Paul Curreri is increasingly known, if at all, as ‘that chap married to Devon Sproule‘. Sproule, cover star of magazines and now a national headlining act, has overtaken Curreri since their marriage in 2005 (at that time it might have been imagined he was the one destined for the big time), and Curreri has been known to joke about it when playing live (sometimes doing so, no less, as Devon’s support act). This state of affairs, about which he seems to harbour no regret (Curreri’s modesty and humility is part of his charm), is nevertheless unfair on him – there are those who see more inventiveness and humour in Devon’s writing, but I have always preferred Curreri’s style, and he is probably the finer guitarist. Certainly, his Songs for Devon Sproule remains one of the finest examples of a one-man-and-his-guitar album in existence. It is compelling and powerful, and full of endless musical and lyrical subtelty. Subsequent albums – The Spirit of the Staircase in particular – are atmospheric, intricate gems. Curreri is a discovery you make for yourself, a rare commodity his relatively small fanbase is happy to hoard.
He has in recent years come to develop a strong link with the UK, via Coventry-based Tin Angel Records and its associated close community of musicians and promoters. The label released his latest record here a couple of months ago, though I’ve only just got around to listening to it. California was put together over time whilst Curreri was recovering from a throat injury and serving as a producer for both Sproule and Coventry hopefuls Don’t Move!. This makes it a slightly different prospect to many of his previous records, which have often felt like more deliberate affairs with a specific purpose in mind, from the airy jazziness of Spiral Staircase to the studio experimentalism of The Velvet Rut. This makes the new LP in some ways a more luxuriant listening experience – it feels looser, and therefore more relaxed, as if it has more space into which listeners can settle and discover the record for themselves.
This quality makes me rather fond of the album, but that isn’t the same as rating it better than some of Curreri’s previous work in terms of objective quality. The songwriting in particular seems at times more de rigeur, failing to match the lyrical sharpness or structural playfulness of songs past. In a sense, California offers more conventional singer-songwriter fare than Curreri has previously put out: in parts (‘Once Upon A Rooftop’, ‘Down In The Water’), it reminds me of nothing more than M. Ward’s Hold Time, also released last year and not at all the sort of record you might have expected Curreri to make; whilst at others (the John Martyn air of highlight ‘I Can’t Return’, or the echoes of Jose Gonsalez apparent in the powerfully delivered ‘I Can Hear The Future Calling’) his tribute to classic sounds of the genre past and present seems equally clear. Even the cover gives California a more ‘contemporary alternative Americana’ feel than has been the case with his previous work.
Curreri executes all this with his particular panache, however, and his character is stamped across the record, even as it might feel to the initiated like a step away from the roots which have previously fed his music. Album opener, ‘Now I Can Go On’ is a wonderful statement of intent for an album of return; ‘When What You Do Doesn’t Do It Anymore’ is a gently soulful lament for lost confidence (a recurrent theme in Curreri’s work); ‘Tight Pack Me Sugar’ in particular is a structurally adventurous foray away from the finger-picked guitars, and one of the album’s vocal highlights. The title track, meanwhile, deserves a place in the first rank of Curreri’s best songs, meaning it is both familiar and quietly inventive, a perfect showcase for Curreri’s musicianship and garrulous phrasing. If the songwriting at times fails to reach those heights, Curreri has set high standards for himself – standards few other records get as close to California to meeting.
Is this Curreri’s own tilt at the mainstream? Possibly. At the same time, however, it feels sufficiently demanding in its variety and breadth of reference that as an album it’s a worthy, if unexpected, contribution to Curreri’s eviably strong catalog. Why don’t you just go and discover him yourself?