The older I get, the less new music I listen to. That’s a fact of life for many music lovers; there’s just so much music to love, and thanks to all this newfangled tech we can easily spend all of our listening time catching up on volumes of magical soundtracks from 1959, 1974, or 1983, if we want. I do plenty of time traveling in exactly this way.
Listen to The Blue Ribbons and their latest, An Unbelievable Success, and you’ll find more evidence of the comforts of classic radio in their soul-soaked, folk-rock approach. There are moments on this release that evoke The Band, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Tumbleweed Connection-era Elton John…and still others that drift unexpectedly into a gospel-tinged Little Feat zone.
It’s difficult to imagine that The Blue Ribbons (The Ribbs, to their fans) would take offense to these obvious comparisons. The songs reveal a group that happily owns the throwback; an apt vehicle for pianist/vocalist James Rohr’s raspy, earnest storytelling.
An Unbelievable Success opens with “Family.” Rohr’s electric piano provides a warm hug on the front stoop, then we’re quickly pulled into the house party with a 70’s-style romp spiked with jagged, Neil Young-inspired guitar licks. At the tunes climax, Rohr sings:
Look around, make family of who you found, we’re all standing on holy ground
Soaring soul sister backup vocals drive the point home and ratchet up the energy in a big way.
“Nuthin’s” dissonant tack piano intro and latin bump somehow conjure images of gangsters with tommy guns and Dick Tracy noir. This feels somewhat at odds with where we started on this journey, but the performance is tight, fun, and snarky, and with this The Ribbs establish that variety is on the table.
On that note, “Promised Land” delivers a soothing, Hornsby-ish Americana ballad, lamenting the overall state of things today while offering some hope:
Where are the daughters and sons?
Those not yet born are the beautiful ones
Rohr’s heartfelt vocals are well-complemented by some very tasty, crunchy guitar tones from Mike Castellana.
“The Same Old Song” is a barroom ballad with plenty of southern swing and gospel charm, while by great contrast the self-aggrandizing God of Thunder fantasy “Shed My Skin” is wildly heavier than anything else in the set. This bit of Zep-infused psychedelia, offering a gnarly back beat, eerie harp-blowing, and angular, tortured guitar work from Castellana, is a standout track that seems to break out of The Ribbs’ comfort zone, which works just fine for me.
After “World of Whispers” and “Be Yourself Again” return us to the relative safety of Rohr’s more intimate stylings, we’re treated to one more stomping gospel boogie with “The Water is Rising.”
“Friends of Mine” wraps it up with a mellow back porch hangout that nicely summarizes the overall tone of the record.
Some ain’t ready to receive
We’re just told what to believe
It’s at the heart of understanding
There ain’t no truth if our minds aren’t free
For some, getting past The Ribbs’ classic rock tropes may prove difficult. It’s hard enough making room for something new, sometimes harder when there’s a close resemblance to something already dear to you. But with repeated listenings (and this batch of thoughtfully conceived, played, and recorded tunes is worth a few spins) it’s easy to find the intention in this music.
With An Unbelievable Success the emphasis is on musicality and message. The Blue Ribbons have stories to tell, and some very human ideas that want spreading. In that light, the familiar wrapper has a way of opening the heart while provoking curiosity around how this material might come to life onstage. And as far as this listener is concerned, that’s what recorded music is all about.
Listen to and download An Unbelievable Success right here.