Call me a simple man. I like my bar-band music played by a band in a bar where I do not have to listen too closely. The smoky atmosphere, the buzzing of voices, the clatter of glasses and bottles on trays - and the music is, well, THERE - but it can be tuned out or in as a matter of choice. Make no mistake; The Fabulous Thunderbirds are a bar band, and a reasonably talented one, capable of blending bluesy rock and countrified licks with undeniable skill. But, on High Water, their most recent release, they become a bar "bland" that inadvertently raises questions in the mind of this reviewer.
The most obvious question is this: why bother? Musicians make music for a variety of reasons: they want to make money; they must fulfill contractual obligations (rarely the impetus that produces an excellent product); they have an artistic vision that drives them on because they have something to say; and, as is the case with most bar bands, they hone their craft, accumulating valuable experience and technical competence, usually by covering the material of other far more successful groups. Strangely, the Fabulous Thunderbirds have chosen to provide only original material; this is disappointing because they have little or nothing to say that is original or even interesting.
The one exception is the title song, "High Water", which lyrically and stylistically rises above the mundane sameness of the rest of the material - but only barely. The theme of retributive justice by flood has been visited by enough musicians to fill an ark ever since its biblical extrapolation. Still, the song is a tolerable country-folk take on this heavy-handed theme.
The rest of the material on High Water is, at its best, insipid. If you were to look up 'derivative' in an illustrated dictionary, I am certain that you would encounter a picture of this band performing the songs from this CD. They borrow from such varied sonic bodies of work as The Blasters, and Parliament Records' funkadelic style, but they add nothing that is dynamic or novel to this mix. The first song of this banal opus, "Too Much Of Everything", is not much of anything. It is a Blasters-styled song that would not have made the final cut on even the weakest of that respectable group's records. The art of borrowing in the music business is that one uses what has been borrowed somewhat like a seed to grow something original or exciting; if this is not the case, then one's borrowing becomes a sign of creative bankruptcy. The latter seems all too true of The Thunderbirds on this endeavor; Their borrowed seeds fail to flourish and only grow tiresome.
A second question: how can three capable session musicians come together to produce a whole that is considerably less than the sum of its parts? Kim Wilson is a capable singer of limited range who wisely does not force himself to supersede his limitations, and who could be a serviceable back-up singer for other artists. Danny Kortchmar can be found on many outstanding works as an articulate sessions guitarist. As a Thunderbird, his work is generic and uninspired; his technical adequacy is diminished by a sameness in his playing that is evident on each track. Steve Jordan's versatility finds him playing drums, bass, and augmenting the overall sound of the group with a steady rhythm guitar. The threesome share song-writing credits in various combinations.
To dissect this CD track by track would find this reviewer guilty of the same complaint that he has already registered concerning the Thunderbirds; that is to say, the criticism would become repetitious without growth or reason. "Too Hot To Handle" isn't, and leaves this reviewer cold; "Promises You Can't Keep" unintentionally summarizes the overall impact of this uninspired collection of songs. Suffice it to say that High Water does not rise far enough to whet the appetite for more. It is as homogeneous as processed cheese, and just as interesting. It would be a far better experience to catch up with The Fabulous Thunderbirds in a bar where boredom could be alleviated by companionship and a couple of rounds of beer.
-- D. Malcolm Fairbrother