The Mayor Of Estes Park

Gilbert Neal

Wampus Multimedia, 2016

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


So: Frank Zappa, Maurice White, Leonard Cohen, Jim Steinman and David Foster Wallace walk into a bar. And grab a booth, and do a few shots. And borrow a pen and some napkins. And write a rock opera.

That’s a hint of what Gilbert Neal’s epic song cycle The Mayor Of Estes Park feels like—a brilliant, kaleidoscopic burst of creation that is both slightly unhinged and surprisingly danceable.

Neal is a virtual one-man band here, covering vocals, guitar, bass and keys, with support from Steve Camilleri (drums and percussion), Darrell Nutt (percussion and keys) and a small army of guest horn and string players. The latter’s presence only adds to the Broadway propensities of these tunes; I kept imagining the players down in the orchestra pit as the characters in Neal’s narrative sung these songs up on stage.

The album opens and closes with brief instrumentals, a framing device that only accentuates the theatricality of the whole production. After the overture (“Devotional”) we dive straight into the meat of the matter, as “God’s Board Game” philosophizes about free will and fate to a deep funk beat fresh from an early-’70s EWF workout. At least, if the White brothers had been listening to Apostrophe that morning; there are more time signatures in this four-minute track than in the paperwork to my last mortgage (cue rimshot).

The narrative is impressionistic at times, but seems to center around (and zoom in and out from)  the travails of a fellow who’s fallen head over heels for a woman who’s way out of his league in terms of her capacity for emotional manipulation. At least, that’s what I got out of deliciously unique and exotic creations like the menacing “Queenflower,” the sky-large piano ballad “The Zen Room,” and the rather Steely-Dan-ish “Confessional,” a finger-snapping meditation on the perils of guilt.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The latter opens the trilogy at the heart of the album. The terrifyingly calm “Scare Us” carries the theme of emotional manipulation beyond simple romance, illustrating the dangers of zealotry in any arena. Then “I Had A Girl” stages your narrator’s romantic Waterloo (“I had a girl and she was good to me / Every time she looked me in the eye / She was trying to tell me goodbye”) to a driving rock beat, embellished with a fat horn section and big guitar solo. It’s a tune so cinemascope in execution it just about demands a 20-person dance troupe gyrating behind the singer.

Speaking of emotional manipulation, “Four Chords” delivers a woozy Dixieland-gospel-tinged takedown of paint-by-numbers commercial pop (“Four chords is all you get / Four chords is all you need / They found the formula, over years of costly study”). The blue-eyed funk returns—complete with a burbling clavinet borrowed from Innervisions—on the simmering “Blue Grey Blue,” which again feels like a dialogue between characters on a stage, interspersed with snappy horn work.

Neal arranges against expectations once again with the Trump-campaign-anthem “Anger” emerging as an earnest acoustic ballad: “Anger is making you small, every noise you hear is a call to / Close a little more of your mind / Leave the chance of change behind.” By contrast, the big production number “Lovers Everywhere I Go” feels like a lost Bat Out Of Hell tune with funk sauce on top.

Closing vocal number “Drop Of You” expresses wonder at the full scope of the journey this album takes you on: “Hey, who thought we’d finish this way / Hey, who thought we’d live to see this day.” It’s a wistful yet optimistic summing-up that completes the album’s arc in a shower of warm Hammond notes before transitioning into the instrumental coda “Vestigal,” a snazzy light-funk variation on a section of “God’s Board Game.”

The Mayor Of Estes Park is the work of a visionary, for sure, the sort of idiosyncratic but thoroughly realized piece that you’re either going to get into or not; there isn’t likely to be much middle ground. Once I began to think of it as the soundtrack to a rock opera—albeit one with blue-eyed funk undertones—it clicked for me.

One thing is certain: this album is full of painstakingly crafted tunes and thoroughly committed performances, a complete package that’s unique and revelatory and 100 percent genuine. In that sense, it captures the spirit of an artist like Zappa, who’s always been just a bit too out-there for little old suburban whitebread me. In the end, I can’t say I love The Mayor Of Estes Park—but I respect the hell out of it.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


© 2016 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Wampus Multimedia, and is used for informational purposes only.