I can still remember, very clearly, my thoughts about “To Be With You” when it finally became a hit in 1992.
“It’s a deserved hit,” I thought, “But that’s the end of Mr. Big having any chance of being seen as a serious band by the general public.”
Serious indeed. Eric Martin had a previous career as a blue-eyed soul singer. Paul Gilbert was in shred band Racer X with future Judas Priest drummer Scott Travis. Pat Torpey was a well-known drummer for appearing on several shred rock albums, like Impelliteri. And Billy Sheehan, of course, is generally listed as one of the top bassists of all time, with a period at the end. These guys were not slouches. But they did form a commercial rock band, and suffered the consequences that most commercial rock bands did in the 1990s. They faded to obscurity. Everywhere but Japan, where they continued to thrive as rock heroes.
It’s gratifying that 25 years later in 2017, Mr. Big have an album out that’s as good as any of their first four. They even reunited with their original producer Kevin Elson. But it’s all not peaches and cream. Pat Torpey suffered a setback in 2014 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Undaunted, Torpey still worked with his loyal bandmates on Defying Gravity. Just as before, he participated in shaping the songs, even though he was unable to play on them. Ace Frehley’s drummer Matt Starr* has taken over live and recording duties, while Torpey wrote and produced the drum parts. In the accompanying DVD, it’s very gratifying to see the band adapt seamlessly to this new reality. They even have fun with it in the music videos, as Starr and Torpey play together and switch instruments. Check out the lead single and title track for a great example of making it work.
Speaking of the lead single/video…holy shit, what a hook! Gilbert’s tricky and exotic timing and note choices are somehow bent and twisted into a pop song! It’s that schooled approach that makes certain Mr. Big songs completely unlike whatever is on the radio, but just as catchy.
All the songs have spark, and the solo work is untouchable. Bluesy and funky hard rock is the basis of “Open Your Eyes”. The second single (“Everybody Needs a Little Trouble”) stomps out a heavy blues rock beat. On to “Damn I’m In Love Again”, Mr. Big take a drive into the country. “Nothing Bad ‘Bout Feelin’ Good” is a hybrid, using the acoustics in a heavier way. There are plenty more hit-quality highlights: “Forever & Back”, and “She’s All Coming Back to Me Now”. For the fans: “Nothing At All”, the heavy rockin’ “1992” (a brilliant look back at the glory days), and “Be Kind” which is just a jaw dropping example of what these guys can do with just their voices, instruments and a song!
For a deeper understanding of this album, check out the deluxe edition with bonus DVD.** Not only will you get all the music videos, but also behind the scenes segments on set, and the EPK (“electronic press kit”). Finally there is a track by track analysis of every song featuring each member, and more behind the scenes footage. This is where you’ll find the most insight. Influences abound from the expected to the unexpected. From doo-wop to Christina Aguilera? Why not. The one with the beat cribbed from Aguilera is actually one of the heaviest and solo-dense tracks (“Mean to Me”).
Defying Gravity isn’t really a surprise, because Mr. Big have put out plenty of good albums over the recent years. Perhaps it’s a bit more inspired. It certainly has potential to be on a few “top ten of 2017” lists this year.
* Matt Starr may in fact be a Klingon. In the Original Series, Klingons looked much like humans, without their trademark head ridges. What gives away Starr’s possible Klingon status is his dead ringer of a Klingon moustache and beard.
** I know what you’re thinkin’. “LeBrain, why didn’t you buy the Japanese edition with a bonus track?” This time out the only bonus track is a radio edit of “Defying Gravity” which, cost considered, I can live without.