As much as synthesis of musical backgrounds can add to bands, there is always the danger of becoming too derivative. For Knoxville, Tennessee’s Gran Torino, this hazardous precipice is crossed one too many times. Tripping the line that falls somewhere between Blues Traveler’s softer side, Steely Dan’s jazz-infused pop, and soul/funk R&B, Gran Torino has difficulty in establishing its own identity.
Maybe it’s a danger that comes with having a nine-piece band that deliberately attempts this daring feat of fusion, or it could be a watered down production that evens out the parts so that the sum is decidedly bland, but something seems to be holding Gran Torino back. Frontman and singer for the band Chris Ford states, “The energy is the key. That’s our number one thing,” and from the impressive statistics of the press release, they probably pull it off live, but something in the process of making this album takes the energy out of the music.
It’s not the musicians themselves, for certain. Each proves himself a capable and talented player, and the compositions of trumpets, trombones, saxes, bass, guitar, keyboards, and two drummers are well crafted enough. But dissected into their individual parts, the songs are light on hooks, and Ford’s soft imitation of an R&B John Popper don’t carry the songs well enough to forgive simple playing. Likewise, the lyrics in the songs are at worst blunt and uncreative, and at best too contrived to be sung easily. The songs that actually work best are the three instrumental tracks.
Actually, I can’t help but feel sorry for Gran Torino. It is entirely believable, just from listening to this album, that they have a great groove live and probably motivate a lot of dancing, but this album relegates them to the level of a typical bar band. You could almost see them as the band that you tap your foot to while talking loudly with friends over a beer but later you won’t be able to remember a single song. They obviously put a lot of work into this self-produced disc. The design is great and not too contrived. The production, despite being too level, is perfectly clean. But I think it probably doesn’t do the band justice.
There are a couple of tracks on the album that stand apart as both groovy and well conceived. “Bound” has a slick, subtle jazz sound with just enough seediness to carry the theme of a broken life. “Are You Livin” breaks out the funk that almost reaches Bootsy Collins. “Days of the Tested” might have a chance for breaking into your local smooth jazz station for its fusion properties. But other tracks, like “Phyllis” and “Moments With You” are just too common of any given jam night in a roadhouse bar.