Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams & Glossy Production Up the Wazoo
The BoDeans came rocking out of Waukesha, Wisconsin—which is a somewhat unlikely place for any group to come rocking out of—in the early ‘80s and, via Slash Records, released one of the great debut albums of that era: Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, the record was defined as “roots rock” in its day, but, nowadays, no one would have problem filing it under “Americana”. Powered by the songwriting pairing of Sammy Llanas and Kurt Neumann, the BoDeans weren’t entirely unlikely anyone else playing music at the time (artists like the Rainmakers and the Silos could easily be seen as their peers), but they had the chops and the hooks to make an impression on the college charts, and their energetic live shows were the stuff of legend among those in attendance. When they released their Jerry Harrison-produced follow-up, Outside Looking In, not only did Rolling Stone gush that they were the “Best New Band”, but U2 selected them to open on their Joshua Tree tour.
That’s when things started getting a little odd for the BoDeans.
Their 1989 release Home was, stylistically speaking, all over the freakin’ map, with guitar work indicating that Llanas and Neumann had knelt at the altar of the Edge while touring with U2. The intent might have been to expand their musical palate, but the end result confused fans. And ‘91’s Black and White, produced by David Z (one of Prince’s boys), found them farther away from their original sound than ever. Thank heavens, then, that 1993’s Go Slow Down turned out to be the band’s best work since their debut, a return to a more acoustic sound. It also resulted in their biggest hit to date, albeit one that occurred two years after the album’s release: “Closer to Free”, a.k.a. the theme to the Fox Network’s melodrama Party of Five.
Since then, there’s been a live album in 1995 (Joe Dirt Car) and another solid studio album in 1996 (Blend), but, for the most part, the BoDeans have been keeping mighty quiet since the mid-‘90s. Llanas produced an extremely cathartic album under the guise of Absinthe, with lyrics tackling the suicide of his brother, and Neumann put out a solo album in 2000 (Shy Dog), but that’s about it, aside from the occasional BoDeans tour, probably to keep the coffers filled. Oh yeah, and a best-of collection, courtesy of the fine folks at Rhino.
At last, the band has deigned to return to the studio and produce a new studio album, Resolution... but, unfortunately, it’s one that begs the question, “Did I misread the album cover and buy the new Bon Jovi album instead?” A scary thought, perhaps, but the vocal interplay between Llanas and Neumann these days sounds for all the world like Jon Bon Jovi. If you don’t believe me, I submit track eight, “Said ‘Hello’”, as Exhibit A.
It doesn’t help matters any that several of the songs have been produced within an inch of their lives. Many of the songs, like opener “If It Makes You” and follow-up “Marianne”, are extremely keyboard-heavy during their choruses. The dance-floor beats at the beginning of “Two Souls” may well give fans heart attacks if they don’t stay tuned for a few seconds to hear the song quickly turn into a mellow, accordion-led number. It isn’t until the final three songs (“All Better Days”, “Slipping into You”, and “Once in a While”) that the band truly manages to sound like the BoDeans of yore, production-wise.
That having been said, Resolution is far from a bad album. The songs are all consistently strong and undeniably catchy, proving that the guys haven’t just been bumming around and scoring paychecks by playing the old songs over and over; they actually spent some time songwriting. But somewhere over the course of the past eight years, the BoDeans apparently transitioned from “roots rock” into plain old “pop/rock”. It seems odd that, in a musical climate where Ryan Adams and the Old ‘97s are shifting decent units, the BoDeans would choose to take a step away from the music that they’ve proven they can do so well and opt to release a record with such a mainstream sound.
In the meantime, just enjoy Resolution for what it is—a collection of solid BoDeans songs buried under overproduction—and keep your fingers crossed that the album’s last three tracks are a harbinger of what the next disc will sound like.