Big Head Todd & The Monsters

Giant Records, 1994

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy


If there's one particular flaw of "jam oriented" bands, it lies in their albums. Skimming through my collection to find an album to review, I fished through my "jam band" section. Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Dave Matthews Band, Rusted Root and Phish to be particular. And to be honest, each album from these artists are not a bad investment at all. But, I've used each of these CDs as more for "mood music" than appreciating the impact of one particular album.

A deck of cards, a six pack of beer and a couple of friends over. A common phrase that come out, "put on some Dave Matthews" or "Put on some Big Head Todd" when those three things are mixed. And, by listening to Strategem, I can see how the behavior is justified. By all accounts, Strategem is an excellent follow-up to Big Head Todd and the Monsters gold album, Sister Sweetly.

Recorded in Boulder, Colorado, a place that has become home to the Monsters, it has a rich, relaxed feel. Lead singer Todd Park Mohr seemed to be striving for a blusier feel than the more pop-oriented my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Sister Sweetly or Another Mayberry. The title track and "Candle 99" are some of the best and loosest material the band has recorded. Indeed, in the fall of 1995, when Strategem was released, my friend and I took our mountainbikes to ride in one of our state parks. Autumn leaves, a long stretch of road and a Newcastle brown ale, Strategem was a damn near perfect soundtrack for that day.

That all said, even in the right environment, Strategem doesn't tug at the heartstrings. This could be due to Todd Park Mohr's "goal" of the album. In the liner notes, he said many of the verses in the album were an attempt at "koans". A koan is a riddle that a Buddhist meditates on to empty the mind of thoughts.

"You make me feel good outside/You were a good public affair", Mohr sings on "Greyhound". While most of the album has stronger lyrics than this, I did feel that koan-age was established. In my case, sometimes that isn't a good thing. Strategem is so relaxing, it's untimately a safe release, slightly edging out Hootie and the Blowfish. True, Big Head Todd doesn't aim to fill your head with tales of paranoia and isolation in a computerized society, but there's no tension that Mohr creates in some of the characters in Sister Sweetly.

As the lyrics are relaxed, so is the music. Bassist Rob Squires and drummer Brian Nevin give a solid, rhythmic base to each of the songs. With the exception of "Wearing Only Flowers", there's no music hook that reaches up and grabs you. Another Mayberry was full of those hooks, and though it didn't sound as mature as Strategem, I do like the album more for that exact reason.

The album closes with "Shadowlands", a song that shouldn't work, but does thanks for Mohr's soulful delivery and the band's fluid performance. It's also a perfect closer for what was a left-field album for the Monsters.

At times pensive, at other times, simply playing it safe, the band gave their fans an album that took a couple of listens to fully set it. No "Bittersweet", no "I Closed The Door" not even a "Circle" in the bunch. Still, Strategem has enough off-kilter charm to satisfy a Big Head Todd fan. For first time listeners though, I would look elsewhere in their collection before picking this one up.

Rating: B-

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© 1998 Sean McCarthy 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 Giant Records, and is used for informational purposes only.