In roughly forty-three hours, the Neal Casal Music Foundation Kickstarter will be over. Currently 1,082 people have donated totaling $130,307.00 and counting. So why write anything at this point? Well, we all need a little more Neal Casal. Neal Casal’s story is of a thirty-year career tragically cut short. I’m so glad Neal got a guitar for his 13th birthday instead of an Atari, aren’t you? The Neal Casal Music Foundation will carry on his legacy, making sure New York and New Jersey students have access to instruments and lessons, as well as continued support for MusicCares Backline.
Another way the foundation will carry on Neal’s legacy is with Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal. As we all navigate these strange days, there’s no doubt music’s healing vibrations soothe the soul. Have you watched Billy Strings or Circle Round the Sun during lockdown, like me? Grammy-winning engineer/producer Jim Scott and Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools at PLYRZ Studio (Wilco, Grace Potter, Tedeschi Trucks, Crowded House) in Valencia, California will give wings to the triple album. Holding my breath and waiting for the contributions of Leslie Mendelson and Marcus King & Eric Kranso helps ground my soul a bit longer. It’s a perfect place for a reincarnation of Casal’s songs.–Lisa Whealy
Music’s ability to touch the soul and heal through shared experience is undeniable. Patchwork from UK based singer-songwriter Passenger (aka Michael David Rosenberg) has a troubadour’s vulnerability, shared through song. His style of acoustic folk-rock has always felt like a cool ocean breeze, a salty hug for the soul.
Chris Vallejo served as both engineer and producer on the latest digital-only release. Andrew Philips contributed to the album’s rich instrumentation, while Richard Brinklow’s piano helps create an earthy, authentic vibe. All proceeds from the release go to The Trussell Trust.
Rosenberg has been in quarantine with the rest of us. His statement that there was never an intention to write a quarantine record seems authentic, yet odd. We all do our part. Doctors and nurses flooded to where they were most needed. Artists create beauty in times of tragedy. Shared memory of tragedy often helps us all cope, and thus songs like “Venice Canals” will always bring me to tears. Pain, suffering, hope, and connection resonate throughout this album, but there’s hope in our inseparability. Clear, deep, melancholy vocals unencumbered with simple guitar accompaniment is perfection.
“Sword in the Stone” opens the album, resonating most with this blink-in-time we are living through. Like King Arthur, we have no power to vanquish the enemy ahead of time. Only together the coronavirus will be vanquished. “Patchwork” also reflects our moment in time and may be the track that most aligns with the songwriter’s partnership with The Trussell Trust. (The organization’s focus on ending hunger and poverty in the UK earnestly began in April of 2018. The Trussell Trust reports that in March 2019 there was a 19% increase in overall support to millions of people living in poverty, showing a country in crisis before the 2020 pandemic.) The song features lush, intricate instrumentation; lyricism that seemingly defies gravity in its imagery; and fingerpicking lightness, creating true artistry.
“Year on Year, Day by Day” is a glimmer of what’s ahead, the second cut in this trip through an artist’s coping with chaos. Perky, uptempo, seemingly reassuring musicality hides the stark reality lurking in the lyrics. A poetic genius wields a guitar here. A cover of Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved” reminds us all that those people that are revered are vulnerable, and the harshness of the pandemic’s grief and loss is all-consuming. To me, this version of a beautifully written song enters the category of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” a great version that stands next to its original.
The warm sun of “Queenstown” is sheer perfection. Though many have never been there, to those of us that have, this track is a vacation in our minds back to the place. Music spurs our imaginations, and Passenger certainly provides a vivid soundtrack here. Transitioning into the uptempo “Swimming Upstream,” it’s easy to feel the frenetic, stuck-with-nowhere-to-be phenomenon we are sharing. Not my favorite of the album, but maybe that’s because this song hits too close to the truth.
Patchwork ends with “Summer Rain” and its violin, soaring in warmth and love of this record’s season. The honest longing of this bleeding emotion is painful, yet each piano chord echoes with the promise of a new sunrise. Phantom memories of happier times, acknowledging we are all a bit frayed, are the only way to gracefully bow out of this tragic dance: stronger, bound through our collective survival. Passenger’s use of the metaphor in the title reveals one thing. We are all stronger connected, despite our flaws and weaknesses. Like jellyfish in the Venice Canals, this album’s shared purpose may be to provide Patchwork binding fans together to help The Trussell Trust.–Lisa Whealy
The “Rat King” opens Torn-to-Pieces-Hood with an allusion to T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 story The Nutcracker,and The Mouse King is a heady place to start. Adam Lepkowski on bass guitar and synthesizer along with Shamus Hackett on percussion start the ballet with Pat Phelan’s guitar and vocals. Musically, a gritty sense of isolation creates a sense of separation, paralleling the lyrics. We know the story of isolation, especially in 2020. However, this Rat King’s story is different.
“Grown Giant” is stylistically softer, more like The Decemberists. “Annan Water” leaves the story of the Rat King and sets the stage for a real connection to an artist. We all have that first moment when we realize that there’s no one putting together the pieces of our lives for us anymore. Phelan stitches that concept together with stunning imagery together. This track also displays a sense of disconnection, like “Rat King”. The genius of “Sweater” is easy to settle into: it’s authentic, simple, emotional, and sexy, stripped to only Phelan with Sean Egan on bass and Lepkowski on percussion. It captures an essence of innocence longing for more passion.
Much of this album’s joy is the result of the raw authenticity Lepkowski sought in the production process. “Sentimental Custer” starts its intricate tango with a bit of that, featuring Lepkowski on synthesizer and guitar along with Chris Flynn on percussion help. Phelan crafts a dance of forgiveness, framed in one of history’s greatest ego-driven defeats. Wandering toward the end of the record, the ominous “Glow” feels contextually supported with disconnected mixing techniques separating layers of sound. Joe Palamara joins the record on bass guitar along with Chris Carr on percussion and backing vocals. A disconnect breathes here between the lyrics and Phelan’s vocal. Possibly the most emotive of the entire record, this song resonates deeply.
