There was a time when Boston could do no wrong. Their 1976 debut album dominated the rock scene with that signature combination of Tom Scholz’ guitar cathedrals and Brad Delp’s soaring vocals. A few years later, Don’t Look Back came out and their legend grew. That year, it seemed like half of my (admittedly tiny) high school was at their show at central Maine’s Augusta Civic Center.
And then…eight long years. I am nothing if not loyal but that is a long stretch of time. By then, I was an adult (sort of), one who was more than a little bothered that Boston had become a Scholz/Delp-only vehicle. On Third Stage, some tunes requiring definite increases in volume (“Cool the Engines,” “We’re Ready”), a huge radio hit (that I didn’t care for) in “Amanda,” and really, not much else. Lack of critical and fan acclaim didn’t stop the band from setting records at concert venues. I didn’t see a show on that tour and after the fact, it kind of bummed me out. Made me feel old.
I can’t say that I’ve paid all that much attention to the albums in the intervening years. Delp was gone half the time and even if the sonics retained some of the original spark, the songwriting became more lightweight. Still, I’ve always sort of rooted for Scholz. The dismantled band and tag-team vocalist lineup aside, there’s much to admire in his single-mindedness of purpose. But what might that translate to in the year 2013?
Well, it is a Boston album, judging from the scalding power chords, the finely layered guitar parts, and the walls of vocal harmonies. Also, the voice of the late Brad Delp is back. Part of me can’t decide if this is a fitting tribute or just plain creepy, but the truth is that the tracks with Delp — the reworked “Someone (2.0),” “Didn’t Mean To Fall In Love,” and “Sail Away” — rock with more authority and sit more squarely in the traditional Boston pocket. It’s also good to see that Scholz still appears to be the wizard of hyper-melodic rock guitar, as there are insightful and beautiful flourishes at every turn. The set of rock guitarists who put “music” ahead of “guitar” is a small one, and Tom Scholz is still right near the top.
But then there’s the platoon of lead vocalists. I don’t mean to imply that they’re necessarily “bad” singers, because that’s just not true. It’s more that my ears can’t get past hearing Tom Scholz without Brad Delp.
As I worked my way through these songs, there was something else that overshadowed everything: the sound. I never thought I’d be saying this of a Tom Scholz recording, but there are some parts of these songs that sound…off, particularly in the drum department. Rhythms are so rigid as to sound like a drum machine. Vocal harmonies come in at volume levels so far above (or below) the track that they seem disconnected. What happened?
Overall, I did enjoy many parts of Life, Love & Hope. Despite my concerns, and without busting out the early records, it was a fun way to take a look back. I know that by saying I have trouble hearing Scholz without Delp, I’m implying that the band Boston should no longer exist. Maybe it doesn’t.
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