Album Review: The Salt Collective – Life

In late 2019 I named The Loneliness of Clouds as one of my favorite releases of the year. At the time, the group (not exactly a group, but I’ll get to that in a moment) was comprised of a French trio – Stéphane Schück, Benoit Lautridou and Fred Quentin – and augmented by the always-creative Anton Barbeau and another American artist. Now it’s 2023, and they’re back, but with some changes. The core trio are now the group-proper, and the project has undergone a slight name change. It’s now billed as The Salt Collective, better perhaps to describe the approach of the trio building on their creative journey by employing select guests.

And the guests this time around are impressive indeed. Fully half of the album features Peter Holsapple, Gene Holder and Will Rigby, all of the dB’s. Their erstwhile bandmate Chris Stamey is on hand on “various” guitars, and he produced the sessions as well. But as the saying goes, “wait: there’s more!” Richard Lloyd (Television) Mitch Easter (Let’s Active) and Matthew Sweet all contribute guitar work too, making this a summit of supreme talents.

But there’s more still: Matthew Caws, Juliana Hatfield, Pat Sansone, old friend Anton Barbeau, and even Susan Cowsill all contribute, mostly on vocals. The songwriting is superb, the arrangements are scintillating, energetic and emotionally resonant. As is so often the case these days (especially coming out of a global pandemic), Life was made in a variety of studios in the U.S. and Europe, but it doesn’t at all have a patched-together feel. For all you’d know, the artists all worked together in the same room. The songs tumble into one another, giving a kind of conceptual sheen to the project, even if there’s no central concept.

Highlights abound. “Where the Wild Things Are” features a great Hatfield lead vocal and a nicely barbed Lloyd guitar solo; the latter may remind listeners of his work on Girlfriend. Meanwhile, the core players are key to everything that’s happening as well. (Special praise for the deftly-integrated keyboard work). “Not Going Back” sounds like a great lost dB’s track. “The Pebble in My Hand” would have fit seamlessly on Falling Off the Sky. “Dream Inside Me” features Sweet on lead vocal, but its underlying guitar figure may remind some listeners of Television’s “Marquee Moon.” The Frippertronics-like intro to “Spacewalk 2068” is merely a prelude to a wonderful Susan Cowsill lead vocal.

It’s a testament to the solid foundation of this record that the major talents who guest never overwhelm the project. These are top-flight musicians who are long past having to prove themselves; there’s an assured sense of creative freedom at work throughout.

If this is what happens when the players assemble as a collective rather than a band, let’s have more, please. The year is only halfway through, but it’s difficult to imagine a December 2023 that won’t find me making mention of Life as one of this year’s finest releases.