Blues Traveler has walked an interesting career path. They’re one of the first jambands; without frontman John Popper’s HORDE tour in the early 90s, the genre may have never become what it is today. However, in 1994 they released Four, went quintuple platinum, made buckets of money, but lost the respect of a significant portion of their fanbase. Despite a multitude of speed bumps in the road, they’ve persevered and North Hollywood Shootout is the fruits of their labor.
It’s tough to make the leap from bar band to the mainstream, but it’s an even harder chore to make the leap back, and that’s what Blues Traveler has been faced with ever since "Runaround" and "Hook" took the world by storm. They’re still making music, but unfortunately the originality and spontaneity that characterizes their early work and live shows hasn’t been translating to studio greatness.
North Hollywood Shootout, their first record on Veve Forecast, is a safe, comfortable set of songs. Sure, the disc has its moments, but otherwise, it’s just like a comfortable pair of jeans – they feel goodbut look like the same pants dozens of others are wearing.
"You, Me, and Everything" and "Love Does" are solid songs; they have great beats propelled by bassist Tad Kinchla and drummer Brendan Hill, and John Popper’s signature rapid fire lyrical delivery, but the songs are just too familiar.
While the disc itself is reminiscent of everything the band has released in the past several years, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Popper still owns his harmonica playing like no one, and the band has clearly meshed well since the devastating loss of bassist Bobby Sheehan.
And, there are definitely bits and pieces of greatness. "Borrowed Time" is a touching song that sees the band stripped down to piano and drums, lamenting the fragility of life. The streamlined instrumentation really showcases the beauty of Popper’s vocals.
Then there’s "Free Willis," named for the free-form jam on the tune and the guest musician it features, Bruce Willis. It’s five-plus minutes of weirdness that are a refreshing oddity on an otherwise normal album.
Music fans will undoubtedly be split on their opinion of North Hollywood Shootout. The more casual listener will enjoy the disc because it’s a good album with catchy hooks and solid playing. However, those hoping that Blues Traveler took the steps backward to regain the genius that made up the band’s early releases, well…they may be a little disappointed. But, it’s a different band today than it was when they were teens, and that’s not always a bad thing, depending on your point of view.
North Hollywood Shootout is out August 26 on Verve Forecast