Saturday, June 18, 2011

Blues Traveler: a suite, part two

You'll remember in the first part of this epic suite, I covered the first five studio albums from this band.  The next studio album would be released in 2001 and would be a turning point for the band, musically, spiritually, and psychologically.  Between 1997 and 2001 a few big things happened to dramatically change the band.

They began working on a concept album for their next release, but in 1999 the tragic death of Bobby Sheehan nearly ended the band's 12 year career.  Around the same time, John Popper nearly died of a heart attack and underwent gastric bypass surgery to drop a lot of weight.

The surviving members took Sheehan's death hard, especially John Popper who hasn't appeared to be the same since.  In the aftermath of this tragedy, the band added a new bass player (Chan Kinchla's brother Tad) and a full-time keyboard player (which makes sense, since every album previously had numerous guest piano players). The concept album was jettisoned, and new work was written for their next release.

Blues Traveler
2001, A&M records
produced by Matt Wallace

John Popper - vocals, harmonica, guitars
Chan Kinchla - guitars
Tad Kinchla - bass
Brendan Hill - drums
Ben Wilson - piano, organ, keyboards

singles -
  • Back in the Day
This album is pretty good considering it follows life altering events and missing a quarter of your original line-up.  Remember, even though Bobby Sheehan didn't write much music, he still was a steady contributor.  His bass style helped propel the jam rift and the bluesy funky feeling many of their songs relied on, the band misses him, and its pretty obvious at times.  Also note, this is a new producer, they did not stay with the duo that helped produce their two most successful albums.

John Popper continues to write, although his writing seems to lack the happy-go-lucky and playful feel of earlier work.  The album's original title was Bridge Over Brooklyn, the first letters spelling out BOB.  The album is officially dedicated to Sheehan's life and memory, and no other track makes this more clear than Pretty Angry, which also showcases the best lyrics on the album, showing glimmers of John Popper's previous wit and color.  Tracks worth a listen include Back in the Day, Girl Inside my Head, Just for Me, All Hands, and Pretty Angry.  Avoid Rage, it's bad.  Overall, the album matches up well with the rest of the catalog and reassures fans that the band is still able to make good music despite missing an integral piece, and a great presence.  Warren Haynes makes a guest appearance.

Blues Traveler
Truth Be Told
2003, Sanctuary
produced by Don Gehman

  • Let Her and Let Go
A&M records parted ways with Blues Traveler following Bridge.  They signed to Sanctuary which, if you've been paying attention, is the first time they've been not on A&M.  Truth be Told is a step in the right direction for Blues Traveler.  The band becomes more comfortable with their new members.  Chris Barron also makes his first appearance as a guest since Travelers and Thieves.  Popper and Barron were great friends in the 80s and 90s, but grew apart, and then Barron had throat cancer, which he made a full recovery from.  He has a writer by-line on Sweet and Broken.  The band comes so close to recapturing the hit-making sound from their earlier career.  This album doesn't receive the attention and critique it deserves, and quietly gets overlooked.  Overall this album is good, it falls somewhere between Save his Soul and Four, definitely better than its predecessor, and very much better than the next endeavor.

Blues Traveler
2005, Vanguard
produced by Jay Bennet

  • Amber Awaits
Upon first glance, this album looks like it wants to be an epic masterpiece.  The cover is a spaghetti western mock-up poster, complete with masked outlaw with guns drawn, bar fight, sexy senorita, and a man on a rearing horse.  The colors are bold and cartoony.  However, the music content leaves much to be desired and doesn't live up to its packaging.  It has been, at the time of this release, 6 years since Bobby Sheehan's passing, and yet John Popper's lyrics still hold a tinge of mourning and sadness that seem to stem from this tragedy.  Instead of being poignant and relevant as on Bridge, these themes have become sad, typical, and depressing.  The song writing is not good.  Tad Kinchla and Ben Wilson do not help write listenable songs, and instead contribute to songs that sound jerky and uneven instead of inspired and flowing.  In addition, Popper's lyrics do not pop and often the sad love songs become boring and unlistenable.  There is a rocking edge that Blues Traveler had on previous albums that is non-existent.  On top of this inability to write songs that people want to hear when not cutting themselves, is the producer's lack of ability when it comes to creating a good overall album.  The decisions made on order of tracks couldn't be worse, and the album has no proper or listenable flow.  There is no continuity.  Don't waste your time with this album, buy a few single tracks on iTunes, Amber Awaits may be worth owning.

Blues Traveler.
North Hollywood Shootout
2008, Verve
produced by David Bianco

This album is aptly named.  After the largest bloodiest confrontation in US police history, North Hollywood Shootout is frustratingly brutal.  Some of the same issues that have plagued Blues Traveler on Bastardos!, and really since Sheehan's passing, still rear their heads on this album.  Having worked with seven different producers on nine albums probably doesn't help, and then bouncing through three different record labels in five years wouldn't give a band confidence either.  I can summarize my experience with this album as follows... it is the most excruciating album to listen to.  There are so many windows into the past here, and I am only allowed to peek through the glass for only moments.  I so much want to like this album, and it isn't bad, considering the hole that they had to crawl out of after the last album bombed.  Also, Bruce Willis guest appears, and I can't decide if this is awesome, or just weird.

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