Well, rock me over with a feather – Styx‘s new CD is damn good. Since it’s a collection of covers, fans who’ve stuck with the band all this time may have less reason to complain about Dennis DeYoung’s absence than they otherwise would. Or not.
In any case, those who loved Styx for “Lady” and “Babe” might want to look elsewhere for their Styx fix. This is a guitar-heavy rock album with not a single keyboardy ballad. But its song choices are inspired, and with a few exceptions the interpretations are both loving and powerful.
The band, which since 1999 has included singer-keyboardist Lawrence Gowan along with original frontmen Tommy Shaw and James Young, does a fine version of the hard-to-cover “I Am the Walrus,” but won me over with The Who’s “I Can See For Miles,” sung by Shaw in a clear tenor that has lost neither its sweetness nor its authority through the decades. Shaw is less well suited to “Summer In the City,” which is listenable but in my opinion calls for ballsier vocals. But “Can’t Find My Way Home” is an excellent (if obvious) choice to focus on his strong high register (although it’s hard to imagine anyone really screwing up this incredible Blind Faith classic). The acoustic guitar work is exquisite.
Shaw also sings the blues-rock standard “One Way Out” with a good amount of soul, and the band, including longtime drummer Todd Sucherman and new bassist Ricky Phillips, really kicks out the jams on it. But the CD’s highlight for me is the Gowan-sung “Salty Dog,” a beautiful Procol Harum opus done by Styx with drama and passion.
A surprise one-minute version of “Find the Cost of Freedom” leads into an effective cover of Free’s “Wishing Well,” which, along with “I Don’t Need No Doctor” (Humble Pie) and the very obscure “Talkin’ About the Good Times” (The Pretty Things) show the band’s ability to make something new and vital out of songs pulled from pretty deep in the classic rock catalog. Gowan is not DeYoung; adding him to the mix seems to have turned Styx into the full-tilt rock band it always seemed to only partially be.
Which is interesting, because James Young, always Styx’s “heavier” element, is still a big part of the band, and his vocals are the same as they ever were. Which is to say, they haven’t gotten worse. OK, I was never much of a Young fan. To me, he always sounded heavy-metal-lite, or as if he were trying a little too hard to be bad-ass.
Still, I rather like “It Don’t Make Sense (You Can’t Make Peace),” a scruffy, late Willie Dixon shuffle with which I was not familiar. And “Locomotive Breath” is another song that’s pretty much impossible to mess up; this version won’t blow your mind, but it does have some vocal harmonies and octaves that add something to Tull’s original conception. Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” seems too gutsy a song for Young to convince on, though the wailing guitars and tribal drumming rock as hard as they can.
The CD closes with a slowed-down, acoustic-y version of Styx’s own “Blue Collar Man.” This wasn’t a great song in the first place, but it does well by this new version, with Shaw at his most emotional, and piano by the late Johnnie Johnson, whose appearance (along with that of original Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo) points up the links that connect modern rock to the classic bands of the genre and further back to the origins of rock and roll. The best cover CDs do this, and this is one such.