For Los Lonely Boys’ first album, the Garza brothers called on outlaw country legend Willie Nelson for extra guitar (and extra credibility). For this one, the third in the Los Lonely Boys canon, they’re hauling in John Mayer producer (and ex-Blues Brother) Steve Jordan. Dr. John guests on a couple of tracks, lending the warmth of Hammond B3 to “You Can’t See the Light”, the chill of Wurlitzer to “The Way I Feel”, but sunk so far down in the mix that you can hardly hear him. Even by Grammy-award-winning standards, this is ultra-safe, ultra-commercial pap, blues rock with every bit of scratch and grit vacuumed out.
It’s not that the Garzas can’t play. Henry Garza, the band’s singer and lead guitarist, has certifiable skills. His solos, leaning heavily on the wah wah, are the most interesting part of nearly every song. And yet, even here, they seem wrapped in plastic. Compared to obvious influences like Jimi Hendrix, the fretwork sounds noodle-y and pointless and entirely without fire. And the songs that they are slipped into seem utterly conventional, laid back to the point of somnolence.
There’s not even much Latin influence to these songs, a slap of congas here, a tight harmony there, but mostly just endlessly arid exercises in second-hand classic rock. You only have to dig out the old Santana vinyl to realize exactly how white-bread most of these songs are, linked more to the easy listening blues guys (Robert Cray, John Hiatt) than to anything overtly Hispanic. “Heart Won’t Tell a Lie”, for instance, opens with a gleaming series of blues guitar notes, each one perfectly formed and lit for a close-up, no squeaks, slips or percussive thumps to indicate the effort of playing. The song turns rougher in the chorus, a swaggering, hulking shout-along refrain that feels almost live, and the wah wah solo near the end starts to smoke a little. But it all seems calculated, contained, comfortable. “It’s like an imitation of something really good,” my husband, a fan of blues, jazz and especially Hendrix, snipes from the other room, and he’s got a point.
Los Lonely Boys even dig out the Spencer Davis Band chestnut “I’m a Man” (also covered by, er, Chicago), perhaps the apex of late 1960s Neanderthal rock. If you wish that lo-fi and punk and gender equality had never happened, that we were all still living in some Marshall-amped, 1970s wonderland where groupies knew their place, this is exactly the song to cover.
If you want the two bonus tracks — the moderately boogie-ing “There’s a War Tonight”, and the downright embarrassing hip hop Latin “Guero in the Barrio” — you’ll have to shop at Wal-Mart, but I wouldn’t bother. It’s somehow strangely appropriate that you can only get the full Forgiven experience at America’s largest retailer, somewhere among the gun racks and flag pins and cheap plastic crap from China. This record is an approximation of something real and true and traditionally resonant, but it ain’t anywhere near the real thing.