Mr. Big hits the nail right on the head with ...The Stories We Could Tell, the band's eighth studio outing, an album that stands proudly beside anything from their days as a platinum selling act, and might just be their best yet.
I'm not sure why, but the band sounds like they're a little hungrier on this record, and they've come out firing on all cylinders. Not that they ever fail to do yeoman like work, their last album, 2011's What If... was filled with great songs and performances, but the record sounded a bit rushed and more canned. You put on ...The Stories We Could Tell, and it sounds a lot like a band in a room looking to make things happen. Very direct, very hungry, and as always filled to the brim with great individual performances by four of rock's sharpest shooters.
Billy Sheehan must be thinking that he's died and went to heaven - he's not in one band that sounds like they should be headlining festivals and selling millions, he's now in two, and one can't help but wonder if the huge success of The Winery Dogs doesn't have everyone aiming high here. The legendary bassist is absolutely at the top of his game right now, playing, singing, and writing better than ever. The same can be said of the entire band - Eric Martin has managed to maintain his range and tone as well as any singer in his division, and Paul Gilbert sounds like he's been staying up late honing both his jaw-dropping chops, his tones, and his writing quill. The sad part is that this may be, at least for the time being, the swan song for drummer Pat Torpey who is dealing with Parkison's disease, a situation that has been ongoing for several years, and now requires his fullest attention.
Much credit must also be delivered to the doorstep of veteran producer Pat Regan - this record sounds great, and it breathes organically in a way that is often missing in the ProTools universe. He's also got the band breathing - if I had an issue with the band's last outing it may be that I felt that it sounded rushed. This record flows and you breath along even with the fastest and most furious displays of technical excellence. There is a ghost in this machine.
Gotta Love The Ride kicks things off with a helluva swaggering riff before Martin steps it up for the first verse. This is big, bold arena rock - loud and proud at its best. A great show opener, I'd guess. Anyone who even remotely likes hard rock will love this. Paul Gilbert has never sounded more direct and grounded - sure he plays some runs in his solo that are beyond the reach of most mere mortals, but this is meaty, beaty, big, and bouncy. It's stick to your ribs kind of rock. A great start.
|Photo by Michael Mechnig|
I love the writing on this record - Fragile is a mid-tempo rocker that Martin paints over with his melodic tale. It sounds like every bit of fat has been trimmed and these guys worked really hard to make sure that every moment and every note counts. This is classic Mr. Big at its best. Gilbert's first solo section is a memorable, corpulent bunch of beautiful notes, and the rhythm section keeps it interesting and vital underneath. This is like a primer for what a melodic hard rock album should sound like.
Satisfied starts off in almost the territory of the honorable Reverend Billy Gibbons - yup, a deep fried riff that could live comfortably on a ZZ Top record, but then Martin jumps aboard and adds his trademark melodies, and it becomes a much different kind of beast. There are some great layers of stacked vocals that lead into another cool bit of soloing from Mr. Gilbert that shows just how hard the guy continues to work at his craft. Every band from the eighties should be this engaged, as active in reinventing themselves and finding new ways to do what they do so well.
The acoustic guitar makes its first appearance on the intro to The Man Who Has Everything, and it's a classic bit of hard rock balladry. Some great string pads find their way into the arrangement, and I'm blown away by the fact that Eric Martin has not lost a step - his tone and intonation are pristine, and the Gilbert comes in with a perfectly short and sweet solo. Torpey is rock solid and Sheehan plays it tastefully throughout.
The chops are broken out on The Monster In Me, and we're reminded that this band always had a ridiculous amount of muscle under the hood. This is a funky strut that is propelled by Sheehan's always amazing right hand - when he drives this band it's a beautiful thing. It sounds like the whole band is steely eyed in their determination, and they make their way down the tracks like a locomotive. Gilbert breaks it out on his solo, and he plays with a great blend of flash and reserve. A masterful band doing what they do best.
What If We Were New is a straight up, no chaser rocker, and it works. This sounds like the band is having a boatload of fun blasting out a tribute to their history. Listening to this, I'm wondering what got into this band? They sound like their having fun, they have something to prove, but there's no anxiety in this, just a good time. Is it too soon to proclaim that this is Mr. Big's best yet?
|Photo by Scott Sill|
The Light Of Day is back to the rock, and I think Van Halen should have recruited Martin when they took that famous misstep all those years ago. I'm sure that Gilbert and Sheehan are glad they didn't, but it would have been a helluva thing. Yeah, so this one sounds like it could have come off Sheehan's pen around the time of Eat 'Em And Smile. Speaking of Gilbert and Sheehan, they do one of their patented dual solos on this one, and when Billy plucks out a bunch of partials and harmonics at the end, you'll see that old dogs do learn new tricks sometimes. Brilliant.
Sticking with the big rock sound, It's Always About That Girl is another big blast, and again Eric Martin is on fire. The sound of this record is awesome - the tones are just blasting out of my speakers, and I'm thinking that a change in producers certainly has worked here. There's no going through the motions to be found at all. Mr. Big is firing on every cylinder, and in every song there's something to find thrills in - here, it's in the slow breakdown towards the end that takes what has so far been a good listen, and making it a great listen. Paul Gilbert has made a lot of albums that have contained more notes, but this is the best album he's ever made.
|Photo by Alexis Castillo Ibanez|
The Stories We Could Tell - they've maybe saved the best for last, and this one is huge. It stomps across the tundra like a dinosaur, and then there's some slinky, swanky funk vocals that announce the chorus. As Gilbert lays down some seriously heavy riffs, Sheehan sounds like a prehistoric snake slithering in the undertow. As always, they interrupt the heavy before it gets too heavy, and this time they go into an interlude which may be the most musical I've yet to hear them come up with. What a great way to end what I think is Mr. Big's best album yet. Yup - even better than their stunning debut all those years ago.
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