Album Review: BoDeans, ‘I Can’t Stop’
I Can’t Stop is technically BoDeans’ twelfth studio album, but it can really be seen as their second. During the months prior to the recording of the band’s last effort, 2012’s American Made, co-founder Sam Llanas abruptly departed, leaving his longtime partner, Kurt Neumann, to shoulder the creative burden alone.
Given that the group had fallen into something of a lull with recent releases, Llanas’ absence could have sounded a death knell for the BoDeans. But it ended up being addition by subtraction: American Made reinvigorated a sonic palette that had begun to wither, breathing new life into a sound that had drifted into the Americana doldrums and calling on Neumann to deliver some of the best material he’d penned in years.
Neumann sold a prized truck to finance the sessions for American Made, and seeing as how the record didn’t exactly set the charts on fire, it would seem likely that I Can’t Stop is an equally high-stakes affair. Where many artists will say they need to make music, Kurt Neumann truly puts his money where his mouth is. And this album serves as another all-or-nothing shot at the career he’s kept building for the last three decades and change.
The good news? This set of songs is even stronger than American Made. Where that album marked a solid if somewhat uneven step forward after an uninspired stretch, this one really heralds Neumann’s arrival as the BoDeans bandleader. It sees him tightening his grip on the creative reins with a collection that highlights his strengths as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. I Can’t Stop lives up to its title — more than perhaps any other effort in the band’s catalog, it's an album that sweats and bleeds BoDeans.
As fans are aware, “BoDeans” has meant a number of different things over the years; after the band’s harmony-driven jangle-rock beginnings, they tried on a succession of sonic guises during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, adopting the U2-influenced sounds of 1989’s Home and the more machine-driven production of 1991’s Black and White before playing to their rootsy strengths with 1993’s Go Slow Down. Through it all, the harmonies of Neumann and Llanas were the band’s biggest calling card, with Llanas’ adenoidal howl adding a serrated edge to Neumanns’ duskier tone. There’s no getting around the fact the group lost something unique when he walked away.
Again, though, it’s addition by subtraction. Although Neumann might be the more conventional singer, it’s his compassionate songwriting voice that’s echoed strongest in the BoDeans’ best records, and it rings true throughout I Can’t Stop. The bluesy grinder, “Slave,” makes for a less compelling opening track than one might have wanted, but the album gathers steam from there. Although these songs find Neumann revisiting themes he’s explored repeatedly on previous efforts, he’s still tilling fertile soil.
I Can’t Stop is a fairly rootsy, guitar-driven, largely midtempo affair, which won’t come as any surprise to BoDeans fans accustomed to Neumann’s gift for tunefully world-weary melancholy. But he and co-producer/new band foil Sam Hawksley mix things up with dabs of production color: some horns here and there, Neumann’s 14-year-old daughter harmonizing with him on “Something We Found” and, more than three decades in, his tales of hearts broken and dreams deferred sound more lived-in and more essentially true than ever.
It would be wrong, however, to focus on the down beats in the BoDeans’ sound and to close without acknowledging that, while Neumann’s protagonists often dwell in the shadows, they almost always have their faces turned defiantly toward the sun. I Can’t Stop is no different. And while this isn’t exactly party music, on a fundamental level, it surges on the same delightfully irrational exuberance that might have inspired the leaping elephant pictured on the album cover — or the bandleader stubbornly persisting in his pursuit of a dream.