Review Summary: Blues Traveler's frontman goes solo again, with an album that sounds a lot like the past.
When members of bands go off on their own to do solo projects, it’s usually to fill a creative need they can’t shoehorn into their main gig. There are bouts of ego that come into play, but leaving cynicism aside, the majority of solo albums arise from artistic wanderlust, the idea that there’s always something new to try out. These flights of fancy don’t always work, and many times they become the cause of frustration both from band members who feel unappreciated, and from fans who can’t understand how the solo leanings of their favorite artists fit into their own notions of what music should be.
Once in a while, however, a solo album will be confusing for a different reason; we can’t understand why it needed to be made at all. When John Popper stepped outside the limits of Blues Traveler with his first solo album, Zygote, at the height of their popularity, the reasons were obvious. The songs he had written were songwriter’s songs, the kind that needed a touch and nuance his band would not have been able to bring to them. Likewise, his second solo project, the obviously titled John Popper Project, found him grafting his persona atop thick beats, another endeavor that could not have happened in Blues Traveler.
Assembling the Duskray Troubadours would seem to indicate another new experience on the way, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. This new project is not an insular bout of writing, nor a foray into unfamiliar sonic territory. The band and the album feel very much like the Blues Traveler of old, with the dials turned back ever so slightly. They have been turning the guitars up as they age, laying more and more keyboards into the thick soup of their sound, while the Troubadours strip away the excess, leaving a more organic sound that echoes large patches of the first four Blues Traveler albums.
The most recent Blues Traveler album, North Hollywood Shootout, was conceived as an effort to bring more melody back into the mix. While that album fell short on many levels, it set the stage for the Troubadours, who pick up where that record left off, refining the sound and making sense of the mission. The similarity of tone is what makes this new project unusual; this isn’t music that would be foreign to a Blues Traveler album.
The album’s origins have no bearing on the music, which is a welcome return to form for Popper. As Blues Traveler has evolved in recent years, his trademark harmonica playing has been buried beneath layers of keyboards and growling guitars. With more sonic room to himself, the hypersonic solos he perfected have been stolen from the past, albeit slowed down to match the pace of the music. Still, hearing him playing is a welcome bout of nostalgia, which is what the record as a whole tends to be.
While “Something Sweet” comes and goes without a chorus, and a few others lack a visceral punch, melody is indeed the order of the day. The hooks aren’t towering, Popper’s voice doesn’t reach for the sheer volume he requires in Blues Traveler, but his knack for melody is undiminished. Every song has a memorable vocal line, once the songs have had time to unfold on repeated listens. The Troubadours have crafted a subtle album, one that feels in line with what the leader of a band entering its twenty-fifth year might be thinking; slowing down isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The reasons for this album might be questionable, but the music isn’t. What the Troubadours have provided is a reminder of why so many people fell in love with Blues Traveler all those years ago.