Albums of the Week

July 1-July 7

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In this edition: Journey, JEFF The Brotherhood

Dennis’ Pick of the Week:
Journey: Eclipse (Nomota)

If one can get past the Glee hysteria, past the pop culture jokiness, past the terrible, terrible 80s videos, it’s easy to see Journey for what they are – the reigning kings of melodic AOR classic rock – something their 14th studio release (Jeebus, 14th!!!!) confirms in spades. None of their peers who began in the early 1970s, save for the Doobie Brothers and Heart, can hold a candle to Eclipse (released March 24) in their recent work, and frankly Journey has surpassed even the Wilson Sisters and Doobs with this one. Without question, their single best set since Frontiers, this collection, written almost exclusively by guitar hero Neal Schon, who showboats fabulously throughout, actually leans even further back to the grittier terrain of Infinity (1978), Evolution (1979) and Deaprture (1980) – arguably the band’s greatest creative period.

Lead singer Arnel Pineda proves that lightning struck twice with a voice that soars, dives and stirs with the same (near) singular power of Steve Perry. The tiny Filipino dude is a sight next to the muscular amazons in his band but when he opens his mouth the kid gets the job done and then some. As a non-native English speaker, Pineda’s phrasing on some of the classic songs is slightly off, but this original material doesn’t suffer from that warble and he does nothing but shine here. Yes, the lyrics are sometimes schmaltzy but their sincerity and dewy-eyed romance are part of Journey’s core appeal, and even Unitarian Universalist-y love song Tantra works – only To Whom It May Concern near the end is skip-worthy (“Man is love, man is animal/ A warrior, an intellectual/ He’s the face of original sin/ He’s the devil and the poet within”). Upbeat only scratches the surface lyrically, but musically this is the most robust, electrified and downright engaged Journey has sounded since Perry took a powder in the late 80s (and no, I don’t count the 1996 for-profit-reunion as legit). Usually my cynicism takes sharpshooter aim at titles like Anything Is Possible and Human Feel but Journey makes this stuff work. It’s glorious to sing-along to and by gum, it’s actually uplifting, if you let it be.

One thing older fans will love is the overall sound of this album. Producer Kevin Shirley, usually a mainstream touch of evil, smartly apes Kevin Elson’s landmark work on Journey’s classic albums. However, the one weak spot on Eclipse is keyboardist-rhythm guitarist Jonathan Cain, who’s often invisible to the ear or using synth sounds so dated one wonders how an intervention hasn’t already occurred. The one place he stands out, the Hammond organ swipes on Human Feel, actually remind one of the real missing ingredient for Journey if they’d like a truly spectacular new millennium – original keyboardist and co-lead singer Gregg Rolie. I’ll gladly argue with every moaner who says “it ain’t Journey without Steve Perry” that what’s really needed is a proper lead vocal foil for Pineda and some real oomph in the keyboard department, especially Rolie’s blazing Hammond attack, which fueled early Santana before he co-founded Journey. For anyone who’s forgotten what a superb vocalist Rolie is or how sweet the harmonies used to sound, check out the vintage clip below for a sobering reminder, where Perry is a spice to Rolie’s main course. This is pure conjecture, but from the perspective of a lifelong Journey fanatic, I can only say that where they find themselves on Eclipse could be the perfect place to reunite with Rolie. None of this is said to take a cheap shot at Cain, who did give us Faithfully, Open Arms and that soft, comfy end of their catalogue, but the way the rest of the band is playing on this new album is tough, vocally layered, and interesting in a way that Cain just isn’t. Rolie’s return would unlock the possibilities in this new music and free them up to do material that’s been shelved for years without his vocals. Two-cents offered.

Regardless of what happens with Journey, they’ve finally made a worthy follow-up to the kinds of albums that originally put them on the map with radio and a huge fan base worldwide. That’s a serious accomplishment when they could just coast on replays of Don’t Stop Believing. (Dennis Cook)

Dennis’ Runner-Up of the Week:
JEFF The Brotherhood: We Are The Champions (Infinity Cat)

Beginning with what could be a vintage Nazareth outtake – true 70s Corvette on the highway grandeur – eases into an opening line that beautifully undercuts all the build-up: “I’ve been thinking about your mom.” There’s something of Weezer to this move, and the song goes on in ways hard to figure out (in a good way), bordering on creepy but also loving. And then we’re off and running for the next half hour or so. Beyond any specifics, JEFF The Brotherhood’s latest, the ballsily titled We Are The Champions (released June 21), is an unabashed love affair with all things rock. Brothers Jake (guitar, vocals) and Jamin Orrall (drums) may have been cranking out recordings since 2002 but they’ve lost none of their flagrantly youthful vibe, offering up tales of black out drunks and next morning loneliness and confusion (“We must be drinkin’ a little too much on the weekends/ Whoa-a-whoa-oh/ I have an achin’ for your touch/ I’m bummin’ so much/ Whoa-a-whoa-oh”). If their approach comes off a bit scattershot at times – hard yet to say exactly what this band sounds like versus their influences – none of it feels insincere. In fact, their modus operandi is all-in, all-the-time, so the hardcore punk bits sound as true as the classic rock strut, 80s New Wave touches and prog-rock soar. What’s super cool about We Are The Champions are the small complications they’ve shoehorned into every cut, tossing in a piano run or a percussion trill that elevates their brute force sincerity to the next level, a set reflecting greater depths than their sweaty, grappling live show might indicate – pure awesomeness you simply must experience in the flesh – and pointing towards a promising, future where this pair continues to stretch themselves in all directions. (DC)