John Blakeley & Ron Nagle

April 30, 2007

Blakeley is one of those underappreciated and relatively unknown genre guitarists that will bring one big-ass, blissed-out smile to your face when you finally discover him. A stone California surf wizard—he co-founded the Sandals, and laid down the score for Bruce Brown’s classic surf firm, The Endless Summer in 1966—Blakeley isn’t one to simmer in his own wave of nostalgia, or Super Glue himself to stylistic decrees. On Tan Mantis, for example, Blakeley doesn’t unleash the tremendously loud and resonant fusillades of a Dick Dale, opting instead for a thinner, more plaintive tone, and cinematic layers of acoustic guitars, whammy-punctuated chords, subtle countermelodies, and distorted jabs. Ron Nagle—a fine artist (ceramics), producer, and songwriter of note (with tunes covered by the Tubes, Barbra Streisand, and others)—adds to the sensual landscape with his layered, evocative keyboards.

The strangest aspect of Tan Mantis—and I mean “strange” in a good way—is that it’s not an especially sunny or happy album. Most of the songs are beautifully sad, or mysterious, or full of longing and regret. In fact, Blakeley could be described as the Johnny Ray of surf guitar. (Ray was a famously theatrical ’50s singer known for crying during performances.) Almost every note is very carefully phrased, transforming what would be mere notes in the hands of a lesser fretboard tactician into little explosions of melancholy and pathos. With fabulous songs, vibey production, and stellar performances, Blakeley and Nagle deliver one of those rare albums that paints pictures in your head. And lest you worry those pictures are always in shades of Sinatra blue, Tan Mantis closes with “Roses and Rodents” and “Caballero”—two tunes that explode with joy.

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