Despite the fact that rock and metal, the music I spend most of my time listening to, was formed on the basis of the blues, I’ve spent shockingly little time exploring that sort of music. For one thing, I only have so much time I can devote to music, but mostly the blues have never appealed to me on the fundamental level of what I want out of music. For me, music is all about melody, and the majority of blues music I’ve heard over the years is bare-bones in that regard. There are players of enormous talent, but the hooks in their music are lacking, which makes it hard for me to get into it on anything but a cursory level.
Joe Bonamassa is one of those players with seemingly limitless talent as a player, and he is one of the few blues players who I feel has something to offer me. I first heard him through his side-project Black Country Communion (whose demise seemed to come only as a shock to Glenn Hughes), but was disappointed to discover how much of his solo repertoire is composed of covers. There’s nothing wrong with covering classics, but I tend to prefer original material, so I can get an understanding of who the artist I’m listening to is.
“Different Shades Of Blue” is Bonamassa’s first solo album of solely original material, which is a perfect entry point for me. I saw the studio videos before the album’s release, and the title track when it was released as a single, and to say my interest was piqued is an understatement. That song is the crowning achievement of Bonamassa’s career to date, a stunning example of how the blues can be blended with melodic songwriting. It has fiery guitar leads, and a strong chorus. In other words, it’s just about a perfect song.
The rest of the album caught me off-guard. I was expecting the deep blues of “Oh, Beautiful”, which is about as boring a song as the album provides, given its adherence to the tropes of the blues. What I didn’t expect was how much of the album would be colored with strings and horns, sounding almost like a continuation of the big bang meets soundtrack feeling of Brian Setzer’s underrated “Songs From Lonely Avenue”. In that regard, I was quite impress by what I heard.
On the other hand, the songs themselves aren’t developed in the way I would prefer. Bonamassa manages to avoid using his songs as excuses to solo, although there are plenty of those to go around. He builds complete songs around them, but for focusing on writing melodic songs, the hooks don’t work as well as they should. Bonamassa’s tone and playing are stellar, and his voice is every bit as good as you could want it to be, but the songs themselves don’t have the power and bite of his guitar.
There are a couple of gems in the middle of the record, but when taken as a whole, there aren’t enough of them to make the record the gem it should be. The opening and closing are noticeably weaker than the middle, and that colors the impression I get. The album takes time to get going, and then lingers on with a sub-par finish. Together, they make it hard to be gripped by the excellent material in-between.
“Different Shades Of Blue” is a good album, but it’s a showcase of how good Bonamassa could be if he took a slightly different direction. I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed, but I’m left wondering “what if?”