Tom Fuller Band – Ask (2011)

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The Tom Fuller Band doesn’t hide its influences. In fact, they strut around in them, like bell-bottomed 1970s throwbacks.

That starts with “Lovers,” a song with this fuzzy Badfinger-ish muscularity. Fuller’s voice, an insistent whine then a gruff snarl, is Lennon-like in its nimble directness. He eventually gives way to a wow-man wah-wah solo, completing the old-school vibe like a mirror ball spinning. The template is set for a comfy trip to shag-carpeted fun on Ask, produced by Rick Chudacoff (Allison Krauss, Smokey Robinson) and mixed by Cenzo Townsend and Dave Bascombe (U2, Bon Jovi).

At first, the title track sounds like a half-forgotten AM radio hit, with a tinny guitar riff and these nifty handclaps. Fuller then plugs in a dreamy power-pop chorus, recalling the Bay City Rollers or the Knack. Later, he ramps up for the aptly titled “Anthem Man,” which starts with a gritty guitar signature and then builds like an ELO song into swirling, psychedelic crescendo -– complete with the expected nah-nah-nahs in the middle eight.

The simple fingerpicking opening on the acoustic number “Hell Fire Angel” draws a straight line back to Paul McCartney and Wings, but soon enough Fuller’s swung back around into an arena-rock dirge — complete with stomping drums and a howling restatement of the song title. As fun as this pick-the-wide-collar-influence game can no doubt be, there’s only so far it can take Fuller without seeming jokey or too on the nose. Luckily, in attitude more than style, Ask fits snugly into the modern zeitgeist: “Doin’ Nothin’” rumbles along with a smeared guitar and a crunchy rhythm, sounding a bit like late-period R.E.M., before settling into a slacker chorus straight out of Todd Rundgren. “I’m really good at doin’ nothing,” Fuller sings with a wink, as a crowd of revelers begins raising a rabble all around him. “It’s good to be good at something!” A similar next-gen escapist tone permeates “Take Me Away,” which finds Fuller updating the mid-tempo vibe of every singer-songwriter of the disco era with a sharp edge more in keeping with the Replacements.

The highpoint for Fuller’s Ask arrives with “Merci Beaucoup,” a track that feels the least like an amalgam. You hear the Chicago-based Fuller’s influences, for sure, but they are blended more completely with his own sound. He starts with a nasty little twin-guitar groove, and stays right there. No cutesy choruses, no power-pop pretensions. Even the track’s obvious 1970isms — the Rod Stewart-esque use of French, a line about a girl who “rocks his world,” a soaring Journey-style solo — feel authentic, rather than tacked on. They’re stirred deep into the song, which has a propulsive charm.

“Keeping Time” follows, and makes good on the promise of “Merci Beaucoup.” Singing a straight-forward lyric about hope in difficult times, Fuller touchingly explores the upper range of his voice. “Guarding the pilot light inside of me,” he sings, conveying a deep loneliness. The guitar solo is softly contemplative, recalling solo efforts by George Harrison.

“Morphine Maureen” then comes galloping out, with a taunt early David Bowie-type riff — and serves as a sweeping reminder of how much fun this record has been, no matter its obvious lineage. The Fuller band even adds gurgly, bubblegum keyboard that sounds like it was lifted directly from the Cars’ seminal 1978 debut. That leads into a melancholy reverie called “Hot Air Balloon,” which revisits the atmospherics associated with Wings — but with a much tougher attitude. The song goes further for it, too: “We’re all here,” Fuller snarls, “because we ain’t all there.” (That McCartney connection, by the way, goes all the way into the liner notes: Drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. and guitarist Brian Ray are current members of the former Beatle’s band.)

“Best of Me” underscores again Fuller’s easy way with a ballad. Performing in front of a small string arrangement, he is unabashedly romantic, and completely without artifice. But then any 1970s-obsessed recording must — simply must — conclude with a titanic rock opera-like statement song. Fuller delivers with “Garden Dreaming Days,” which pulls in every influence from before, plus Elton John, the Who and Queen. It’s a three-minute blast of pop grandiosity, and the perfect ending.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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