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Non-Prog CD Reviews

Tommy James

Hold The Fire

Review by Gary Hill

So, you remember Tommy James, don't you? This guy was a hit machine in the day and now he has his first new studio album for the new millennium. If the name sounds familiar, but you can't quite place the music these three titles should give you a clue, "I Think We're Alone Now," "Mony Mony" and "Crimson and Clover." The guy's style of rocking pop music (with just a touch of bubblegum) was a real winner. With this new album he's working his way back into the groove. This is not a perfect album and it seems to take a while to gain momentum, but the second half of the disc is just about up there with the best of James. I'd have to say that where he fails are the moments where he tries to hard to incorporate modern sounds into his aural textures. He proves, though, that he can still deliver a vocal line and write music with the best of them. This one should please long time fans, but it just might find him some new listeners, too. I'd definitely put it into the good category, and almost very good. It's just a little inconsistent. If all of it was like the second half (excepting one piece) it would even count as "great." Here's hoping James gets the chance to show us how his sound continues to be honed on further releases. I for one am glad he's coming back onto the scene.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2006 Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Isn't That The Guy
This has a sparse sort of arrangement and feels a bit like Hall and Oates meets Motown - with some seriously funky bass work thrown in for good measure. The vocal arrangement is quite cool.
Lupe and Joe
Now this rocker feels a lot more like vintage Tommy James. It has a bit of the texture of "Mony, Mony," but a bit more stripped down. There's also a solid dosage of "La Bamba"/"Twist and Shout" in the mix here.
Hold The Fire
This one has more of Toto ballad sort of approach to it. It's very much in the style of a late '70's early '80's ballad. The electronic percussion later on in the track is just a bit annoying. Still, the vocals in the latter portions of this cut are potent enough to make up for any problems with the backing instrumentation. It turns into a more pop oriented rocker in these later sections.
Love Words
This is sort of in the same general territory as the last cut, but with an even more mellow serious ballad approach. I hear a little Beach Boys on this one, but with a lot of old school Tommy James, too. Later this one powers up a bit, too, and I think I like the arrangement on that segment better than anything else on the disc so far.
Megamation Man
A kid's voice starts this, and then guitar begins an acoustic ballad approach. As this pumps up that voice returns saying, "no more border in the new world order" several times. As the song proper takes over its in the form of an almost progressive rock oriented ballad based jam. This is the best cut thus far with a very serious sort of arrangement. I'd love to hear James move more in this direction. I actually hear elements of Jon Anderson's type of songwriting here, but also more of that Beach Boys sound in the vocal arrangement. This one is a real winner. At just a bit over five minutes it's also the longest song on the disc.
Sweet Cherry Wine
Riding on the crest of the high left behind by the last number, this one comes in with a great rocking, bluesy approach. The chorus is based in a definite African American spiritual type of sound. Of course that sound is provided by the special guests on this cut - The Roots. There are also points in this one that sound a bit like James' hit "Crimson and Clover" in the arrangement. It's another standout on the CD.
It Keeps Goin'
The momentum drops back here, but just a bit. This is a fun, pop-oriented rocker with a classic Tommy James texture. It's a tad bubble gum, but also pretty cool. I like the harmonica solo section and the vocal segment that follows it. There are hints of the Beatles on this part of the song, but the more rocking side of that band.
Angels and Strangers
A solid classic rock texture with definite old school Tommy James elements starts this one off. After the intro it drops to a ballad type structure for the verse. The chorus pumps out into something a bit like "Crimson and Clover." This is another winner, but not quite on the level of "Megamation Man" and "Sweet Cherry Wine." Still the outro is quite powerful.
Give It All
This one is definitely a high-energy old school rocker. I hear elements of Trevor Rabin era Yes (think "I'm Running") on this, but also lots of '70's pop rock. This is a strong rocker and has a killer vocal arrangement. This cut really smokes later.
Ordinary Girl
Starting with a piano based ballad arrangement, strings add to the texture on the introduction. As it moves out into the verse it drops to a more sparse, but much more evocative approach. This one is powerful, but more in terms of the arrangement than volume and oomph. It's another that reminds me a bit of some of Jon Anderson's solo work. Of course there are also elements of classic Tommy James here, too. The arrangement does gain some momentum and energy - and passion as it moves forward. This is another strong one.
Amy
This one is a major change of pace - and not necessarily a good one. A spoken "tonight you're mine" starts this off, then a techno sort of artificial rhythm comes in to join the repeating loop. As the cut kicks into the song proper it takes on a better texture, that of a modern R & B number. This one is definitely an artistic stretch, and it has its moments. It has a cool jazz element that's quite nice, but I'm not sure I like the vocal arrangement all that much. This is especially true when the spoken bite returns later. The killer instrumentation, though really makes up for any shortcoming in that department. In that area, some of the guitar soloing is especially noteworthy.
I Love Christmas
This bonus cut is just what the title sounds like - a pop rock Christmas song from James. This is a cool number and a lot of fun. This isn't exactly the time of year for me to be in the mood for it, though. This one might just become one of those holiday classics, though.
 
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