Todd Sucherman

REVIEW: Derek Smalls – Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Aging)

DEREK SMALLS – Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Aging) (2018 BMG)

So very desperately, I wanted this to be good.  Alas, it is very very remotely far from anything good.  It’s not the line between clever and stupid; it’s just foul smelling putridity.  Spinal Tap’s bassist Derek Smalls, who might be best known for his “Jazz Odyssey”, cannot hold a tune.  There must be a reason why Smalls sings the fewest lead vocals of the three Spinal Tap members.  He’s all but unlistenable.

The gimmick on Smalls Change is twofold.  It’s a collection of songs about getting old, which is a crappy concept to start with.  There is nothing wrong with songs that have some life experience, but who wants to listen to a tune about an MRI?  Who wants to think about it all?  The second gimmick is the roster of guests:  old fogie buddies like David Crosby, Steve Lukather, Paul Shaffer, and so on.  There are few somewhat younger folks here too, such as Dweezil Zappa, Joe Satriani, Chad Smith, and Phil X.  But the guest stars can’t save it.  Admittedly, the lyrics are sometimes funny.  “Butt Call” is about butt dialing!  “Nobody speaks, handset by the cheeks.”  “Memo to Willie” is about erectile disfunction (get it?), a subject I’m sure you like singing about as well.  Then there’s “Gummin’ the Gash” which you can figure out for yourself.

The biggest problem is the voice, which is a cross between a garbage disposal and Otto the bus driver.*  No amount of Spinal Tap references can save it.  When the singer cannot sing, then Houston we have a problem.  And the thing goes on for 14 tuneless tracks!  An hour of gargling words out in an English accent.  Without a David St. Hubbins or a Nigel Tufnel to carry the melody, Smalls is sunk.  When there is an actual melody, that is.

We sadly have to proclaim Smalls Change as the worst, most unlistenable album of 2018.  Clearly, a lot of time and money went into making it, but don’t invest any of yours.

1/5 stars

* Yes, of course we know that Derek Smalls is played by Simpsons actor Harry Shearer.  If Otto was British, this could have been his album.

 

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REVIEW: Styx – Regeneration Volume II (2011)

STYX – Regeneration Volume II (2011 Eagle Rock)

Long nights, impossible odds?  If you wanna discuss impossible odds, then let’s discuss re-recording your old hits.  It’s not usually a good idea.  In Styx’s case, it gave them a chance to sell some product while out on tour, but the new versions are no replacements for the old.

“Blue Collar Man” has that big fat organ riff, but it’s…different.  Technology can’t reproduce magic, and the original “Blue Collar Man” was pure magic.  It’s also missing Dennis DeYoung’s inimitable backing vocals.  The current Styx sure can sing, but Dennis’ voice was a big part of the chorus.  “Renegade” is more successful.  Todd Sucherman really stretches out on the drums.  The kid’s got talent!

James Young’s “Miss America” has more bite than the original.  “Snowblind” benefits from the re-recording, having more depth now.  Styx also get points for redoing “Queen of Spades”, now starring Lawrence Gowan.  Styx have plenty of hits, but just as important to fans are the deeper cuts.  Any time they get a little more spotlight is a good time.  “Queen of Spades” rocks regally, riffy and progressive.   “Boat on a River” is pretty authentic to the original, while “Too Much Time on My Hands” has some different keyboard flare.  Both are worthy inclusions.  This isn’t to say any of these versions are superior to the originals.  That’s impossible.  This is just to say they are enjoyable to listen to.

The bait to buy the re-recordings are two Damn Yankees songs:  “Coming of Age” and (of course) “High Enough”.  Styx have been known to perform “High Enough” in concert, but what are they like without Jack Blades and Ted Nugent?  Surprisingly good.  Styx can handle the singing, and James Young can riff and wail with the best of ’em.  “High Enough” in particular sounds great.  Lush and with more balls.

Interestingly enough, it looks like all the guys recorded their parts in different studios, all over the place.  Gowan was recorded in Toronto, and of interest to Rush fans is that Terry Brown co-engineered his parts.  The marvels of the modern world.

3/5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: Styx – Regeneration Volume I (2010)

STYX – Regeneration Volume I (2010 Eagle Rock)

I know what you’re thinking.  “Styx re-recordings?  Why the  hell do I need those?”

You don’t.  That’s why they added a new song (“Difference in the World”) exclusive to this set.

