Vermont-based band The Samples rode in on the great wave of early '90s jam acts. For those who missed the action, here's a recap: Phish were the spiritual heirs to the Dead, Blues Traveler the working-class road warriors, Spin Doctors the radio sensations, and The Samples, campus darlings. I remember how stoked I was to see them for only five bucks back in my school daze. Well, times change. Considering their latest disc, Rehearsing for Life, I would no longer be so quick to part with my spare change.
Of course, these are not The Samples circa 1992. The lineup has changed several times over the years, with the lead singer-songwriter Sean Kelly the only constant. This is his band and has always been. So, while he gets credit for how good the Samples were, he also shoulders the blame for their failings. This record falls in the latter category.
The musicianship is solid, if uninspiring, throughout. Multi-instrumentalist Dan Blondin's harmonica, banjo and mandolin work helps add color to what would otherwise be a rather dull affair. The album's biggest flaws are in the songwriting department, however, and Kelly is credited as the composer of both music and lyrics.
Much of the Samples' early output contained plenty of fun and bounce. Sadly, that carefree sound has gone missing. In place of spirited songwriting, Kelly has turned to cliches. Many of the songs are loaded with nostalgic platitudes and sentimental musings. The pining even extends to the song titles such as "Young and Free" and "Too Young to Die." The latter features the telling line, "Asked where the child within had gone," while "Superstar" speaks of "calendars and faded magazines." "Nevers" gives a hint of where Kelly's head is now: "I never stayed in one place too long, I never thought I would sing this song," he intones.
The lowest point of the album is the tune "Dad," which bemoans a nearly nonexistent father-son relationship. While there's nothing wrong with this kind of soul-searching, the subject has been handled far more movingly by other artists. "Cat's in the Cradle" it ain't.
There are some OK moments, however. "Heaven" invokes XTC's "Dear God" in words, sound and spirit, and "My Guitar" is cheesy fun. "We're just playing our songs, were not doing anything wrong," sings Kelly. Apparently, that's all we can ask for.