Pat Torpey

REVIEW: Mr. Big – Bump Ahead (1993)

MR. BIG – Bump Ahead (1993 Atlantic)

Living up to Lean Into It was never going to be an easy thing to do.  By the time 1993 rolled around, it didn’t even matter.  Mr. Big were going to be ignored no matter what they did.

There are no giant leaps and bounds on Bump Ahead, but there are enough decent rock thrills and ballads to call it a good album.  A lot of the heavy artillery is expended right on the first track, “Colorado Bulldog”.  An amped-up Van Halen shuffle is cranked to the max with the one and only Billy Sheehan pushing the whole thing on the bass.  It’s an insane affair of accelerated playing and a stomping riff.

“The Price You Gotta Pay” keeps it heavy, anchored by a patented Sheehan groove.  Eric Martin’s bluesy soul rasp gives the music accessibility, but there is plenty going on instrumentally too.  Fans of sheer playing will find plenty of challenging licks within.  Likewise, “The Whole World’s Gonna Know”.  It sounds like a redo of an old Talas song called “Smart Lady”, with a new improved chorus.  They lay down a granite groove on “Temperamental”.  Plenty of solid rock is to be heard here.

That said, let’s not kid ourselves.  Mr. Big made their money with ballads like “To Be With You”, and so they loaded the deck here with a few more.  “Promise Her the Moon” is sentimental, understated and classy.  The big one is Cat Stevens’ “Wild World”.  Mr. Big were not likely to blow it on a song this magnificent.  Their version is more lush than Stevens’, but is actually quite great.  They miss the mark on “Nothing But Love”; too syrupy with its guitar synth orchestra.  In a case of ballad overdose, there is a fourth:  “Ain’t Seen Love Like That”.  It’s one of those basic campfire ballads.  Good song, but not essential.

Bump Ahead has a bit more filler than preferred.  “What’s It Gonna Be” is fine funky rock, but the chorus is pedestrian.  They go a different direction on the psychedelic “Mr. Gone”.  Don’t forget this is the band that gave us “Green-Tinted Sixties Mind“, though “Mr. Gone” isn’t as perfect as that.

They close the album on the free cover “Mr. Big”, the song that gave them their name.  The grind of “Mr. Big” ends the album on an upstanding note, but damn, they should have cut one of those ballads doncha think?  The fact is, Mr. Big were simply not going to have a hit with a ballad in 1993.  Wasn’t gonna happen.  The Japanese edition had a bonus track called “Long Way Down”, which wasn’t that outstanding but perhaps should have been included in the main tracklist at the expense of a ballad.

3/5 stars.

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REVIEW: Mr. Big – Hey Man (1996)

MR. BIG – Hey Man (1996 Atlantic)

With the recent passing of Pat Torpey, it’s definitely time for some fresh listens to classic Mr. Big.  Their most underrated album might be their fourth, Hey Man, on which Torpey had three writing credits.  1991’s Lean Into It is generally considered the highwater mark, but Hey Man boasted songs just as strong and many just as memorable.   If only MTV wasn’t avoiding Mr. Big and bands of their era like the bubonic plague.

Mr. Big were always ferocious musicians, and formed as a “supergroup” of such.  The point of Mr. Big was for these mega-instrumentalists to write some commercial rock, and that has been their modus operandi on every album.  When Mr. Big formed, Torpey already boasted two albums:  Ted Nugent’s If You Can’t Lick ‘Em…Lick ‘Em, and the supergroup Impelliteri.  Billy Sheehan was already worshipped for his work with David Lee Roth and before that, Talas.  Guitarist Paul Gilbert had established himself as a wunderkind with the Shrapnel band, Racer X.  The key ingredient to Mr. Big is the blue-eyed soul of singer Eric Martin.  He had a two album solo career before he made the unlikely jump to supergroup.

It’s the rocking side of Mr. Big that hits the ground running on first track “Trapped in Toyland”.  Heavier and grooving more than usual, Mr. Big poured the gas on the fire right off the bat.  It’s a huge impression.  Gilbert wrote this smoker with his old Racer X singer Jeff Martin, and Russ Parish of Fight (and now Steel Panther).  That would explain the heavy!  What really nails the heavy sound is the combination of Billy Sheehan’s bass rumble in conjunction with Torpey’s smashing beat.

