Calling Vintage Trouble a ‘retro’ band is redundant at this point – the word “vintage” is right there in the band’s name – so it’s no surprise that these Los Angeles soul-rockers once again return to the classic blues, soul and R&B that have influenced them from the off on second album, 1 Hopeful Rd, released shortly after a major support stint with AC/DC. I find that last detail quite interesting, actually, because on this new release Vintage Trouble seem to have dialled back a touch on the ‘rock’ quotient of their sound, or at least given more attention to their mellower side with a greater emphasis on husky blues and soul.
It certainly doesn’t start that way, though. “Run Like the River” (originally released as a bonus track on the Encore Edition rerelease of debut album The Bomb Shelter Sessions a few years back) is a firecracker of an opening track: a clattering surge of handclaps, pounding drums and soulful cheering, and despite being a minute longer than its predecessor retains its visceral charm while opening the album in fine fashion.
The album soon settles into a smoother groove, and by ‘settles’ I mean ‘jackknifes’. The opener is followed by “From My Arms” a sensual slow jam whose subdued crooning and gentler instrumental performances, though impressive, risk diffusing the album’s momentum too early. “Doin’ What You Were Doin'” is better, personally speaking anyway, a head-bobbing strut with a wonderful guitar line resting on some terrific syncopated rhythms, capped off with a lovely uplifting melody.
The opening triplet, you find, comes to define the record as a whole: mellower numbers punctuated by an occasional explosion of energy. I’m not sure how I feel about this, to be perfectly honest. While Vintage Trouble’s soulful vibes only previously accented their sound, adding texture and depth, on 1 Hopeful Rd. they come close to defining it, which is a problem because these guys have always worked best when they sound like they’re about to break into some of that trouble their name promises. Unlike The Bomb Shelter Sessions, too, which generally found a neat balance between hard and soft, the tracks on 1 Hopeful Rd. almost universally have one foot very much in one camp or the other, and as a result this constant switching between sounds can make for an inconsistent, even jarring listening experience.
That’s as an album, though. Song for song 1 Hopeful Rd. is still pretty great, and when they do get some fire under their feet they really do cook, as proven by the hip-swinging, high-kicking soul-splosion of “Strike Your Light”, an early standout ever since they performed it on The Tonight Show back in 2013. And though the album is, for the most part, a holding pattern for their sound, they do take the time to play with some, if not “new” as such, then certainly different influences, summoning the spirit of Lynyrd Skynyrd on the Southern stomp of “Angel City, California”, whose lyrics take a refreshingly rosy-eyed look at L.A. (an anomalous approach in rock music, for sure). “Before the Tear Drops” is also great, hearkening back to Fifties doo-wop with a modern polish, while “Soul Serenity” closes the album with a nice acoustic flourish, though with the wealth of ballads the album has already laid on us at this point it doesn’t come off as the breather it should.
Typical of this band there’s nothing wrong with the performances either. Vintage Trouble are renowned for being a merciless live presence, and while that force doesn’t quite translate to plastic they still pack a fair punch. Ty Taylor’s vocals are as jointly nuanced and powerful as ever, while the band provides a tight sonic backdrop that impresses without ever showing off or trampling over the music. The Don Was production is clean and punchy while being just spacious enough to lend the songs a real depth and atmosphere: there’s a wonderful snap to the drums, while the guitar is given the room it needs to cut, crackle or croon however it needs without ceding any ground to the other instruments.
Ultimately 1 Hopeful Rd. is a rewarding listen, and even if it is ‘more of the same’, when the same is this good it’s hard to quibble. To me, it just feels less like a coherent album and more like one of those singles compilation that passed for LPs back in the Fifties – which, given the band’s vintage approach, may actually be quite fitting.
Favourites: “Run Like the River”, “Angel City, California”, “Strike Your Light”, “Before the Tear Drops”