Many summers ago, I was a counselor at a remote summer camp in the heart of lake-bound Michigan and, suffering from a bad case of cabin fever (literally), I had been counting the days until my scheduled day off. Borrowing a fellow counselor’s car, I hauled ass to the nearest record shop in search of some new music to replace the cassettes I’d plum worn out since taking my position as rocketry instructor at Lake Of The Woods Camp. That day, I bought two albums sound unheard: the BoDeans’ Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams and E.I.E.I.O.’s Land of Opportunity.
I literally knew nothing of either band, but figured the album covers hinted at greatness within. Upon checking the liner notes of each, I was struck by the similarities.
For starters, both bands were from Wisconsin. Secondly, they had each occupied the same studio in L.A. during the recording of their albums, and, lastly, T-Bone Burnett showed up in the credits for each album; producing the BoDeans while adding acoustic guitar to E.I.E.I.O.’s “Blue Mountaintop” (download).
While I admit that I preferred the more rambunctious Land of Opportunity, there was a lot to like about the BoDeans’ debut. Most intriguing was the fact that they were fronted by two singer/songwriters, each with a voice and songwriting style that couldn’t have been more different. Kurt Neumann boasted a voice so honey-sweet that even when he pushed the edges, it still sounded smoother than smooth. Sammy Llanas, on the other hand, came across much more world-weary — with a voice that, to my ears, sounded like Festus from Gunsmoke. That their voices melded together to create wonderful harmonies seemed a minor miracle.
(The BoDeans today…yep, that’s Kenny Aronoff on drums)
I hung around for the next two albums, Outside Looking In (1987) and Home (1989), both of which built upon the promise of their debut with songs like “Only Love,” “Dreams,” and “Beautiful Rain” (a song that gave me chills when they performed it at an outdoor festival in Chicago that, ironically, had been delayed by rain).
But then, inexplicably, I moved on from the BoDeans, never to return.
That is, until the promo copy of their new CD, Still, arrived in my mailbox this week. Upon seeing the band had reunited with T-Bone Burnett for the first time since 1993′s Go Slow Down, I found myself curious enough to hear what the BoDeans were up to these days.
The first single, “Pretty Ghost” (download), while borrowing freely from the David Essex classic “Rock On,” is an oddly downbeat and evocative choice for the album’s opening track, considering the next song, “Round Here Somewhere” (download), sounds like one of those songs the BoDeans could no doubt perform in their sleep. Its very presence, like most of the songs on this album, seems to say “this is what our fans expect from us,” while the aforementioned “Pretty Ghost” and the chillingly confessional “Breathe” (download) reveal a band eager to grow beyond the sound for which they are famous.
Considering no new BoDeans record is going to light the charts on fire no matter how great it is (a sad commentary on the current state of radio, retail, and the lack of promotion such acts receive these days — most certainly worthy of its own post), I can’t help but wish they’d have devoted more time on the album to exploring more atmospheric territory.
The presence of Burnett, who is virtually without peer when it comes to capturing the weight of the human soul, and the added weight of regret that haunts even the best of men, in musical terms seems overstated herein. While his name appears in bold letters on the CD case, investigation of the liner notes reveals that Kurt Neumann recorded a majority of the tracks at his own studio, and no further mention of Burnett’s involvement is mentioned. Odd.
All things considered, Still is a record the BoDeans can most certainly be proud of, but I can’t help thinking that it could have been a real gem if they’d more wholeheartedly thrown caution to the wind.