Garth Brooks, Blame It All on My Roots: Five Decades of Influences (Pearl) * * 1/2
The No. 1 album in the land as we head into the Christmas-season homestretch has to be the latest from One Direction, Britney Spears or Lady Gaga, right?
Try again. Spears and Gaga have proven to be nonstarters with their latest efforts, and the Brit boys from 1D have yielded their perch atop Billboard’s album chart to one-time country titan Garth Brooks.
Of course, Brooks is a master manipulator, and his latest release, an eight-disc set (six albums, a re-release of The Ultimate Hits and a DVD of his Vegas show) is priced to move as a loss-leader Walmart exclusive — $25 for all of that material.
The title, culled from a line in his 1991 hit Friends in Low Places, tips listeners to the selling-point. Brooks records one full album apiece of songs by acts he cites as influences. The 44 songs are grouped by genre: Country Classics, Classic Rock, Blue-Eyed Soul and Melting Pot. Brooks pays homage to acts as disparate as the Eagles, Bill Withers, Billy Joel and country’s two King Georges: Jones and Strait.
Fans of his concert extravaganzas in the ’90s won’t be surprised to note the classic rock and country influence on his sound given that his stage shows married Kiss-style spectacle with ’70s soft rock appeal. As such, Brooks’ redos of the Doobie Brothers’ acoustic Black Water, Jim Croce’s affectionate Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels) and the Byrds’ You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere are Roots’ most successful remakes. Brooks’ take on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1987 country hit, Fishin’ in the Dark, also fits his style well and could work on a country radio dial currently swamped by “bro-country” acts like Luke Bryan and Jake Owen.
None of the covers is an outright disaster. The songs are safe, smooth and professionally executed. But that’s a problem. Brooks takes no chances and clings to the original arrangements. By working with the same producer and set of musicians for everything he brings a homogenous feel to the music that allows for little sonic difference between a Gladys Knight cover (she and the Pips gets two, I Heard It Through the Grapevine and Midnight Train to Georgia) and a James Taylor oldie like Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.
The most telling example is the odd placement of Stevie Wonder’s R&B/pop classic Superstition on the Classic Rock disc rather than on the catch-all Melting Pot or Blue-Eyed Soul. No, Brooks isn’t doing rock guitarist Jeff Beck’s version of Superstition, but even if he were it would likely still be interchangeable on this passable but predictable collection.
Download: Black Water, Operator, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.
Boston, Life, Love & Hope (Frontiers) * * *
Critics and Boston fans on Internet boards are hating Boston’s first new album in a decade and sixth overall. They blast mastermind Tom Scholz for his use of cheap, tinny-sounding drum machines, for an off sound mix, for including slightly altered versions of four songs from the last Boston album (2002’s poor-selling Corporate America) and for basically not releasing another Boston, the 1976 eponymous landmark that is still one of the most lucrative rock debuts in history.
All true. Scholz plays every instrument here and would have given this music considerably more snap and drive like the boogie-rock numbers on that first Boston LP had he employed a real drummer. The sound mix, which has a thin bottom end, and the recycling and improving-upon of Corporate America material isn’t quite as problematic.
The naysayers are overlooking the bigger picture, the songs themselves. In that regard, Life, Love & Hope is the most musically consistent Boston album since the second one, 1978’s too-short Don’t Look Back. Scholz writes highly melodic, classically inspired hook-filled music the likes of which just doesn’t exist anymore in contemporary hard rock, and his distinct layering of guitars still creates a majestic sound. Nostalgists hung up on reliving that first Boston love are advised to give the 2013 model a closer listen.
Download: You Gave Up on Love (2.0), Someone (2.0), Didn’t Mean to Fall in Love.