The first song on this collection of driving-with-the-top-down rock and roll, “When the Love Is Good,” has to be the most jubilant opening track of recent vintage. The tune, a surprisingly romantic tribute to long-term love, points the way for grittier, more earthy, soulful songs like “Beautiful Rain” and “Beaujolais,” and a well-realized third album. Throughout, Sam Llanas’s trademark snarly, nasal vocals manage to sound charming in a way—a white Milwaukeean home-boy way—as they bounce against guitars, organs and all the other elements of upbeat-but-still-intense rock music.
While the Milwaukee quartet’s 1986 debut. Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, produced sparingly by T Bone Burnett, left them among the country’s more obscure bands, the album helped define the genre known as roots rock—the all-American sound of the Heartland. It had an honest hokeyness—with such appealingly out-of-place songs as “Rickshaw Riding.” Then came 1987’s Outside Looking In, which was a few steps farther out of the cornfield than L&H&S&D.
Although the BoDeans can’t hope to recapture the unique, quirky quality, or the timing, that made their early work such a curio, home appears to be a return to basics. Llanas’s raw-edged voice and the harmonies he works with fellow singer and songwriter Kurt Neumann remain grating in an appealing way.
True, many of the tracks on home are undeniably derivative. “You Don’t Get Much,” with its slow and soft, then increasingly fast and loud introductory notes, sounds eerily like U2. Meanwhile, “Good Work,” which the BoDeans have performed in concert with members of U2, resembles nothing so much as Bruce Springsteen’s usual working-class blues, with lines like: “Well, I lost my job down at the factory./Lost my money in the lottery./ Met a little girl walkin’ down the street…”
There are, however, also such ingratiating songs as “Far Far Away from My Heart,” a sweet ballad that’s pure BoDeans, with a simple acoustic arrangement and simple lyrics about “feeling more and more like less than less.”
These guys really do deserve a break—or a bigger breakthrough. Home is a joy to listen to despite its flaws. One only hopes that Lianas and Neumann stick with their basic signature sound without falling prey to any misguided urges to slick it all up and become the Midwest’s next John Cougar Mellencamp. (Slash/Reprise)