Rivers Garcia’s Santa Cruz is one of those kinds of albums I don’t hear enough of. There’s a sense of stakes surrounding these proceedings akin to what you hear on seminal albums such as Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks – an album that isn’t so much of an imaginative exercise as it is a musical diary chronicling a life lived. Garcia spent ten years traveling throughout the American West and Southwest putting his experiences down in a journal he later drew from to help compose these tracks. It isn’t entirely accurate to deem this album an example of Americana music, though some may think it applies. I think it is closer to the singer/songwriter style though there are a variety of musical influences making their presence felt throughout the album’s dozen songs.

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“Drive” starts Santa Cruz in memorable fashion. Garcia’s songwriting invariably comes from a very personal place but he has the talent to make the personal universal and such skills are in short supply these days. The inclusion of harmonica and imaginative electric guitar gives the track wings it might not have otherwise possessed, but the real highlight of the performance is Garcia’s vocal. “Stick Shift” is the most musically upbeat number included on this album, but even then, Garcia isn’t content with pursuing a straight-ahead musical attack. Instead, he mixes things up with unexpected acoustic guitar work that hits you in unexpected ways. This song and the earlier “Drive” show he has immense facility as a songwriter with automotive imagery and it never lapses into cliché.

“Blues and Sympathy” is one of the more unadorned numbers as Garcia adheres to a bluesy structure and makes it work with exceptional skill. The electric guitar unleashes some stinging blues lines during this track and the song’s foundation gives Garcia an excellent platform for such musical moves. I like Garcia’s voice in this setting; he never derails into outright melodrama yet wrings every ounce of available emotion from this track. “Palm Trees, West L.A.” is one of the album’s better tunes if for no other reason than Garcia strips away all pretense and lays down a plaintive acoustic performance. The pairing of acoustic guitar and Garcia’s voice requires no additional accompaniment here and it showcases his lyrical skills.

The title song is another highlight for me. It’s, arguably, one of the best examples of Garcia merging electric and acoustic instrumentation into a greater overall whole. The vocal arrangement, as well, helps put this track over as one of the album’s finest moments because it captures his lyrical gifts better than many of the other performances. I am equally impressed by the album finale “California” because it shows Garcia can expand his musical vision to encompass a large canvas. Some may hear this as two different tracks uneasily meshed together to make a larger whole, but I think these different sections come together quite well. Santa Cruz is one of the best releases I’ve heard in 2020 and I expect we’ll hear more from this artist in coming years.

Garth Thomas