Del Suelo – The Musician’s Compass: A 12 Step Programme (LP)

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“Second Encore” opens Del Suelo’s The Musician’s Compass: A 12 Step Programme on a high note as the band’s creative engine, Erik Mehlsen, and his accompanying musicians give you a virtual master class on how to start an album. There’s a strong retro vibe to this track thanks to the understated organ riffing in the mix, bluesy harmonica lacing through the arrangement, but the lodestar of this particular track is the pairing of Mehlsen’s vocals and guitar. His six string playing is superb; Mehlsen never reels off extended flights of instrumental fancy but lights up the second song “Pack Rats” with some on point guitar heroics that keep a firm grip on melody throughout while still flaring with unmistakable fire. The production does a stellar job of catching Del Suelo’s sound at close to its fullest realization with a cracking rhythm section attack and Mehlsen’s guitar playing framed in intense, physical tones.

“A Lust Supreme” is Mehlsen’s first truly soulful turn as a songwriting on the album and Mehlsen responds with well phrased and emotive vocal. His voice isn’t any technical marvel, but he has a surprising range and definitely pays laser-focused attention to syncing his voice up with the arrangement. The keyboards in “A Lust Supreme” make its chorus especially effective. The dexterous roll through an assortment of challenging tempo shifts in “A Panic! At the Disco/the Fulsome Prison Blues” lights up the song’s opening before Del Suelo settles into a more conventional mode for the verses. Some may enjoy how Mehlsen references popularized band and album names for his song titles, but Mehlsen thankfully leaves us to draw our own conclusions. The second half of this tune features none of the same overt virtuosity, but Mehlsen and the other instruments pick up the pace end for a satisfying close.

“(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?” doesn’t sound a damn thing like Oasis; in fact, I think the lyrics are among the most personal on The Musician’s Compass and the songwriting oddly reminds me of a muted, indie rock take on Marillion’s music. Mehlsen’s guitar maintains an entertaining dialogue with the drums and keyboards throughout the song’s entirety. The strutting funk walk of songs like the earlier “Second Encore” and “Pack Rats” returns with “Caress of Steel Wheels” but Mehlsen goes a step further with this track bringing hip hop passages and a guest rapper into the song without a hint of misgiving. It’s one of the album’s most invigorating efforts.

“Darn That Dream/Stairway to Eleven” isn’t the album’s last song, but it’s the true finale. The nearly seven minute epic, for Del Suelo at least, pairs two complementary musical movements and links through Mehlsen’s writing style and note perfect approach to vocals. There’s some playfulness reflected in the titling of this song and others, but this track is far from a lark and easily matches the earlier “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?” for autobiographical overtones. The often minimalist arrangement fixes listener’s attention on Mehlsen’s writing and it holds up well under the scrutiny. Del Suelo’s The Musician’s Compass: A 12 Step Programme is a rare second album in the sense it thoroughly outstrips a fine initial release while remaining faithful to the same daredevil spirit that birthed the band’s artistic vision. It may very well leave you speechless.

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Michael Rand

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