There was a time—maybe seven, eight years ago—when a blues rock guitarist stood a decent chance of garnering some radio airplay on an open-minded rock station. Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Ian Moore, Chris Duarte—all of them had at least one biggish radio hit (“Lie to Me”, “Blue on Black”, “Muddy Jesus”, and “Cleopatra”, respectively) that could have and should have vaulted them into the mainstream. But then, somewhere along the line, classic rock radio shunned new rock and modern rock stations weren’t about to stop spinning rap rock. These blues guitarist found radio to be an unwilling partner. They’ve kept busy, but it’s just a different scene. Lang is releasing his first album in five years, Shepherd hasn’t been heard from since 1999’s Live On, Ian Moore was last heard orbiting the earth with a live album, Satellite, and Chris Duarte now has his latest, Romp. Free of radio airplay concerns, these artists can experiment and indulge their muse, but one romp through Romp, and you may find yourself wishing that Duarte’s muse provided more than half-an-album’s worth of material.
Romp‘s A-side is exactly what a fun blues rock album should be, circa 2003: album opener “Do the Romp” is a rollicking slice of joyous fuzz, every bit the equal to Duarte’s best tunes from the ‘90s, and featuring a noisy coda that suggests Duarte and the ladyfriend he is wooing in the song are, in fact, doing the romp. The instrumental “101” zips along like the bullet train, with only bassist John Jordan keeping the song on the tracks. The song reminds listeners why instrumentals are Duarte’s forte—besides showcasing his guitar wizardry and otherworldly knack for pulling blues hooks out of his back pocket, instrumentals also give his so-so voice a rest. (Hey, the majority of folks buy records like Romp for the guitarwork, and Duarte delivers the goods.) Especially impressive is “Like Eric”, Duarte’s tribute to unimpeachable axe-slinger Eric Johnson. Duarte, in a move that bespeaks his musical virtuosity, does a fantastic job mimicking Johnson’s recognizable guitar sound. Those hip to the scene will find the tune hilarious; everyone else can marvel at Duarte’s fine fretwork.
“My, My” is some fine, scuffed-up blues, that only suffers a little from odd productions choices by Dennis Harring (note: nix the fuzzy, cavernous drums). But that’s a minor complaint compared to those lodged against Romp‘s B-side. A cover of Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee” (from 1976’s Desire) never coalesces, and it takes six-and-a-half minutes for it not to do so. Yes, I realize Duarte is singing a Dylan song, so my beef here could be groundless, but the shortcomings in Duarte’s voice are at their most apparent on the tune. Ditto for the noirish “Last Night”, where Duarte half-speaks lyrics like “I saw the devil last night” for 10 minutes while all kinds of dissonant guitar skronk and intermittent string-plucking burble behind him. Such a stunt might work for a master atmospherist like, say, Tom Waits, but in Duarte’s hands the song just comes off as overindulgent.
And speaking of Waits, Duarte’s “Mr. Neighbor” cribs from his “What’s He Building?” in telling the tale of an oddball recluse neighbor. Romp‘s press packet notes that the song is “informed by Duarte’s admiration for the writing of Elvis Costello”, and I suppose it wouldn’t sound out of place on a Bizarro-world edition of Brutal Youth. Really, though, the song shows that Duarte is out of his element when he’s not performing straightforward blues-rock.
It all ends with a half-baked gospel number, “Take It to the Lord”, an admirable-enough attempt that could have benefited from more polish. I’m not calling for the mandatory creative stagnation of Chris Duarte, banishing him to some universe where he’s forced to re-record his earlier gems like Texas Sugar/Strat Magik and Tailspin Headwhack every year until his death; Duarte’s at his best when he delivers a solid, dependable blues rock album, and Romp is only that for half an album.