Initially, the EP Regeneration Volume I was sold exclusively online and at Styx concerts, but it was reissued with Volume II to regular retail as a double CD set.  Volume II has its own exclusives, which will be discussed in a separate review.  Aside from the cleaner sound, the most obvious difference is the more modern drumming by Todd Sucherman.  Original drummer John Panozzo had his own style and the difference is obvious.  That’s neither good nor bad; just an observation.

“Difference in the World” is a melancholy but good song.  Styx have a lot of good songs.  Tommy Shaw wrote another one.  There you go.

“The Grand Illusion” features singer Lawrence Gowan on an old Dennis DeYoung classic.  Considering how long Gowan has been with Styx now (almost 20 years!), it is justifiable to re-record old songs with him on a low-key release such as this.  It’s harder to justify Tommy Shaw’s “Sing For the Day” and “Fooling Yourself” which are damn near note-for-note accurate to the originals.  Tommy’s orchestral re-imaginings on his solo live album Sing For the Day! are a lot more interesting.  The biggest difference are Gowan’s backing vocals.  Put these versions in a Styx shuffle and they won’t be too obtrusive.

James Young takes the lead on “Lorelei”.  Of the re-recordings, “Lorelei” is clearly the best.  Dennis DeYoung sang the original, but James sings it live today since he’s the co-writer.  Doing a studio version with James is more than justified.   “Crystal Ball” is still as epic as it ever was, but has more edge with modern production.  The guitar solo is to die for.

What about “Come Sail Away”?  Unnecessary and perhaps detrimental to this EP.  Doing it live without Dennis is one thing.  It’s not a song you want to leave a Styx concert without hearing.  Gowan’s fine, but redoing this one in the studio can never live up to the original in any way, and you’re digging your own hole by even trying.  Magic cannot be recreated, only imitated.

3/5 stars

REVIEW: Styx – Come Sail Away: The Styx Anthology (2004)

STYX – Come Sail Away: The Styx Anthology (2004 A&M)

Styx need to get their albums remastered and reissued pronto.  In the meantime, you can Come Sail Away with The Styx Anthology.

The great thing about the Styx Anthology is that it covers virtually all Styx history, even the first four albums on Wooden Nickel records.  Each one of those early albums is represented by a track (two for Styx II).  Those early albums had some good material on them that usually only diehards get to hear.  “Best Thing” and “You Need Love” are bright and rocking, just like you expect from Styx.  “Winner Take All” and “Rock & Roll Feeling” are consistent toe-tappers.  The jovial harmonies, and lead vocals (by Dennis DeYoung and James “JY” Young) on these tracks could easily be mistaken for later, more famous Styx.  Don’t forget the original version of “Lady” from Styx II, their first big ballad.  Styx’s flair for the dramatic was there right from the first.  (Remember “Lady” as performed by the Dan Band in the movie Old School?)

Shortly thereafter Styx signed with A&M.  1975’s Equinox boasted hits galore.  You should know “Light Up” and “Lorelei”.  But Equinox was their last with founding guitarist John Curulewski.  He was replaced by a guitarist with prodigious talent and a voice to go with it:  Tommy Shaw.  Shaw’s “Crystal Ball” is one of the best songs from the album of the same title.  “Mademoiselle” and “Shooz” are not far behind.

Styx enjoyed an abnormally long period of great, classic albums in a row.  After Crystal Ball came The Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight, Cornerstone and Paradise Theatre.  With a solid lineup they continued to crank out radio staples.  Their music became grander and more conceptual thanks to Dennis DeYoung.  Tommy Shaw and JY tended to provide balance with rockier songs.  Songs like Dennis’ “The Grand Illusion” are balanced out by Young’s “Miss America” and Shaw’s “Renegade”.  Sure, Shaw could write a ballad or two, but his are more rootsy like the acoustic “Boat on a River”.

Through “Come Sail Away”, “Babe”, “The Best of Times” and “Too Much Time on My Hands”, it is impossible to understate how hit-laden this CD set is.  “Blue Collar Man”, “Rockin’ the Paradise”…it’s seemingly endless!

Until it ends, right after “Mr. Roboto”.  Though their lineup was stable, Styx were volatile.  DeYoung was fired at one point for being too controlling.  Shaw threatened to quit if the song “First Time” was ever released as a single (it wasn’t and it’s not on here).  It came to a head for real with “Roboto”, from 1983’s Kilroy Was Here.  Though it went to #3, the tour did poorly and the band were not happy with DeYoung and his rock operatics.  Tommy Shaw stated that he couldn’t get into songs about robots (long before he wrote an album about Mars).  The Styx Anthology cuts you a break by not subjecting you to their last single before splitting, “Music Time”.

