Old Californio “Metaterranea”

Old Californio Records, 2023

High-energy bar-room band find truth in the wider world.

With ‘Old Californio Country’, their previous album of mostly covers, Old Californio displayed their considerable vocal and instrumental prowess but left this reviewer wishing for more original material. This is remedied on ‘Metaterranea’, with songwriter Rich Dembowski taking inspiration from the freeways, rivers and skies of the band’s Californian home but as the title suggests, looking beyond this earth. Not simply a scenic tour, the song-cycle considers our place in the cosmos while Old Californio sustain Dembowski’s metaphysical lyrics through an eclectic palette of country, jazz and swing.

artwork for Old Californio album "Metaterranea".

Opening up with harmony guitars and a Blackberry Smoke feel, ‘Old Kings Road’ traces El Camino Real, a colonial highway connecting the Spanish missions of California but now a series of anonymous main streets. Past and present meet in the fusion of American music with its European ancestry: “It’s that California sound, it’s got a Mediterranean soul.”

The contemplative ‘Come Undone’ develops the existential theme – “And though the past has passed, it’s not behind you/The soul keeps no curfew/And where you finish everything begins/And everything else starts where you end” Next, a pair of songs loosely inspired by Lucretius’ poem On the Nature of Things. ‘The Swerve’ avers that “Everything that waxes must also wane” while ‘Timeless Things’ develops this theme of transience and is held down by Corey McCormick’s upright bass and the congas of Andres Renteria, with a fine lap-steel solo from Woody Aplanalp.

‘Destining Again’ takes a magical mystery tour along Route 99 North. Opening brightly with banjo and guitar, there’s a Dickey Betts-style solo from Aplanalp with drummer Justin Smith and bassist Jason Chesney adding vocal harmonies to the recurring theme – “It’s a long and winding road we’re on…. Can’t go back, cause nothing lives in the past.” The waltz-time ‘Weeds’ features nylon-string guitar, double bass and drummer Lon Hayes on brushes in a whimsical take on rootlessness – “Weeds are all wildflowers/Where no gardens are.” More complex is ‘The Seer’, echoing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’“There’s a crack in the fabric of reality through which, if you wish, you can see” With cryptic references to Don Quixote, the Seer becomes a kind of Everyman – “I’m just another trick of the light/Unfolding myself across time.”

In ‘Tired for a Sea’ Dembowski’s baritone captures a river’s meandering toward its estuary while the apocalyptic ‘Through The Days’ has a Book of Revelation sense of awe. With an ensemble feel reminiscent of The Band, the song summarises the album’s theme in the single line –“Yes, to know how small we are before the vastness of our stars.” Another song in waltz-time, ‘Just Like a Cloud’ is the final track and mirrors ‘Weeds’ and ‘Tired for a Sea’. Gentle at first, the song builds to a climax of wild jazz guitar then ceases abruptly, before a final chord ends the album, Sergeant Pepper-style.

‘Metaterranea’ is the band’s sixth release over their sixteen-year history. While it’s an ambitious undertaking, Old Californio have combined thoughtful lyrics with excellent musicianship to produce a very enjoyable album.

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7/10
7/10

About Chas Lacey 19 Articles
My musical journey has taken me from Big Pink to southern California. Life in the fast lane now has a sensible 20mph limit which leaves more time for listening to new music and catching live shows.
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