[ROOTS ROCK] It's unclear which musical career Kasey Anderson is auditioning for on his sophomore full-length, The Reckoning. Suffering from a mild identity crisis, the Portland-based songwriter burns through rockabilly, soundtrack-ish anthems and bluesy suicide songs in a baritenor that veers from diamond-bright nasality to something like truck wheels crunching gravel.
There are other stops along the circuitous and disorienting way, but first things first: This is an absolutely listenable album. Anderson has surrounded himself with first-rate studio players like Eric Ambel (backing vocals, various instruments), Rob Arthur (keys) and drummer Phil Cimino. A slick patina shines on every tune—the best of which are simple, country-flecked folk songs. "Don't Look Back," for instance, employs spare, Tracy Chapman-like guitar and plaintive cello, over which Anderson croaks a pitiful memory song.
Yet, Anderson's voice is almost unrecognizable (like a '90s pop tenor) on "You Don't Live Here Anymore," puncturing the soundscape with an explosively plain refrain: "Everything is gonna be all right." And sometimes the earnestness spills over into hyper-emotional drivel: "Long Way Home" could be from a heartbreaking TV-sitcom finale. Anderson adopts a Springsteen raw tone, bellowing: "It's a cold hard ride/ Stay by my side" (repeat ad nauseam). One of the most curious moments occurs on the following track, a driving good-ol'-boy song with no chorus, called "Hometown Boys." Is that a trace of Southern accent? Sure is—and Anderson employs it judiciously on whatever "Southern" tunes he feels benefit from it.
Sometimes the mix of elements is downright weird: Resigned music meets loaded lyrics ("Sometimes I can't breathe/ Yeah, it gets thick in my mind") on one track; Anderson calls out for a bottle of whiskey on another. Then Ambel's lite-jazz trumpet (huh?) enters on "Buddy Bolden's Blues." Anderson's world-weary voice employs all the necessary interpretive marks: sliding off-notes, sotto voce half-rasping. But it seems too pained, too practiced.
The 27-year-old Vancouver, Wash., native counts Hank Williams, Ryan Adams and Steve Earle as influences. He ought to pick one of their voices—or, better yet, his own—and stick with it if he wants his songs to truly be heard.
Anderson plays Saturday, Dec. 15, with Johnny Boyd at the Aladdin. 8 pm. $10 advance, $12 day of show. All ages.