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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Highway 9: What in Samhill?

Highway 9
What in Samhill?

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?