I went through a huge BoDeans phase in the mid ’90s — I can’t remember how it started, but what I do recall is that this was before I had a CD player in my car, and given that most of the band’s albums hadn’t sold for dick, it was easy to pick them up in bargain cassette bins. They might have had holes bored into the cases, but I owned every BoDeans album, from Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams up through 1993’s stellar Go Slow Down. I played them obsessively, following the band through its early stages (Love & Hope, Outside Looking In) past its “baby U2” phase (Home), its “socially conscious synths” phase (Black & White), and finally, the “stripped down roots rock” phase that led to the T Bone Burnett-produced Go Slow Down, not to mention the BoDeans’ only brush with “hit single” status, the Party of Five theme song “Closer to Free.”
As you’ve no doubt deduced by now, the BoDeans wore many suits of musical clothing during the early part of their career; in fact, they were often criticized for artlessly aping current trends. The people who dismissed them as wannabes missed out, though — while those early albums may have been riddled with derivative (or just plain bad) production, the songs transcended their trappings more often than not. Lead BoDeans Kurt Neumann and Sammy Llanas had something special — their voices collided in a grisly harmony that shouldn’t have worked, Neumann’s smooth melancholy tangled up in Llanas’ sandpaper roar. Their perspectives were different, with Llanas tending to supply more of the raw rock numbers and Neumann lending more of a pop edge, but they both sang of hopes lost and dreams deferred, of loners nursing broken hearts and finding the courage to love again. They recorded songs that made you feel like you were watching a movie — one that reminded you of every tear you’d ever cried, tossed in a few you hadn’t, and yet somehow left you feeling more hopeful when it was over.
“Closer to Free” should have signaled a new lease on life for the BoDeans, but after 1996’s (honestly rather underwhelming) Blend, they drifted apart, with Llanas exorcising some old demons through a project he called Absinthe and Neumann holing up in his home studio to produce the haunted Shy Dog, neither of which were heard by more than a fraction of the band’s small audience. By the time they reunited for 2004’s Resolution, musical lifetimes had passed, and as wonderful as it was to hear those familiar harmonies again, it was hard not to notice something missing in the material. The songs were pleasant enough, but they just didn’t burn with the same intensity that made the BoDeans’ best work worth hearing — it was as if whatever creative tension had existed between Llanas and Neumann before had been vanquished, whether through time away or careful negotiation. Before, they’d sounded like two guys fighting for spiritual deliverance; now, they sounded like musicians making music. A small difference, maybe, but a tangible one.
Sadly, I found this to be the case with the BoDeans’ last album, 2008’s Still — and it’s the same thing I hear in their latest, Mr. Sad Clown. The band’s essential form is intact, from those harmonies to the ringing, sinewy guitars and the lyrics about yearning for emotional connection. The spirit, though, is another story. I don’t know if it’s that Neumann and Llanas played most of the album themselves or if it’s just that they’ve reached the equilibrium of middle age, but once you’re done humming along with Mr. Sad Clown‘s 15 tracks, there isn’t much to bring you back again. It sounds thin, somehow, an impression only deepened by the inclusion of a goofy throwaway like “Cheesecake Pan” (“my heart is like a…”). The emotional tempests it must have taken to produce BoDeans classics like the aching “Idaho” and ebullient “Still the Night” had to be hard to endure, but at least they provided momentum and gave even the band’s most derivative work a deceptive depth. It’s still nice to have the BoDeans around — I just wish the results were more memorable.