Saturday, January 20, 2024

Cactus Lee: “Caravan” (2023) Vinyl Review

Cactus Lee is a band started by singer and songwriter Kevin Dehan. In a relatively short time, Cactus Lee has released a lot of excellent music. The band got off to a strong start in May of 2019, when it released not one debut album, but two simultaneously – a self-titled album and one titled Texas Yard Sale. Those were followed by two more albums in 2020 – Tarantula and Live From The Dry Creek Café – and then Texas Music Forever in 2021 (Dehan is based in Austin) and Perfect Middle Hall in 2022. In the autumn of 2023, Cactus Lee released Caravan, which features all original material written by Kevin Dehan. The album, available on vinyl and in digital format, was produced and recorded by Kyle Crusham, who has worked with Paul Simon and Edie Brickell, and who plays guitar and keys and did some of the arrangements. Also playing on this record are Joe Roddy on organ, piano, electric piano and trumpet; Anthony Farrell on keys and synthesizer; Jack Montesinos on bass; Conrad Chouchroun on drums and percussion; and John Bush on percussion.

Side A

The album opens with “East & West,” which has a bit of a 1970s flavor as it begins. “Gonna get to my own destination/Gonna dance off the deck of the pier.” Wonderful lines. Then Kevin Dehan sings, “Sadness is here to stay.” But soon the song kicks in, and sadness, at least for those of us listening, seems to be on the way out. This song has a soft, rather thoughtful vocal approach, backed by strong percussion and some nice touches on keys. While several Cactus Lee songs (and even album titles) mention Texas, here Kevin Dehan gives us a song titled “Lowell Mass.” I’m always surprised when an artist sings about Lowell, though I can’t explain exactly why. There is something pretty in this song’s sound, much prettier than Lowell has been historically. “I’m not going to stay here, not for very long.” This one too kicks in, and he repeats, “Stay here, but not too long.” And, yeah, that line makes total sense regarding Lowell. There is also something catchy about this song, particularly in his vocal approach on lines like “Tears fall on me/Tears gonna fall on me/Tears fall on me/Soon they’re gonna fall away/The bell rings slowly/The bell’s gonna ring slowly/The bell rings slowly/Soon the bell rings for me.” It is ultimately a positive and hopeful song.

In “Southwestern Bell,” Kevin Dehan sings, “But when it feels so far/I want to shine like a steel guitar.” I love that second line, in part because it comes as a surprise. We expect the word “star” to finish the line, not “steel guitar.” This track has a pop flavor mixed in with that great folk and country sound, and it features some good work on keys. Certain phrases catch my ear each time listen to this track, such as “A terrible waste of sunlight.” The first side of the record concludes with “Olympic,” which has a darker, more somber vibe as it begins, making good use of pauses that have a dramatic effect and help draw us in. “We left it with the wind/We thought she’d be a friend/It wasn’t for the better/Jump in the water and drown/Dive into the sound, you’re sinking.” Another line that stands out is “A flower in the vase you’re drinking.” And this one: “But memory still holds on.” And then there is some gorgeous trumpet work, which feels like memory, coming from the past, rising from memory, and taking us back. I wish that jam at the end went on a little longer. It seems to end prematurely.

Side B

The album’s second side opens with its title track, “Caravan,” which begins as an excellent folk song featuring one of the album’s most arresting vocal performances, backed by some strong work on acoustic guitar. “The love between me and you/Is gone, it’s through/You made that clear, so I will too/Go on, disappear/I knew not to trust you, dear/Get you to the airport and drop you off right here.” It then kicks in with a wonderful force, featuring some good work on keys. “Never again will I write/Out of love or out of spite/Follow the river, lead the way back home.” This track also features some great percussion. The musicians get a chance to jam toward the end. That’s followed by “River Rhone,” the guitar work at the beginning reminding me a bit of Leonard Cohen’s “Lover Lover Lover.” Then as the vocals come in, there is a bit of a Paul Simon thing happening for a short time, with the percussion and keys supporting his voice. “Hit the road by candle light/Another morning turns to night/Clear the tables, fold the chairs.” There is also something of a CSNY influence heard at certain moments. “Through the wind, and through the past/Through the barley grass.” This is one of the record’s most interesting songs and it contains some excellent bass work, particularly during that instrumental section. Plus, I dig that organ. The record concludes with “Pale Rider.” “Early this morning,” Kevin Dehan sings as it begins, and it feels like that moment before the dawn, before the darkness breaks, when there is pain and loneliness. “So hold your breath, dear.” Interestingly, approximately three minutes into the track it returns to the beginning with him again singing, “Early this morning,” this time with a stark delivery. It’s a strong moment that quietly grabs us, and also gives the song the opportunity to burst to another level again, which it does, becoming powerful. And I love that work on keys at the end.

Record Track List

Side A

  1. East & West
  2. Lowell Mass
  3. Southwestern Bell
  4. Olympic

Side B

  1. Caravan
  2. River Rhone
  3. Pale Rider

Caravan was released on October 23, 2023 through Aquarium Drunkard and Org Music.

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