Well over a decade removed from their surprise commercial breakthrough, 1994’s Four, Blues Traveler have endured several lineup changes, the death of their original bassist, and various legal and health struggles for frontman John Popper. But much of their output this decade, particularly 2001’s Bridge and 2005’s Bastardos!, illustrates that their behind-the-scenes tumult has only made them a stronger band. Their latest effort, North Hollywood Shootout, is a solid, workmanlike album, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect their growth. Instead, the polished pop hooks on tracks like lead single “You, Me and Everything” and the sunny opener “Forever Owed” reflect the band’s most overtly commercial bent since “Run-Around” was a ubiquitous radio hit.
The first half of the album downplays both Blues Traveler’s jam-band origins and Popper’s distinctive harmonica riffing in favor of a more conventional adult-pop style: “Love Does” hinges on a faux-bassline straight out Maroon 5’s handbook, while “Borrowed Time,” a heavy-handed ballad about how “all our days are numbered,” recalls Elton John’s schlockiest early-‘90s material. The latter half of the album is more indicative of the stylistic diversity that has characterized the band’s most recent work. Unfortunately, songs like “What Remains,” with its clichéd horn section, and the strident “The Beacons,” which sounds like a send-up of U2’s “Vertigo,” aren’t all that successful at pushing the band’s sound in productive new directions. These songs come across more like rote formal exercises.
Then there’s the matter of the frankly bewildering closing track, “Free Willis, Ruminations from Behind Uncle Bob’s Machine Shop,” on which Popper and company lay down a bluesy jam-type groove behind a rambling, campy bit of spoken-word poetry by Bruce Willis. It’s a complete “WTF?” moment, but it’s also somehow fitting as the closer to Shootout: It incorporates just enough of Blues Traveler’s trademark elements to make it definitively theirs, while the bulk of it willfully ignores the expectations set by their recent form. The idea that the album functions as some sort of meta stunt makes it tempting to call it their very own Live Free or Die Hard, but it’s probably more realistic to call North Hollywood Shootout a slightly over-reaching attempt at reclaiming some of their former commercial relevance.