Bastardos! – Blues Traveler
Vanguard Records 79790-2
On their eighth studio album and first release for Vanguard Records, Blues Traveler is having an identity crisis of the worst kind: taking a creative risk (which is noble) and ultimately failing (which, given their willingness to try something new, is honorable). At the center of their new direction is producer Jay Bennett, whose work with Wilco and inimitable talent as a producer is embodied in Wilco's masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The sonic landscaping that Bennett is famous for fits Blues Traveler like a dress that’s at least three sizes too large. It’s as though a giant Bennett slug has slimed itself over each track, leaving a gooey discharge of sonic sludge in its wake.
This is particularly apparent on the opening number "You Can't Stop Thinking About Me," where affected vocals, feedback and noise are slathered like butter on the crispy toast of the song's power pop guitar chords. "After What" begins like a Green Day song but then jerks along to a chorus replete with over the top organ chords. The latter is reminiscent of the Black Crowes' "Sometimes Salvation," though Popper fails to capture the soul of this song in the way Chris Robinson might. "Nail" has the makings of a great song (catchy intro, nice little guitar lick, great, inspiring melody) until it dissolves into a very digital Ravi Shankar-meets-Jay Bennett moment halfway through that slows the momentum to a crawl.The album is not a total throw-away however, and the salvageable material is more true to what you would expect from Blues Traveler. "Amber Awaits," the album's best shot at a hit single, is a bopping ditty that reaches a euphoric peak with its roll-down-the-sunroof-and-windows, pick-up-the-speed-and-let-your-hair-fly chorus. Popper's harmonica whistles gaily just like old times. "She and I" features horns that add just the right jazzy touch to this sexy number. The chorus is the kind of feel good you want to hear as you drive home the morning after a great date. Bastardos! also goes out with a bang (insinuated by the smoking gun cartooned on the back of the liner notes) with "The Children of the Night," a rock and roll anthem more characteristic of Blues Traveler’s jam rock capabilities and features some of guitarist Chandler Kinchla’s best work on this album. Soaring guitar reminiscent of the late Jerry Garcia shines boldly before becoming inundated by noise that is Bennett’s final waxen seal on this disc.
So, for those inclined to jump at the sight of Bennett's producer credit on the back of this disk, take heed. You're not going to find quite what you're looking for. Likewise, diehard Blues Traveler fans won't be finding the signature sound they've come to know and love. While their risky venture, Bastardos!, shows their willingness to evolve and change, Blues Traveler’s most recent release comes at a cost to their sonic identity.