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Album Retro-Review: BoDeans - Outside Looking In

Keith Higgons

Posted on February 6, 2019 14:16

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The 1987 sophomore album from Wisconsin's BoDeans

With the 1986 T-Bone Burnett produced Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams and being voted Best New American Band by the readers of Rolling Stone, Wisconsin’s BoDeans had arrived.

After a failed effort in LA with Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, the band retreated to Wisconsin. Talking Head Jerry Harrison stepped up to produce their sophomore album. And in October 1987, Outside Looking In was released.

Not well reviewed initially, how does it fare 31+ years later? Pretty well. It doesn’t sound dated. I’m less confident saying that about the rest of their catalog.

The bands two principals, Kurt Neumann and Sam Llanas, trade off lead vocals. Neumann has the more traditional rock voice and Llanas has the nasally sound (the one people make fun of). Since all the songwriting is shared, I presume they followed the Lennon/McCartney rule of whoever sang it, wrote it. If true, by my count, Neumann is not only the more prolific songwriter, but he’s arguably the better singer.

Some of the album’s best songs “Dreams”, “Only Love”, “Forever Young (The Wild Ones)” and the demo-sounding “I’m In Trouble Again” are sung by Neumann. Not to say the Llanas songs are bad, they’re not. Thematically, the songs are the same (love, heartache, etc.). It’s just that his lead vocals are incongruous, and disruptive, to the flow and sound of Neumann’s. Clocking in at 49:00, and peaking at #86 on the Billboard Album chart, it would’ve been better served trimming some of that fat.

While I can applaud the desire to operate as a lead vocal duality, the discord starts here and becomes more pronounced on future BoDeans albums.   

Often labeled a “roots rock” band (a moniker they didn’t like), Outside Looking In does lean into earnest rock a’la Bob Seger and John Mellencamp. As far as labels go, one could do worse than “roots rock” and a band could keep worse company.  Even former Mellencamp & drumming impresario Kenny Aronoff has recorded and toured with BoDeans since 1989.

They’ve also claimed that Outside Looking In didn’t capture the bands “essence”. I would argue that it comes closest to what they were, a great rock band. To be fair, I don’t think any album could capture their essence. BoDeans were, and remain, an almost peerless live band. That’s impossible to capture in a studio, although Outside Looking In comes close.

After Outside Looking In they continued gaining commercial momentum opening for U2 on The Joshua Tree tour, including working on rock legend Robbie Robertson’s (The Band) first solo album.

With varying degrees of commercial and critical success, BoDeans carried on. In 2011, principals Neumann and Llanas had an acrimonious and public split that’s only gotten worse.

However, Neumann continues to record and tour as BoDeans. Maybe that’s as it should be.

The cognoscenti be damned, 31 years later, Outside Looking In is damn fine rock album. Like a well-worn pair of jeans . . . and jeans never go out of fashion. 

Keith Higgons

Posted on February 6, 2019 14:16

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Source: Bizjournals

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