I've never been a huge fan of Blues Traveler. Sure, they can write a catchy song, and John Popper knows his stuff when comes to wailing on the harmonica, but there's only so much of that I can take, and I reached my limit with that really dumb-ass '90s single "Hook." After that piece of crap came out, I damn near tossed my cookies any time I heard one of their songs.
So I was surprised to find myself reviewing the new Blues Traveler disc, Bastardos, and even more surprised to find myself liking it. A lot. For the intrepid men of the band, now sporting a different lineup than their '90s incarnation (original member Bobby Sheehan died in 2001), Bastardos represents a shift in more ways than one.
For one, they took a bold step and toned way down one of their trademarks: Popper's harp. He still plays on a couple of tracks--notably "Amber Awaits," which shows him in fine, peppy form--but even on his longest solos, he doesn't hit the shrill, look-how-damn-good-I-am heights that older Traveler cuts had. While he was losing all that weight, Popper apparently had the epiphany that the harmonica works best as a supporting instrument, and took that thought to heart. It all works to the better, because now the solid skills of his bandmates are shown to their advantage.
In fact, they get even more of a chance to strut their stuff, because the band really stretches with this album. From the uncanny evocation of The The in the early section of "Nail" to the Motown inflections of "She and I" and "Rubberneck," Popper and his fellow Travelers try for something new at every turn, and pretty much hit their marks every time. Even to an occasional (and occasionally hostile) listener like me, the band has never sounded more in command of their skills; tight, yet comfortable enough with the songs to allow flexibility. When things come to a close with the electric desert whirlwind of "The Children of the Night," it ends a solidly enjoyable and surprisingly accomplished album. It's well worth the money.