By Aaron Stein
This isn’t your parents’ old Blues Traveler... well, good chance your parents didn’t listen to Blues Traveler. How about: this isn’t your older brother’s Blues Traveler. On their debut album, BT was a boy genius of a band, a wunderkind making music that transcended genre, helped spur the jamband movement, and goshdarnit, was fun to dance to. Since then, the band (most specifically John Popper) have gone through what can only be artfully phrased as "trials and tribulations" leading up to their newest release, Bastardos. Here the child prodigy has become a mature adult, a man with experiences behind him and in front of him, a middle-aged realist who knows that life has its good times and bad times, and you know he’s seen them all.
The result is a surprisingly tight album with few weak moments and full of just the right sounds at just the right moments. The Blues Traveler of old was Popper first and foremost: his harmonica playing was the centerpiece around which all the other elements existed. Now that tell-tale harp is not the text of the story Popper is telling, but rather the punctuation – the commas, periods, and yes, even the occasional exclamation point. This is a band playing together through and through, layering sweet vocals on a cohesive spurt of guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards. Indeed, it is Ben Wilson on a variety of pianos, organs, and the like that brings the most urgent playing to much of the album. Chan Kinchla’s guitar has mellowed over the years as well, and his subdued playing matches the mood perfectly. There are few solos and nary a jam on the entire album, and at the same time, few built-for-MTV “hits” – just 14 tracks of 3-4 minute, cohesive, honestly penned songs. Beyond the quintet of musicians, there is another strong force felt throughout: Jay Bennett of Wilco/Yankee Hotel Foxtrot fame does production for the album and brings his certain signature of sounds to the mix, forging electronic string sections, horns, and fuzzy effects together around Popper’s strong compositions.
Bastardos finds Popper an optimistic realist, singing more about loves realized than loves lost. His voice is as strong and emotionally charged as ever, replacing the hyperkinetic harmonica as the focal point. Each track takes on a slightly different feel, opening with “You Can’t Stop Thinking About Me” with a psychedelic aura around his vocals as an accompanying track seems to float backwards as the foreground pushes forward in raucous, indie-rock fashion. “She and I” elicits an almost Stevie Wonder-ness with funky keys and a raging horn part. “Leaning In” is one of my favorites, showcasing the wide range of Popper’s vocals as he touchingly describes the magical moment of leaning in for that first kiss.
It is unlikely that Bastardos will be anyone’s first romantic encounter with Blues Traveler, but whether you’ve been in a long relationship or left them for dead years ago, the album is well worth checking out. It certainly isn’t the black cat’s first life, but it isn’t the ninth life either.
JamBase | New York
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