The Scoundrel's Waltz

Joe Tullos

Dinosaur Entertainment, 1997

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/09/1997

If you think of New Orleans, you think of Mardi Gras, cajun cooking, Mike Ditka and the Saints... sorry, but we still miss him in Chicago... and some good ol' Cajun and Zydeco tunes flowing out of the mouth of the Mississippi. It's a unique area of the country with a flavor all its own - and though I can't claim to have ever visited it, I can tell it's a taste one has to get used to.

How can I say that after pleading such ignorance? Just listen to local troubador Joe Tullos's debut release The Scoundrel's Waltz, which fights off murky production and a slow start to prove its mettle.

Tullos's love of music led him, according to his bio, to sneak into a recording studio nights to make his recordings. The deal that ensued when he finally 'fessed up, along with the friendships he struck with members of Squirrel Nut Zippers and the late, lamented Blind Melon, led him to this CD.

Too bad he took with him producer Mike Napolitano, producer of the final Blind Melon release, who lays on a layer of sonic gunk to the CD. The drums are anything but crisp, and tend to be buried in the mix - in fact, the whole mix is murky, which I can't understand. In his defense, the disc gets better around the midway point - but not by much.

Part of the problem is Tullos's singing style. His delivery occasionally sounds like Lenny Kravitz ("Love Generator"), other times like Matthew Sweet ("Hopeless The Clown"). And he does have an emotion-packed voice, but when he's even a shade off, it's painful. Early in the second track "Jet Junction," he misses a note and tries to slide back into it, which is grating on the ears. I've listened to this track around a dozen times, and I still cringe when I hit that point.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

So all is lost, right? Wrong. Tullos is able to shake off these two problems about four songs into The Scoundrel's Waltz; the disc greatly improves starting with the track "Every Angel." At this point, Tullos shows his flair for songwriting, and his delivery gets better. Also, his big-name friendships help the disc out, though I would have been interested to hear a band made up of locals perform the same numbers. I just think it would have brought the New Orleans flavor out a bit more. (While I am not very familiar with Squirrel Nut Zippers, the inclusion of Glen Graham, Rogers Stevens and Brad Smith from Blind Melon give the disc a more rocky texture.)

The New Orleans influence is felt on cuts like "Dominique," with the touches of French thrown in for good measure. But the highlight of this disc is "Hopeless The Clown," a song looking at the difficulties a man down on his luck faces as well as how heartless his fellow man (and woman) can be. I sometimes find myself thinking about Judd Winick's cartoon creation "Frumpy The Clown" (bring it back, Chicago Sun-Times!), though our hero in this song is much more deserving of our empathy. Plus, he's a hell of a lot less cynical than Frumpy, though he has every right to be so. I find myself constantly going back to this track.

From then on, The Scoundrel's Waltz shines on songs like "Sunshine Dance," "Gravity Street" and "Earthen Chains," the latter featuring Tullos on banjo - just one of a barrage of instruments Tullos plays. (His dobro work on "Dominique" is subtle, but moving.)

Many listeners may find this to be a difficult listen, especially getting past the hump of the first three tracks. However, once that hurdle is cleared, the disc proves itself worthy of your time and money. Problem is, many listeners may not have that kind of patience, having been raised in a single-driven top-40 radio environment. My thought: that's why they put the "fast forward" button on the CD player.

Tullos is still young and growing in maturity, both in musicianship and songwriting. The Scoundrel's Waltz offers you an interesting, but flawed, portrait of the artist as a young man. It's not your typical swamp music you'd expect, nor is it down-and-out rock. Tullos successfully manages to create his own distinct style of music. Now, his challenge is to expand on it and keep us interested. It will be interesting to see how he chooses to carve out his own road to stardom.

Rating: B-

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© 1997 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Dinosaur Entertainment, and is used for informational purposes only.