Clay Nightingale is the project of San Marcos’ Daniel Shaetz – thankfully, because that would be a tough name for a kid to grow up with. But then Shaetz seems to take things in stride, especially on the group’s debut full-length. There is a strong sense of Wilco’s Being There days overlaying a playful lyricism, but, like Wilco, the easiness is hinged upon poignant moments arising from the heart of the songs. The album also encompasses a twenty-something aesthetic of living in central Texas, making the round of bars, humid hipster parties, tenuous relationships, and, of course, music played with a laid back informality of mellow late nights and drunken hoe-downs.
Those elements also give the nine songs on The River a bi-polar, if logical, balance. Between the hilarious “The Bar is a Wonderful Place” and sentimental “Missing Missing” lies a subtle reality that is relatable and remarkably articulated. The conversational mischievousness of the former (“The bar is wonderful place, it puts hope in my veins and blows smoke in my face, and the worst songs they have in the juke box are great, just wait till you hear the great songs that I played”) is cast over a swaying, drink-along beat and slide guitar, while the latter, perhaps the album’s most exceptional song, displays the resignation of missed connections and possibility left to nostalgia (“But this is not a movie, this is not what we’re like, you can’t just roll the credits after we have a good time. I’m sure I’ll forget umbrellas as soon as it’s supposed to rain; you weren’t put here to hang around, and I’m sure not here to entertain, and that should be enough reason, that should be ok”). The entire song is beautifully built, moving lyrics doled with an understated boredom that realizes the situation for what it is, as Tyler Mabry’s piano and Mathew Harber’s pedal steel reinforce the early Wilco feel, a sound perhaps best replicated in “Patio,” echoing “Misunderstood” without being derivative.
The key to Shaetz’s songwriting depths, though, is that these emotions are never thrown towards the maudlin or exaggerated, but rather given as life’s simple twists. And lyrically, Shaetz can hint at deeper intentions without having to unduly fixate on them, as on the excellent closing line of “Patio”: “You’ve gotta get out of here soon - you’re a good ice skater, but you’re a real bad swimmer.” Levity is also shot through the center of the album with “A Song For You For Me,” an a cappella hand-clappin’, foot stompin’ romp that sets a seamless trilogy alongside “3I,” which rolls in the spirit of Shearwater’s “Happy Song for My Friends,” and the easy flow of “New Pair of Shoes.”
The album may be best understood in terms of its bookends, however - opener “Eureka” and closer “Blast Off.” In an underwhelmed monotone, Schaetz begins “Eureka, I found a nickel in my carpet, and with the fifty in my wallet, this could mean good times,” while “Blast Off” playfully rips lyrics from “Reason to Believe,” “Levon,” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” contorting them into Schaetz’s own narrative. It’s a fitting patchwork for an album that feels like an evening drive down Austin’s streets with the window rolled down, careless, joyful, and touched with the sentimentality of experiences even as they unfold.