Sean Kelly, the frontman and chief songwriter of this Boulder, Colorado, group, has a high-pitched, plaintive voice that recalls Sting. For better or worse, it’s made the Police a stylistic touchstone the Samples haven’t been able to shake; the early albums’ frequent excursions into Caribbean rhythms only lend credence to the comparisons. There are far worse saddles to carry, and some of the Samples’ other influences — particularly touches of jazz and Celtic folk — give the band’s sound a bit of distinction. The Samples have won their audience on the grassroots level, via heavy touring concentrated on college campuses. Although a favorite of the H.O.R.D.E. crowd, the band hasn’t made the same impact as Phish or Blues Traveler.
The Samples, which found the group on a major label for about a minute, is filled with gentle, pleasant melodies that make the most of Kelly’s vocals, his harmonies with bassist Andy Sheldon and the ringing interplay of Kelly’s lead guitar with Charles Hambleton’s acoustic guitar, mandolin and banjo. Keyboardist Al Laughlin generates a haunting flute sound for “Close to the Fires” (the Samples’ homage to the American Indian), while “African Ivory” is the most subtle kind of protest song. “My Town” and “Waited Up” mine exotic sources — Jamaica and West Africa, respectively — but nothing on the Samples’ debut really takes off with the energy of the band’s live shows.
Perhaps that’s why Underwater People, with its five live tracks (plus three previously unreleased studio numbers), works better. “After the Rain” and “My Town” are so superior to their studio counterparts that they practically sound like different songs. Branford Marsalis’ guest solo on “Giants” is revelatory, while the acoustic version of the first album’s “Feel Us Shaking” reveals just how much Kelly’s vision leads the band at this point. (Hambleton left after the debut and only appears on a couple of the second album’s tracks. He wasn’t replaced, and the Samples have remained a quartet since.)
No Room begins a prolific period of three albums in as many years. The sound remains organic, but it’s also more expansive, mixing reggae tracks (“Did You Ever Look So Nice”) with more atmospheric pieces (“Nothing Lasts for Long”). “When It’s Raining” is a standout, a shimmering melody surfing on a wiggly groove, finally capturing in the studio some of what the Samples transmit onstage.
The ominously titled The Last Drag is even more ambitious — musically and lyrically — but also less consistent. Kelly’s angst-filled worries about the environment, his love life and our general state of being have lost their subtlety. (His mood seems to be contagious: his “Darkside” is matched by Sheldon’s “Prophet of Doom” and drummer Jeep MacNichol’s “Misery.”) Beyond the lyrics, though, all four Samples have a hand in writing the music, which yields a greater dynamic range and a new infusion of ideas. “Taxi” blends jazz and rock touches, “Nitrous Fall” has a gaseous ambience and “Darkside” alternates boppy verses and menacing choruses.
The democratic approach is more fully realized on Autopilot, even though Kelly finishes the album with three solo compositions. The rhythmic “Weight of the World” manages to ruminate on Kurt Cobain’s suicide and media hype without turning cloying, while Kelly turns from observation to action on “Dinosaur Bones” as he sings “I’m gonna find the secret/And then I’ll find just what went wrong.” “Madmen” is one of the hardest rockers the Samples have put on record; “Buffalo Herds and Windmills” displays a country influence. Sheldon’s “The Hunt,” a quiet guitar and flute piece, makes a nice change of pace. But even four albums on, there’s still that Sting/Police thing: “Dinosaur Bones” could have appeared on Synchronicity, while “As Tears Fall” sounds like a slowed-down version of “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free.”
The Samples took a short break from touring in 1995, and Kelly took the opportunity to go solo. Light House Rocket is a ruminative affair, close to the band’s sound but even quieter — kind of like a focused demo session. This time he’s looking inward (one song is titled “Me Myself and I”), chewing over thoughts of loss and love on “Mary” and “On the Losing End of Distance.” A reworking of the Samples’ “Could It Be Another Change” and a fresh take on “Amazing Grace” are the album’s most notable moments.