[3 December 2002]
After a less than appealing last album, the Wallflowers decided to change things slightly. Gone were the twang guitar riffs of Michael Ward, who left the band due to “creative and personal differences”. In his place returned Tobi Miller, who was the band’s original lead guitarist. So now that lead singer Jakob Dylan has distanced himself somewhat from his old man and the resulting unfair comparisons, the band’s latest release is almost riffless, instead relying on a cavity-inducing melody that appears in song after song. And although some have foolishly compared this album to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks in terms of its tone, the album has a certain enjoyable caustic thread through it.
The opening minimal notes on “When You’re on Top” reeks of that electronic sampled back beat too often used nowadays. The track has a catchy chorus but really doesn’t pay off with a meaty and bouncy riff, instead relying on a slightly bland and uninspired harmony. Only during the bridge does Dylan give off some sense of urgency or feeling to the track. It’s a forerunner to the sound that brings to mind Matchbox 20 on sonic steroids. “How Good It Can Get” sounds much more single and radio-friendly, specifically maximizing the use of the rhythm section. An asset is how relatively under-produced or slick the song is, symbolic of much of the album.
“Closer to You” brings to mind Tom Petty circa Wildflowers in its softness and lovable pop touches. With a slow galloping feeling to it, Dylan shows off his sweet harmonies and singing style that he’s rarely used. The building tension in the song is only abetted by the great lyrics here. “These are the days / That I won’t get back / I won’t hear you cry / Or hear you laugh” he utters about a love gone astray. “Everybody out of the Water” is the first hard sounding tune with a rock riff and a grandiose chorus. The lead-up to the chorus is only surpassed by the chorus itself. There’s also a certain funky vibe to it. Only on “Three Ways” does Dylan temporarily drop the ball. The introduction is weak but the song kicks in nicely by the second verse.
“Too Late to Quit” is another less than stellar affair, a mid-tempo track that relies too much on a prodding guitar as Dylan sings, “I’m tired, I’m tired”. The song seems to be a bit of a mess fusing rock and pop that is murky at best. However, it’s the strength of the lyrics that brings each song to a place the group hasn’t truly been before on a consistent basis. A jazzy piano ending is another asset here. Perhaps the album’s third single will be the Petty and pretty pop of “If You Never Got Sick”, a radio-friendly afternoon drive track that is relatively done by the numbers. Dylan saves his lyrical best for “Health and Happiness”, a title that seems to be goodwill until you realize its context. “I wish you health / I wish you happiness / But absolutely nothing else”, he sings over an arrangement that brings to mind Depeche Mode circa Violator.
If there was any moment you questioned the pop sensibilities of the record, they are put to rest on the “do do da dee do” which opens the infectious “See You When I Get There”, which features harmony and backing vocals by Courtney Kaiser. “Everything I Need” is probably the closest the Wallflowers get to an early country or roots-induced rock sound. The tune’s airtight sound carries it from start to finish while Dylan tends to break out with more emotion clearly audible. “Here in Pleasantville” rounds out the stated tracklisting and is another solid but not excellent song. A bonus track not mentioned is “The Empire in My Mind”, the theme from the television series The Guardian. A gorgeous track added as an afterthought, it’s the biggest surprise here for its musical and lyrical chops. “I cannot deny there’s a darkness that’s inside,” Dylan sings. It’s a darkness that shines quite well on this surprisingly solid effort.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/wallflowers-red/