BY MARY LEARY
I think it’s time we all faced up to the blurring of lines between indie, mainstream, corporate, and rock/folk/pop subgenres-unto-eternity. While an indie label may still unearth (or leave buried in the cool, cold, eternally hip ground) something that otherwise wouldn’t make it to our ears, “Indie” has ceased to be synonymous with “great, “good,” or even “worthy.” Just about anyone can make an album. Where music gets placed, the way it’s presented and distributed, and/or the appearance of the people who make it can doom that music to steadfast and stubborn ignorance from those toward whom a musician’s look, promotional presentation, or distribution process isn’t aimed.
To me, anyway, that’s just goofy. In the ‘70s, I was listening to Girls Together Outrageously and Laura Nyro instead of doing my math homework. I was one of the first people I know to be into Richard Hell, Patti Smith, and the early stirrings of hickabilly’s resurgence. I also had to admit – whether to myself or publicly – that those Eagles, Jackson Browne, and Hall & Oates singles I heard on the radio and at “normal” folks’ parties were often pleasing.
I’ve never been into the Sneetches (on the beaches) thing; focusing more on the essence of music than its presentation, its place on the “cool” scale, or its “Indie cred.”
That’s a rather involved lead into how worthy I feel Cas Haley’s new album is. Yes – for anyone who was paying attention, or perhaps even getting into, America’s Got Talent – Haley did well on the second (2007) AGT season. While I didn’t watch the show that year, perusal of Haley’s AGT footage reveals a portly, nebbishy guy from Texas who, without televised exposure, would probably have struggled with his career in a way not too removed from Sisyphus’ experience of pushing a boulder up a hill to watch it roll back down… over and over again. Haley sings the hell out of soul music while adding his imprint to work by Sam Cooke and Stevie Wonder. He has an instinctual relationship with reggae, and emits pop that’s winning in the ways of John Mayer and Amos Lee. Haley’s too physically unmarketable to have expected much of a hand up from mainstream labels, which were likely to reject his nothing new (but charming) way with various established genres. Nor was he likely to have made more than a dent with a smaller label – that is, without the momentum he gained by appearing on AGT. And I think that’s a good thing, as is his third album, La Si Dah.
The title bespeaks joy that’s related to music’s creation, and to life. And while the album isn’t an all-out romp, it’s a surprisingly stimulating listen. Haley’s mingling of pop, soul, and reggae songs is surprisingly seamless; partially abetted by several instrumentals, including a ska/reggae workout, “Capricorn,” near the album’s center. These fend off any possibility of Haley’s voice growing monotonous – a trick I wish more artists would heed. The album starts with a short instrumental that sets a modest stage; rather as the Band did on The Last Waltz – which I doubt Haley’s aware of. It works well before “La Dah,” which sounds like a Mayer song gone tropical, or a delectable summer drink set to music, which includes ukulele, piano, and some well-placed, hand-held percussion (hisses, knocks, and the like).
A few tracks further on, “Let Her Go” is a doo wop-based soul ballad that’s so poignantly emoted, I’m impelled to open the CD cover, to be surprised (before I learn anything else) by Cas and his band’s non-African origins. Yeah, it’s make-out music for a world that doesn’t often act like it needs it.
Haley’s funky, minimalist cover of the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” is an inspired take on the raw material – and I’m one of those “please leave the Smiths’ stuff alone” fans.
The consistently engaging, listenable qualities of La Si Dah are probably related in considerable part to production by Rob Fraboni, who’s enhanced recordings by Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Bob Marley – and, as it turns out, the Band’s Last Waltz. Hmm.
This is definitely a case wherein an artist who would otherwise have flown beneath most radars has benefited from participating in one of those uncool talent competitions. Unlike many other artists who’ve benefited similarly; sometimes with much bigger sales and renown, I feel that Haley deserves the treatment.
DOWNLOAD: “Let Her Go,” “La Dah,” “How Soon Is Now”