Periodically, writers submit reviews lauding an album’s variety, and I always wonder why. Variety seems overrated. What really good restaurant serves a wide variety of food? Who genuinely loves variety shows? Who buys an album for its variety? Would the Beatles and Rolling Stones albums be better if they had bossa novas, maybe a ska track and a western ballad? Would a Philly soul tune have made any Led Zeppelin album better?
The Big Awesome has variety. The sprawling, hour-long album delves into jazz, funk, rock, prog and metal, shifting gears frequently as if the band has a case of musical ADD. And perhaps it does. This has characterized Johnny Sketch albums through the band’s career. Like all their albums, The Big Awesome sounds like the product of a band that can play live and make a crowd respond to almost anything it tries. It can swing, switch to soul, then quote James Brown then bang its collective head and make audiences love it. But just because it can do these things doesn’t mean it should. The loose continuity a night will allow sounds scattered on CD.
More than the Meters, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Royal Crescent Mob and a number of other ’80s/’90s funk rock bands are the operative references here, and in those cases, funk rock was the floor, not the ceiling for their musical possibilities. Still, they never lost their identities in the musical restlessness, and that’s not always the case on The Big Awesome.
The scattered efforts would be less noticeable if the songs were better, but “Dance Dance Dance Dance Dance” is generic James Brown (though well executed) and “Kaiser” is hard art rock that is nothing but a platform for a guitar demonstration. When they go for smooth R&B, vocalist Sketch/Marc Paradis is out of his league. Far more entertaining is the organically weird funk of “Axia” and the attractive if softheaded “Find My Freedom.”
The band has been like this for most of its career, so wringing hands over Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes finding a direction is pointless. Still, it would be nice for them to get a sense of what they can pull off and what they can excel at. Perhaps then they will record an album that will make it easier to appreciate what the band’s talent.