“Ships in the Digital Night” is punctuated with new instrumentation. Glockenspiel and synthesizer are perfectly weird production choices, solidifying Lepkowski’s work as a smart producer. Their sonic qualities speak to the glaring commentary of our digital world, exponentially augmented since this song’s pre-COVID birth. (Recorded in Sparta, New Jersey and produced by Adam Lepkowski during a period between 2017 and 2018, Phelan’s sophomore tunes land in a drastically different world than their creation.) It’s gritty, raw, and haunting perfection. I can see a music video in my mind, and that’s scary.
Ending the journey of Torn-to-Pieces-Hood is “The Time of Fast Food.” Clean and quick, this cut is reminiscent of Jakob Dylan in The Wallflowers’ song “One Headlight,” hoping for better. At the end of this story of The Rat King and The Nutcracker, the new star of the ballet is certainly singer-songwriter Pat Phelan. —Lisa Whealy
I’ve been moving away from folk-pop toward electronic and neo-classical music for a while now, but it appears that what I really was looking for was Anthony Garcia‘s “Haunted Hotels.” It has all the joys of folk, electronic, and classical music without sounding quite like any of them.
Yes, “Haunted Hotels” combines folk guitar, electro beats, neo-classical violin and piano, and even a touch of classic rock (those vocal melodies!) for a truly unique experience. Lots of genre mash-ups can come off as trite or unfinished, but Garcia’s fusion of styles is immaculate. The delicate acoustic guitar work, mysterious harp, solid beats, ’80s keys, and desert-rock guitar solo all fit together like a beautifully composed photograph. Garcia’s arrangement and composition shine throughout, as this five-minute track does not feel nearly that long–it floats by effortlessly, which is no easy feat for a song this complex. It’s a brilliant, evocative piece of work that shows off an impressive skillset.
Anthony Garcia was gracious enough to provide a peek behind the curtain into the songwriting process of the song, and I’m happy to give you the scoop on that. (Fun fact: I swoon anytime some says “ostinato.”)
Inspiration behind the song
The song was inspired one day when I was visiting San Antonio and happened to be in the Menger Hotel in downtown San Antonio, which is right across the street from the Alamo. I’d been there before, but walking through this time, I spent a little time looking at the old building that dates pretty far back, and all the old rooms, and noticed some very old pianos in there. That was the catalyst that inspired the idea for the song.
Electronica style of the song
I am not sure I made a conscious decision to make this song more of an electronica-influenced song compared to the rest of the songs on the album, but it is what ended up happening. I think that it does, however, compliment the lyric: an ethereal, paranormal love story where the characters live in an old hotel in a Texas town. I wanted to mix the classical piano elements with “lo-fi” style beats, pizzicato violins, and some “A Fistful of Dollars”-style guitar.
Recording the song
Recording the song happened in phases and in bits and pieces. The piano was recorded live at a friend’s house on her father’s restored baby grand piano; the beats were made by producer Jeremy Fowler; the violin was played by violinist Megan Berson; and the rest of the instruments and vocals were tracked at Transient Mic Studios. We took quite a bit more time with this song than most and were very meticulous about every part of the song. I feel, in this style of music, it is necessary to take a more minimalist approach, meaning sometimes leaving space where you might not leave it in other styles of music. (e.g. choosing to have a sparse beat pattern; a minimalistic ostinato piano pattern; a single melodic guitar line). Essentially, I approached this song as if the instruments and parts were “sampled,” although they were actually all (with the exception of the beats) played using live instruments. It was more of a puzzle at times, making all of the pieces fit just where they needed to.
What the song means to me
I wrote the song and then took off shortly thereafter to play a contract on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean for two months. (Yes, I was a cruise ship pianist at one point in my life. Not my proudest moment…) But I managed to take along my laptop, mics, and MicroKorg, and I turned my shoebox, windowless cabin into a de facto recording studio. It was during this time that I demoed (i.e. made a rough draft, lo-fi recording of how I envisioned all the parts would fit together once I would eventually enter the studio) the songs on my laptop and worked out the lyrics and final parts. It was a special moment for me writing about an “empty desert town” while floating around the Mediterranean Sea in my tiny cabin. Although I was having a great time visiting the different countries, I was missing the freedom of being back home.
I am very happy with the final version. This song went through many different transformations over the course of the process and was probably the one that was scrutinized by me the most. I wanted it to be perfect in the sense that I described above: building but not being too overbearing, while maintaining a keen sense of subtlety. It might be the song I am most proud of on the album for this reason, and a style I would really like to delve into to develop more.
I’ve been getting into real deep cut techno, with Traversable Wormhole as my guide star. Emotional Ty‘s Roses and Aliens EP is a four-song 12″ vinyl release that traffics in straight-ahead techno bangers that is less foreboding and more slinky than Adam X’s output. Closer “Edge of the Horizon” is the highlight here, as Emotional Ty uses a warm, thrumming bass line and panning synth to imbue the most sense of personality of any of the four-on-the-floor bangers here.
“Mountains and Rivers” is a busy, skittering, percussion-heavy track with a ghostly sample of Anna Kendrick’s “Cups” for fun, while “Dream Journal” includes a spoken-word clip that adds a mysterious and emotional quality to punchy work. “Body Meridian” puts its head down and gets to work as a midpoint between dreamy post-dub and thumpin’ techno of the other three cuts–this would be a good transition piece for a DJ set. The four tracks here are all really solid, easily enjoyable techno cuts, and I look forward to more work from Emotional Ty.