Album review: STERLING BALL, JOHN FERRARO, JIM COX – The Mutual Admiration Society

STERLING BALL, JOHN FERRARO, JIM COX  – The Mutual Admiration Society

Mascot [Release date 19.01.18]

Guitarist Sterling Ball, bassist John Ferraro and drummer Jim Cox explore a musical lineage which their label tells us, is: “A celebration of up to forty years of friends making music together.”

The label in this case is Mascot records with some A&R and musical help from Steve Vai and his Favored Nations label.

The result is an album with stellar musicianship, but one that lacks a stylistic driving force and a thematic focus to give it an identity.

‘The Mutual Admiration Society’ is in effect a nostalgic journey through some of the music that has influenced the core trio and their special guests, Steve Morse, Steve Lukather, Steve Vai, Albert Lee, John Petrucci and Jay Grayson.

And while the grooves do percolate – Dobie Gray’s ‘The In Crowd’ finds Steve Morse weaving in and out of a big groove, and an exemplary arrangement of The Jackson 5′s ‘I Want You Back’, complete with hand claps and mandolin, are highlights – the album fails to build on its early momentum.

Sparks do occasionally fly, as on Vai’s conversational solo on ‘Sugar Shack’ and Albert Lee’s hot picking on ‘Hey Good Lookin’, but a mix of disparate covers and contrasting playing styles, denudes the album of an essential flow.

The main problem appears to be the material, which at times simply isn’t weighty enough for the calibre of the players. On ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, some slick band interplay comes to a perfunctory rest as the band eschews the opportunity to jam.

There is plenty of good stuff, but this album might be unfairly overlooked in a musical scene top heavy with special guest albums with original material. And if you are exploring your musical past, surely the objective is to bring something new and interesting to the party. The problem here is that with the exception of a few juicy solo’s everyone plays within themselves.

Murray Head’s ‘Treat Her Right’ for example, is given an almost languid treatment on a piece that originally made its impact through dynamics. And while Albert Lee reveals some of his special guitar talents on ‘Hey Good Lookin’, his laid back country twang on ‘Cryin Time’ is a wasted opportunity.

Then there’s the problematic ‘Disney Medley’, on which the band members sound as if they are playing for themselves.

It’s a potpourri of themes on which John Petrucci adds some tonal presence and mangled shredding on material that isn’t suited to him. The fact that the medley belatedly slips into a Celtic jig tells you all that you need to know.

All that said, there are some pleasing moments, as evidenced by Steve Lukather teasing out “the innocence and charm” of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, by contrasting his guitar heft with a stripped down 60′s feel.

The supple rhythm section also fits the project perfectly, as drummer John Ferraro drives the grooves imperiously and adds some crisp cymbal work, while bassist Jim Cox supports the song seamlessly throughout, and even manages a short solo on ‘Treat Her Right.’

All the guests colour the album with their  respective playing styles and different tones. Ironically enough in an industry often blighted by egos, what the project really lacks is a leader, a fact inadvertently amplified by the apt album title ‘The Mutual Admiration Society.’ ***

Review by Pete Feenstra

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