[1 May 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
I may have told the following story somewhere else in the pages of this Web site, but it’s worth a repetition in light of an artistic decision that The Gaddabouts have made on their latest sophomore release, Look Out Now!, a 17-track double-album. I was working as a freelancer in the Arts section of the Ottawa Citizen in the summer of 1998, having completed my studies in Journalism at university, and an item crossed my desk for which I had to write a promo item. There was a guitarist (and I think it was a blues guitarist), who was playing town, and the accompanying press release noted that this guy was so good performing live that he could literally make up new songs without any sort of forethought. So I wrote that in my story and filed it. A few hours later, a copyeditor came by my desk to sort of slap my hand for writing that this dude was such a noted improviser: The editor countered that this was PR hyperbole, that nobody could be so good as to write music on the spot live in concert.
So I bring this up because it turns out that writing material on the fly is possible and The Gaddabouts have done exactly that on Look Out Now!: They wrote a song spontanously and recorded it as it was happening. That song, “Meat on Your Bones”, even opens the record, but, not to mince words, it is rather slight. Running at only a minute in length, and featuring largely repeated lyrics, it seems strange that this is the song that the group chose to set the tone for the sprawling record given the collective noted backgrounds of the musicians here (which I’ll get to in a moment). As well, the very opening of the song feels clipped: There’s a second or two that seems to have been cut off, and I’m not sure if that’s just a pressing error on the promo CD I received or if the recording engineer didn’t realize what was happening and hit the record button slightly late. In any event, it does show a frustrating flaw in Look Out Now!: It is the sound of a band not taking things really seriously, of not being focused, and letting anything they captured to tape be worthy of inclusion on the album. Which is a bit of a shame, because there is strong material to be had on Look Out Now!, particularly in the album’s second half, so you have to wonder what might have been if the band had simply employed an editor to help them separate the wheat from the chaff.
The Gaddabouts, however, might feel that anything they do is important, given their pedigree. The group is essentially the work of jazz rock drummer Steve Gadd (hence the pun in the band name), who you might be familiar with if you own a copy of Steely Dan’s majestic 1977 masterwork, Aja: He’s the guy who provides the percussive fireworks in the final minute of the classic title track. Here, however, he’s a lot more restrained. He obviously has the chops, but he’s more interested in keeping a steady beat than wandering off into wild flourishes. However, it should be said that Gadd is not necessarily the frontperson of the band. The album’s press release highlights the contribution of singer Edie Brickell (wife of Paul Simon and most known for her 1988 one-hit wonder single, “What I Am”) by suggesting that the band is really called Edie Brickell & The Gaddabouts in the headline. (Well, it’s not.) In any event, rounding out the band are session and touring musicians Andy Fairweather Low (a Welsh guitarist who has worked with Roger Waters and Eric Clapton) and Pino Palladino (a Welsh bassist who has worked with the Who and John Mayer). That makes the Gaddabouts something of a jazzy supergroup of sorts: These are respected musicians who command attention, even if they’ve been often relegated in other endeavours to background status.
Look Out Now! is a laid back, lounge-y album that would be best played at closing time in some smoky jazz bar, even though it does blend in elements of folk, world, country, funk, and pop. In other words, yes, Brickell is still living in bohemia. But, as noted above, Look Out Now! starts out rather unassumingly: “Meat on Your Bones” gives way to the title track, which is a merger of jazz, country, and Zydeco. The song floats, barely there, with sparse instrumentation and Brickell’s still seductive voice as really the only guide. A few songs later, “I’m a Van” is, at first blush, a rippling gem of a pop song. However, the melody steals so liberally from a certain Harry Nilsson tune that you may be forgiven if you start singing the line “She put the lime in the coconut, she drank ‘em both up” over the track. A little later, “The Horse’s Mouth” offers the following cloying line as a chorus: “If you don’t hear it from the horse’s mouth, you’re hearing it from the horse’s ass.” For all of these points, you might expect that Look Out Now! is a rather silly and unessential outing.
However, something happens around the eighth track or so: A mediocre-at-best album starts to become exceptionally great, as though The Gaddabouts simply had to clear some of their more frivolous tendencies out of their system first. “Blessed Days” is a beautiful, bluesy ballad that showcases Brickell’s voice to staggering effect. “Devil’s Story” is a gritty song that juxtaposes Brickell’s voice against a slide guitar and Gadd’s metronomic drumming. “Down” has the feel and cadence of a Civil War anthem. And then you flip to the second disc and things continue on the up and up. “Free” is the most Steely Dan-like song on the album with its “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” vibes playing and very Donald Fagan-esque piano. The easy-going ballad “The Mountain” is a decadent piece of jazz-pop. The Beatles-esque “How I Love You” – arguably the best thing going on the record and an obvious nod for a first single if there was one – has a catchy melody that burrows somewhere deep inside you and sticks. In fact, pretty much everything on the second disc (with the exception of the fluffy country-ish number “Can You Feel It”) is stellar and sidesteps much of the frivolity of the first disc.
Therefore, like most double albums, Look Out Now! might have benefited from some winnowing down. Particularly, the second disc could have been retained and added with some highlights from the weaker first disc and become a much stronger artistic statement. You have to also wonder why this is even a double-album affair to begin with: The whole thing runs about 67 minutes, so it could have easily been put onto a single CD in its current form – and there’s not really a compelling reason, per se, for splitting the record into two distinct halves that I can see, other than to give geriatric listeners (an obvious choice this might appeal to given the fact that Gadd is now a senior citizen) an opportunity to take a pee break between exchanging the discs out of their CD players. What’s more, Look Out Now! works its magic best either late at night or when you have it on as background music: Sitting up and listening carefully reveals a certain hokeyness to the proceedings, especially in the record’s first bit. However, there’s some very striking material sprinkled throughout the album, and because of this, Look Out Now! is, overall, a worthy addition to the careers of all of the principle characters involved. While not really an album worth actively seeking out, this is an agreeable collection of songs for fans of Gadd and Brickell, in particular, and it’s worth hearing if you happen to stumble across it. If only the band had spent a little more time honing the material and ignoring the compulsive notion to write songs spontaneously, Look Out Now! would have been more of a keeper. As it is, Look Out Now! is interesting in its own way—a document of some musicians with very serious chops playing around in the studio and just having fun. Given the stellar stuff that these musicians have given us in the past, perhaps that’s all they’ve got right now – and they’ve certainly earned the right to regale listeners with a bit of goofiness just to remind us that they are, indeed, human after all.