Artist: Pete McNeil and Julia Kasdorf
Review By: Dan MacIntosh
Rating: 3.5 Stars (out of 5)
After getting an earful of Julia Kasdorf on Impromptu, it’s really difficult to believe this singer/songwriter/musician actually got her start by playing bass in San Francisco punk bands, such as Angry Samoans. However, anyone that has followed the punk rock scene long enough is well aware of the way many of these players use punk music as career kickoffs, before moving on to their true musical loves. In Kasdorf’s case, singer/songwriter music — with just a touch of the blues – is the style that most sincerely represents her artistic heart.
Impromptu is actually a two-sided coin, if you will, as Pete McNeil (who also calls himself MadScientist) also contributes songs to this double-artist collection. Whereas Kasdorf goes for the mostly introspective approach to songwriting, McNeil is more apt to rev it up, as he does during the roadhouse blues of “Treat Me Like A Road.” However, “Kitties” is one of the coolest tracks on this collection. It has a distinctive psychedelic – you might say druggy – feel to it. Instead of rollicking blues guitar, the six-string part is moody and spooky, instead, and placed over an inventive, wandering bass line. McNeil’s “Doldrums” and “Baby Please” are also built upon basic blues structures, much like “Treat Me Like A Road.”
Kasdorf’s songs are consistently lyrically intriguing. For instance, “Motel” opens with her announcing, “I’m gonna hide in a motel.” This could be describing reactionary behavior of typical musicians. However, it could represent something a lot darker, as in someone retreating to such anonymity in order to indulge in destructive drug-taking behavior. Nevertheless, when Kasdorf sings a line about burning old love letters, it suggests something more akin to post-relationship breakup activity.
With “This Heart,” Kasdorf expresses a much more empathetic perspective. It’s sung almost as a prayer, and speaks to the artist’s care for those less fortunate, including the underprivileged in Romania and Brazil. The track also features a bit of surf guitar in its upbeat melody, which is enjoyable. The chorus states, “You gave me this heart.” It reveals that Kasdorf might not be quite so concerned people half a world away, had Jesus not first given her a loving heart.
One other fine song is simply titled “Sunday.” It begins with rain sound effects before Kasdorf begins singing about the rain. When Kasdorf vocalizes on it, it’s with a world-weary, slightly scratchy voice. “I wish it was Sunday again,” she sings longingly. This recording is beautifully augmented by Carla Deniz’s supportive viola.
Although Kasdorf tends to sing with relatively stripped-down arrangements, she sure sounds boisterous and right at home during “Lament,” which also features a bevy of backing vocals and an orchestrated arrangement. This track is one place where the listener might secretly wish it also featured a string section. In other words, a little more could have been even better.
McNeil has said Impromptu is the first compilation for ALT-230 label. If what comes after this album is even close to the quality it contains, that is really a label future to get excited about. These songs may not be as commercial as what’s getting airplay these days, but that’s probably not a bad thing. Sure, it’s interesting to hear how electronic music is playing in such close quarters with rap and R&B, but after a while all of that stuff just starts to sound the same.
Best of all, Impromptu is filled with fantastic songs. The arrangements are slightly on the retro side, but they are retroactive back to a time when music just seemed to make a whole lot more sense. Instead of creating music for feet (for dancing), McNeil and Kasdorf compose songs for the heart and mind. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to create beats, no matter how much rap artists might brag about this particular skill. A title like Impromptu suggests something improvised and made up on the spot. However, his is well planned, and thoughtfully created music. You don’t have to love it, but you really oughta love it.