Kevin Elson

REVIEW: Mr. Big – Defying Gravity (2017 deluxe edition)

MR. BIG – Defying Gravity (2017 Frontiers CD/DVD edition)

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.

4/5 stars

* 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.

Matt Starr is the one with the drum head.

** 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.

REVIEW: Mr. Big – “Green-Tinted Sixties Mind” / “To Be With You” singles

Part 2 of a 2 part Mr. Big special.  Click here if you missed Lean Into It!

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MR. BIG – “Green Tinted Sixties Mind” (1991 Warner UK 7″ single)

I won’t talk about the song “Green-Tinted Sixties Mind”; I did that already.  (In short:  “classy and cool”.)  I picked up this 7″ promo import from the UK from a record show in London (Ontario).  At $5, it was a no-brainer purchase.  The sleeve is cardboard, not paper, and pretty cool.

I was in the dark as to what the B-side “Shadows” was.  The label indicated the song is from 1990, and produced by Giorgio Moroder.  Although it’s not credited as such, that would make the song from the Navy Seals soundtrack.  They didn’t write it, so it doesn’t sound like Mr. Big.  It’s very “hard rock” circa 1990.  I could swear parts of the verse melody are directly ripped off of Whitesnake.  So, “Shadows” is a curiosity, nothing to get too excited about.

I know there was a second song from the Navy Seals soundtrack called “Strike Like Lightning”, if you’re interested in tracking it down.  Also on the soundtrack was Bon Jovi’s cover of “The Boys Are Back In Town” and “Try” by Blue freakin’ Rodeo!  How the hell did that happen?

MR BIG_0005MR. BIG – “To Be With You” (1992 Warner Europe CD single)

Like with the other single, I want to focus on the B-sides.  I will say that this version of “To Be With You” is an uncredited edit version.  It’s 6 seconds shorter and lacks the count-in.  This German import CD single has three live tracks.  I found this one at Fairview Mall in Kitchener, an incredible score for the time!

Mr. Big sound like they are killer live.  “30 Days In the Hole” is more spontaneous and funky than its album counterpart.  It’s a lot more fun, and man could this band groove.  The Tokyo crowd clearly loves it too.

In crashes the old Talas/David Lee Roth speed demon, “Shy Boy”!  The band can pull it off musically, Sheehan repeating his bass magic, and Gilbert having no problem with a lightning fast solo. The only one who can’t keep up is vocalist Eric Martin.  His normal soulful voice isn’t right for a song that was defined by David Lee Roth.

The final track is a medley.  They first tease the Japanese audience with the first couple minutes of “Woman From Tokyo”, before switching gears to “Baba O’Riley”.  It’s all but seamless, and natural.  Gilbert plays the synth lines, but on his guitar.  Meanwhile Sheehan handles the riff, on his bass.  Martin shines on this one, much more at home with a song like this.  He really gets to stretch out, and I love it.  Sounds like Gilbert singing Townsend’s vocal part.  Really cool.

“Green-Tinted Sixties Mind” – 3/5 stars

“To Be With You” – 4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Mr. Big – Lean Into It (1991)

Today, the album.  Tomorrow, the singles!  Yes it’s a two-part Mr. Big feature!  Happy long weekend, hope you’re partying safely!  

MR. BIG – Lean Into It (1991 Atlantic)

Yeah yeah yeah…”To Be With You”!   As Mr. Big said themselves on a later album, “Get over it”!

I’ve always considered Mr. Big to be more shred-lite than glam metal or pop metal. After all, with credentials like these…Talas…Racer X…Impelliteri…these guys know how to play. Eric Martin is a unique blue-eyed-soul singer, one of a kind, absolutely brilliant.  Martin and the band also know how to write catchy hard rock tunes. Combine that with their playing pedigree and adventurous arrangements, and I’ll call ’em shred-lite if you let me. And this is a pretty damn good album for rockers who want just a touch of integrity in their pop.

The opener kicks you right in the nuts with one of the best Big tunes ever, “Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy (The Electric Drill Song)” (whew).  The album starts with an adrenaline rush straight to the head.  Why the “Electric Drill Song”?  Because it opens with the sound of Paul Gilbert and Billy Sheehan playing their instruments with electric drills with guitar picks glued to the bit!  In unison?  Basically spoofing the whole “How fast can you play?” question, Big’s creativity make this speed rocker a standout.

“Alive and Kickin'” is nothing more than a hard rocker with soulful vocal and killer chorus, but “Green-Tinted Sixties Mind” is classy and cool. Pure pop with an incredible retro melody and adventurous guitar arrangement, this first single went tragically ignored.  I don’t remember it getting much airplay though it deserved it.  I’m not sure if the world of 1991 would have accepted a song like this from a hard rock band.

