Mr. Sad Clown
There was a time in the ’80s when Waukesha, Wisconsin’s The BoDeans were arguably one of America’s best meat and potatoes roots rock bands and an always impressive live act. Taking the title of their first album from a Rolling Stones song and armed with the production skills of T. Bone Burnett, singer/guitarists Kurt Neumann and Sammy Llanas with 1986’s Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams created a handful of indelible three-chord classics that no doubt inspired lots of folks like yours truly to pick up a guitar.
After the release of 1987’s Jerry Harrison-produced Outside Looking In, Best New Band accolades from Rolling Stone magazine, a tour with U2, and a recording session with Robbie Robertson soon followed.
The band’s third album, 1991’s Home, was their most ambitious and accomplished yet. But a series of creative missteps (working with Prince protégé David Z comes to mind) and the coming of grunge during the ’90s seemed to dash the band’s momentum. There were also various misbegotten attempts to reclaim the band’s old sound, as on 1993’s Burnett-overseen Go Slow Down, which contained “Closer to Free,” later a hit for the band when it became the theme to TV’s Party of Five.
Through the years, the band continued to be road warriors, inspiring many beer-soaked evenings in clubs across America. And Neumann and Llanas became better musicians and better singers, though somehow much less interesting than they had been.
Now some 24 years removed from their debut, The BoDeans return with their ninth studio album. It will sound immediately familiar to anyone who has followed their career trajectory so far. Unfortunately, those who haven’t followed the band will likely find it dull, middle-of-the-road, and dated sounding in 2010.
Neumann’s voice does sound great on opener “Stay,” with its back to the ’80s guitar arpeggios and a new wrinkle in the band’s sound: trumpet. But ultimately the song is a little too repetitive and generic to leave much of an impression.
In the album’s liner notes, the band admits that “Don’t Fall Down” is a retread of the Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams track “Misery.” Which it is, just not as good, despite Neumann’s nice guitar work.
“Say Goodbye” on the other hand is this record’s best attempt at capturing the vintage BoDeans sound. It could be an outtake from Home or 1991’s Black and White. Some nice Hammond B-3 organ and xylophone, of all things, color the tune. I get the feeling this one will sound great live, with or without the xylophone.
Elsewhere, Neumann tosses off a goofy horn-inflected tango called “Cheesecake Pan.” Llanas, who has the rougher voice of the two, takes the lead on “If… ” (not the Bread song). It’s a soulful, heartfelt ballad, but just not very interesting. “Easy Love,” another ballad filled with Llanas and Neumann’s gut-busting harmonies, is notable for its lo-fi open. “Back Then” has a nice chorus to recommend it, though not much else.
Llanas’ “Feel ‘Lil Love” is the closest The BoDeans come to rockin’ on Mr. Sad Clown. Unfortunately, it’s too little, too late. The Hold Steady and a thousand other bands are doing this kind of thing better these days.
“And I’ll be gone, gone, gone… before long,” Neumann sings on the closer “Gone X 3.” But at 15 tracks and clocking in at just under an hour, there’s no “before long” about this record.
Ultimately Mr. Sad Clown doesn’t offer enough highlights to win the band back old friends and doesn’t really have anything cutting edge to win them new ones. For that, they’ll probably just have to rely on a few more of those beer-soaked live shows, where The BoDeans are always most at home.