experience was more important than the result. We had to be having a good time making this record. The minute we werent, we stopped and did something else. I decided that we were going to make a bit of a party of it, and hoped it would show through in the grooves. And I think it does. Too often producers will put restraints on musicians. I wanted to let all those guys play what they really wanted to. I discovered some amazing things when I let that happen, and they had a great time making the record.
While Fade Away Diamond Time was praised for its wonderfully unified sound, Casal now looks back upon it as a collection of twelve really good songs. As a record, though, I think it could have had a better flow. For The Sun Rises Here, Casal planned the sequencing ahead of time and specifically set out to achieve more variety, songs that would work well together and take you on a bit more of a ride. Indeed the album ranges from the melancholy introspection of On the Mend and Halfway Through Town (with the gorgeous backup vocals of Angie McKenna), to the classic folk-rock-in-waltz-time of Today Im Gonna Bleed, to the rollicking Dandelion Wine -- which should effectively end any misconceptions that Casal is some kind of aesthete. (Greg Leisz resonator guitar work on the track is pure bluegrass brilliance.)
Despite the full band arrangements, the production schedule of The Sun Rises Here was nearly as compressed as that of Rain, Wind and Speed. But it was enough time for some experimentation. Casal recalls I wanted a really dry drum sound, so [engineer] Jeff Robinson and I built this hut over the drums with blankets and curtains. Don Heffington comes in and says What is this thing?! He just hated it. During tracking he would look up at this hut with utter disdain. But when it came time to mix the album, he came into the control room and said, Hey, I really like that drum sound.
Like Rain, Wind and Speed, some of Casals vocals were recorded live, but what overdubs were done were accomplished in a single night, eliciting some amazement from those in the studio.
After six days of recording, Casal, Robinson, and the gathered players commenced mixing at 10 AM the next morning, and didnt stop until 10 AM the following day. After a few hours rest, Casal hopped into his vintage Chevelle and headed in the direction of Las Vegas, finally getting to hear the completed album while viewing a desert sunset. It was only then that he fully realized what he had wrought, and was confident that he had created the album he had in mind -- one that was true to his own values of honesty and just doing the best job possible.
Despite the almost blistering pace at which The Sun Rises Here was made, the album is another one for the ages. No fad of the month club here, no trendy retro, but some more probable bewilderment for future archaeologists trying to date his work. Casal quotes architect Richard Meier who speaks of his own field, but expresses what has become a credo for Casals music: [It] is not fashion. It cannot be subject to daily or monthly fluctuations. The ideas have to be able to withstand time.
In addition to his own music, Casal is featured prominently on a new album with Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, (Let It Come Down) on which he sang harmony vocals on ten songs and played guitar on five. Produced by Casals old colleague Jim Scott, the album has a laid-back folky singer-songwriter direction that may surprise Smashing Pumpkins fans. A tour is planned.
The Sun Rises Here is set for March 1998 release on Glitterhouse Records. Management: Gary Waldman, Morebarn Music.