Monday, September 28, 2015

Album Review: The Winery Dogs - Hot Streak

When a band of already established musicians gets together, there's no telling if it's going to work or not. People become entrenched in their way of doing things, and it's seldom as easy to blend styles and personalities once those have been firmly established. But every so often, one of those bands manages to rise above being simply known as a collection of names we already know, to become something that exists beyond the people involved. The Winery Dogs managed to hit that mark with their debut album, one that quickly became something far more than merely Mike Portnoy, Billy Sheehan, and Richie Kotzen playing together. They made an album that had a unique identity, one that twisted their classic rock roots around the myriad styles and influences they've encountered throughout their years in the industry. It was one of my top ten records of 2013, so the follow-up was something of great interest, to see if they can continue to build upon what was, for all three of them, the freshest bit of work they have done in ages.

The album opens with "Oblivion", which works as a bridge from the first album to this one. It has a similar sound to their first ever single, "Elevate", with an intricate riff that shows off their technical skill, and a hooky chorus layered with their beautiful three-part harmonies. It's just good ol' rock and roll, and that's exactly what makes it work so well.

But the band isn't content to make the same record over again, as they introduce a slew of new sounds and ideas over the course of "Hot Streak". "Captain Love" is the first sign of this, a slow stomper that owes a certain debt to AC/DC. It has one of those open chord riffs the Youngs trademarked, and a chorus that works more as a mantra than a melody. Usually, that's something I say as a criticism, but they pull it off here, and it's definitely fitting. The title track is a quirkier number, with a shuffle feel and drumming that pulls from jazz improv. It's certainly something I haven't heard before in rock music, but it's also something I'm not sure really works. The song built around it isn't quite up to par, so it almost feels more like a distraction than something to build off.

I really like "How Long", with it's rumbling bass groove and huge chorus, but there's an issue in the production that drags the song down. I don't know if it's in the actual bass tone, or if the mix puts it too low, but the notes all slur together and make it impossible to pick out what Billy Sheehan is actually doing. The bottom end is full, but it's a blur. I feel like the song would be stronger if it was more articulated, and the nuances of the playing were put to the fore.

When they hit the right balance, which they do on "Empire", The Winery Dogs are as good as they come. There's a perfect mix of virtuoso playing and tight songwriting, a combination that's hard to beat. Richie Kotzen comes up with some great melodies when the music allows him the space, which is the one thing the band needs to be wary of. It's easy to get so involved in their playing that the rhythms and chords make it difficult to put one of those big melodies over the top. And since this kind of rock music still lives and dies on choruses people want to sing along with, it's important to know when to restrain yourself. For the most part, the band does that with the wisdom of three guys who've been around for decades each.

A song like "Fire" is as simple as they come, and is necessary to balance out the record. "Hot Streak" is a long album, but it's not thirteen tracks of the same brand of rock and roll, which goes a long way to making sure that not only does everyone get something out of the experience, but it doesn't drag on the way that a lot of records that stretch past the hour mark do.

The overall impression I get from this record is that it's a much more percussion driven bunch of songs than the debut was. As someone who is supremely focused on melody, that makes it harder for me to say I'm in love with this album. It's certainly a more interesting collection of songs, and those great moments and great songs are still here. "War Machine" and "The Lamb" are great songs no matter what, but they deviate from what I love most about rock music. So while I still think there's a lot of great music on "Hot Streak", especially a song like "Think It Over", and it's an ambitious record that opens new doors for The Winery Dogs, I have to be honest and say that it's an album that has taken me longer to fully embrace.

Don't let that distract from the fact that "Hot Streak" is a very good record with some truly wonderful songs on it. I like this album a lot, even if it wasn't the record I was expecting.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with this review. I love the Dogs for lots of reasons but the melodic thrust of the first album seems to be missing for me unfortunately. I remember hearing the first 3 or 4 songs ahead of the first album and within 10 seconds I was hooked. When I heard there was ITunes samples of the new album I rushed to listen to each clip and found I kept skipping to the next track and then the next and the next looking for the instant hook I found on the debut tracks. Sadly what we have is well played and constructed songs without super big choruses which I miss. I still love the dogs and it is hard to follow up a perfect debut like Asia, of Appetite for Destruction etc. Still love the Dogs but miss the huge choruses.