Highway 9: What in Samhill?

Adrien Begrand

Highway 9

What in Samhill?

Label: Epic
US Release Date: 2002-05-07
UK Release Date: Available as import

Highway 9 is your typical hard-working, blue-collar, just-a-bunch-of-regular-guys, New Jersey rock band, a band following in the tradition of the likes of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, to a lesser extent, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and to an even lesser, horrifically hackneyed extent, Bon Jovi. Like their Jersey compatriots, Highway 9 serve up traditional bar band rock and roll with heaps and heaps of wide-eyed romanticism; in the typically hyperbolic form befitting record labels, the band's official bio never stops emphasizing this point, calling them "gifted Jersey guys with a transcendent understanding of the American soul and the fanfares of the common man". Now I wouldn't go and describe Highway 9 in those terms; in fact, they're extremely ordinary, but they share a character trait that was present on those early Springsteen records: they're very likeable.

The band (led by guitarist/songwriter Gordon Brown, singer Peter Scherer, guitarist Kevin Ansell, drummer Dave Halpern, and bassist Rob Tanico) shamelessly flaunts their chief influence on the first song on their new album, What in Samhill?: "We danced around the midnight moon/And fell in love with a Springsteen tune." It's a bit obvious that Highway 9 also fell in love with quite a few Eagles tunes as well, because, aside from the Sprigsteenish "baby let's leave this town" poetry, there's a huge Eagles feel to the album, heard most obviously during the choruses, with deep vocal harmonies backing up Scherer's singing. In fact, Scherer's charmingly raspy voice sounds like Jakob Dylan, so the real musical comparison would be that Highway 9 sounds like the Wallflowers if they were an Eagles cover band.

Which ain't a bad thing, mind you. There are some real winning tracks on their new album. That first track I mentioned, "Between Your Eyes and Mine", is nothing new, but it has a very pleasant blend of twangy guitar, Hammond organ, and those wonderful vocal harmonies. Eagles fans should stop shelling out the big money to see the tired old guys lazily going through the motions, and get into this band instead; at least Highway 9 sounds like they're trying. The insanely catchy "Sadly" combines those Eagles harmonies with a rather half-decent attempt at The Boss's songwriting style ("Princes or paupers we all steal like thieves and / Everyone hides the dirt underneath the leaves") before bursting into one of the more deliciously dry choruses you'll hear, singing, "Sadly, our song is on the radio". Sadly, this song isn't on the radio; it's terrific. "Tug of War" is a gentle, mid-tempo ballad with a bit of a country tinge that deserves more mainstream recognition than whoever the latest "Hootie" band is (for a while it was Train, then Five for Fighting . . . who is it now?). Brown's songwriting is in good form on the song, "Heroine", a loving tribute from a son to his mother. It's sappy ("All through the years and a million tears"), but a band like Highway 9 can sometimes get away with being sappy, and "Heroine" sounds sincere, and never hollow.

Aside from those four songs, though, the rest of , What in Samhill? is pretty ordinary stuff. Not great, and not bad by any means . . . just ordinary. "Yesterday Came Out All Wrong" is a bloated power ballad, complete with a terrible guitar solo straight out of the Night Ranger catalog, and a heavy dose of strings, while "Casanova" goes full-bore into Eagles territory. "Pain & Suffering" and "Ain't Nothing But Love" are a couple of crowd-pleasing love songs, and "Say You're Mine and "Had Enough" are predictable, crowd-pleasing uptempo songs. Again, it's not bad, but when you're not going to be very original, you'd better knock a quite few home runs on your album to make it memorable, and I count only four, with some solid doubles, a Texas leaguer or two, and a couple of wounded ducks.

Part of me wants to just cast this CD aside, but another wants these hard-working guys to receive a bit more recognition. Highway 9 don't have an ounce of originality among them, but they're still considerably better than much of the music heard on mainstream rock radio, and parts of What in Samhill? are catchy enough to warrant at least modest success. They just need a big media push, but that won't happen, as their fellow Jerseyites Springsteen and Bon Jovi dominate the airwaves thanks to their own spin doctoring. As both Bruce and Jon Bon Jovi continue to milk their regular guy image while, in reality, living like kings, Highway 9's nice guy image seems to work much better. When they sing a line as cliched and tired as, "Do you wanna leave this quicksand town?", at least they sound like they mean it. You're either likeable nobodies, or insincere superstars . . . quite a double-edged sword, isn't it?

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.