Graded on a Curve: Zachary Cale,
Duskland

Singer-songwriter-guitarist Zachary Cale has been on the scene for roughly a decade. Originally from Enon, Louisiana, he currently hangs his hat in New York City, where The Village Voice named him Best Songwriter of 2014. Nearly two years have passed since the release of the lauded Blue Rider, but Cale has returned with his sixth album and first for the No Quarter label. Duskland is out now on LP/CD/digital.

After emerging with his debut in 2005, Zachary Cale has gradually amassed a sizable discography. Outlander Sessions is a toughly strummed heartily sung slab radiating a bit of a busker vibe, and its follow-up didn’t hit the racks until around three years later. Walking Papers wielded increased range, instrumental dexterity, and emotional weight, with “Running in Place” a particular highlight.

Cale additionally issued See-Saw in ’08 under the moniker Illuminations, a full band outing tackling smartly constructed and earthy melodic rock; there’s an intermittent touch of roots as it unfurls, but the whole could easily satisfy city slickers, a circumstance perhaps reflecting the leader’s rural-to-urban transition. Furthermore, See-Saw seemed to impact his subsequent work.

For ‘11’s Noise of Welcome was vibrant and measurably more mature, considerably eclipsing standard folk trappings and adeptly integrating American Primitive picking and country-rock atmosphere alongside moments bringing to mind such contemporaries as Dan Behar (a professed admirer of the album) and M. Ward.

2012’s “Love Everlasting” 7-inch and the next year’s full-length Blue Rider extended the growth of Noise of Welcome through confidence and focus while the latter elucidated its maker’s perseverance in crafting trim platters; at 44 minutes See-Saw remains his longest. And Blue Rider is an excellent collection validating the praise, its standout “Dear Shadow” blending the communicative with pristine musicianship in a manner suggesting Dylan and the best of solo Springsteen.

If deservedly acclaimed, up to this point Cale’s exposure has been somewhat limited. Earning accolades from the Voice will certainly raise his profile, as will signing to No Quarter, an imprint having nurtured a roster of complementary acts. There’s Cian Nugent and the Cosmos, Chris Forsyth and Solar Motel, Doug Paisley, Nathan Salzberg, Bob Carpenter, Houndstooth; Zachary Cale fits into this milieu very well.

“Sundowner” exudes desert Western ambiance, a mood fitting both the title and the opening verse in Cale’s slyly languorous delivery (as aided by judiciously applied echo). Substantial guitar layering intermingles with the words, but Phil Glauberzon’s organ textures contribute to the full-bodied sound as well, initially out-front and then smoothly transitioning underneath as the track grows in power.

Ryan Johnson’s rhythm-making also grabs the ear at the outset; as “Sundowner” progresses, the tidiness of his playing takes on a march-like precision in tandem with Kris Benedict’s bass. And Duskland nicely builds upon the strong start, “Blue Moth” coalescing into a gem of brightly hued and skillfully executed instrumental dynamics.

Of course it helps that Cale’s lyrics and inflection recall the classic singer-songwriter template, but he more importantly he doesn’t strain for the effect; as on the prior records, Duskland doesn’t fondle the coattails of a handful of predecessors, instead unwinding like a LP that could finesse the trousers off fans of those songic auteurs noted for hanging at the crossroads of folk, rock, country, and pop from the late-‘60s up to the dawn of ‘80s.

“Blue Moth” also reinforces Cale’s ability to expand without lingering too long, the disc offering no evidence of unnecessary padding. Plus, the organ and synthesizer (courtesy of Cale) continue to provide shading rather than boldly announce their presence, differentiating this album from numerous contemporary examples of similar comportment where the use of auxiliary aural flavors is too heavily underlined.

This doesn’t preclude Cale from turning the spotlight onto the pleasant aura of Brady Sansone’s steel guitar during the country-tinged strumming of “I Left the Old Cell,” a number managing to combine the folky gusto of early-‘70s Neil Young with a dab of Dylan circa-Nashville Skyline, and minus any hubbub doing it.

“Sundowner” brandishes a slow fade and “Blue Moth” culminates in a crescendo; however, the audio of “Evensong” rises at the front, and while Johnson was metronomic on the opener the rhythm here is truly machine derived, though the rhythm box fits securely into Duskland’s overall weave right next to that synthesizer.

And if “Evensong” clarifies Cale’s lack of inhibition over resources of construction, it’s moodier in execution and ultimately just a solid tune. It’s followed by the gorgeous picking of instrumental “Basilica,” the side-closing selection tapping into the dual talents on display; not often are singer-songwriters adept enough as players that a vocals-free record would be a tempting proposition, but here it is.

“Basilica”’s quality resides in Cale’s dexterous fingers but nearly as important are Philip Sterk’s pedal steel and Carter Yasutake’s trumpet; drummer Ethan Schmid gets in a martial line of his own. Side two commences with “Dark Wings,” an exhibition of pop savvy that in a better world would be a charting single. Also worth mentioning is Cale’s lyrical aptitude, his imagery significantly and reliably subtler than the norm.

“I Forged the Bullet” returns to the Western motif, but in this instance the environs are far more cinematic and simultaneously edging Duskland nearer to rock climes. The words help mold the whole into a theme song of sorts, though it thankfully never weakens into any kind of hackneyed faux-spaghetti oater scenario.

From there “Changing Horses” explores a contempo folk-rock setting to exquisite result, the track brimming with cascades of superb electric guitar in its mid-section. It sets the stage for Duskland’s closer and longest entry “Low Light Serenade,” a beautiful yet sturdy contemplative passage sporting melancholy accents of trumpet and lap steel and an another appealing fadeout.

Topping Blue Rider was going to be a difficult task, though these nine songs connect as approximately equal in value to his ’13 effort and include a lack of anxiety; avoiding stylistic overreach or attempts to break the mold, it’s apparent Cale understands the creative fertility to be found in a growing songbook, a guitar or three, and a responsive band. Duskland benefits from lucidity of vision; it’s a refreshing LP finding Zachary Cale in brilliant form.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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