CD Review: Boston, “Life, Love & Hope”
So what can you expect from the latest (meaning both the most recent and long, long overdue) Boston album? Putting aside things like the glaring absence of vocalist Brad Delp (mostly, but more in a moment); the grating, tinny computer percussion that has plagued Boston productions since Third Stage; and the sense that the AOR fan who buys this will feel like they’ve been sold leftovers packaged as new, what’s left are a small handful of moments that kinda/sorta/somewhat reach for the grandeur of that group. Overall, it feels like a tribute album disconnected from the essential things that made Boston so alluring in the ’70s.
I listened to Third Stage again, not long after Life, Love & Hope was announced and thought the songs in and of themselves weren’t bad. They weren’t measurable to the debut or Don’t Look Back, an album which I feel actually improved on what guitarist/tech guru Tom Scholz brought previously. Boston was a party rock album. Don’t Look Back had a little more depth and a bit more doubt, and if that couldn’t be classified as maturity, it could at least count as a glance in that direction. Third Stage suffered from being a mid- ’80s rock album in that it was perfectly in line with the times. That is mostly due to the drum sounds. The release of Life, Love & Hope, I hoped, would cause Scholz to revisit Third Stage and replace the synsonic taps with real, flesh and blood drums.
Not so. Turns out, he likes that sound. This is an indicator of how Scholz runs his ship, that even though those drums sound hideous, that even though he is an administration too late for his Hurricane Katrina/George Bush screed “Sail Away” to mean all that much, that even in those best moments on the album it still sounds like something is missing, he’s going ahead with it. Who are you to stop him? He has every right to do this, mind you. He owns the Boston name and is well within his rights to do as he pleases with the legacy of it.
That doesn’t clear the bad taste in one’s mouth over this disc, and that mostly comes from the appropriation of Delp’s vocals — two from tracks previously on the Corporate America album (three if you count the bonus track meant as an exclusive to Besy Buy purchasers), one which is “new.” How does a dead man record a brand new track, much less record a duet? The answer is that he doesn’t. “Sail Away” would have been sitting in the Boston vault in an unfinished form, maybe meant to be completed someday, and maybe not. With Delp’s suicide a complicating factor, not only logistically but ethically, that should have been it for the song. However, here it is. Was it and the two Delp-fronted Corporate America tracks a sort of tribute? It doesn’t feel that way. It feels calculated and puts Delp’s position squarely as a contracted performer, no more no less. I paid you to sing, you sang. I own the masters, I release the songs, and that is the extent of our partnership.
If only that was the case, then Life, Love & Hope could be countenanced as only a misfire with flashes of better times. But Delp was not just a hired hand. He was one of the most critical parts of the enterprise. Hell, for many of Boston’s longtime fans he was the most critical part. Even though Scholz’ skill as an engineer of orchestras of guitar is unquestionable, I dare say that it can be duplicated. One of the new vocalists on the discs, David Victor, sounds a bit like Delp on the sole standout “Heaven On Earth” but then again, so did former Boston fill-in Fran Cosmo (who was the lead singer in Boston offshoot band Orion The Hunter). Audiences didn’t fully accept Cosmo subbing for Delp on Walk On and Corporate America. That’s because Delp did things that others could closely recall or approximate, but could not actually “be.”
This could have been resolved in a somewhat satisfactory manner if Scholz had recognized this needs to be a new Boston, perhaps more along the lines of an Alan Parsons Project with a cast of lead singers and not this fixed ideal. It is a direction he seems to be pushing in, but doesn’t have the fortitude to follow through on. The often derided Kimberly Dahme returns from Corporate America, and she’s not a bad singer, just a different singer. Had she been given material that worked well with her strengths and not been saddled with bad ideas — her rapping during “Sail Away” is an obvious “Why?” moment — what is missing from the mix could have been forgiven. After all, Both Corporate America and Walk On were recorded when Delp was alive and negative blowback because he was underutilized would have been a natural reaction. Without him now, there would have at least been the nobility of carrying on clean without him. Scholz denies himself that luxury, redoing the older tracks and reusing a clearly dated leftover effort, making intentions look particularly self-serving.
And even if that had happened, even if that rap about post-Katrina New Orleans wasn’t there, this still sounds like a poorly produced album. For an analog-espousing perfectionist as Scholz has been known for so long, this sounds like it was recorded and mixed in Garageband. The idea of the him toiling in the basement studio, mixing his musical compounds to get just the right alchemy in place is disabused by how difficult some of these tracks are to listen to. In the end, no matter what kind of trials occurred during all these years, this is not an album eleven years in the making. If Scholz intends on Boston being a continuing entity, he must start making hard decisions about what that is supposed to look and sound like. If that is more of Life, Love & Hope, I’m no longer interested.