They seemed poised to make the jump on several occasions, but Waukesha’s finest (otherwise known as The BoDeans) never quite made it big, despite a long string of pretty solid albums and a handful of almost-hits. (They’re still around — their most recent studio album, Resolution, came after a seven-year hiatus — but their brightest days, both commercially and creatively speaking, seem to be behind them, so the past tense, though inaccurate, seems appropriate.)
Part of the problem was that their earliest albums, from 1985’s Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams through 1991’s Black & White, suffered from gimmicky, one-dimensional production. With each new BoDeans record, you could pretty much bank on a new sound for Kurt Neumann and Sammy Llanas. Going eclectic isn’t a bad thing, in and of itself, but since each of these sonic detours seemed to coincide directly with whatever sound happened to be popular at the time, it’s easy to assume the band’s motives weren’t entirely pure. Moreover, The BoDeans simply weren’t built to be all things to all people — they’re a roots-rock band, and though their palette is fairly limited, when they focus on their strengths, they can produce some truly compelling music.
They proved this on 1993’s Go Slow Down, the first album that came close to keeping the band honest. Like a lot of similar bands, The BoDeans are effective-to-powerful on stage, but can never quite bring that energy into the studio; on Down, T-Bone Burnett’s production stripped back every layer of useless varnish and let the songs stand on their own. Though the album was another sales flop, they continued in this vein for their next release, 1995’s double live album Joe Dirt Car.
Actually, they were never major sellers, and spent most of their career on an indie-ish subsidiary of Warners, so Dirt’s sparse presentation may have been solely a matter of not enough tour support to afford anything else — but regardless of the reasons for the sound, this is the band’s finest hour, and the only BoDeans album you need to own.
Okay, so you don’t need to own it. But I’m pretty sure you can get a used copy over at Amazon for around five bucks, and it’s definitely worth that, especially if you like your rock full of yearning and redemption and all that good stuff. Give “Idaho” (download), “Still the Night” (download), “You Don’t Get Much” (download), and “Good Things” (download) a taste before you buy.