Casal in the Air

Neal Casal may be one of those scratch-your-head, yeah-I've-seen-his-name-somewhere artists. He turned up in the record bins briefly with 1995's Fade Away Diamond Time not long before his label, Zoo, faded away itself, sucked into the big ol' black hole of corporate consolidation. But the singer-songwriter is anything but obscure, as those who keep their eyes peeled for anything on the German label Glitterhouse -- a veritable stockpile of Americana artists -- will attest. Anytime Tomorrow, in fact, is Casal's seventh long-player (hey, some songwriters keep busy -- he's found time to tour and record with the likes of Lucinda Williams, Sheryl Crow and James Iha -- as well as current roadmates the Beachwood Sparks), and just like the man's overseas connection, it, too, is a treasure trove of rootsy twang and jangle. Even better news: He's once again got a stateside record deal.

With a band that includes such stellar players as drummer Don Heffington (Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris), bassist Bob Glaub (John Prine, Jackson Browne), keyboardist John Ginty (Matthew Sweet) and go-to guy/multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz (everybody from Joni Mitchell to Beck), Casal conjures a familiar, lived-in feeling without pullinag an Americana-by-numbers con job. Opening track "Willow Jane" is a rousing Band/Exile on Main Street slab of ax, piano and horns that effortlessly joins that proud genre of rock tunes named after chicks who done somebody wrong (usually the singers, who still want 'em). The brutish, blackened chords and Al Kooperish organ of "Eddy & Diamonds" steer a desperado's tale down past Highway 61 and deep into desert rock territory. And the back-from-the-wilderness confessional "Raining Straight Down" is a chiming, midtempo folk rocker sounding like Chris Cacavas fronting Tom Petty's Heartbreakers; as a vocalist, Casal shares with Cacavas a keening tenor and straightforward delivery that makes his plainspoken storytelling all the more convincing. Worth noting, too, is the presence of vocalist Angie McKenna on that and several other tunes, synching nicely with Casal in a kind of Gram/Emmylou or Stephanie Finch/Chuck Prophet fashion.

A few years ago, Britain's respected music journal Mojo called Casal's Basement Dreams "Best Americana Album of '99." High praise indeed, and no doubt Anytime Tomorrow is going to be a strong contender come critics' year-end lists in a few months. With intuitive handling from his U.S. label (raise your hand if you spot the Neil Young connection in the word Morebarn), he just might top those lists, too.

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Fred Mills