One gets the sense that Toronto-based vocalist and guitarist Kevin McQuade, leader of The Kat Kings, is a pretty down-to-earth guy. As composer of all but one tune on the band’s debut (with one co-writing credit), he delivers solid, unpretentious blue-collar rockers with lots of soul and hints of the blues here and there.
There’s nothing fancy about The Winning Hand, but there are no weak spots either. The Kings are all veterans, with a rock solid rhythm section—drummer Al Cross and bassist John Dymond—to hold things together. McQuade is a more than adequate guitarist and singer, favoring a direct, economical approach both instrumentally and vocally. And then there’s Martin Alex Aucoin, a master (and a monster) on keys, who co-produced the collection and no doubt had a guiding hand in at least some of the arrangements. Whether he’s on piano or organ, Aucoin provides superlative support throughout.
Material ranges from swampy working man rock ‘n’ roll (“Tuffer Than Me,” the leadoff track) to grinding rockers ("Let’s Get Greasy”) to rollicking shuffles ("Don’t You Know," the only cover here). There’s a distinct New Orleans vibe (natch!) to “Queen Of The Mardi-Gras,” while “Ridin’ On The Road" sounds like a lost Chuck Berry tune, and “That Train” sounds, indeed, just like a train ride.
Despite rather obvious influences though, there’s nothing derivative about McQuade’s compositions. He’s merely borrowing time-honored forms and classic grooves, and the arrangements are both intelligent and tasteful.
So far so good, and taken individually, every track is sufficiently strong. Production, however, is a bit muddy, and as a whole, somehow it all seems just a bit underwhelming. McQuade doesn’t go in for big hooks, and while each track has subtle embellishments that retain interest, there’s a curiously flat quality to the collection. Everything simmers nicely, but one longs for a moment or two when things boil over … restraint is an admirable attribute, but passion, too, has its place.
The Winning Hand is good, and an enjoyable enough listen, but there’s a certain spark missing here. This one’s likable, but not quite essential.