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Album Review : Trout Continues to Set the Standard


For a child to grow into a good person, Dostoevsky wrote, it takes many good examples and at least a little bit of love. The same goes for a local music scene. The little bit of love has to come from the music community's support system, the clubs and record companies that give local talent a forum. Setting a good example is up to the musicians themselves.

In the Walter Trout Band, Orange County has a shining one. If you're going to be a blues-leaning rock band in O.C., you have to reckon with Trout's prodigious talent and his driven work ethic, and set your sights accordingly. His new album doesn't just set a good example for players; it's richly rewarding for fans. Ratings range from * (poor) to **** (excellent). Three stars denote a solid recommendation.

*** 1/2 , Walter Trout Band, "Breaking the Rules" Provogue (Dutch import)

Last year was supposed to be the year Walter Trout finally made a name in his own country. In a superficial way, he did--by appearing as the pitchman in a nationally televised ad campaign for a diet plan. But Trout's first U.S. release, "Tellin' Stories," received virtually no promotion from the blues-oriented Silvertone label, and he had to continue basing his career, as he has since 1989, on his strong reception in the European market.

"Tellin' Stories" was, in fact, Trout's weakest record, although it did offer his customarily volcanic guitar work and his keen awareness of the need to base songs on emotionally potent moments in everyday life.

With "Breaking the Rules," his fifth studio album since graduating from John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Trout is back in the import-only bins. He also is back in prime form: "Breaking the Rules" is his best album since the 1991 release "Prisoner of a Dream."

At 44, Trout shuns midlife complacency and tries some new approaches. Foremost among them is the restraint and selectivity in his guitar playing. Once the ax-slinger most likely to treat every number as if it were the grand finale of a Fourth of July fireworks display, Trout here unveils a classicist's sense of proportion on many of his new tracks.

Fans who love to hear Walter burn won't be disappointed: a slow blues, "The Reason I'm Gone" and the Stevie Ray Vaughan-style heavy shuffle, "Put It Right Back," give him plenty of solo space. The playing is still prolific, but not profligate, as it sometimes could be in the past.

As always, Trout is one of those special players whose tone has an undeniable presence and immediacy. On the pop-flavored ballad "I Don't Want to Be Lonely," he plays the sort of soaring, arching, elegiac solo that turns up routinely on such fare. The shape of the part may be standard, but under Trout's hand, the strings vibrate with real urgency that yields a strong emotional jolt.

With "Breaking the Rules," Trout has taken over as his own record producer. He gives himself and his band mates something they lacked on "Tellin' Stories" and its predecessor, "Transition": a broad, uncluttered sonic field on which to operate. The sound, pinched on those earlier records, is now spacious and clean--as expansive as the Huntington Beach street-art mural that serves as a motif for the CD packaging.


Like Eric Clapton, Trout can handle pop and rock songwriting, as well as play within the styles and forms of traditional blues. His approach here is to strike a balance--a good choice that lets him blaze bluesily on some tracks, while demonstrating a good ear for melody on such pop-leaning highlights as the ballad "To Begin Again."

Like many of Trout's best songs, "To Begin Again" brings to life a moment of decision, the instant when a person realizes he's on the wrong track in life and must do the hard work of doing better.

This one could be taken as the vow of a down-sliding alcoholic--something Trout had become during his stint with Mayall before managing to turn his life around. Or it could be the determined statement of a barroom musician who feels the shadow of artistic stagnation creeping over him:

\o7 Everybody is laughing,

They don't know the reason why.

In rooms filled with smoke and whiskey

Nobody looks you in the eye.

With superficial conversation

It's so hard to make a friend.

To find another destination

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