If the communiqué that guitar rocker Kevin Salem has posted on his home page is to be believed, the musical paradigm shift of the last decade left him with a full-on identity crisis. Moved by the electronic revolution, he tried buying slick suits, hitting the clubs, scoring films, and tinkering with new technology. Now, on the eve of the release of Ecstatic, his first album in five years, Salem warns against a relapse to the '60s sound: “If I start wearing bellbottoms, please kick my ass.”
On Ecstatic, no one will accuse Salem of being an unshaven, chord-plunking hippie. The album's lush, precise pop is shrouded in reverberating keyboard touches, crisp ambient samples, and subtly programmed background beats; it's a souped-up guitar rock album that transcends self-conscious reinvention.
Salem's 1994 debut, Soma City — a woolly, literate riff-fest that landed him in the pages of Rolling Stone as “one of the best songwriters of the year” — suggested that his '80s sideline status as guitarist for the B-plus indie act Dumptruck was a waste. Unfortunately, his bland sophomore effort, Glimmer, proved Soma City to be the quintessential hard act to follow. Thankfully, Salem's lyrical and melodic gifts shine more strongly than ever on Ecstatic. “Kindness” is a breezy anthem to loyalty, with Salem's unaffected drawl perfectly suiting the gracious sentiments. “Gold Diggers” features concise philosophy in the typical Salem style, at once epic and personal: “Hypocrites pray and idiots stay where lovers die young. … But you and me, we fall from grace easily.”
Salem's expansive songwriting can only be described as cinematic. But whereas Soma City would've been shot on vintage sepia-toned stock, Ecstatic's electronic and symphonic flourishes suggest vivid Technicolor. A digitized marching snare and taut, effervescent backup vocal samples make the aforementioned “Gold Diggers” sound devilishly catchy, while the digital shards floating in the breaks of “Magnetic” add intrigue to an otherwise straightforward Bob Mould-esque steamroller.
Still, Salem's prominent use of guitar hardly makes the album sound dated — if anything does, it's the pseudo-hip hop drum loop on “Jump,” a convention relegated to the middle of the road by the likes of Sheryl Crow. Salem needn't have an age complex, though. An 808 doesn't necessarily bring you cool and a Les Paul doesn't automatically make you stodgy: Ecstatic is a vibrant study in the tasteful use of both.