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Published: 2008/10/20
by Fady Khalil

American Heartache – Jamie McLean


If you’re Jamie McLean, you have to wonder if having left New Orleans jazz-funk royalty to chart your own modest path in the wilds of music was such a good idea. Since his 2004 departure, the once-upon-a-time guitarist for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band has seen an underwhelming fanfare surround his last album, 2005’s This Time Around. No but really, this time around, American Heartache—produced by Stewart Lerman (Rufus Wainwright, Richie Havens) and featuring a slew of guest artists—manages to create something truly distinct, even amongst the glut of competition.

Taking numerous liberties on his tried and true blues-rock formula pays off. On “Heads Are Gonna Roll,” interest is decisively piqued when the unfettered rock radiance of McLean opening riff turns sharply to smoldering jazz, courtesy the Dirty Dozen Brass Band horn section. “Up Down,” finds a jam-friendly synthesizer exchanging coy jabs with an archetypal rock guitar, eliciting an exciting arms race between new and old. Vibrant blues are rolled back to reveal a softer hue in the catchy acoustic-laced title-track, “American Heartache,” and indie-esque early measures of “Shades of Honeydew.”

Regardless of direction, McLean's guitar stands out, unchained and aggressive, like a junkyard dog provoked by on-lookers, barking to their delight, and even exchanging sporting bites with axmen Luther Dickinson (The Black Crowes, North Mississippi All-Stars). The ravenous spectacle is no more so on display then amongst the electrified soul-purge of “Garden of Thieves.”

The lyrics catch and usually provoke a rapturous sing-along as in the mantra-like “come along and hear/ what everyone should hear/ can you hear me now/ anyone” in “Can You Hear Me Now.” However, at times, lines seem dull and gimmick-laden. Some cringe-inducing passages could definitely have been done without, as in “Cherry Tree,” where McLean utters “and it’s all gravy and I’m a biscuit/ girl.” Oops. Fortunately, these few moments of uninspired writing prove innocuous blips of annoyance when held up to McLean's strong, unpolluted vocals, heartened further by Shannon McNally’s passionate croon.

Since the beginning of his solo sojourn, McLean's path to mainstream acceptance has been and will be long and arduous, and the greatest American heartache is that good musicians far too often go unnoticed. McLean sings, “All my heart and soul is here to stay,” and music fans all over should be thanking him for that.

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