Back to Birth
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
It has been five years since the last Jackie Greene solo album but, as his press release reminds us, he has hardly been sitting around waiting for the muse to strike. Between backing duties as one of the revolving door members of the Black Crowes and Phil Lesh’s touring band, Greene also remains an integral part of the unfortunately named Trigger Hippie, the soul/rock act fronted by Joan Osbourne whose debut remains one of last years’ pleasant surprises.
Perhaps as an escape from all that jammy roots rock, his seventh release is an immaculately produced (by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin) set of 11 pop rockers, with an emphasis on the former. It displays Greene’s sweet, boyish vocals and his ability to craft easy to digest songs boasting flowing melodies and introspective, never obtuse lyrics. Despite his obvious multi-instrumental talents (on guitar, keyboards, and even drums), Greene determinedly shows his songwriting and vocal chops. His pop/rock is informed by muted soul, blues and Americana. Ballads such as “A Face Among the Crowd” and the cracking power pop of “Now I Can See for Miles” that owes more than a nod to early Todd Rundgren prove that Greene is a more than qualified frontman with all the right stuff. So far, so impressive.
The problem is the grit and edges have mostly been sanded off these performances, leaving even the best material sounding somewhat sterile. That’s especially noticeable on “Hallelujah” (not the Leonard Cohen song), the set’s lone gospel selection. At over 6 minutes it’s the disc’s longest track transforming from a slow ballad to a joyous bluesy, churchy, get down with hand claps and backing vocalists. It’s probably a rousing live showcase, but here it feels stiff and too restrained.
Thankfully the songwriting on tunes such as the self-explanatory “You Can’t Have Bad Luck All the Time,” a convincing “you can do it despite the obstacles” entry where all Greene’s pieces fit together, is so wonderfully executed you forgive the overly buffed production. Elsewhere such as the lighthearted “Light Up Your Window,” another “lonesome on the road” entry, the material feels a little tired but it’s enlivened by Greene’s obvious commitment.
It’s that dedication that helps overcome the slick atmosphere that almost, but doesn’t quite, sink this batch of quality tracks.