The chops are there but the heart is missing.
Sometimes you can get all the notes right but still lack something. Boston native Bob Margolin is a guitarist and singer who's been around for ages, releasing records as far back as 1967's Peak Impressions with Boston psych-rock band Freeborne. In 1973 he was backing Muddy Waters and appeared with him in Martin Scorcese's film The Last Waltz. This guy has serious pedigree, in other words. He's got chops.
Since the late 1980s, Margolin has been releasing straight blues albums under his own name, including three for Alligator Records in the 1990s. He has a crack band with him on his latest offering, Blues Around the World, including Mike Sponza on second guitar and Sponza's ace rhythm core, drummer Mareno Buttinar and Mauro Tolot on bass.
Spanning a variety of styles from stomping rave-ups to slower acoustic numbers, you would expect this to be a master class in contemporary blues, a band of veterans getting together to show the kids how it's done. In purely instrumental terms, it is, sort of. But the most essential ingredient for blues—pain—is missing. Despite hitting all the right notes, the record nevertheless remains a hollow set of tunes.
This isn't because of any laziness on the musicians' part. The array of songs here is impressive in its sweep: "Lost Again" opens the record in foot-stomping fashion, with a high-energy tale of hard luck and woe which avoids anything too doleful, before quickly moving to the clean, downtempo guitar sound of "Blues Lover" and the murkier swampy blues of "Down in the Alley". And that's just the opening trifecta. Later tunes range from the fingerpicking acoustic sounds of "Crazy 'Bout You Baby" to the rockabilly tropes of "The Door Was Open" and the sweet slide of "Hard Feelings."
As expected from the band's line-up, the album is guitar-based; there are no horns or keyboards. Harmonica crops up on one song courtesy of Richard Rosenblatt. This isn't a limitation in terms of the songs, as the band abundantly demonstrates—there are plenty of different approaches on display here.
The news isn't entirely dire. There are some good songs here, notably "Ice or Fire," with its scratchy rhythm and sweet, understated guitar noodling, and "Hard Feelings", a tune that benefits from a loping bassline and out-of-the-ordinary lyrics. But missteps are many—do we really need another version of "Rollin' and Tumblin'"? The answer is "No"—and there is that overwhelming sense of blues-by-the-numbers as mentioned above.
That said, it should also be mentioned that there is some mighty fine guitar playing on this record. If the vocals can come across as bloodless, there are moments when the guitar is very impassioned indeed. "Down In the Alley," besides being perhaps the most solidly sung tune here, also showcases some of the crispest and most expressive playing. More of this, please.
Despite such moments, the old saw is as true as ever: I would rather hear music played imperfectly but with passion than note-perfection played bloodlessly. This might seem a harsh assessment, but Blues Around the World is just too clinically perfect to be moving.