When Styx reformed in 1990 it was without Shaw, who was doing very well in the supergroup Damn Yankees.  He was replaced by singer/guitarist Glen Burtnik.  Burtnik’s single “Love is the Ritual” is a jarring change.  The seven years between it and “Roboto” are audible, as Styx forged a clear hard rock sound with the single.  Sporting synth bass and shouted “Hey!’s”, you couldn’t get further from the core Styx sound than “Love is the Ritual”.  With the new member singing, it’s hard to hear any similarity to Styx at all.  Dennis’ “Show Me the Way” has proven to be a more timeless song.  Although it resonated with Americans at the time of the Gulf War, today it is just a great song about keeping the faith.

Styx split again, but reformed with Shaw in 1995.  Unfortunately, founding drummer John Panozzo died from years of alcohol abuse and was replaced by the incredible Todd Sucherman.  “Dear John” is Sucherman’s first appearance on the disc, a tribute to Panozzo.  The somber Tommy Shaw ballad (from 1997’s Return to Paradise) simply had to be included on a Styx anthology.  The only Styx studio album ignored on the set is 1999’s Brave New World, and rightfully so.  Instead we leap ahead in time for the final song, featuring yet another lineup change, and one of the most significant.  Dennis DeYoung was let go and replaced by Canadian solo star Lawrence Gowan.  This has proven to be a fortuitous undertaking for both Styx and Gowan.  Gowan plays keyboards on “One With Everything” (from 2003’s Cyclorama), an epic six minute Tommy Shaw progressive workout.  It’s a brilliant song, and a perfect indication that for Styx, a whole new chapter had opened.*

Do yourself a favour. Go and buy Styx’s new album The Mission, and put The Styx Anthology in the basket too.  Then enjoy, and congratulate yourself for a great start on your Styx collection!

5/5 stars

* Two more lineup changes:  when bassist Chuck Panozzo fell ill, he became a part time bassist for Styx.  Glen Burtnik returned on bass this time and played on Cyclorama.  When he left again, he was replaced by Ricky Phillips from Coverdale-Page.

 

REVIEW: Styx – Styxworld Live 2001

STYX – Styxworld Live 2001 (2001 Sanctuary)

There are plenty of live Styx albums, the majority with current singer Lawrence Gowan.  2001’s Styxworld is as entertaining as the title implies.  It really does represent the world of Styx:  oldies, solo hits, and obscure tracks too.  Because the Styx lineup in 2001 included guitarist/singer Glen Burtnik, there are a couple songs he wrote that Styx don’t play anymore.

Styx have had a credible career, post-Dennis DeYoung.  Adding Gowan, a solo star in Canada, was a brilliant move.   Though Gowan and DeYoung don’t sound alike, Lawrence is capable of performing Dennis’ more dramatic hits like “Come Sail Away”.   You wouldn’t want that song dropped from the set!  But Gowan also adds his own solo material:  “A Criminal Mind” (from 1985’s Strange Animal) is more than welcome.  A great song is a great song, and “A Criminal Mind” has since become a part of Styx.

Credit should be heaped for including lesser-heard classics like “Boat on a River” in the set, just as good as any of the missing songs.  You’ll also hear “Rocking the Paradise”, “Miss America”, “Sing for the Day”, “Crystal Ball”, “Half-Penny, Two-Penny” and “Lorelei” (James “JY” on lead vocals).  Essentially the setlist was whittled down to songs co-written by Tommy Shaw or James Young, with “Come Sail Away” being the only solo DeYoung-written song.

You could fill a whole other album with missing songs like “The Grand Illusion” or “Renegade” but what makes Styxworld strong are the songs included in their place.  Like it or not “Love is the Ritual” was a minor hit for Burtnik-era Styx, and an effort seems to have been made to include everybody’s material.  A big hit (though not by Styx!) is “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough” by Patty Smyth and Don Henley…written by Smyth and Burtnik.  It’s cool to have a Styx version though it’s shortened for the stage.  Of course there’s “Criminal Mind” by Gowan, and even the ballad “High Enough” by Tommy Shaw’s Damn Yankees.  Though it seems like a ballad-heavy set, there is plenty of rock and roll.

Check out Styxworld for a taste of this period of Styx history.  If you like Gowan, it’s a win.

