Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
This being the time of year when we are reminded of those we have lost, the retrospective review of deaths within the last year, I have found myself returning often to the works of Neal Casal, who tragically took his own life last August. A quintessential journeyman performer, hired guitar for many a singer/band seeking some additional gravitas, he had also a productive solo career, with about a dozen albums to his name. If he is best known for his lead guitar for Ryan Adams in the Cardinals, the band that also backed Willie Nelson on 2007’s Songbird, that is understandable. From there he became right hand man to Chris Robinson, in his eponymous Brotherhood, squeezing in the same role for Todd Snider in Hard Working Americans at the same time. The title of that band was surely meant for Casal, his ongoing list of sessions inspiring awe and respect, both in the quality of those who chose him, and the added value he provided to each. In the final years of his life, he was also increasingly absorbed into the diaspora of the Grateful Dead legacy, working both with Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, as well as being commissioned to write the incidental music for the run of shows celebrating the 50 years of the Dead, the Fare Thee Well gigs of 2015. This he then toured as Circles Around the Sun, finding time as well to form and play alongside members of Beachwood Sparks as the Skiffle Players.
Prolific or what?
If his band membership points more to a lysergic tie-dye axe-merchant (and it might – his electric guitar both fluid and inspired enough for any top notch jam band), his solo material points more to a gentler Laurel Canyon-esque consciousness, a sensitive acoustic troubadour. It is definitely into this mold that 2004’s Return in Kind falls. Possessing Casal’s clear and soaring voice, this, in tandem with his effective and understated picking, makes for a delight. With precious little extra accompaniment beyond some steel and some organ, it is just him and his guitar. As relief, if needed, piano replaces guitar on one track, he being adept on said instrument as well. (And drums, apparently, but there is precious little hint of that accomplishment here.)
The choice of covers is eclectic, encompassing some well known names, if with lesser known songs, along with a bevy of artists unknown to my ears. And it isn’t just like for like territory either, there being no fear of giving a singer-songwriter sheen to something born within a whole different frame of reference.
Opener “Debris” is possibly the best known track. From the Faces’ A Nod’s As Good As a Wink to a Blind Horse, it is one of the typically pastoral Ronnie Lane songs that gives balance to (and a rest for) Rod Stewart, on that record. Actually the least innovative track on this record, little is added, unless the exquisite pedal steel, from Eric Heywood, isn’t enough. So it is with the next song the record really beds in, a slightly sturdier version than the original, of Gene Clark’s with Tomorrow, a muted string arrangement adding texture.
I hadn’t been familiar with the Consolers, a husband and wife gospel duo from the ’50s and ’60s unit; their song, “Too Late,” comes in next. Simple and raw, this smacks of the pain omnipresent in Casal’s muse. Needing a lift after that comes a stripped back canter through Be Real, in a style more redolent of a later Sahm, slower and more stately, as well as reminding me whose voice Casal reminds me most of.
“It’s Not Enough” is the first left field choice, a bog standard slow burn in the hands of the original, here transformed into a slow instructional lament, with echoing piano the only ballast. A magical transformation. As is the next, both finding the melody and no little emotion in little-known Love is Laughter song “Miss Direction.”
Grace Braun, another artist unknown to me, wrote “It Won’t Hurt,” another initially unremarkable and slightly lumpen country plodder, at least in her hands, reminiscent in tune of the similarly entitled Dwight Yoakam song. Casal strips it back and, again, seizes the tune and gives it grace, with more glorious steel from Heywood.
Probably the dealbreaker for the whole exercise, the pipe organ that leads “The Portland Water” will either repel you or have you rejoicing. I love it, it adding a crazy faux-bluegrass feel to the song, an even older old-timey slant to Michael Hurley’s original.
One wouldn’t usually associate Royal Trux as being usual fare for acoustic cover territory. And, indeed, they aren’t. A throwaway track at the best of times, again the resourceful alchemist finds some gold in the slimmest track featured here. But it is enough levity to then usher in the final song, “There’s a Reward,” an uplifting anthem of hopefulness, unrecogniszable from the ska/bluebeat of the song it covers.
Return in Kind won’t be for all. It probably requires a contemplative mindset, perhaps for those moments when only a relative melancholy will do. But, when that dog comes calling, this album is nothing short of miraculous. Simple songs done, often, simpler, with craft and precision, pathos, and an unspoken prayer. With the uplift in the closer setting you up with the belief to go on.
Rest in peace, Neal.
Return in Kind Tracklisting:
1. Debris (The Faces cover)
2. With Tomorrow (Gene Clark cover)
3. Too Late (The Consolers cover)
4. Be Real (Sir Douglas Quintet cover)
5. It’s Not Enough (Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers cover)
6. Miss Direction (Love as Laughter cover)
7. It Won’t Hurt (Grace Braun cover)
8. Portland Water (Michael Hurley cover)
9. Yellow Kid (Royal Trux cover)
10. There’s a Reward (Joe Higgs cover)
I hope this introduces more people to the brilliant Neal Casal’s original songs.