By James Calemine
I wrote this review in 2012 when Sweeten The Distance was released, and right before I interviewed Neal Casal for the first time. I just watched the moving tribute to Neal that transpired on September 25, 2019, “There’s A Reward: A Celebration of the Life & Music of Neal Casal, live from The Capitol Theatre”, and I thought of this great Neal Casal solo record, which turned out to be his last.
Sweeten The Distance counts as Neal Casal’s 10th studio album. Currently, Casal serves as the lead guitar picker for The Chris Robinson Brotherhood. Casal has also played and recorded with Ryan Adams, The Jayhawks, Vetiver, Fruit Bats and Beachwood Sparks.
Thom Monahan (Devendra Banhart, Vetiver, Chris Robinson) produced Sweeten The Distance. Recorded mostly in California, Casal wrote all 11 of these reflective–mostly acoustic–songs. A common theme of saying goodbye to a lover, being alone or dealing with the past emerges in almost every song. It’s a collection of strong, memorable compositions, especially if you’re in touch or experienced the songwriter’s sentiment.
The title track opens the disc with a positive message amid soulful turmoil. It’s a beautiful tune about finding positive light in things you can’t change. Moving on with no regrets. Casal sings these resonating lines:
“What’s the sense in looking back?
I still remember how I wasted so much time
Nothing is gonna change the facts, and it’s far too late to cry
Love may tear us apart, but it’s never gonna leave us behind
I keep this dream inside my heart, it’s simple, without it I would die
Without it we would die…”
“Bird with No Name”, a melodic number, emerges as a courageous message for those who find themselves flying alone. The folk-country tune “Need Shelter” finds no shame in a lonesome search for peace especially in the line “I’m so tired and I just can’t strip myself of anything I used to know.” “Let It All Begin” emits hope after a long heart-rending journey.
“So Many Enemies” stands as one of the finest tunes on this album where Casal’s song craft operates at its zenith. The marriage between lyrics and melody in the lines: “I try to tell you, you never listen/There’s always something you think that you’re missing/Well if you try sometimes, you may just get what you want/There’s always someone to do your bidding/So tell me why you never ending winning?/You’re selling yourself short, waiting around too long” captures elements that make a memorable song.
In “Feathers For Bakersfield” the songwriter composes stark realities such as “You ain’t seen nothin’, until it turns around and leaves you/You see it coming, until it finally catches up with you.” “Time And Trouble” emerges as one of the only tunes on this collection that rocks along with a gritty damn-the-torpedoes sentiment especially when Casal sings “So the best thing to do is get out of my face as quickly as you can/As quickly as you can/Because it’s not worth the time and trouble that I had to spend/I’m burned, I’m blind, and always on edge/Of something worse than this/You’ll never know what I went through for you/The time and trouble I had to spend.”
“The Gyrls of Wynter” retains a subterranean quality in the quiet sonic landscape that reminds one of Big Star. The final track, a beautiful country song called “Angel And You’re Mine” conjures a sad soulful resignation of all that’s passed while staring in the face of the unknown. Sweeten The Distance contains a healing musical tonic for those with a pain in the heart.