Artist: Sterling Ball, John Ferraro, Jim Cox
Album: The Mutual Admiration Society
Label: Mascot Label Group
Mascot Label Group is a wonderful record label in the sense that they keep us listening to new things. One of the most recent additions to their roster is a supergroup of sorts called the Mutual Admiration Society, put together by Sterling Ball, John Ferraro, and Jim Cox, in a collaboration that is partly covers and partly original material.
I grew up on country and classic rock, so there’s a definite weakness for guitar rock inside me. When I saw that John Petrucci (Dream Theater) and Steve Vai would be on this album, I had to give it a listen. What’s more, John Petrucci was doing a Disney medley? Well that just sounded like a great deal of fun.
Listen along on Spotify:
The album starts out incredibly funky with “Payday Song”, which sounds like familiar funky 90s guitar style rock. It’s a creative song, executed with style and flare, and ultimately starts the album off very well. The groovy classic guitar sound continues with “In the Crowd”, featuring Steve Morse, whom most of you probably know from Deep Purple. This laid-back track has the ambiance of classic rock like the Rolling Stones and is rather stylishly executed.
“Checkin’ Up on My Baby”, originally by Sonny Boy Williamson and lasting a mere 1:55 in length in its original incarnation, has been classed up spectacularly in this album’s bluesy rendition, and now lasts a worthy 3:46. Steve Lukather, of Toto fame, appears in the version of “Baby Please Don’t Go” by the Delta Blues. I will say that many of the songs covered on this album were good old tracks, but in pretty much every case, this one in particular, the improvements in production quality really help bring the songs into the modern world, and the guitarists have made them their own, resulting in pretty vast improvements (at least by my standards). “Baby Please Don’t Go” moves from a gritty old blues song into a delightful, upbeat, organ and guitar piece that’ll definitely get your feet tapping.
While the album does center largely around guitars, “Treat Her Right” gives a great deal of attention to the organs as well, which allows for a nice change-up in feel. I’m not familiar with most of these artists by name, but one instantly recognizable song was the cover of “Sugar Shack” done by Steve Vai. Even knowing as little of Vai as I do, his sound comes out clearly and concisely, and it really sounds like he’s having fun with what he’s doing.
The album turns sharply into a less rock, more country sound with “Memphis” aka “Memphis, Tennessee”, and continues with “Cryin’ Time” (Ray Charles), which interestingly wasn’t exactly a country song in its original incarnation, but with Albert Lee‘s influence, manages to work really nicely and sound very authentically like a 90s country song (and that steel guitar and piano don’t hurt the vibe either).
Another big funky hit on the album, which nicely combines the poppy sounds of the original with the country guitars that dominate a great deal of this album, is the cover of Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”, complete with a… banjo (I think?) breakdown about three quarters of the way through. Lots of fun, this one!
The “Disney Medley” was really cool, and a bit of a shock to me at the same time. On one hand, John Petrucci is fantastic, no surprise there. However, the songs in the medley are all ancient, with nothing (at least nothing I recognized) earlier than Cinderella (which, for reference, is from the 50s): “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes”, “Zip-a-Dee Doo-Dah”, and “It’s a Small World.” So, on one hand, I applaud the choice of unusual or uncommon songs, but on the other hand… really? Those ones? Nothing from the Disney Renaissance, for example? The best Disney songs? So, in that sense, I was a little bit disappointed.
Perhaps my very favorite song on the album is Albert Lee on “Hey Good Lookin'”, which was done originally by Hank Williams (Sr). To be fair, my dad used to play guitar and sing that song in our living room growing up, so I have an innate fondness for it. However, honestly, once I found the original song, well… those 2-minute country songs from the 50s were pretty slow and low-quality in production, and this upbeat version, while lacking the vocals, is exactly what this classic needed – better guitar work, a bit faster speed, clean and clear production, and a lot more style.
“Strip Mall Gourmet” is one of the funkiest songs on the album, far more jazzy than country in style, with Jay Graydon (who has won Grammies for rhythm & blues music) playing this time around. It has those elevator music drums and a gentle, relaxing vibe all around, that is, until it picks up and gets nice and showy around halfway through. There’s a definite 70s/80s hippy music influence in there as well. A warm welcome back to the organ too!
And lastly, the album concludes with “Heartbroke”, which picks the energy up a little, returning one last time to the country regions of guitar sound. It’s a pretty mellow track, and perhaps one of the least interesting ones on the whole. It’s a bit of a weak ending to the album as such, but that’s the worst complaint about it.
Overall, this is definitely a really fun, funky album that anyone who just likes to listen to good guitar (and organ) playing will surely have no trouble enjoying. Extra pleasure will certainly come if you like country music in any way.
Rating: 9/10, 4.5 stars
1. Payday Song
2. In the Crowd (ft. Steve Morse)
3. Checkin’ Up on My Baby
4. Baby Please Don’t Go (ft. Steve Lukather)
5. Treat Her Right
6. Sugar Shack (ft. Steve Vai)
8. Cryin’ Time (ft. Albert Lee)
9. I Want You Back
10. Disney Medley (ft. John Petrucci)
11. Hey Good Lookin’ (ft. Albert Lee)
12. Strip Mall Gourmet (ft. Jay Graydon)