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Blues Traveler
Straight On Till Morning
by Tom Phalen
MTV Online, National
Nov, 1996

John Popper needs to slow down.

The admitted gun fancier plays his harmonica as if it were an Uzi. If his notes were drive-by bullet holes in the side of a Bronco, they would be spaced a half inch apart or tighter. He's the Yngwie Malmsteen of harmonicists, and it's often overwhelming. There are few spaces to give the listener a sense of contrast or dynamics. When the Travelers are on the track they are unstoppable; on Straight on Till Morning, Popper may be trying to salvage the material with his harmonic assault, but more often weighs down already sinking songs.

Nowhere is this more evident than on "Carolina Blues," the first single from the band's fifth release. Train songs are, by their sad, wailing nature and chugging tempos, perfect vehicles for the harmonica. But "Carolina Blues" is no "Train Kept A Rolling" - it's a pedestrian quasi blues that never quite gets out of the round house. It steams in place rather than taking that long, lonely rail ride, and that's a shame. One can't have enough good train songs.

Blues Traveler's other problem is the same as that of most groups that have become "made" bands by playing out hundreds of nights a year: their live adrenaline just doesn't always translate to a record. The Dead had this problem, so does Rusted Root. Only Phish are able to keep the extended live jam separate from what goes on a disc.

Not that Straight on Till Morning doesn't have some tasty moments. "Felicia" has a jumping little Latin swing and some nice word play, and "Justify The Thrill" is suitably menacing. "Psycho Joe" has some deft, playful changes, and a darkly funny story line for a song of some social comment. When the tunes are good, Popper's playing becomes a little more restrained, embellishing the verses and saving the overkill for the leads (where it belongs).

Blues Traveler also tends to run long - no surprise from a jamming band. But the string-soaked ballad "Yours" doesn't justify its six-plus minutes. At half the time it would have worked better. "Battle of Someone," however, works its similar length better, if only because the tempo has more snap and Chan Kinchla's gritty leads feel so right. The longest cut, "Make My Way," also holds its own despite its graveyard beat.

Blues Traveler is nothing if not generous. At over an hour long, this is a lot of music. But half works better as party background filler than headphone listening. Unfortunately Straight on Till Morning is siderailed almost as often as it's highballing.