The members of Viva Voce start a new band and pull off a highly entertaining country-rock album with help from the Decemberists' Chris Funk on banjo and pedal steel.
Blue Giant is the new band created by members of Viva Voce, Kevin and Anita Robinson. Much like their primary band, the married couple share lead and backing vocal duties, while Kevin leaves the drums behind here to join Anita on guitar. The rest of the band is rounded out by musicians from Portland, Oregon, including Swords' Evan Railton on drums, the Golden Bears' Seth Lorinczi on bass, and the Decemberists' lead guitarist, Chris Funk, on pedal steel, banjo, and bazouki.
Album opener "Clean the Clock" is a cheery, easygoing rock song that shifts from sparsely arranged verses into a full-bodied chorus. Anita's distinctive slide guitar playing is the only real hint here that Blue Giant have anything more on their minds than creating well-written rock. It's the second song, "Blue Sunshine", that really announces the band's intent. A chugging intro of banjo and foot stomps leads into a tightly harmonized verse, complete with more slide guitar and harmonica. The song is a country-rock thumper that gives both Robinsons and Lorinczi chances to show off their instrumental skills, while Funk and Railton keep the song moving. At that point it becomes clear that Blue Giant is aiming straight for the center of the road between country and rock.
Darned if they don't pull it off, too. It's the instrumentation that gives Blue Giant its country feel, but the lack of twang in the vocals may make the album more palatable to the indie-oriented audiences that will be checking this album out initially. The songs, all written by the Robinsons, seem straightforward enough to work in either style. Most importantly, every one of these 12 tracks is well-written and smartly arranged. Anita's soulful "Lonely Girl" is a gently rolling track perfectly complemented by Funk's background pedal steel. It also nicely employs tambourine and brushed drums. "Target Heart" is a forlorn country weeper that moves along just fast enough to keep from becoming a drag. A bit of honky-tonk piano and a bassline that seems to buzz with just a bit of distortion helps as well.
It goes on like this for the entire album. "When Will the Sun Shine" features an excellent harmony duet from the Robinsons, while the rhythm section locks in and plays off of each other perfectly. "Go On" is a big-beat rocker that churns around a pile of guitars and percussion until it reaches the coda and delivers a great guitar lead on the outro. "The Game" is an arena rocker with big riffs, huge-sounding guitars, and well-placed organ. The band even pulls in Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney fame to duet with Kevin on "Gone for Good". The album finishes with the effective "Reasons to Cry", an Anita-sung ballad full of sustained, lonely-sounding electric guitar chords, complete with a long, slow fadeout.
If there's one complaint to be made about Blue Giant, it's that the album, while full of good and very good songs, is rarely great. "Blue Sunshine" and maybe "Lonely Girl" are the only tracks that manage to reach above that nebulous "very good" area. Still, the album is a heck of a lot of fun from start to finish. The musicians involved in the band are seasoned professionals who really know their instruments, and it's obvious they're enjoying themselves. That makes Blue Giant that rare side project/supergroup that manages to combine musicians having fun with good songwriting and exceed expectations.