Ever had that awkward feeling when everyone’s raving about an artist you’re not familiar with, and you’re worried that when you eventually get round to listening to ‘em you won’t like it? That was me with this album from Robert Jon & The Wreck. I’ve never heard a note from them before now, so didn’t come to Last Light On The Highway with any lip-smacking anticipation. Would it be as good as everyone’s cracking it up to be? Well, spoiler alert – yeah, it’s really, really good.
My wariness stemmed partly from the Southern rock label slapped on them. There’s some so-called Southern rock nowadays – not all of it – that to my ears is just unoriginal country music being played loud. But I needn’t have worried, because while the Wreck may lapseinto Southern rock stereotypes once or twice, their palette is way broader than that.
|Robert Jon & The Wreck - "Highway? What Highway?"|
Point number 1 – These boys from Orange County really know how to put a song together. There’s no slipshod shit here, no filler, and there’s not an ounce of excess fat to be found.
Point number 2 – They come up with big, strong hooks over and over again. By which I mean, every freaking song. Try to walk away from these babies and you’ll rip the ass out of your jeans.
Point 3 – The playing and the vocals are superb. Robert Jon Burrison may not have a show-stoppingly distinctive voice, but he is damn good, versatile enough to match the range of material, and sells the songs brilliantly. They could give the Eagles a run for their money on the harmony front, and when they want an extra helping of soul in places they rope in backing singers Mahalia Barnes, Jade McRae and Juanita Tippins.
Point 4 – The sound, courtesy of their co-production with Jeff Frickman, is terrific, capturing the vibe of every song brilliantly and polishing them up for your delectation.
I’d already chucked my doubts in the bin by the time I got to the final track ‘Last Light On The Highway Part 2’ – and then they served up something special just to nail me good and proper. After the sensitive, shimmering curtain-raiser of ‘Part 1’, here’s a six-minute epic, with sweeping strings and thunder-cracking guitar chords building a big, dramatic theme that’s counterpointed by rippling rainfall of piano from keys honcho Steve Maggiore, creating an atmosphere to compete with Blue Öyster Cult’s ‘Astronomy’. Burrison adds a strident, assertive vocal, and there’s a cracking turnaround riff at the end of each chorus, plus some racing instrumental passages. And yeah, it’s got a great hook – of course it does.
Favourite moments along the way include the simple, toe-tappingly catchy ‘Can’t Stand It’, a soulful shindig Joe Cocker might have freaked out to, with some very Allmans-like guitar harmonising from Burrison and his lead guitar buddy Henry James for good measure. There’s ‘Do You Remember’, with the guitars getting all ‘Jessica’ on the intro before it sinks into a cool, loose rhythm to set up a ‘Night Moves’ vibe à la Bob Seger. They crank it up on ‘Don’t Let Me Go’, with a gritty, bluesy, slide-driven intro and pumping bass from Warren Murrel, lighting the blue touch paper on a big, dirty, urgent rocker of a chorus driven along by Andrew Espantman’s drums. And by way of complete contrast ‘Gold’ is a ballad in the manner of Keith Urban’s ‘Till The Summer Comes Around’. It comes with a lovely, quiet piano intro, another stonking hook on the chorus, and real personality and emotion in the vocals as Burrison delivers a bitter, forceful lyric.
You get the picture? Good – you can discover the other half dozen songs for yourself.
Is it reasonable to tag Robert Jon & The Wreck as Southern rock? Maybe. Probably. But I don’t give a shit about that anymore. I’ll tell you this for nothing though - Last Light On The Highway is one humdinger of an album.
Last Light On The Highway is released on 8 May, and can be pre-ordered here.