Cesaréa is a ten song journey, a blend of western influences and the tales of a true road dog told with a mature lyricism. From the scent of pine trees and small town life in the opening track “The Town Where I’m From” to the simple “In My Thoughts,” listeners are invited into authentic and vulnerable world of Charles Ellsworth via his third full-length release as a solo artist.
There are no mistakes in who crosses someone’s path in life. “Right around the time I turned 22, I was in Las Vegas with a group of some of my oldest friends. On one particularly hungover/still drunk afternoon, I was talking with a friend about how neither of us knew exactly what we wanted to do with our lives. He was about to head to the Peace Corps for a couple years, and I had just gone through a bad band breakup and had decided to go back to Utah to finish my Bachelor’s degree,” said Charles Ellsworth, when asked about the origins of his latest album set to drop May 26th, 2017. It was prior to his emotional musical breakup that this listener first crossed paths with Ellsworth and heard his story. Swearing off music to focus on film, this wandering man was was truly born, more open to the possibilities of life.
Ellsworth grew up in logging country of Arizona’s White Mountains where families are generationally embedded into the land. This simple life instilled in Ellsworth the value of hard work and sacrifice. These values show in songs like “California,” an uptempo Americana folk trip about moving on. Long a favorite at live shows, this mix has created a beast with soaring guitar work from Jon Rauhouse. The beautifully arranged waltz of “Hold On to Me” shows the trust that Ellsworth has in producer Bob Hoag at Flying Blanket Recording (Courtney Marie Andrews, The Format, Gin Blossoms) in Mesa, Arizona. Another song first heard live, this song has been brilliantly transformed into a lush ballad with an elegant tempo and instrumentation: a barn dance for two with the rest of the world listening.
Every path in life comes full circle, allowing the traveler opportunities to get lost along the way. Originally meeting and working with the producer Bob Hoag, the intentional life was born without any realization of the destination at that point. Ellsworth’s friend that joined the Peace Corps gave him a parting gift. “At some point I told him I just wanted to write, play music, and travel the world. I didn’t care about money, I cared about a life spent creating from outside my comfort zone. He suggested that I read The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. I read it in the final week of the summer before starting school again. It immediately became one of my favorite books, and without realizing it at the time, influenced most of my decisions that have led me to now.”
Being on the road of life is the only way to find new experiences outside one’s comfort zone, in true Tom Waits fashion. “50 Cent Smile” is the first single off Cesaréa. The song is a connection to the man that was and the man that moved to Brooklyn, New York, after years of touring with a guitar. Ellsworth toured with and without his friend Tres Wilson (AKA Shadow Puppet), wandering from Salt Lake City north, west, east, and south to all parts in between. “50 Cent Smile” is a song mirroring the western freewheeling mentality that was inspired by John Steinbeck’s classic East of Eden. Lyrically the song taps into the questions that are posed in the classic American novel, exceptionally relevant in the world today.
“I re-read The Savage Detectives while in the studio last year and was blown away by the fact that I was still doing what I wanted to all those years ago. I decided to name the album Cesaréa after one of the characters in the book. While the album isn’t necessarily about the book, the album wouldn’t exist without it,” says Charles Ellsworth when asked recently about his upcoming album.
“Growing Up Ain’t Easy” and “Dyre Straitz” have a totally different feel for the singer. Giving voice to a more mature musician coming from a place outside of his comfort zone, it’s like the first time you ride the A Train from north Manhattan to south Brooklyn: the thirty-one mile stretch is a lifetime of change. Solid instrumentally, the resonance in Ellsworth’s vocal delivery has matured as well.
Some tracks on Cesaréa have been years in the making, having appeared in other incarnations on previous releases. “Always Looking Twice” is one of those uptempo moments of greatness that happens on this album. A new instrumentation that includes piano, movement and familiar images flickers like a crooked smile at long time fans. With its sprinkling of the road, this song sets up at the entrance to the American songbook.
Heading full circle and out of the album, “Sunday Shoes” is the connective tissue for the lyrics. The arrangement and vocal delivery gives a western strength to a song that has been evolving for years on the road, with roots in the logging country of the Arizona White Mountains where Ellsworth is from. Sprinkled with piano, the city is part of the landscape and the mountains part of the foundation in the music of Charles Ellsworth. There is a strength and confidence in his lyrical craftsmanship, an undeniable thing that cannot really be taught. Like Jason Isbell‘s highly anticipated The Nashville Sound and The American West’s The Soot Will Bring Us Back Again, this album comes out of experience that shape artistic sensibilities.
Now on the third section of his quest, like The Savage Detectives, musician and songwriter Charles Ellsworth is narrator of this story. He combines solo, acoustic, live, and collaborative releases that have culminated in the masterwork of Cesaréa. Ellsworth is destined to join the collection of folk country troubadours that are part of the American songbook.–Lisa Whealy
Life can be a stark gritty landscape dotted with hope and heartache, but dreams of another tomorrow will bring you back. The American West captures the bleak beauty of Steinbeck’s America with debut album The Soot Will Bring Us Back Again, allowing listeners to immerse themselves in a dust storm of roots Americana music.
