First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2005, Volume 12, #9
Written by John Metzger
In order to determine quickly in which direction a band is attempting to head, one need look no further than the person it tabbed to produce its latest effort. On Truth Be Told, for example, Blues Traveler utilized the services of Don Gehman, and not surprisingly, the album contained a rather radio-friendly batch of songs. Gehman, after all, was the man who sculpted hit singles for the likes of John Mellencamp, Hootie & the Blowfish, R.E.M., and Bruce Hornsby, and ever since the smash success of Four, Blues Traveler has been trying to recapture its widespread commercial appeal. Alas, that strategy didnít work, and good as it was, Truth Be Told turned into a commercial disappointment that left the ensemble, once again, without a label.
For its eighth studio outing Bastardos!, Blues Traveler turned to multi-instrumentalist and former Wilco member Jay Bennett for assistance, and the consequences of this decision yielded precisely what one could have expected. While the result is the bandís riskiest and most adventurous album to date, it also has the unfortunate distinction of being the worst of its efforts. The problem is that Bennettís heavy-handed, kitchen-sink approach to recording is not well-suited to Blues Travelerís minimalist style, and all of the attempts to mesh these two worlds together largely sound awkwardly disjointed and misguided.
Throughout Bastardos!, the material frequently feels cluttered, and although Bennett wisely unveils Blues Travelerís soulful side ó allowing a velvety blast of buoyant, Motown-infused pop to burst from the kaleidoscopic whirlwind of After What and transforming the slinky R&B groove of She & I into a horn-splattered, Chicago-flavored romp, for example ó he also buries it within a thick wall of psychedelic ornamentation and indie-band discordance. Itís like trying to stuff a í70s blues-rock outfit like Free or Foghat into a Beatles-shaped mold. In the end, the countless layers of burbling keyboards, distorted vocals, and eerie effects prove to be a huge distraction, and, at times, they suffocate the songs to the point where their basic essence is lost.
For the record, the underlying core of Bastardos! is remarkably solid. Not only will the material blossom within the framework of Blues Travelerís concerts, but it also will hold its own against the groupís impressive canon. At this stage of its career, it certainly is a commendable move for any ensemble to take a gamble and experiment so significantly with its approach to making an album. Indeed, without Bennettís tinkering, Bastardos! undoubtedly would have sounded like any of Blues Travelerís other efforts. Sometimes, however, thatís not necessarily a bad thing. Ĺ
Bastardos! is available
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2005 The Music Box