21 January 2011
by Amit Sharma
A decade on from their last studio release, ’80s supergroup Mr. Big return with their comeback album What If… featuring the original line up. Reactions to the 2009 reunion tour were overwhelmingly positive, with the band even releasing a Best Of and a Live DVD. Now, having been included on the latest announcement for Download Festival 2011, could this be the year Mr. Big revisit the success they had two decades ago?
Opening track ‘Undertow’ showcases what Mr. Big do best, marrying the groove of American hard rock with an infectious pop sensibility. The main riff has all the stomp of 5150-era Van Halen, coloured by some clean guitars caked in chorus. As one would expect, it’s powerful and catchy with the trademark harmonies adding a great deal of depth. ‘American Beauty’ could easily have recorded during the Bump Ahead sessions, starting off bluesy before heading into hair metal territory.
Virtuoso shredder Paul Gilbert has a rare talent in being able to write accomplished, technical guitar solos that are still digestable and memorable – without running the risk of overplaying. His work in Mr. Big has always been a bit more focused compared to his widdling in Racer X, which shot him to fame as one of the world’s fastest guitarists early in his career.
‘Stranger In My Life’ is a dark, brooding ballad that gives Eric Martin the space to show he still has one of the best voices in rock. From this point however, the album starts to dip to a more mellow rock sound, lacking the energy and raciness of the earlier records. Bearing in mind that the success of ‘To Be With You’ already resulted in a more melodic AOR turn, edging further in this direction has left the band sounding slightly castrated. Perhaps they have matured since the split, but one of the best things about Mr. Big was how they added a sense of sophistication to the LA glam scene – and there’s not much glam on this record.
That’s not to say this is an album full of ballads – ‘Once Upon A Time’ and ‘Around The World’ are both up-tempo harder rock tracks led by dream team rhythm section Billy Sheehan and Pat Torpey. It’s just that the majority of the album is remarkably radio friendly and verging on Dadcore (you know, that pile of Joe Bonamassa and Eagles CDs found inside any 50 year old’s car).
This is partly down to Kevin Shirley’s production job, with Mr. Big sounding more polished and contemporary than ever, though at the cost of sounding less guitar driven. Which is surprising for a producer normally associated with the likes of Iron Maiden, Dream Theater and Aerosmith.
As a result, the last half of the album starts to blur with less definition between the tracks as on previous records. Whilst tracks like ‘I Wont Get In My Way’ prove Mr. Big still know how to write intricate rock songs, the albums ends sounding somewhat one-dimensional and repetitive. Overall not a bad effort, though die-hard fans may have expected more from a comeback album.
Sounds like: Billy Sheehan approaching his 60th birthday
Top tracks: Undertow, I Won’t Get In My Way, Stranger In My Life
Mr. Big – What If… tracklisting
Stranger In My Life
Nobody Left To Blame
Still Ain’t Enough for Me
Once Upon a Time
As Far as I Can See
All The Way Up
I Won’t Get In My Way
Around the World
I Get the Feeling