Album review: MARK SPIRO- Traveling Cowboys

MARK SPIRO - Traveling Cowboys

Frontiers Records (Release Date 07.05.21)

Best known as a writer for Cheap Trick, Giant, Bad English and others, Mark Spiro’s career has significantly picked up after a dormant few years. Less than a year after the ’2+2= 5‘ triple anthology comes his first album of new material in nine years.

The CD artwork shows him as a weathered and contented figure staring out at a cornfield with a ranch over yonder. It is perhaps unsurprising then that the overall feel is mellow and stripped back with very little electric guitar and at times his lyrics almost spoken word. The album has a cottage industry aspect to it, with another West coast songwriter in Gia Sky and daughter Ruby his main collaborators.

So melodic rock fans hoping that his signing to Frontiers Records meant a return to the AOR sound of his nineties albums like ‘Now is Then, Then is Now’ and ‘Devotion’ are in for disappointment. In fact the shock is even bigger as the opening title track is a disconcerting attempt to get ‘down with the kids’, contemporary pop with treated vocals, an almost spoken word bridge and drum loops.

‘Rolls Royce’ boasts more conventional melodic songwriting that grows on you and ‘Vanderpump’ is the one out and out rocker, albeit a curveball that begins as a bluesy stomp before some distorted guitar and tongue in cheek lyrics that name check the eponymous US TV star Lisa.

More in a classic Spiro mould is ‘7 Billion People’, showcasing his whimsical writing style and where he wheels out his star friends:  Julian Lennon (with whom he wrote ‘Saltwater’) to duet and Tim Pierce for a great guitar solo frustratingly out of context with the rest of the album. Even then the sound is somewhat spoiled by an irritating drum machine.

There should be something for everyone across 15 songs (though a couple of old songs are reprised in ‘Between the Raindrops’ and ‘The Fishermen 3’).  ‘Someone Else’ and  ‘Let the Wind Decide’ are fine songs with sparse piano led arrangements. However  ‘Kingdom Come’ has a singalong chorus that would work well as an anthem if picked up and given a rockier treatment.

‘I Ain’t Leaving’ perhaps comes closest to his melodic rock roots, with  vocals like a more countrified  John Waite or Brett Walker, becoming grittier on a big stirring chorus and with a rare guitar solo.

However the bland ‘Going’, ‘Feel Like Me’ where he breaks into a falsetto and ‘Nothing In Between Us’, with more irritating drum loops, share some of the modern stylings of the title track. ‘Dance’ I found rather annoying and on ‘Still’ he wears his faith on his sleeve a little too overtly for my personal preference.

There are still melodic hooks aplenty but a health warning is in order that this is not really a rock album. Yet, while a mixed bag, there is still much to enjoy in this master songwriter’s craft.

*** 1/4

Review by Andy Nathan

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