(Vanguard Records, CD)
Sometimes, you really can judge a book — or in this case, an album — by its cover.
The cover of The Bear, the latest album from Massachusetts-based road warriors Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers, suggests a hardscrabble, blue-collar feel. Even encased in shrink-wrap, it appears battered and familiar, like a favorite pair of well-worn blue jeans. But looks can be, and often are, deceiving. The disc’s threadbare aesthetic is an optical illusion. Like distressed denim at the Gap, it is beat up by design, not loving overuse. And though Kellogg and his Sixers would seemingly have you believe The Bear is a dusty descendant of the working-class heroes they parrot — Springsteen, Petty and, most obviously, Ryan Adams — their music is likewise little more than an airbrushed fabrication.
The album opens with the title track. It’s a jaunty, blues-ish tune meant to impart a classic backroom roadhouse feel. But the intentionally grainy recording falls flat, a victim of its own gritless contrivances and overproduced underproduction.
“A (With Love)” is next and recalls Stranger’s Almanac-era Whiskeytown, as does much of the album, with Kellogg cast in the Ryan Adams role. In fact, Kellogg’s delivery is eerily — suspiciously? — reminiscent of Adams, a fact perhaps owing to Bear coproducer and frequent Adams collaborator Tom Schick. Kellogg spins a mildly gripping tale of heartland melodrama. But it is nothing Adams and scores of others haven’t done with more artful tact before him.
That song is symptomatic of the disc’s maladies on the whole. Kellogg suffers no shortage of talent. He’s a naturally gifted vocalist and can reel in a hook with the best of them. But he’s more pop than punch and struggles with believability, mining territory already fairly well stripped bare by superior artists. Though at moments he stands on his own (“Satisfied Man,” “Lonely in Columbus”), more often than not his tunes, and especially his derivative wordplay, represent an uninspiring approximation. Call it Americana by way of “American Idol.”
Fans of Whiskeytown, or latter-day Adams efforts such as Heartbreaker or Jacksonville City Nights, could well be seduced by Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers. But they would be far better served seeking solace in those well-loved, tattered treasures than the mediocrity wrapped in the faux-vintage trappings of The Bear.