(Jenke Records, CD, digital download)
For a guy who's been a central figure in seven or so records with various projects since 2011, and who's helped birth countless other recordings through his collective/label Jenke Arts, it's surprising that Tommy Alexander's new record, Basement Soul, marks only his second full-length solo effort. The 12-track album, recorded at Ryan Power's Stu Stu Studio, has a distinctly more produced and polished sound than Alexander's previous solo works — Bogart the Ghost, a 2012 full-length album, and the 2011 debut EP Maybe One Day. While those earlier recordings were largely driven by Alexander's vocal and instrumental musings, Alexander's latest feels focused and fleshed out. You can tell he took his time.
The opener, "Joshua Tree," is a finger-picking, bluesy folk tune that matches Alexander's warbled voice to wandering lyrics. It's a classic "on the road" track that positions him traveling highways and byways alone and allowing the landscape to reflect his own thoughts back to him. Alexander sings, "So I packed my bags and I headed west / with something strange burning in my chest / Do you relate to the crow that flies? / Bringing songs from above and a sun that shines / Life is a trip when you're running down a highway of dreams / With nothing for miles but the Joshua trees."
Basement Soul is as intimate and earnest as Alexander's earlier work. But it's also more experimental, signaling that he has found his footing and is now willing to take a few risks. Two tracks stand out stylistically. "Catalina" injects a bit of summertime reggae into the otherwise rustic, weekend-at-the-cabin mix. The ominous and surprising appearance of a singing saw — courtesy of Johnnie Day Durand — in "Dreams to Dance" makes it a slightly spooky number that forgoes the comforting vibe of the rest of the album. Still, these choices show that Alexander is a thoughtful practitioner of his craft who knows what works but isn't afraid to infuse it with something new.
While his strong vocals and light guitar touch permeate the entire album, Alexander also has a little help from his friends — nine of them, to be exact. Many of his pals contribute multiple instruments and none disappoints. "Nobody's Cryin'" has a particularly lovely stretch of Tucker Hanson's longing violin. Other contributors include bassist John Rogone, drummer Simon Plumpton, pianist Randal Pierce and multi-instrumentalist Eric Segalstad, among others.
The ensemble effort suits the collective ethos that Alexander and company practice at Jenke Arts. With Alexander's honest vocals and a talented crew weaving its own sounds throughout the album, Basement Soul is yet another solid piece in the Jenke catalog, as well as Alexander's own body of work.
Basement Soul by Tommy Alexander is available at tommyalexander.com and Pure Pop. Alexander plays a release party at Signal Kitchen on Tuesday, August 5.