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Blue Light Bandits: Blue Light Bandits
by George Graham
(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/28/2017)
For this album review series, one of the criteria I use in selecting a recording is innovation, such as creative genre-mixing, imaginative composing, distinctive sonic combinations and so on. But I think it’s also worth paying attention to performers who do what they do very well, even though it might be in a familiar style, but with an added twist.
For this week, we have one of the latter, an intelligent band who do groove-oriented original rock that is rather straightforward and not particularly boundary crossing, nor lyrically provocative, but they do it very well. They have an instantly appealing sound marked by the old-fashioned values of solid musicianship and attention to detail in creating their well-crafted songs with strong vocal harmonies.
The group and the album are both called Blue Light Bandits. They are a quartet from Worcester, Massachusetts, whose formation goes back to about 2011, though they emerged in their present form in 2015. The group’s beginnings go back to when pianist Dan DeCristofaro and cellist Ethan Bates met in music theory class in high school. DeCristofaro was learning jazz piano and cellist Bates was studying classical music, but they decided to get together to try their hands at more mainstream pop. They went off to separate colleges, but got back together during vacations and breaks. In the meantime, DeCristofaro met drummer Mike Braz at an audition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and soon hit it off. The three soon moved in together and started developing the band, while looking for a guitarist. They found Ricky Duran, a singer-songwriter around Worcester, who also added a third part to the vocal harmonies that the band was striving toward. The four pursued different education directions, with principal songwriter DeCristofaro majoring in biology, drummer Braz in mechanical engineering, cellist and bassist Bates majored in music at Syracuse university, and Duran studied guitar at the Berklee College of Music. From the beginning, the band mixed their own versions of cover songs with their original material, and released their first single in 2016 after gigging around Worcester and winning local music awards.
The band’s sound brings together the diverse backgrounds of the members, with DeCristofaro bringing a somewhat jazzy and funk oriented approach, to the contributions of the other members. There are also some hints of reggae and a strong emphasis on old-fashioned melodic vocal harmonies, which the band points out are recorded together in the studio. There’s also an underlying musical sophistication with good composition and interesting musical ingredients such as a couple of songs in non-4/4 time. One can hear bits of influences from the progressive rockers and Steely Dan.
The album opens with a piece called Highest which the band calls as an “intro.” The piece shows Blue Light Bandits’ trademark sonic ingredients: the kind of vintage progressive rock keyboard sound, the band’s sophisticated rhythmic approach, and their strong vocal harmonies. <<>>
More toward mainstream pop is a song called A Little Love which has brings together some pop rock with hints of reggae. The lyrics are indeed about love and the band’s vocal harmonies remain a focus. <<>>
More toward the funk side is a track called Back in Town with shows some of their influence by classic soul. <<>>
Another of the compositions that combine a tuneful melodic approach with some subtle musical twists is called Mess You Make Me. It also takes in familiar lyrical territory but manages to avoid the cliches. <<>>
Blue Light Bandits’ progressive rock tendencies also come out on Stay, which also takes a melodic approach and adds the quirkiness of a 5-beat rhythm. <<>>
Call of the Sirens is another track with a twist, it’s bluesy and spacey in a kind of mainstream rock context, with guitar parts that hint at the call of the sirens. <<>>
The album ends with the band’s having both feet in the progressive rock mode with a largely instrumental track called Wash featuring the group’s impressive vocal harmonies sung wordlessly. <<>>
Blue Light Bandits, on their eponymous debut album, show themselves to be one of those bands that brings their own twist to fairly familiar musical ingredients and does everything right, with classy musicianship, strong vocal harmonies, well-crafted songs, adding up to an appealing, sophisticated but unpretentious album that can appeal to probably several generations of music fans.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” The recording is blessedly free from dumb studio effects like intentional vocal distortion and looped rhythm tracks, and the sound is admirably clean. There’s still too much volume compression as if there is some kind of loudness war to be fought. But the sound is like the music, honest and generally well-crafted.
A profile of Blue Light Bandits which says that only one of the band members is a full-time musician. Keyboard man and main songwriter Dan DeChristofaro works at Boston Children’s Hospital, drummer Mike Braz works as an engineer in Rhode Island, cellist/bassist Ethan Bates works at a music and arts non-profit, while Ricky Duran does manage to make a living touring with his own music. The old bit of advice about not quitting one’s day job is one that the members of Blue Light Bandits seem to have taken, though not because of these guys aren’t world class, which they certainly are, but because the economics of the music biz make high quality, fad-bucking independent music a bit of a hard sell. Let’s hope that these guys get the kind of recognition they deserve, and that their future is as bright as their music.
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