The Upshot: Long-running singer-songwriter has released fifteen albums exploring his various musical passions but has finally found his comfort zone.
BY ERIC THOM
Dan Israel has had a long, impressive career – chipping away at everything from introspective singer-songwriter fare to alt-country before there was such a thing. He’s relentlessly sought respect for his craft and has smashed his head against the wall more times than he’s ever deserved to. A crack songwriter, Dan has had his Dylan phase but, without maybe knowing it, always wanted to be a Beatle. Along the way, he’s honed his wordsmithing skills and, despite his patented, world-weary sound, he knows his way around solid pop fare. On this – his fifteenth album – it all comes together. Surrounded with skilled, simpatico players who have built him the ultimate sound bed to feel comfortable in, this oddly K-Tel–looking package contains a dozen legitimate jewels. And while we’ll never have the Beatles back, Social Media Anxiety Disorder goes a long way towards rekindling that sparkle of smart pop recalling Lennon-McCartney, Nick Lowe – even Beck (Bek), at times. Through all of it, Dan is still Dan….strumming his acoustic guitar and singing his slightly nasal-toned, Dylan-hued, “shout and fall” vocals. However, with ‘Anxiety’, he is entirely reborn, if not completely rejuvenated. Credit the quality of the songs and the caliber of the accompaniment, but this has the energy and innocence of a debut, give or take 22 years.
With one of the brightest intro tracks ever, “Be My Girl” is the epitome of bright, sunny pop songs built on a beaming bed of exuberant horns (Paul Odegaard, overdubbed) as Dan is hustled along, hurtling headlong to keep pace with this energetic barn-burner. Clearly the front man, Israel’s having the time of his life. Cue the Beatle-esque “125” – the album’s best track, from the choice of many – driven along by Steve Price’s serpentine bass plus scorching lead guitar and effects from Steve Brantseg, his Harrison-imbued, psychedelic overtone lending a mystical feel. Blend in Janey Winterbauer’s ethereal backup vocal and Israel’s own processed vox and one wonders – has Israel finally exposed his inner Bangle? Despite the child-like intro of “Just Can’t Take It”, this is great Nick Lowe-grade pop – all acoustic guitar and David Russ’ fat drum sound. The song gets a bit busy with itself and momentarily loses its way, yet the band displays an experimental edge that has nothing to do with taking it the easy way. The lush contrast supplied by the comparably intimate “Still I’m Lost”, featuring more acoustic guitar, B3 and electric keyboards, serves up multiple hooks and, again, assumes a slightly cosmic trajectory as Jeremy Yivisaker’s lead guitar and Steve Price’s keyboards mimic Israel’s vocal with an elaborate, somewhat mournful – if not entirely hypnotic – call and answer. Another standout track. “Might as Well be Me” lightens up to reveal a face-forward Israel vocal, perked up by David Russ’ bouncy drumbeat, as Jon Herchert’s sinewy slide eventually drives the tune into a pleasing overdrive. “Another Day” provides another exceptional pop song – Israel’s voice is in top form as chiming guitars meet Jeremy Yivisaker’s slide guitar which, itself, lends even more of a definitive Harrison flavor. Israel’s lyrics, too, ignite a strong rhythm of their own, underlining the song’s strong pop edge. “Just Can’t Take It Revisited” has a somewhat sleepy start with its dreamy vocals and what sounds like a child’s xylophone, as mix of spoken word and something bordering on rant-meets-rap erupts as the band falls into place. If this was simply a case of a late night in the studio for Israel, his bandmates fly in with inventive, toe-to-toe experimentation as lively bass and piano, distortion effects and searing guitar turn what might have started as a joke into an infectious surprise of a track. Another highlight, “Tired”, returns Dan to where he started, emulating Dylan but leaning heavily on the majesty of Peter Anderson’s drums, Jon Duncan’s meaty B3, Steve Price’s bass and banjo to transform this potentially sad, introspective study into a bona fide toe-tapper. Cue “Alright” for some lighter pop fare with its military drum intro, cheerful electric keyboards and simple chording, yet its amped up, rigorous chorus treatment heavies things up as Herchert’s bass and harder-edged guitar moves this ditty into hearty XTC territory at times. Mark “Here for Today” down as their reliable rocker and veritable palate-cleansing sorbet as dynamic, ringing guitars and distinctive slide land a bulletproof hook as Dan reverts to rock singer with a purpose. The band is in full acceleration, the production complex and stirring in its dynamic energy. “Out of my Hands”/”Out of my Hands” (Reprise) is a two-part exploration. The first rendition of “Out of my Hands” is a slower, Traveling Wilbury-inspired creeper that features more Harrison-styled guitar from Herchert, dovetailed together with acoustic guitars, slightly heavy-handed percussion and church bells until it Magical Mystery Tours itself into fresh turf at the halfway point, featuring baritone guitars, mechanical-sounding backup vocals, a strings effect and some delicious Harrison slide against acoustic guitar and telltale bells. Part Two replays elements of the first version but introduces the full lung power of guest vocalist Tonia Hughes Kendrick, who lifts the familiar theme into full testifying territory. The song plays itself out with a church-like choir of angels as Kendrick turns on her more sultry side. Together, this is one hell of an epic composition that threatens to fall off the edge of the earth, yet scores big points for simply being something incredibly unexpected.
Influences aside, this is Dan Israel’s strongest effort to date – a rich and varied playbook of the music he loves most, driven home by an eclectic and imaginative host of cohorts dedicated to seeing through his vision. It works really well and will revitalize any playlist instantly. No wonder Dan’s laughing so heartily on “Just Can’t Take It, Revisited”. He deserves to.