Seldom is releasing a live album the best career advice to offer a fledgling band, but Big Head Todd and the Monsters is an exception. A Colorado member of the improvisation-loving H.O.R.D.E. community, this three-piece fully realizes itself only in concert, where its indulgences are actually strengths. Todd Park Mohr is a tasteful guitarist who seldom repeats himself and who doesn’t want to be Jimi Hendrix — an important distinction in the trio format. The Monsters — bassist Rob Squires and drummer Brian Nevin — are a supple and sympathetic rhythm section, versatile enough to follow whatever rock, roots, blues or jazz path Mohr chooses.
The band’s chief problem has always been songwriting; as a composer, Mohr is a terrific player. On the self-released Another Mayberry and Midnight Radio, the songs often sound like thin frameworks for jams, though the latter has an early version of “Bittersweet” and “The Moose Song,” while Another Mayberry‘s title track is likable enough. Sister Sweetly, produced by David Z, is a revelation, however. By taking on mostly shorter songs, Mohr forces his writing to be tighter and more economical. The irony is that the delicately constructed “Bittersweet,” at six minutes the album’s longest cut, actually snared the group some radio play. But the rest of the album rewards those who come on board, offering a stylistic sweep from blues (“Circle,” “Ellis Island”) to the rhythmic “Groove Thing,” the soulful “It’s Alright,” the chiming, spooky love song “Tomorrow Never Comes” and the strutting, funky title track.
The three-song Live EP, recorded during the 1993 H.O.R.D.E. tour, offers solid, expansive renderings of “Bittersweet” and “Circle” (plus a needless cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People”), but doesn’t fill the need for a full-fledged Monsters live album. Meanwhile, Strategem takes a step backward, lacking the songwriting focus Mohr appeared to be finding on Sister Sweetly.