The Strolling Minstrel
Independent release, 1999
REVIEW BY: Eric Atwell
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/08/2000
Commending Drew Barrett for his cojones is an easy way to begin this review. The music business is unforgiving these days, and it's not enough just to have a tight band and an angle. Now it involves assembly: you're part of a broad marketing message that spans print, internet, radio, and television media. You have branding. Then there's the endless quest to generate more revenue. The pinnacle of this process is product like 98 Degrees, and they're the purest: distilled through layers of dance classes, photo shoots, image consulting, public relations, and mall performances. If you think those crackers have anything to do with writing, arranging, or producing their music your b.s. detector severely needs repair. You probably think Disney is cool. Drew Barrett does not buy this.
Barrett's latest release, The Strolling Minstrel, is deceptively titled. There's no quaint music on his disc - it's well thought out and built around big melodies and swooning guitars that tend to work within the song, rather than rend the tune with aggression or angst. I like this approach, it works for the "big sound" he gets on tracks like "Soldier Song" (my favorite on the disc) and "Visitors from Saturn's Moon."
Excellent production dominates this disc, and really shows Barrett's studio acumen - particularly the swirling drive of "City Of Sin" - and I like his do it yourself kiss off to the cliché Generation X sound that is so friggin' prevalent on current rock releases. He's not giving in to that weird commercial cookie-cutter vibe that pervades the industry right now. There's definitely something defiant in his songs. Some of which may be a little disturbing, like the bonus track "Billy-Bob", a song about Bill Clinton I could have done without. Not that I disagree; indeed, I think any rip on our trifling president is a good and well-placed rip. It's just so damn out of place, even within the eclectic playing field of The Strolling Minstrel.
Not to repeat myself, but this is a "big" album. Massive vocal harmonies, huge drums, and lush guitars produce a surprisingly unified sounding album. There are many sweet acoustic breakdowns as well. By far the most notable aspect of Barrett's record is his voice. Much like Geddy Lee of Rush, you'll either love or hate it. I'm not a fan of the delivery, but that's personal preference. There are a lot of people waiting for a singer like Barrett to come along. My guess is he listened to a lot of Queensryche, because that's the sound he captures in his catchy choruses. I'm more a fan of the Bon Scott leer; however, Barrett can also do a little Zappa - as on "Is There Somewhere Else We Go" - and that will always win me over. So, to sum up for the types who need comparisons to what Barrett's vocals sound like, here you go:
David Bowie (in places)
Crash Test Dummies
Zappa (in places)
Good? Good. Along those lines, his lyrics are fine by me...the words are the last thing I listen to anyway. First the shit has to rock, then I'll see if there's some deep meaning within. Fortunately for Barrett, there's no absurd attempt to preach (you know, none of that Fiona Apple crap). Did Elvis ever have deep meaning? C'mon.
Far more importantly, Barrett knows how to find, maintain, and finish off the inherent "heartbeat" - or soul - of his tracks. He never loses focus on that thing that magically propels great songs along. This is surprising in a self-produced environment where it is easy to lose sight of the goal. His album flows, and it's worth a listen (if your into that "flow" thing).
Now, I have a serious point of dissention. Lose the song "Lovers." Not only would it fit nicely on Monster Ballads alongside Ozzy and Lita Ford's duet "Close My Eyes Forever", but just the the fact "Lovers" is a duet with his sister really wigs me out! Okay, it's not that big a deal, but the song really does stand out as an eyesore on an otherwise crafty album.
Barrett does have a message - I haven't completely figured it out, but it's definitely not PC - and that's not going to fly in this age of spin, relevance, and homo-agitprop. This is a good thing. To this end, while he won't become an east or west coast draw for elitist college students, Barrett has a large audience waiting for him in flyover land. I hope he reaches his people - there's a lot blood and sweat apparent in this independent release, and I have nothing but respect for that.
Barrett's on the web at www.drewbarrett.com.