Sample “Just Getting By” from ANYTIME TOMORROW by Neal Casal
Neal Casal might be one of the most underestimated singer-songwriters in American music but this is not his best work. Half the songs here seem like run-of-the-mill little rock numbers with regular lyrics and conventional instrumentation. These are pleasant on the ear to be sure, but relatively shallow and uninspired compared to what I know Casal and his top notch session players are capable of with a producer like Jim Scott (Wilco). These lesser songs on the album sound like something a local band might play at a local food festival, almost convincing me to buy their self-recorded, self-released album between bites of my hot buttered corn and chocolate-dipped strawberries on a stick.
Fortunately the other half dozen songs on Anytime Tomorrow have something special to offer. The first three gems are at the heart of the album on tracks 5-7. “Oceanview” uses its instruments and vocals (including a high-register sing-along chorus) to create an oceanic, breezy effect that had me imagining the band playing on a cliff with wind in their hair. “No One Above You” is a gentle love song that contains both an invitation (come and watch the evening go / sinking down into the sea) and a memorable declaration – the singer loves his subject but so does everyone else and this is the twist that makes the song work:
Everyone around you / they all feel it too / there is no one above you / everybody loves you
The resignation in the lyrics to “Just Getting By” combine with the bouncy shuffle of the music for an interesting contrast that gives this song a dynamic and depth that is missing from the lesser tracks on the album.
“Camarillo” and “Time Down the Wind” appear on tracks 8 and 9 as sister songs, one telling the story of leaving town “with a broken heart and a twisted arm” and the other of a homecoming that finds the town just as it was and everybody wondering “where have you been.”
The album closes with the doubt and nostalgia of “Too Much to Ask” wrapped up in soothing trumpet lines, tinkling piano licks, and gently reverberating guitars.
This is a half-great album by a whole-great singer-songwriter.