[18 November 2003]
Judah Bauer was once best known as the sidekick to Jon Spencer in his delectable Blues Explosion. But over recent years, Bauer has crafted a nice and promising side project in 20 Miles. With basically himself and an ever-changing cast of musicians around him, Bauer has fused rockabilly with blues and rock to create a sound that isn’t all that far removed from the White Stripes and others. Recorded in just three weeks, the freshness and crisp playing is the first aspect worth noticing, particularly on the good opener, “Easy Living”. “Easy living is hard to do”, Bauer sings in a style that recalls Tom Petty circa Wildflowers. Bauer doesn’t really seem to get the album off the ground with this track, instead relying on time-honored formats and arrangements. It almost comes across as just a case of going through the motions, but there is something worth listening to.
“Gypsy Babe” is far moodier than anticipated—a slow and deliberate tune that resembles a happy dirge at times. A bit of Springsteen can be found here, as Bauer never loses that close slow-dance mentality in the number. “Gypsy babe, I cannot compare / With eyes so piercing that gaze through my mind”, Bauer says as drummer Joe Plummer keeps it all together. Whereas other bands might give a loud or blistering guitar solo in the bridge, 20 Miles opts for just more of the same slow pace. It also might be improved if snipped by roughly a half-minute. “Unquiet Glam” is a faster pop rock, radio-friendly ditty that has Westerbergian hues to it, letting the guitar riffs slide off a la Keith Richards. It’s an early high moment as Bauer rolls with it. This runs beautifully into “Barely Breathing (For Hank Williams)”, another mid-tempo roadhouse rocker that relives the life of Luke the Drifter.
The Stonesy approach to a lot of these tracks makes the album work as a whole, especially the enjoyable “Clover”, another tight, three-minute, crunchy tune that resembles an outtake to Stereo. “Someday things will change / You’ll need a boy your own age”, Bauer sings as the rhythm section shines. This track also shows how strong the album is from start to finish, with Bauer giving tight performances that sound as if they’re “one-offs”, no overdubs or polished, glossy, manufactured sounds. “Ship Is Sinking Fast” takes a bit more to get into, though, as the blues-oriented tune is laced with Luca C’s piano style and Plummer’s marching drumbeat in instances. And unfortunately it seems to run out of gas before it gets started.
Thankfully, “Drown the Whole World”, despite the odd effects used (sounding like sdrawkcab deyalp gnieb stnemurtsni, er, instruments being played backwards), is another favorite here, with samples used behind a solo singer-songwriter style. “I’m your backdoor man, try to understand”, Bauer sings, referring to the old blues staple. The title track is a meaty riff that ambles along at a leisurely, swaying, finger-snapping pace. It’s possibly the best song of the near dozen presented, not building on the sound but rolling along effortlessly. And it’s the sort of song that could go a bit longer than usual, although 20 Miles keeps it relatively tight. Traces of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion can be discerned on the toe-tapping “boogie” of “Everybody Knows My Name”, minus the wild guitar work and accompanying sonic fuzz.
“Unfulfilled” is an appropriate title for the subsequent track, a “woe is me” melody that has Bauer and a piano sounding like a poor man’s Billy Joel. It’s not that bad, but it would be better higher in the tracklisting. “Tearing Apart” has a certain tension from the onset, a tune that recalls Nick Cave or the Cure on tranquilizers. It’s a lovable pace, as Bauer never resorts to breaking that tension with a guitar riff or cheap effects. “The crows will serenade us singing their saddest song”, Bauer sings as it crawls along at a creepy stalker’s pace. It’s a fitting conclusion to another solid album from Mr. Bauer—er, 20 Miles—that won’t make critic’s year end lists.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/20miles-life/