"So here we are, we're back again, with a brand new record and ready to spin". So declares Jeff Keith on "Ricochet" from TESLA's new album, "Simplicity". He's not talking about spinning it through an iPod, either.
TESLA has always been a dependable hard rock band whose appeal has come not only through their banging live show, but their resistance to the normal grade. This time, TESLA barricaded themselves at their longtime co-producer Tom Zutaut's ranch for an extensive songwriting session. The recording trail led to Brian Wheat's Sacramento studio where the band laid the tracks for "Simplicity" live and low key, deliberately avoiding overdubs and clean-ups. While carrying a professional finish from famed mixer Michael Wagener, TESLA's mission to strip down on this album achieves precisely what they strived for.
You know by using the words "electric" and "company" within their own music imprint, the guys in TESLA are keeping things old school. If you're a Gen-X'er who smuggled your first beer and rounded third base with "Little Suzi" on in the background, then "The Electric Company" should whirl you further back to your childhood when Morgan Freeman was just coming up. "Simplicity" takes it chill for much of the ride, like Freeman's signature "Easy Reader" character minus his funky entrance jam. Hardly strangers to a little funk-up now and then in their music, TESLA keeps things relegated to rock, honky tonk and blues on "Simplicity" and there's not a soul who've discovered the band that will be disappointed by this joint.
Jeff Keith, who shows no signs of quit in his singing (how he reaches the gut-tickling reaches on "Break of Dawn" is inexplicable), lays down scratchy vocals amidst the slow clubbing of "MP3", where the rawness of the tune makes the point even better than the choruses lamenting the course of music capture from "the phonograph record to the MP3." Keith implores the digital age has killed music and society at-large (a close-to-accurate statement), thus it's time to go back to the primitive. For those who have sat with 12-inch LP jackets in their laps while rotating vinyl will be throwing either a figurative or literal fist in the air. It's appropriate TESLA chooses a basic blues primer behind the heavy rock strut to deliver their old dog prospectus here.
"Ricochet" teases by maintaining the same dragging tempo as "MP3" during the intro, but that lasts only long enough for the band stamp the amps and winch the pace. Digging riffs and a power rock groove gives "Ricochet" all the juice it needs, while Jeff Keith and his mates go for the gusto as if "Mechanical Resonance" was only yesterday.
Brian Wheat's slow bass glide on "Rise and Fall" pulls the pace back again all by itself. However, the dirty guitar layers from Frank Hannon and Dave Rude plus the methodic grind of the song is cool and heavy, especially with its note-flung solos. Still keeping things below mid-tempo on "So Divine…" and "Cross My Heart", TESLA drives their tunes with the same professional acumen as ever, only with less gloss than their Geffen years. "Cross My Heart" gets the benefit of some warm honky tonk slides and footloose piano lines to maintain the downhome grains that have followed TESLA through their entire careers.
"Flip Side" steps things back up again and its will to drop out and reject tech-obsessed modernism hits home. The ballads "Other Than Me", "Burnout to Fade" and "Life is a River" soulfully show how the form is done with each song's capricious, melody-jerking verses and bridges, plus the patent glumness prevailing over each one. The downcast honesty is why "Other Than Me", "Burnout to Fade" and "Life is a River" count for more than near anything laid down in today's mainstream rock. It's a plateau that only belongs to TESLA these days with repeat spins of their cover of the FIVE MAN ELECTRICAL BAND's "Signs", sad but true. They know it and they pine for past glories without resorting to outright whining. Appropriate, then, the gorgeous closing ballad "'Till That Day" rides atop a hollow pulse toward a proverbial sunset that TESLA are content to ignore along the way.
"Simplicity"'s cover art is black and white on purpose, to abstract what is a bit of a blue album for the band. This record isn't overtly abstract, but it does cut right to the bone, bypassing the fatty tissue and sinews that refuge what should be real in rock 'n roll these days. TESLA 2014 admirably sounds like themselves a quarter of a century ago and that's remarkable. Moreover, they sound better in this cruder, more untreated state. By the time "Sympathy" jacks the static on the tail end of its knocking bass lines and "Time Bomb" erupts in its solo section, TESLA in-studio sound like they're peeling the paint onstage. That's so valuable an effect as a rebuff against today's emphasis on overproduction. Live music has always been better music and despite its omnipresent weltering in the ruts, "Simplicity" is one cool mama jama.