Blues Traveler

North Hollywood Shootout

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Unlike so many of their jam band peers in the '90s, Blues Traveler had a genuine Top Ten hit with 1995's "Run-Around" -- and unlike the Spin Doctors, their only possible rival in the jam band single race, they didn't implode after their success; they kept rolling, staying on the road and churning out record after record until they faded from the charts. The hits stopped coming and the major-label contract ceased, developments that made the group seem like old-fashioned journeymen, a working band delivering on the promise of its name. On record, this meant they ran lean and sometimes experimental, cutting back to basics on The Bridge and stretching out on Bastardos!, moves that pleased fans and fans only. A switch apparently flipped within the group, and Blues Traveler decided they had spent enough time playing for the faithful, so they signed with Verve Forecast -- their largest label since parting from A&M/Interscope at the turn of the millennium -- and turned in North Hollywood Shootout, which defies all expectations by being Blues Traveler's first full-fledged AAA pop album. Sure, the bandmembers crank their amps slightly on a couple of occasions, grinding out bluesy three-chord riffs and at one point inviting Bruce Willis in for a free-form rant called "Free Willis," which isn't nearly as strange as it thinks it is, but North Hollywood Shootout kicks off with a slowly creeping fog of keyboards, subdued rhythm, and mellow strumming. "Forever Owed" does such a good job of establishing a quiet, serene mood that it comes as no surprise when the drum loops and synthesized squawks surface on the second song, "You, Me and Everything." By then, it becomes clear that, far from following through on the implied violence of the title, North Hollywood Shootout is as careful and calculating as Blues Traveler have ever been, a collection of songs with sanded melodies that have the veneer of adult pop and perhaps would be if they weren't sung by the hiccupping John Popper, whose harmonica is often buried far far deep in the mix -- an inadvertent metaphor for the album as a whole, which suppresses the band's identity in favor of a highly burnished set of updated yacht rock. It's an album designed to win back fair-weather fans, which only raises questions: did the group ever have that many in the first place, and are they still around 12 years after "Run-Around"? And if they are, is it worth alienating the faithful with a perfectly pleasant, rather forgettable set of AOR like this?

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