Truth Be Told
First Appeared at The Music Box, December 2003, Volume 10, #12
Written by John Metzger
Some songs are just destined to become a predictable part of a bandís repertoire. The Grateful Dead had One More Saturday Night and Samson and Delilah, which for years were performed religiously as part of its weekend routine. Blues Traveler had Run Around, a song that was such a commercial success that the group felt obligated to perform it at nearly every concert. It drove the touring faction of its fans crazy, but it endlessly pleased the radio junkies who came in hopes of hearing the hit single. This was undoubtedly a tough act to balance, but more frequently than not, Blues Traveler managed its audienceís expectations quite well, although it helped that Run Around was such a terrific tune in the first place ó infectious, fun, and full of John Popperís typically clever wordplay.
It was 1994 when Four, the album on which Run Around appeared, first hit store shelves. Here it is, nine years later, and itís a miracle that Blues Traveler is even still recording. Not that the band doesnít deserve its longevity. In fact, itís now making some of the finest music of its career. Thereís just been so much turmoil surrounding the group in the intervening years that lesser ensembles would have faded away long ago.
Musically, Blues Traveler seemed to struggle to find itself in the wake of Fourís massive success. Its follow-up Straight on ĎTil Morning was terrific by any standard, save for the fact that it was a virtual carbon-copy of its predecessor. Then, the other shoe dropped: Popper experienced chest pains and underwent surgery to correct a serious heart condition, and bass player Bobby Sheehan overdosed and died. Thereís nothing like a series of tragic and near-tragic incidents to pull a band together and give it focus. With Tad Kinchla replacing Sheehan as well as the addition of keyboard player Ben Wilson, Blues Traveler continued to record and tour, churning out the magnificent and heartfelt Bridge. Its seventh studio Truth Be Told finds the band coming full circle, finally finding a manner in which to recapture the pop sensation of Four without sounding like that is exactly what it was trying to accomplish.
For the first time in its history, Blues Traveler has created an album in which none of its tracks exceed five minutes in length. With the help of producer Don Gehman, the band has managed to do the seemingly impossible, keeping its songs tight, yet loose ó free enough to open up for lengthy exploration within the confines of a concert setting, yet remaining wholly marketable to a mass, radio-driven audience. In other words, like Four, Truth Be Told is extraordinarily listener-friendly, perhaps even more so, given the band steers clear of the hard rock edginess that has graced all of its other works.
Of course, this is hardly by accident, but though the presence of Gehman undoubtedly helped, it also is not simply the result of his involvement in the arrangements. Since its debut in 1990, Songwriting has been one of Blues Travelerís biggest strengths, and the group knows that when everything is said and done, it all comes back to having an inviting melody as well as lyrics that mean something ó a notion that has been lost on the bulk of the jam band community.
Over the years, Popper has become a master at playing the sensitive guy with a knack for introspective reflections on life and love, and Truth Be Told is full of his vivid story-songs that explore affairs of the heart with a fresh perspective and keen insight that is all his own. Heís also a terrific vocalist, certainly one of the most expressive singers ever to front a rock band ó another thing that most jam bands are seriously lacking ó and his emotive style skillfully gives life to the passions and fears that stir within his lyrics. Throughout the album, the group graciously supports him, allowing each song to coalesce into a never-ending stream of memorable moments. Indeed, Truth Be Told is a full-band effort, and it sounds it. Itís everything that Blues Traveler has been trying to accomplish since the release of Four, but with a music business that has changed dramatically in the past decade, one has to wonder if the album will receive the recognition it so rightfully deserves. Ĺ
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2003 The Music Box