The album had humble beginnings. Zeltzer immersed himself in his songwriting as caretaker at an organic farm in Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco. Living in an Airstream made these songs real, haunting, and alive. The Soot Will Bring Us Back Again was recorded live to two-inch tape in three days at The Hallowed Halls in Portland, with the help of engineer Jordan Richter (Band Of Horses, Legendary Shack Shakers, Plastic Ono Band). Not a bad way to start.
Matthew Zeltzer and Maria Maita-Keppeler create magic together in a harmonic mesh with guitarist Will Haas, bassist Lewi Longmire, drummer Erich Spielmann, and keyboardist Benjamin Nathan O’Brien. The group of musicians assembled here fit together like a wagon train scouting up ahead. No one element instrument stands alone except for Zeltzer’s voice, which leads the music with a graceful, light hand. Standout “Ghost Town” shows off another important element of the album: Maita-Keppeler and Zeltzer work really well together. (Both have supported each other with appearances on each other’s work.) The Soot would be an echo of something great without the pair.
The band delivers an authentic dustbowl vibe, bringing stark images to mind like a Dorothea Lange photograph. Pedal steel shines on “Ritalin” shifting gears into harmonies that tug at the soul. “Ritalin” embraces the folk roots feel brilliantly. “Heart of Stone” is solid country, as angst-filled listeners can feel the rain coming down. “Patience, Young Conquistador” shines a light on the simplistic finger picking from Zeltzer illuminating the challenges from a land that was raped and working to be reborn. The attention-grabbing “Voices” creates an uptempo country-rock ramble with an urgency that stands out to the ear. Lyrically, it hearkens back to the near-apocalyptic destruction of central California land.
The lyrical quality shines elsewhere as well: “Roadsick Blues” and “Westward Man” showcase the masterful lyricism on this release. The latter has a chorus that demands attention: “He’s a shipwreck/He’s a bounced check/He’ll cut you down in the muddy street/He’s a tin can/He’s a fake tan/If you can read his lie you know you’re halfway there.” It’s a stellar mash of Townes Van Zandt and a present-day warning, like smooth bourbon going down smooth at the end of a long night. In the land of longing, “Looking For You” encompasses the sweet indie vibe, like a bee that cannot find the blossom on which to land. The language of longing and love take on different objects of affection with a cool lounge singer feel. Intimacy is the prize here.
Sometimes a listener just does not want a story to end. Such is the case here on the debut album from The American West. Coming to the end, “Let Me Love You Like A Pauper Does” pleads for a love that certainly suggests that fans will tire of the troubadour and his saga of life. The thing is: that’s not true. The Soot Will Bring Us Back Again is adding to the Great American Songbook, and we can only patiently wait for the next volume. Get yours March 17th, 2017.–Lisa Whealy
1. “Sometimes It’s a Song” – Rob Williams. The fresh, round, earnest qualities of Williams’ voice match the subtle sweetness of the surrounding arrangement, resulting in the sort of song that feels real and weighty without being heavy or loud. It makes quite an impact.
2.”Heart of Stone” – The American West. This one captures the easygoing, lilting West Coast country sound in full flower, with the pedal steel more floating than weeping and the guitar more calming than cutting. The vocals and lyrics, however, supply all the heartbreak you could ask for from a country tune.
3. “Lovedrunk Desperados” – Annabelle’s Curse. That opening thumping kickdrum creates a sense of urgency that cuts through the banjo and acoustic guitar songwriting and lends it the hint of grandeur that compels me to keep listening. The rest of the song does not disappoint.
4. “Set on Fire” – Magic Giant. They’re not referencing their meteoric rise, but this rave-folk outfit (seriously, right there with Avicii, in only a slightly different way) is making a big noise in a lot of places. This particularly tune will keep their star right on rising.
5. “Mountains” – Andy Hackbarth. Even though its title says otherwise, this one invokes the beach: chill, Mraz-style acoustic-pop meets reggae in a sunshiny brew.
6. “Molly Put the Kettle On” – Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons. It doesn’t get much more authentic-sounding than this rootsy, bluegrassy croon/holler tune featuring harmonica, banjo, and fiddle.
7. “Mother” – Adam Busch. Touches of psychedelia flavor this otherwise unassuming, easygoing, fingerpicked acoustic tune.
8. “Lighthouse” – Phillip LaRue. The subtle alt-pop of Peter Bradley Adams meets the flitting, romantic strings of Sleeping at Last for a romantic, lovely tune.
9. “Cool and Refreshing” – Florist. Sporting another not-quite-yet-self-aware title, this tune delivers fragile, melancholic, beautiful indie-pop that really seems like it should be acoustic. Shades of Lady Lamb, Laura Stevenson, and Kimya Dawson appear, but Florist uses the references as touchstones instead of crutches. Just beautiful.
10. “Ein Berliner” – Jacob Metcalf. This tune has the gravitas to convey history in all its glory and terror–a tune so infused with lyrical weight that a single sigh can speak volumes. Distant trumpets, careful strings, twinkling glockenspiel and gentle baritone make this some sort of cross between Beirut and Kris Orlowski, which is only positive. Metcalf previously was in IC faves The Fox and The Bird, and it seems he hasn’t missed a step since stepping out.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.