Big Head Todd and the Monsters

Black Beehive

by John Garratt

10 March 2014

An oft-overlooked songwriter and his band offer an album that hopefully won't be so overlooked this time.
cover art

Big Head Todd and the Monsters

Black Beehive

(Shout Factory!)
US: 4 Feb 2014
UK: 4 Feb 2014

Todd Park Mohr and his band have always occupied this -ish territory in American pop. His songs tend to be more blues-ish than straight-up blues. The band’s performances have been more jam-ish than what you hear from a pure jam band. I realize that I’m kicking around a lot of non-words here, but this is the space in which Big Head Todd and the Monsters resides. And it’s not a criticism. This is how a musical language can be developed, how songs can be cultivated from places that haven’t already been bled dry. Black Beehive is the latest signpost on this journey of American song. It has the power to lure people back on the bus if they went ahead and sold their copies of Sister Sweetly or Beautiful World to their local music stores. It’s an extended hand to fans of Americana as well. All told, this is a robust album that has no problem being compared to the band’s previous high points.

Mohr sought out producer Steve Jordan for the job. In the ‘90s, Big Head Todd and the Monsters’ sound came equipped with a radio-friendly guitar crunch and an overall band mix that suited concert hall expectations. With Black Beehive, Jordan puts you in the band’s rehearsal space. The sound is protracted and the rhythm section shakes just a little looser. It’s that way when you first crack open the door on “Hey Delilah”. It never feels like that “full band” sound, even though all the Monsters are playing at once. It’s also a very good example of music that is not really blues but bluesy (it mentions the devil and breakfast). Black Beehive revels in these little moments where the volume is low but the band is playing with force, like “I Get Smooth”, the story of a Casanova who thinks he’s got more sex appeal when he’s drunk. “Seven State Lines” revs a little hotter, giving Mohr a small chance to indulge his guitar chops (when it comes to the studio, Todd Park Mohr usually keeps his solos humble). One track that actually gets the blues feel to swing along is a tribute to windy city musician Hubert Sumlin.

But even in its poppier moments, Black Beehive keeps things near to the ground. “Josephina” would have been too subtle for, say, Stratagem. Here, however, it’s the upbeat bright spot that people will load onto their sunny day playlists. It has some company in “Everything About You”, as in “I wanna know everything / I wanna know everything about you / Open up your heart and let me in.” It doesn’t get much more inviting than that, does it? Fear not, Mohr can get sad and cynical. “We Won’t Go Back” reflects on the Arab Spring, holding its celebration close to the chest with lines like “Oh no, we won’t go back to the way it was.” “Fear, Greed and Ignorance” simply states three of America’s current major problems, including a sideways jab at the Tea Party when Mohr sings, “Common sense, intelligence / It is a throwaway thing.” The title track mourns the loss of Amy Winehouse. And it’s not a hidden eulogy, oh no. Musically speaking, he clearly had a thing for her.

Black Beehive closes out with two front-porch-by-a-dirt-road ditties, “Travelin’ Light” and “Forever Bonnie”. Harmonica, a resonator guitar, a steel guitar and lyrics about New Orleans and a letter that arrived 53 years after it was mailed (supposedly based on somebody’s true story)—it’s a fitting way to wrap up such a close album. It sounds close, it feels close, it hangs around well after it stops playing. It’s as if you are in that beehive with Mohr himself. Buzz buzz.

Black Beehive


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