By Gerry Gomez, Staff Writer
Derek Thomas of Skyline Drive has been playing his brand of canyon folk, singer-songwriter numbers on the LA club and bar circuit for a while now. His music is soulful, uplifting, forlorn, infectious and well crafted. He sings songs that are personal and on this debut, Topanga Ranch Motel, done up so intimately, that at times, he feels like he’s in the same room with you. (Not to worry, he’s an affable guy.)
Derek who was in a successful indie psychedelic band, 60-Watt Kid, is joined by Erik Kristiansen who plays beautiful pedal steel guitar as a lead instrument with Skyline Drive. Kristiansen was with the Far West for a time and played on their debut as well. The two of them really drive Skyline Drive and help define the uniqueness of its sound, Thomas also adding harmonica and acoustic guitar.
Adding to the carefully created arrangements, Thomas also had the good sense to use some local veteran players to maximize Skyline Drive’s songs and carve out a cohesive collection. A really warm, swirly B3 played by Jeff Young color many of the tunes. Carl Byron is as good as they come as far as his piano parts. Leslie Stevens peppers in her accompanying vocal parts with a flare and casualness that’s perfectly suited with a rich and unique voice that falls somewhere between Victoria Williams and Emmylou Harris. Dave Brouillette provides the upright bass parts, Mike Derricote the electric (and co-production on some tunes). Both Jerry Zacarias and Michael Guglielmo are credited on drums. Each of the accompanying musicians are allowed to put their stamp on the overall sound which has elements that remind one of the 70’s canyon acts such as: Neil Young, Harris, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, CSNY, and others.
Thomas lives in Topanga Canyon and the locale has a noticeable effect on Skyline Drive’s sound. It seems that he certainly let the lore of the Southern California canyon flavor into his consciousness as he wrote the songs for the album. Half of the album was produced and recorded at Thomas’ small cabin in the canyon with one microphone using the help of bass player/producer, Derricote. But don’t let that fool you, the production is first class.
While some of the songs from the canyon sessions are the upbeat “Nothing Like You,” the advice filled rambler “Bartering Lines,” the self-revealing “Damaged,” the forlorn “The Captain,” and the moving “Rubber Bullets,” the later produced songs are more sparse, folky acoustic numbers. All songs considered, choosing a favorite is near impossible. Together they form an impressive collection – one any veteran act would be happy to call their own, great on their own and more impressive when one remembers that these are the foundation of Skyline Drive’s debut. The quality of the songs again confirm why we already included Skyline Drive on our best of LA list with just a sampler Thomas put out last year, not even with the songs fully realized.
But realized are what the bulk of the songs on Topanga Ranch Motel are. Right off the bat, the opening track “The Switch” draws you in. A very capable musician, guitarist, arranger and singer, Thomas is also one burgeoning great writer.
“Tried to get it right for you, isn’t that what every man’s supposed to do? Hold you up until you shine,” whispers Thomas in a resonating quality vocal against a mellow plucking guitar and sparse cello.
A country ramble gets going in “Nothing Like You” with its honky-tonk, Dylan-ish kinda vibe. The sway of the song reminds one of Ryan Adams especially when Thomas kicks in his harmonica part. Kristiansen played with Adams for a spell and the fun-loving song has some of the same Whiskeytown/Adams spirit to it.
Sweet Stevens appears for the first time on “Bartering Lines.” The song is about the give and take that goes on between two lovers and how they delicately balance the line “between right and wrong” to which Thomas offers, “it’s best to be wrong part of the time or you’ll be alone,” acknowledging that the goal is not always winning, but to keep playing.
“It starts with a bang and it ends with a kiss…It’s silent and slow and so you don’t notice it…until it hits you in the heart, just like the whip of a stick…and you don’t feel the sting…They’re just rubber bullets,” is the wonderful chorus from “Rubber Bullets” which really gives us Thomas and Stevens at their complimentary best used to similar effect as Gram Parsons and Harris.
Skyline Drive’s Topanga Ranch Motel may end up being one of those albums that you turn to a decade from now and remember the feeling it gave you over this late Summer, early Fall of 2012. It certainly has a timeless quality about it and potential staying power. It bears repeated plays and will grow on you.
Listen to: “Nothing Like You” from Topanga Ranch Motel
For more information on Skyline Drive, visit: http://www.reverbnation.com/skylinedrivemusic