Stop! Don’t buy that new Stephen Stills demos compilation. If you want to hear a roughly recorded, rough-voiced singer-songwriter at his best, check out the newly reissued 1989 collection Mister Casual (Sings for You) by former local stalwart Dan Haley. It’s one of two new archival releases (the other being Danthology , composed of more recent material) from Haley, who revisits Portland this week.
When I moved here a decade ago and began frequenting the LaurelThirst, a haven for singer-songwriters of all stripes, Haley’s presence was felt despite his fresh absence. His name was often spoken in wistful, respectful tones, like that of a potent ghost. I heard he’d gone to Europe to follow Bob Dylan on tour and never returned (sounded like a good plan to me). Prior to that departure, Haley had spent a quarter-century on Portland stages, leading the seminal Ed and the Boats along with several other beloved projects.
Mister Casual , which drew from an eight-year backlog of tunes Haley had written while leading the Boats (who disbanded in 1993), was originally recorded to four-track and released on cassette. Haley says he sang through a guitar distortion box to “cement the vocal sound” onto tape, resulting in a tone so spooky it makes Devendra Banhart’s debut sound pristine by comparison. Haley’s songwriting, though, has all the polish the recording lacks. Opener “Shining On You,” winningly introduces an E.L.O.-meets-lo-fi aesthetic, complete with twin-guitar harmonies, an “I love you, I love you” chorus and a PDX shout-out.
The disc then takes a folkier turn, suffused with acoustic guitars and Southern-Californian folk-rock harmonies. “Song in F” punctures its title’s potential pretension by making the phrase integral to the lyrics themselves. The inscrutable chorus of “Man Called Herb” is worthy of Dylan’s own Basement Tapes : “It’s so easy to believe they’d try to take my world by force/ And the man that you call Herb is out of work and hungry like the horse.” Speaking of equines, “One Horse Town” hinges on a brilliantly extended metaphor for a broken heart. “Captain and the Crew” sounds of a piece with nautically themed classic rock tracks like “Come Sail Away” and “Ride Captain Ride.”
These days, Haley makes his home near Montpelier, Vt., where he’s as in-demand a sideman as he always was in Portland. He says his songwriting pace has slowed down, and it’s been a while since he’s made any new recordings. But Mister Casual deserves to be heard as a relic of a more innocent time on the PDX scene. The album bursts with creativity and good humor—even if burdened by tape hiss.
Haley plays Thursday, Sept. 13, with Little Sue and Dennis Kenny at Mississippi Studios. 8 pm. $8 advance, $10 day of show. 21+. Also Sunday, Sept. 16, at LaurelThirst Public House. 10 pm. Cover. 21+.