A lot has changed since Blues Traveler’s last studio album in 1998; their indie A&M label that nurtured them through a decade of ups and downs has been incorporated into the mammoth Universal Music Group, original bassist Bobby Sheehan passed away from drug related causes, and their portly, John Belushi-looking leader, John Popper, slimmed down after a serious heart ailment threatened to sideline him forever. That’s a lot of water under the Bridge• so to speak• in four years, making their new sixth album a comeback of sorts.
Interestingly, not much has altered musically with the NYC based quintet. Along with the frontman’s girth, the songs have slimmed down considerably, with the majority nestling in the four-minute area, and one even clocking in at a relatively anorexic • at least for this crew — 2:44. Popper still sings with his trademarked reedy voice — an acquired taste, at best — and plays harmonica with jittery, whiz-bang, lip-shredding speed, regardless of whether the tune calls for such mouth-watering acrobatics or not. In other words, if you’ve already bought into the band’s diluted, amorphous melodies bolstered by their rugged instrumental dexterity, Bridge takes up where they left off. Which may be a mixed blessing.
Keyboards from fifth member Ben Wilson, and even Matt Wallace’s tougher production (best known for his work with the decidedly jam-less Faith No More and The Replacements) result in a slightly tighter sound, especially on “Girl Inside My Head,” a single every bit as catchy as their career-turning “Run Around” hit. The swamp styled tempo of “Rage” is a much-needed departure from their usual upbeat style, and “Just For Me” seems like a potential radio fave. But like their previous work, the album loses steam about halfway through, with the songs starting to sound suspiciously alike and similar to other tunes in the band’s catalog. Popper’s overflowing lyrics, like his hyperventilating harp solos, are forced into too tight a space, and the group often seems brittle and studied in their prog-rock tempos, instead of loose-limbed and rubbery.
Those who find these quirks positive attributes, should have no qualms about this new release. Blues Traveler knows their audience, and has carved out unique enough turf so that treading water after such a long absence is a success in itself. But it’s also a sign of stagnation. If the radical events of the past four years didn’t yield a major shift in the band’s sound, it’s apparent that they’re content to churn out professional, moderately appealing albums like Bridge, catering to their established fans for the rest of their career.