Anyone familiar with the wide limbs of the Cap'n Jazz family tree will know the name of Victor Villarreal. Despite never being a frontman, his guitar skills, further showcased in the instrumental act Ghosts & Vodka and the Cap'n Jazz reunion that was Owls, made him a household name in certain circles. Those of you who don't know the name: It's time to get hip.
We haven't heard from him in several years. After the death of his younger brother Carlo, Villarreal assembled this dedication to him as a Christmas gift for his family. After word got out and interest from fans increased, he decided to release it to the public. It's a different Victor than we've grown accustomed to -- he goes entirely acoustic, and he also makes his vocal debut.
While there is not much in the way of guitar pyrotechnics, the playing is top-notch. To get a starting point, it would not be wrong to think of Owen, because with all those guys growing up playing together, Mike Kinsella and Villarreal share some similar tendencies on the instrument. Villarreal is surely the technically superior guitarist, but that's not what this album is about; the playing is mostly chord-based but does have some nice arpeggiating and subdued leads.
Given the events that inspired the album and its original intention, I feel I must tread lightly with criticism. However, Villarreal's vocals aren't super strong. His vocal tone is that of thinness and uncertainty, understandable given that vocals usually aren't his game. He often seems unsure of his melodic choices or else unable to execute them well. "Ears of My Heart" has a verse melody that is basically one note and a shaky rhythm. Even in the "doo doo doot" section of "Holy Coach!" he has trouble landing squarely on the notes he seems to be going for.
Getting past the unrefined vocals should not be tough for fans, and they will find much to like about the album. Clear standout "You Are Worth It" shows off Villarreal's finger-picking skills, and despite some cheesy lyrics ("Sail the waters of humility / And set my compass to your paradise"), it contains one of the album's cheeriest and most confident melodies. "Don't You Know Who (I Think) I Am?" has a catchy chorus with the vocal melody and the guitar's countermelody bits playing off each other nicely. Closer "Some Light" bounces along at a good clip with more percussion and production effects than the other sparse tracks. While the album's lyrics also have an amateurish quality to them, you gotta respect his positive outlook here as he celebrates his brother's life and also touches on religious themes to get past the tragedy and perhaps shed some of his own demons.
Villarreal certainly bares everything here both emotionally and musically, and while it's not a home run, I'm glad it's gotten the man back into the public with his music. Word is he is working on another more 'proper' solo release, so we shouldn't have to wait years this time. Fans should pick this up, but those unfamiliar would be best to check out Cap'n Jazz or Ghosts & Vodka first.