Detractors who dislike frontman John Popper’s virtuosic harmonica skills will be glad to hear that there isn’t really that a lot of it on "North Hollywood Shootout." For much of the record, the band's jammy tendencies are curbed in favor of quirky instrumentation and a sunny, summertime pop-rock vibe.


 

 

Blues Traveler’s own mainstream success has dogged them. Once a darling of the jam-band scene, the group recorded the longest-charting single in Billboard history in “Run-Around,” and hasn’t been able to match its success since.

Which is not to say they’re not enjoyable. Detractors who dislike frontman John Popper’s virtuosic harmonica skills will be glad to hear that there isn’t really that much of it on North "Hollywood Shootout." For much of the record, the band's jammy tendencies are curbed in favor of quirky instrumentation and a sunny, summertime pop-rock vibe.

The front half of the album has a lot more pop moves than it does blues excursions: “You, Me and Everything” is a driving rocker in the tradition of the Grateful Dead’s “I Know You Rider,” but it’s lightened up by some warm, Stevie-Wonder-era synth lines.

“Borrowed Time” is a strident ballad as Popper ruminates on his own mortality (and he’s certainly had a few dangerous brushes, between a weapons arrest and cardiac arrest before he lost much of his former weight) over big pianos and a resounding drumbeat.

In moving away from their traditional sound, however, some songs sound a bit derived. With a little more reverb and some Axl Rose, “The Beacons” could be vintage Guns’n’Roses, and the band channels Chicago on “What Remains,” right down to the horn section.

“Four” fans will likely prefer the back half of the album, beginning with “Orange in the Sun,” which starts off rather simply but packs quite a bit of jammy instrumentation into a relatively-tight four minutes: a harmonica-laced coda sports a sound that’s out of character for Popper (the clear, piercing bleat that accents his tricky runs is replaced by a more lush, traditional tone), but still works very well.

“How You Remember It” is exactly what it sounds like, classic Blues Traveler, powered by a distorted harmonica-and-guitar riff. And while Popper’s reedy tenor has never been powerful, he still has a way with a well-placed yearning phrase, and age has given his voice a slight crack that accents the emotional imagery behind many of "North Hollywood Shootout’s" 10 tracks.

Blues Traveler has been though a lot, from Popper’s heart attack, surgery and arrests to the death of their original bass player in 1999 and lineup changes afterward. But they still have a way with a dirty little groove, as the six minutes of hip-hop-inflected blues stomp that end the album prove.

So while "North Hollywood" is a little light on the things that endeared the band to its fans in the beginning, there’s still plenty of classic Popper & Co. to go around.

"North Hollywood Shootout" will be released Aug. 26.

Sussex Countian