Stephen Ashbrook: American B Sides

Jason Thompson

Stephen Ashbrook

American B Sides

Label: Ruka Music
US Release Date: 2002-05-28

Take a listen to the first track, "Rock 'n' Roll" here on Stephen Ashbrook's album American B Sides. It pretty much tells the whole story. He's one of those semi-folky singer-songwriters with one of those voices that will ultimately be deemed "whiskey-soaked" one of these days and he writes songs that ache to ape Warren Zevon's pen. But trust me when I say even the worst of Warren's work (and there's a bit of it) is better than anything on this album.

Ashbrook is too confined to his own one trick sound and throaty mugging for the microphone. I kept trying to get into this album, but it never happened. Still, the kid's got a number of fans, and is one of those performers who gets to stick "Performed for US President Bill Clinton at the request of the White House 6/22/2000" on his website. Not that that much really matters when it comes down to the music. Hell, the President could enjoy Dr. Ooka's Traveling Polka Pumpers and invite them to play, but would that necessarily make them good?

Ashbrook wants you to really get into his product. He quotes John Steinbeck in this album's CD sleeve and turns out such fluff as the aforementioned "Rock 'n' Roll" and "Scotch and a Handgun". In the latter, Stephen offers up such cliched outlooks as "Sometimes I lay awake at night and think about you / I think of all that we did and all that we didn't do / Now my lady thinks that I might have a problem / But we knew the difference in scotch and a handgun". And in "Rock-n-Roll" he sings, "I don't wanna hear the way it was / And I don't need to be discovered man / 'Cause I was never lost / That's rock 'n' roll". Well, it's something, but it doesn't really rock, and Ashbrook's ruminations are the stuff bad songwriting workshops are built upon.

On the musical side of the fence, Ashbrook tosses off a decent sound, pinpointed by acoustic guitars and a rustic electric guitar tone that sometimes sounds like Tom Petty and other times the Wallflowers. So it's easy to see why he has his fans. The sound of the music is tasteful, unobtrusive, nothing too shaken up. But even Petty and Jakob Dylan can rock when required, and Ashbrook sounds like he's holding back throughout the entire album here. Perhaps it's his voice, deep and emotive, but emotive in a way that sounds like he's trying too hard. And it still sounds restrained? Yes, making each tune here ultimately sound forced and weary.

Aside from that, Stephen doesn't have a whole lot of musical ideas here. You hear the first three songs on this album, and you've pretty much heard the scope of Ashbrook's style. He invariably plays out his entire hand at the beginning of the album and then retreads back and forth until the eleven tracks are finished. The worst offender here is "A La De Da" which perfectly encapsulates everything that the folkmeisters and singer-songwriter types are often berated about. With music sounding like Bob Dylan during his sappy Self Portrait phase and lyrics like "I left a lot of things undone I should've done / Like spending more time lying naked in the sun / Singing a la de da la de da / La dee dee", this one is about as stiff and molded over as it gets.

Elsewhere, Ashbrook tosses off piffle like "We were better than anything / About as good for each other as cigarettes and gasoline" on "Better Than Anything". It sounds like he's going for the literary angle on these songs, but it just fails him time and again. What he must have thought sounded rather deep when penning these songs comes off as merely laughable when it comes down to it. Yet this is what the non-fan gets to trudge through on this disc.

Yet Stephen Ashbrook's fans really seem to dig his sound. I found a few spots online that mentioned what a great live set he does, so there's obviously something there that isn't hitting me in the same way. American B Sides is Ashbrook's third solo album. Whether or not it's like anything else he's done, I couldn't tell you, as this is the first time I heard his work. If you're familiar with it and found it enjoyable, chances are you'll probably enjoy this album as well. But others who are looking for a little more to their rock might want to keep on looking. After all, Warren Zevon and Bob Dylan really don't need any facsimiles of their sound. Not that that's ever stopped anyone from trying.

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