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Published: 2002/03/20
by Brad Weiner

Newground – Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise

Vanguard Records 786-2
The new record by Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise is exactly what
their name suggests: a surprise, albeit a less-than-satisfying one. The soul/funk/rock
band that I randomly saw years ago opening for Leftover Salmon has
aged badly since that performance. The disc, entitled Newground,
offers a number of
droning, and often simplistic attempts at Americana
rockers, jukebox standards, and soulful ballads.
Newground opens with a simple arpeggio guitar pattern reminiscent of old
music by The Samples before it dances into a meat and potatoes number
called "Train." The tune attempts to paint the landscape of America
through the timless musical metaphor of railroads. The chorus says
"Train, keep running down the track," a sadly cliched verse that leads me
to think that the locomotive of lyrics was never connected with a musical
caboose. The end of the song features a the constant repetition of the
word "train" before pulling my least favorite musical stunt ever: the fade
"See Her" is one of the places where Robert Bradley and
his band fall into their niche. It has the soulful boom-chink-chink
feel of Motown classics. Still even here, the chorus comes across as forced: "Summer in the city/Dancin’ by the moonlight/ Why don’t you come a little
closer/ Girl you know we got it right."

The instrumentalists never really shine on Newground, an album that
is a
noticeably more polished effort than Blackwater Surprise, the debut
recording from the Detroit group. We barely get to hear any of the superior
keyboard skills of Tim Diaz, who adds the soulful organ backgrounds and
boogie woogie grooves to many of the band’s tunes. The drumming,
provided by Jeff Fowlkes, is fabulous across the board, sometimes
reaching into thick, nearly hip-hopish, beats. Other times he rattles off
head-bopping funk rhythms. Unfortunately, bassist Andrew Nehra
leaves too much space around the beat and often fails to capitalize on the
fabulous drumming as is the case with "Ride My Wave".
"Lindy," is one of the album’s better tracks as it allows the band to get lost in a groove that they
well within their pocket. There is a rippingly distorted guitar solo in the
middle right before the funky rapping returns. For all my expectations
of a soul-driven album, "Lindy" is one of the few songs I would proudly
play with my windows rolled down.
If there were even one tune where the
musicians were able to stretch their legs, we might hear a more fully
developed sound. Instead, Newground is not a product of a finely tuned
quintet, but rather an attempt to score with lumbering arena rockers that are
neither musically or lyrically satisfying.

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