“CDFF – Lucky This Time” is another weird title. See, “CDFF” stands for CD Fast Forward which is the sound you’re hearing at the opening of this rather ordinary ballad. The only thing really oustanding about this song is Billy’s rumbling bass groove.  The guy doesn’t sound like anybody else, and he raises the song to another level.  “CDFF”  is followed by the cool and swampy “Voodoo Kiss”, which ended side 1 of the original album.

Side 2 kicked off with another pop rocker, “Never Say Never”, co-written by Canada’s own Jim Vallance. Catchy but non-descript. “Just Take My Heart” is the second ballad, and a forgettable song to me. “My Kinda Woman” kicks the adrenaline back in. Yet it is Paul Gilbert’s “A Little Too Loose” that rekindles the creative fires on this album. Bluesy and fun, this was one of the high points of this record. “Road To Ruin” shows off the vocal harmonies of the guys, all good singers in their own right. It’s another creative arrangement. Then, of course, the album ends with “To Be With You” which, hard to believe, was actually a really creative song too!  Before it got played to death. Now, it’s the typical rock ballad, but at the time of release, it was very different from the kind of ballads that other bands were putting out, except possibly Extreme.  It has a sparse, vocal-oriented arrangement, an acoustic guitar solo, and no drums to speak of.

Tomorrow we’ll be talking about two singles from this album “Green-Tinted  Sixties Mind”, and “To Be With You” itself, both of which have worthwhile rare songs!

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Europe – The Final Countdown (1986)

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EUROPE – The Final Countdown (1986, 2001 Epic remaster)

I remember back in 1986/1987, all the rock magazines were playing on the same angle: Who’s better, Europe or Bon Jovi? Hard to believe that the two bands were once considered on the same playing field, now that Bon Jovi are permanent megastars. Not to mention their music sounds nothing alike!

Everybody knows “The Final Countdown” which received a new life thanks to TV shows shows like Arrested Development. (Gob Bluth uses it as his theme song during his ill-fated magic acts.)  What you may not know is that this album had three other classic singles (“Rock the Night”, “Carrie”, “Cherokee”) and 6 great album tracks with no duds. As an added bonus, this remaster also includes three live tracks from 1987’s Final Countdown World Tour.  These may in fact be the same tracks as the Extended Versions release, but I don’t have that one to verify.

The synth-y title track kicks off the proceedings, its regal anthemic melody setting the mood. A science fiction themed song, the people of Earth have departed for Venus (let’s ignore that Venus is 460 °C). The lyrics…not super great on this album, but let’s not forget that English was their second language and they were still kids at the time. Regardless, “The Final Countdown” is a complete success as a song, from insanely catchy verses to chorus to intricate guitar solo courtesy of John Norum.

“Rock The Night” follows, another catchy song, this time with the guitar handling the meat of the tune. Then, the hit ballad “Carrie”. It’s a bit soft by today’s standards but is still a well written keyboard ballad with a great melody. This is followed by another great rock song, “Danger on the Track”. Vocalist Joey Tempest tells us of a journey followed by “strangers on my back”.  (See, because “back” rhymes with “track”.)  Again, not a great lyric, but it is a great song. Side One of the original LP was finished with the fantastic “Ninja”, which in my own personal world was a single in its own right. The lyrics: “If I were a noble ancient knight, I’d stand by your side to rule and fight.” OK then.

PHANTOM ZONE

Apparently the phantom zone wasn’t just for General Zod.

Side Two kicked off with a riff and a smile, and probably the best tune: “Cherokee”.  The lyrics here are not bad, a tale of the demise of the American Indian. However it is the riff that holds the song down, a typical Norum burner of great integrity. Still can’t tell what that voice says at the beginning of the song, though! The next track is “Time Has Come”, a mid-tempo soft one that I considered filler back then but like quite a lot now. “Heart Of Stone” has a bit more meat to it. This is followed by the fastest and heaviest song on the album, “On The Loose”, which has some of Norum’s best playing. In fact it was this song that brought Norum to my attention as a monster shredder in the first place. After hearing this song, I continued to watch his career with great interest, from solo albums to Don Dokken back to Europe. The album closed with another mid-tempo soft song, “Love Chaser”, which has a keyboard melody reminiscent of “The Final Countdown” itself, bringing us full circle. It is another great tune with killer melody and vocals from Joey Tempest.

The three bonus tracks are live takes of “The Final Countdown,” “Danger on the Track” and “Carrie”. Clearly, Europe could always cut it live.  These are from the Hammersmith Odeon in 1987, and feature Norum’s replacement Kee Marcello on guitar.  Marcello is no slouch, and had a different style to Norum’s, therefore adding another element to the songs.

The Final Countdown is the kind of album that I think should be owned, rather than just pick up a hits disc. You won’t go wrong with any of these ten tracks. The live stuff is just an added bonus.

5/5 stars