4/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Styx – The Mission (2017)

STYX – The Mission (2017 Universal)

Did anyone in 2017 expect Styx to come out with one of the best albums of the year?  Even though Styx have successfully carried on with Lawrence (But You Can Call Me Larry) Gowan on keys and vocals, nobody really predicted this!  Yet here it is:  The Mission, surely one of the best albums of the year so far,* and the best Styx in decades.

Here’s another unexpected twist:  The Mission is a concept album about colonizing Mars!  It has a coherent story and recurring hooks.  In many ways The Mission sounds like a lost album from Styx’s progressive rock heyday.  But you wouldn’t guess that if you only heard the Gowan-sung lead single “Gone Gone Gone”.  Although it’s about a rocket launch, you might not catch that on first listen.  The year is 2033.  “Light it up, let’s get this show on the road!”  This hard rocker came out of nowhere as one of the big surprises this summer.

“Hundred Million Miles From Home” (vocals by Tommy Shaw) has a funkier 70s groove.**  When the band harmonizes together, it sounds like vintage Styx.   “Hundred Million Miles” is a great song and also fairly accurate.  Mars was 100 million miles away from Earth as recently as the 2012 opposition.  Problems happen on “Trouble at the Big Show” (vocals by James “JY” Young), a slower groove with killer bluesy guitar work.  This moves into the ballad “Locomotive”, about the brave pilot of the ship Khedive.  Shaw pours passion into it, as he does the next one “Radio Silence”.  Just as interesting as the actual music is the spacey backing sounds.  It certainly adds atmosphere to an excellent vintage sounding song.  “Radio Silence” recalls some of Shaw’s 70s hits like “Boat on a River” at times.

Gowan returns to the microphone on the lovely piano ballad “The Greater Good”.  It sounds like quintessential Styx; hit quality material with soul.  Things start to get upbeat again on “Time May Bend” (another Gowan vocal).  If you’re not familiar with Lawrence Gowan, he is not a Dennis DeYoung clone, sounding closer to Steve Hogarth of Marillion.  (He even looks a little like “H”.)  Listen for a subtle musical “S.O.S.” signal in the backing track.

There are musical segues and radio voices between some tracks, but  “Red Storm” is the next full song. It’s a very progressive song with all the trimmings.  It’s based on Tommy Shaw’s excellent acoustic work, and it paints a picture.  The crew of the Khedive must brave a dust storm on the surface of Mars.  “Carry what you can, there’s no turning back, gonna make it to the mothership.”  There are avante-garde flashes of guitar noise that emulates the squeals of a radio, or perhaps metal on metal.  Then a rocking riff and solo…”Red Storm” has it all.

Gowan absolutely proves his mettle on the piano opus “Khedive”.  The blur of piano recalls classical compositions, and the guitar solo is pure Queen.  The minimal vocals continue the story:  “Onwards!  Onwards!”  Then we revisit the sounds of the 80s on “The Outpost”, the triumphant conclusion to the story.  The 80s synth and beats remind of the classic “Mr. Roboto” period of Styx, but it rocks solidly too.  Listen for a reprise of the “Overture” music from the start for the album.  Finally “Mission to Mars” is the denouement, a bright and lively end.

The Mission is brilliant for a number of reasons.  First and foremost — great songs.  You will play The Mission over and over, simply because it has great songs, as good as the days of old.  Second, although Lawrence Gowan has his stamp all over the album, it sounds like Styx and nobody else.  Having Gowan more involved is a good thing.  He has a 40 year career in Canada, and he didn’t have enough time on the Cyclorama (2003) album.  But this sounds way more like Styx than Cyclorama did.  Finally, this album is loaded with incredible playing by all the members.  This is easily the best lineup Styx have had since Kilroy Was Here (1983).***    Fans of the guitar (both electric and acoustic) will find many moments of musical ecstasy.

For Styx, this is mission accomplished!

5/5 stars

* One of the best album covers too.  Is that a port hole, or a turntable?  You decide.  

** Bassist Chuck Panozzo plays the funky bass on “Hundred Million Miles From Home”, his only appearance.  Chuck, the other original member besides JY, is only able to make sporadic appearances with Styx due to his battle with AIDS.  Ricky Phillips plays the rest of the bass parts, meaning Styx have two official bassists!

*** Lawrence Gowan (piano/vocals), Tommy Shaw (guitar/vocals), James “JY” Young (guitar/vocals), Todd Sucherman (drums), Ricky Phillips & Chuck Panozzo (bass)