The most stunning of all the songs is the second, a bonafide Mr. Big classic called “Take Cover”.  It simmers under an infrared pulse of drum beats and understated chords, and then bursts wide open on the choruses. It’s triumphant songwriting and a fine example of how musicianship and songcraft can work together.  It is one of their career best.

“Jane Doe” goes funky a-la “The Crunge”.  Eric Martin pushes it into soul on the choruses.  A couple ballads follow, one acoustic and one darker.  “Goin’ Where the Wind Blows” fills the slot of past Mr. Big acoustic ballads, something that had become compulsory after the success of “To Be With You”.  The more interesting song is “The Chain” which has a sombre edge.

There is an undeniable twang to “Where Do I Fit In?”, so much that it could easily be mistaken for Tesla.  It’s a solid side closer, though “sides” were becoming meaningless in 1996.  Hey Man has never seen a vinyl release, and the dying cassette version was the only one with “sides”.

Eric Martin makes it soulful on “If That’s What it Takes”, which doesn’t deserve to be called a ballad so we won’t.  It serves as a reminder of how these musicians can adapt to any situation.  The Paul Gilbert who plucks these earthy chords is the same guy who shred all over Lean Into It.  Pat Torpey turns into a human steamroller on “Out of the Underground”.  It’s as heavy metal as Mr. Big have been.  Then they go “Dancin’ Right Into the Flame” on a pretty cool ballad.  It has a bit more finesse than the usual.

You can tell immediately that “Mama D.” was written by Paul Gilbert, because it has one of those squirrly Gilbert guitar licks that only he writes.  To close the album, they return to a heavy soul-funk on “Fool Us Today”.  Pat Torpey is rock solid and a key ingredient to a fun closer.

Track for track, Hey Man can go up against most other Mr. Big albums.  They had a temporary breakup after this CD, a result of it being criminally ignored.

4/5 stars

 

 

RIP Pat Torpey (1959-2018)

If any single person in the rock world seemed destined to keep on truckin’ despite a terrible diagnosis, it was Pat Torpey.  Even though he had Parkinson’s disease, he was still participating in Mr. Big in every way except physically playing the drums.  He wrote the parts and oversaw their performance by Matt Starr.  He was in the videos. He was so positive and inspiring in interview footage.

This debilitating disease finally took Torpey’s life at age 64.

This one hurts.  Mr. Big is one of those underrated bands made up of fantastic players, but largely ignored.  They had the dreaded “one hit” (“To Be With You”), but that’s not the song we’ll use here to remember Pat Torpey.

Listen to the power, precision and sheer rock and roll that is Pat Torpey on “Addicted to that Rush”.

Rest in peace.

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 – Mr. Big (1989)


Scan_20160811MR. BIG – Mr. Big (1989 Atlantic)

Mr. Big started as a “supergroup” of sorts, with bassist Billy Sheehan being the most well known due to his stint with David Lee Roth (and Talas before that).  Because of his bass prowess, we know his band Mr. Big would be heavy on the shred.  What set them apart was the blue eyed soul of singer Eric Martin.  Their debut record possessed the speediest chops imaginable, but used sparingly.  It’s a song-oriented album, with “Addicted to that Rush” leading off with heavy space-age playing.  Unfortunately nothing else is as memorable, except the Humble Pie cover “30 Days in the Hole”.

Tracks like “Had Enough”, “How Can You Do What You Do”, “Rock & Roll Over” and “Merciless” are all competent rock tunes, and due to Billy’s bass, the bottom end is unbelievable.  Unfortunately it took Mr. Big one more album to really come up with the songwriting goods.  Their debut is fine enough indeed, but folks who dig the playing will be sticking around.  Those looking for soul and memorable hooks will have to dig deep.  There is good stuff here, but little that will make repeated spins in the CD player months and years down the road.  Good, but not quite good enough.

3/5 stars

 

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!

MR BIG_0008

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