I'll See You When I See You

Gilbert Neal

Wampus, 2022

http://gilbertneal.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/17/2022

For a lot of artists, part of the struggle is identifying their own uniqueness—what is it they do that distinguishes them from their peers and resonates with an audience? What is their distinctive flair?

Gilbert Neal is all flair.

With a background in musical theater and a deep affection for iconoclasts like Leonard Cohen, Jim Steinman, and Frank Zappa, Neal’s natural gear is big and bold as a Broadway show-stopper. There’s a sort of casual theatricality he inhabits like a champion fisherman donning waders—an image that seems especially on the nose for an eagle-eyed lyricist who’s as likely to lampoon himself as anyone else. And his passion for musical theater is matched only by his affection for big, bold ’70s rock and funk; these are showtunes you can groove—and sometimes air-guitar—to.

The opening tracks set the table for this loose concept album about the aftermath of a breakup and/or the fall of man. If that sounds a little out there, the reality is odder still. The album opens with a few playful harp strums exposing musical gourmand Neal’s Vaudeville roots before he and principal collaborators Darrell Nutt (drums, co-producer, mixing), Bruce Hoffman (pedal steel and dobro), and Jacob Wynne (trumpet) dive into “Dead To Her,” a nine-minute multi-part suite about a nightmare where you’ve become a ghost who no one can see or hear or touch. Filled with bombast and gutsy transitions, it’s the opening number in an all-caps BROADWAY production.

The closing segment offers an introspective denouement, a necessary bridge to earnest sophomore track “I Want To Be Friends With You.” Opening with a lush doo-wop vocal arrangement, Neal underscores how sometimes in his songs he’s winking at you, sometimes he’s utterly sincere, and sometimes he leaves you wondering. The latter ambiguity comes to the fore as they move into “Vapor Girl,” an ode to a crush who’s literally ephemeral, a conceit that’s both bizarre (“I tried to make her friendly, but she couldn’t hold her booze / ’Cause she was mostly water and it all just went right through”) and an opportunity to rhyme “squalid” with “solid,” which is pretty, well, solid. How would one complete such a confection other than with a trilling smooth-jazzy sax break out of a George Benson song? Yeah, sure, okay (I swear it all makes sense when you hear it).my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Vapor Girl” also opens with one of several spoken-word bits contributed by Russian voice actress Ekaterina Rykova in her native tongue, and references St. Petersburg in the late going. How all this reflects Russia’s current moment is something I’ll leave it to Neal to explain, because I don’t have a clue, other than the fact that Rykova’s presence sounds cool and adds another layer of mystery to the proceedings.

The exuberant funk that seems to lurk around the corner of every one of Neal’s compositions comes to the fore in “The Phajaan,” which climaxes in an elastic jam between the deep-funk rhythm section, twin guitars, and snappy horns. “Sad Little Miracle” gets a little dirge-y while building to a Pink Floyd-meets-Earth Wind & Fire crescendo before collapsing in on itself. “Duoloxetine” feels like a lost Steely Dan number, with light funk underpinning a sardonic lead vocal, at least until Rykova enters the room again. “Goodbye To All Of That Now” completes the leap from personal to geopolitical and metaphysical as Neal sets the fall of man to rolling piano and steel guitar; no, seriously, and it works.

Any lingering questions about multi-instrumentalist Neal’s musical range should be erased by the remaining tunes. “Wrong” delivers more light funk before the clever, endearing “Two Buffalonians” sets empty-nesting despair to a swoony lounge jazz arrangement. The title track features Neal declaring “I’ll see you when I see you / Like tissue in the rain” to a bizarre arrangement featuring woozy bent steel guitar notes that lurk in the mix until they finally lurch forward for a solo. “Are We Even” then opens with classical piano and swishy cymbal work, a dramatic piano ballad… before it rolls through multiple transformations, getting bigger and bolder and stranger by the stanza until it devolves into a lengthy horn-led fugue paving the way for Rykova’s closing monologue.

How do you cap off an album that has gushed so many different musical and lyrical ideas at you over the course of the preceding 57 minutes? Naturally, the answer is an under-a-minute homage to one of Neal’s musical idols, “Frank Zappa Said.” I won’t spoil the punchline, but let’s just say it all makes an appropriately demented sort of sense in the end.

“All my albums touch on religion, sex, age, and hope,” says Neal. “I treat them all like musicals.” I’ll See You When I See You is vintage Gilbert Neal, a kaleidoscopic musical journey that’s as entertaining as it is unpredictable, a celebration of the joy of creation whose occasional inscrutability is an essential part of its charm.

Rating: B+

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