When I was younger, and first getting seriously into music, there were two bands/artists that were my initial forays. One of them was Meat Loaf, who I have talked about at length before, and the other was Blues Traveler. Yes, I was one of those people who heard them first through "Run Around" and "Hook", but the start of a story isn't as important as the ending. Over the years, I have followed along with everything they have done (including all of John Popper's outside/solo projects - a topic for a different day), and have remained a fan. This holiday season, I got into a mood where I listened to almost all of these records anyway (because Popper voices my favorite Christmas song), so the time has come to run through their discography.
Blues Traveler (1990)
The band's first outing is what you would expect from a young group finding their footing. There are moments of greatness ("But Anyway"), and times where their indulgences get the better of the music. They were lumped in with the jam band scene, and as that is music I'm not all that fond of, this is one of their weaker albums for me. You could hear where the band was going, but they weren't there yet.
Travelers & Thieves (1991)
This is a leaps and bounds improvement over the debut, but one that was still setting the stage. The sound shifted a bit, with their blend of acoustic and clean guitars serving to make the music lively, and almost imbued with a hint of folk. Popper's literate lyrics are quirky, charming, and the songwriting tightened up around their instrumental tangents. "Sweet Pain" is a quintessential Blues Traveler song, and with the mile-a-minute "Optimistic Thought" challenging sing-alongs, things were certainly looking up.
Save His Soul (1993)
Which brings us here, to the pinnacle of the band's first era. "Save His Soul" sharpens the knives, and gives us song after song that showcases the band at their best. We get the gritty "Love & Greed", the playful "Whoops", and the flawless "Conquer Me", all of which elevated the band to new heights. For over an hour, there's barely a wasted moment, as every song delivers a memorable take on one of the band's different sides. Critically speaking, this is the band's best-written and most consistent album, a fact I was regrettably slow to come around to.
The album that everyone knows, which is for good reason. The highlights of "Four" ("Run Around", "Hook", and "The Mountains Win Again") are as good as anything the band had ever, or would ever, write. Though the lyrics look cynically on society and the record industry, their truth is proven in the sharp hooks that became big hits. The shift in Blues Traveler was starting here, as the success on the charts would create an influence on future music, but "Four" is an album that largely holds up extremely well.
Straight On Till Morning (1997)
This album is confused. It hearkens back to their original incarnation for half of the record, while pushing forward to the mainstream on the rest. "Most Precarious" was an obvious push for a single, but despite it being a really good track, a song with a title pop audiences wouldn't understand was never going to work. "Canadian Rose" is truly gorgeous, while "Felicia" continued in the mold of Popper's unique verbalizations. The heavier aspects get pumped up as well, and they are what didn't work quite as well. It left the record a bit disjointed, even if all the songs worked on their own. Still, it was my favorite Blues Traveler record for quite a time.
The biggest changed occurred here, with the passing of bassist Bobby Sheehan. The new version of the band streamlined their sound, and introduced a number of new, lighter elements. This record is bouncier, brighter (with a huge exception), and more fun than the previous few. All of that is anchored by "Pretty Angry", the searing remembrance of their fallen friend, and one of the absolute highlights of their entire career. This album started their fade from the top, but I say it's one of their stronger, and most unappreciated, records.
Truth Be Told (2003)
The tightest, most consise album yet, "Truth Be Told" is Blues Traveler making as much of a pop album as they can. That is countered by the actual sound, where the guitars get darker, and the production slicker. We get our requisite gems in "Sweet & Broken", "Mount Normal" and "Let Her And Let Go", but there are also songs that, pardon the pun, stumble and fall. This is a good record, but not one of their absolute best.
Shifting gears yet again, we now get to see the band flexing their rock muscles. This is their most guitar-driven, heaviest album. It's as dark as Blues Traveler gets, which makes it a unique record in their lineup. While "Amber Awaits" is a fantastic single that could have placed anywhere, songs like "Nefertiti" and my personal favorite "After What" couldn't have existed on a different Blues Traveler record. They work only because this is a record that insists on showing their power. It's another very good record, but it's one that doesn't sound as inviting as their earlier ones.
North Hollywood Shootout (2008)
Another album, another change. This time, we see what was described as an experiment with more melodic songwriting. A decade on, I still don't hear what was meant by that. This is, unequivocally, Blues Traveler's worst album. The ballad "Borrowed Time" is lovely, but that's about it. These songs lack the sparkle, wit, and even the melody of everything they had done up to this point. It's flat, uninspired, and I take it as a warm-up for one of the solo efforts that was yet to come. Capped off with Bruce Willis doing spoken word, this is an album I haven't wanted to listen to in years.
Suzie Crack The Whip (2012)
This is the album that logically would have followed "Truth Be Told". It's Blues Traveler embracing their pop leanings, and writing songs that are geared for mainstream radio, which is odd, considering they weren't going to get any attention from there. That said, this is a massive improvement over the previous album, and has plenty of sticky melodies and memorable songs. It might not have been the most logical direction to go, but the results speak for themselves. This album is actually very strong, despite its lack of acclaim.
Blow Up The Moon (2015)
And finally we get to their most recent album, which continues in the blatant pop style, but this time with collaborators on every song. While there are tracks that are great ("Matador" being the best), I have continued to struggle with the concept of the record. If I'm listening to Blues Traveler, I want to hear Blues Traveler. I don't want to wait until the second verse of a song to hear John Popper's voice. It's not a bad record, but I don't really believe it's a Blues Traveler record. I'm not sure Blues Traveler is interested in being Blues Traveler anymore.
So after a career filled with twists and turns, shifts and changes, we're left with a collection of albums that are mostly very good, occasionally great, and featuring only one dud. I don't know what the future holds, but the past has been pretty good so far. I'm not sorry to have gotten on this ride.