John Mellencamp’s excursion into mandolin, fiddles and hammer dulcimer aside, there was no notable roots rock movement afoot in 1986 when BoDeans (not to be confused with Britain’s Bodines) emerged from Waukesha, Wisconsin. The quartet’s earnest sound was fresh not trendy, with captivating harmonies by guitarists Kurt Neumann and Sammy Llanas. (Bassist Bob Griffin is the group’s other mainstay; permanent drummers are another story.) Picking a line from the Rolling Stones’ “Shattered” for the first album’s title was a clever little stroke, too. It was only after repeated listenings that BoDeans’ inherent flaws began to show. The songs were tuneful enough, but the writing was a little on the thin side and often repetitive. While a lack of pretension is the BoDeans’ principal charm, it’s also their biggest liability, as the band rarely strives for much more than competent tunefulness.
Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams — for which all four members adopted the BoDean surname — is an agreeably modest debut, thanks to T-Bone Burnett’s homey production and the downright bizarre interplay of Llanas and Neumann (the band’s only concession to eccentricity). But even at this early stage, the material is alarmingly thin, with memorable singles like “Fadeaway,” “She’s a Runaway” and “Angels” contrasting obvious filler.
Depending upon your reference points, Outside Looking In — on which the BoDeans lose a drummer but regain their real names — either suffers or benefits from Talking Head (and fellow Wisconsinite) Jerry Harrison’s radio-ready production, which smoothes out most of the rough edges and leaves the band sounding suspiciously like everybody else. Still, the combo’s natural grit shines through the gloss on “Only Love,” “What It Feels Like” and a few others. It’s significant that the most appealing and memorable numbers on Outside Looking In are a trio of self-produced four-track demos included on the CD and cassette.
The even glossier Home actually uses space-age studio technique to the band’s advantage, showing off mature songwriting and strong vocals (not to mention guest drummer Kenny Aronoff’s usual fine work). “When the Love Is Good” and “Beautiful Rain” are unpretentiously soulful, while “Good Work” and “Worlds Away” rock righteously. The album’s only major misstep is echoey U2-ish guitar effects, on the anthemic “You Don’t Get Much,” which only serve to subvert an otherwise worthy song.
Black and White continues in more or less the same vein as Home, balancing gritty performances and slick production by Prince cohort David Z. The album is awash in twinkly synthesizers and Linn drums, a sound that is baldly at odds with the kind of straightforward melodies Neumann and Llanas write. That renders rockers like “Black, White and Blood Red,” “Naked” and “Long Hard Day” anonymous, and turns “Any Given Day” into a candidate for an ’80s pop compilation — even though it came out in ’91. What’s frustrating is that Black and White also has some of BoDeans’ best material, including the infectious, Latin-tinged “Paradise,” the fiery “True Devotion” and a pair of mature love songs, “Good Things” and “Forever on My Mind.”
Go Slow Down is a welcome return to form and BoDeans’ best, most consistent album. Neumann shares the drum stool with Aronoff; Burnett is back as executive producer. The group strides across its familiar terrain of American music, stopping for a little funk in “Freedom” and a little twang on “In Trow / Texas Ride Song,” but mostly perusing rock’n’roll. “Closer to Free” (which later became the theme song for TV’s Party of Five) and the lusty “Feed the Fire” work up convincing heads of steam, while “Save a Little” and “Idaho” are smoother and sparser, taking full advantage of the Neumann/Llanas harmonies. “The Other Side” deals with suicide, but the album’s emotional standout is “Cold Winter’s Day,” a simple but nicely drawn account of a Christmas Day reunion with an old friend.
If erratic in the studio, BoDeans has always been a solid concert band. The overdue live double-album Joe Dirt Car is an essential addition to the story. Recorded at shows between 1989 and 1994, with songs from all five albums — plus a soundcheck recording of the B-side “Ooh (She’s My Baby)” — the set provides a good sense of BoDeans’ ebullient performances, abundantly spirited and harder rocking than any of the other releases. The song selection provides a thorough overview (even though just one features Aronoff), and Llanas’ solo rendition of “True Devotion” is a treat.