Hey, remember when John Mayer got the blues? In case you don’t, let’s give it a quick run down: Back in 2005, he assembled some pretty legendary players (Steve Jordan and Pino Palladino), cut a live record, toured with the Rolling Stones, shot a music video, and eventually realized his fullest potential with “Where the Light Is,” a 2008 CD/DVD that chronicled solo performances as well as one with the beloved aforementioned trio. It was some pretty roadhouse-rockin’ stuff — the kind of blues you might hear in Hagerstown during its yearly festival, or, say, while walking past half the nightclubs on Beale Street in Memphis on an off-day.
It wouldn’t be particularly fair to lump Justin Kalk Orchestra in with whatever Mayer was trying to do at the time — such shame should never be bestowed upon any local artist looking to make it outside of the Frederick area (Kalk is based in Nashville now) — but to say that “VoLcanO,” his latest rollicking-and-rolling LP, doesn’t have the same electric-blues flare that Mayer achieved during his best moments with Jordan and Palladino … well, that would be a lie.
“You Stole My VCR” is the new “Who Did You Think I Was.” “English Muffin” is the new “Good Love Is on the Way.” The riffs are so Clapton-via-Mayer-esque that you have to wonder about which guitarist would have more of a right to sue the Maryland native for solo infringement. Not that there’s any shame in that — the blues is the blues is the blues is the blues, of course — but by the time the final notes of “Bee Sting” ring out and “VoLcanO” comes to a close, the sum of the record amounts more to Gary Clark Jr. taking a bath in Creed albums than it does Johnny Lang drowning in a sea of Buddy Guy.
Maybe that’s part of the problem: Kalk stretches himself too thin while his backing players do their best to be as thick as possible. The instrumental title track is the most immediate example of such. Here, drummer Jay Williams takes the center-stage he’s begging to occupy throughout each of the other performances. Based around a helping of heavy psychedelia guitar that occasionally blossoms into some killer soloing, Williams can’t help himself from falling into a barrage of needless kick drum fills and a slew of tom-tom triplets that overshadow the project’s namesake. This wouldn’t be that much of a problem … if it didn’t also occur on pretty much every other track featured on the record.
Some are good while others probably aren’t as good as Kalk thinks they are. “Angel’s Share of Whisky,” one of the few chill-down moments of the set, is a hopeful shot of tenderness that tastes more like a lukewarm Bud Light than some top-shelf bourbon. Sounds of acoustic guitars and a pretty string section paint the melancholy moment as the orchestra’s maestro drops such wisdom as, “You know the angels up in heaven/ They like to get drunk, too/ And fool around up in the sky/ Like a man and woman do.” Yes: For each copy of “VoLcanO” that’s sold, another one loses its wings.
Or something like that.
Actually, the use of the word “Angels” brings to mind the singer’s kindred spirit, from a vocal standpoint at least: Mr. She Talks To Angels himself, Chris Robinson. “Super Thick Lashes,” a rowdy cut-time jangle fueled by an angular clean guitar stutter riff, might be the most Black Crowsian moment of them all when it comes to voices. Kalk can growl well and when he stretches out sharp repetitions of the word “Do” about midway into the thing, there’s at least one Robinson brother who should allow a smile to creep across his face. Those moments, and not the occasional bluesy shredding, are what give the set soul.
Why? Because the guy has a hard-rock voice, tried and true. Sometimes it works with great effect. Other times? Well, other times the Justin Kalk Orchestra covers The Roots.
No, seriously. They cover The Roots.
“Seed 3.0,” a play on the Philly crew’s 2002 collaboration with Cody Chesnutt, is, in a word, unnecessary (and in more than one word, a whole bunch of things that aren’t allowed to be printed in the newspaper). Where the original was a modern-day hip-hop/rock classic, Chesnutt’s smooth vocal hook laying perfectly underneath Black Thought’s distorted rhymes, this re-imagination feels like nothing more than a rushed play for credibility. The tempo is kicked up, the guitar is decidedly more electric, and Kalk races through the verses in his best hip-hop voice, which, as it turns out, isn’t as much an homage to rap music as it is an angst-filled audio book reading.
In hindsight, the move is odd — the guitarist doesn’t need to make such a cheap play for respect through use of the song if only because he’s a fine enough player to get by on those abilities alone. Take “Grape Jelly” as proof. Loose and nearly vocal-less, Kalk never sounds more comfortable than he does running up and down his scales, using his Stratocaster with just the right amount of improvisation to make it all feel exciting. It’s groovy, it’s fun, and most of all, it’s the most worthwhile showcase “VoLcanO” has.
Which is a shame, because there’s a whole Crossroads Festival-load of talent from start to finish; it’s just not appropriated as well as it could be. A little less cheesy production tricks, misplaced covers and, well, turntable appearances (really have no idea why that’s even listed in the guy’s repertoire), and with the help of some more straight blues/funk structures as well as a lyric-writing lesson or six, the Justin Kalk Orchestra could far outshine the majority of their contemporaries, including Mr. Bigger Than My Body himself.
“No, no, no/ You reap just what you sow,” Kalk screeches in a tireless manner on “Dirty Thing.” Here’s hoping this orchestra conductor eventually heeds his own advice.
** 2 STARS OUT OF 4 **