Don’t look now, but Bonerama has turned into a full-fledged rock band. True that classic rock was always in them, and there’s a Zeppelin or Sabbath cover on all four of their previous discs. But in the past, the rock was just part of an eclectic mix of brass-band, jazz, funk and out-there jam elements. This time the rock is right upfront and everything else is a seasoning.
That’s not the only new wrinkle on Bonerama’s first full studio album (after three live ones and an EP). For one thing, it’s the first time they’ve called in a bunch of high-profile friends, including Dr. John, George Porter Jr., Dave Malone and ex-R.E.M.-er Mike Mills. But those impact the disc less than a re-think of their arrangements. Horns are used more sparingly, with guitarist Bert Cotton getting at least as much of the spotlight. Sousaphonist Jason Jurzak is sometimes replaced by bass guitar, leaving trombonists Mark Mullins, Craig Klein and Greg Hicks as the only horns. More importantly, Klein and Mullins are stepping up as lead singers; in the past Bonerama have usually treated vocals as more of an afterthought. The Klein-written “I’m Lost” sounds remarkably like NRBQ in a jaunty mood; it’s unlike anything Bonerama have done before, and it’s one of the best things here.
Another influence comes to the fore on “Look Out Lonely”—lyrically a salute to the Radiators, but musically it harks back to the Southern jukebox soul that the Rads always drew from (Malone solos on guitar, but the high Malone-like vocals are actually Mills, a nice bit of cross-pollinization). And their soul gets psychedelicized on “What You See”, which recalls a bunch of late ‘60s bands (think Sly, Chambers Brothers or very early Chicago) who brought the trippy Fillmore ambiance into their funk.
There are a couple signs of growing pains as well. The Mardi Gras standard “Indian Red” (on which Daniel Lanois somehow gets a co-writing credit) sounds a little over-arranged, with all four of the above-named guests present; and works too hard to depart from the standard versions. And the closing “Manic Depression” suggests that the classic-rock covers idea may have played itself out: By now it’s near-impossible to put a new spin on this Hendrix chestnut, and transposing the lead guitar riff to horns doesn’t quite do it. But even with the misfires, Bonerama’s new direction looks like the right one.