Forever to Fade is the impressive debut album from Louisiana singer/songwriter Caleb Elliott. Elliott tells his story, from preacher’s son in a cult-like religion to finding musical freedom in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. This is a swamp-art-rock record. There may not be many of those but think of John Paul White (one of his backing vocalists here) and even some of the Memphis folks like John Paul Keith and you’re heading in the right direction. Elliott brings a special sound, however, as he bridges his classical training on cello (which is prominent on several tracks) with the confidence of a front man leading a rock band. His unbounded freedom of expression was deeply earned as he’s broken free of a gothic upbringing inside a cult-style religion to find his artistic voice.
Elliott took tons of inspiration from touring with Nicole Atkins, Dylan LeBlanc, and Travis Meadows, and backing other artists like Lera Lynn, John Paul White, Donnie Fritts, and Sean McConnell in the studio. He never stopped writing his own material. For his debut Elliott tapped Ben Tanner (Single Lock Records co-founder and keyboardist for Alabama Shakes). Together they weave soulful string scores over that dirty-sweet groove that gave name to the Muscle Shoals Sound with seldom heard John Cale-inspired arrangements. The resulting product leans more toward pop than the kind of soul associated with Muscle Shoals but it’s enticingly infectious and at time, sweepingly cinematic.
The instrumentation is as follows: Elliott (guitars, cello), Jeremy Gibson (drums, percussion), Zac Cockrell (bass), Shawn Stroope (bass, baritone guitar), Michael Stephens (electric guitar), Kim Samson (violin, viola, glockenspiel), Ben Tanner (keyboards, vibraphone, electric sitar), and guests on select tracks. Louisa Murray joins White on backing vocals.
“Makes Me Wonder,” the single, kicks off the disc, revealing the orchestral nature of the sounds and soft choruses, and smooth dynamic shifts that imbue most of the songs. Samson plays glockenspiel and Tanner the electric sitar on this on “Burn Like Hell” has an airy, slightly brisk tempo and the song stays on the light side, belying its title. The unmistakable cello leads into the bouncy “Get Me Out of Here,” colored by yet another string arrangement and tasteful keyboard work from Tanner and echoing choruses.
The title track begins with a thumping bass and melodic guitar chords and lines that build, cresting at “you took forever to fade” before returning to the repetitive opening sequence. It’s rather engaging as is the following “On Your Own,” which has even a few more hooks centered around syncopated rhythms. Throughout, Elliott’s tenor voice is expressive, clear, and melodic. “Till the Tides Turn” begins with acoustic guitar before a haunting backdrop envelops Elliott’s vocal and Samson’s gorgeous violin break as Stroope supports on baritone guitar.
“Are You Ready” aptly kicks off Side 2, as the orchestral backing swells behind Elliott’s Beatlesque melody. “Try” is a bit sparer, colored by the prominent bass line. “Old Souls” returns to the orchestral, tweaked by Todd Beene’s ethereal pedal steel and Tanner’s keys. “Don’t Go Losing Your Head” is another with nice cello amidst soaring strings. There’s a longing in “El Paso” – “trying to make El Paso by the night.” “Black Lungs,” as the title suggests, is perhaps the darkest, haunting song with its dreamlike, hypnotic effects.
Elliott delivers well-crafted songs and engaging soundtrack-like music. To his credit he stays focused, unlike some artists who try to experiment with too much variety in a debut. We know Elliott’s rich sound right away and, thankfully, he never veers away from it.
- Jim Hynes