A classic rock-minded outfit with catchy songs, crisp production and a charismatic frontman leading the way with quirky vocals and infectious hooks? If Mellow Bravo were from Brooklyn, they might be called The Giraffes, but even so, the Bostonian six-piece show marked personality on their self-titled sophomore outing, sounding like mature players even if the band’s only been around for three years. Mellow Bravo’s Mellow Bravo was recorded and mixed by Benny Grotto at Mad Oak Studios in Allston and is released via a new Small Stone imprint of the same name: Mad Oak Recordings. Much has been said of that label’s growing roster around these parts, but Mellow Bravo distinguish themselves by means of a style that borders on heavy rock without ever fully committing itself to the tropes of the genre. Roadsaw might be the closest comparison to another act – and there seems to be some relationship there since Roadsaw vocalist Craig Riggs owns Mad Oak and bassist Tim Catz co-directed Mellow Bravo’s video for the song “Where the Bodies Lay,” the second of the 11 tracks on the album – but what the two bands have in common is mostly geography, an affinity for structure and strong choruses; not a grouping limited to them alone. And perhaps it’s to Mellow Bravo’s credit that also one can hear shades of ZZ Top, Thin Lizzy, Guns ‘n’ Roses and others, none really emerges as a defining influence – that is, you don’t come out of listening to the album saying, “Mellow Bravo sounds like…” and then easily coming up with a name to fill that space – and the band sound like themselves most of all as a result. What they’re doing isn’t really original or trying to be, but they’re putting their stamp on the rock and roll ideologies that preceded them.
Manning the frontlines in Mellow Bravo is vocalist Keith Pierce, a gifted singer who comes across on the album like someone you’d want to see live, and able to be brash, as on “Where the Bodies Lay,” melodic, as on “Lioness” or even subdued, as on the Use Your Illusion II-informed album centerpiece, “Senorita.” His chemistry with keyboardist/vocalist Jess Collins results in an album highlight on the countrified later cut “Prairie Dog,” and though Collins’ moment at the fore – the “ooo-wee” laden “Ridin’” comes across as contrived in comparison to what’s around it; it’s probably the single dumbest feeling critique I’ve ever made, but I just didn’t believe her “ooo-wee” was sincere – the chorus remains effective. With a lineup filled out by guitarists Jeff Fultz (ex-Seemless) and Andrew Doherty, bassist/vocalist Seager Tennis and drummer Dave Jarvis, Mellow Bravo sounds as full as one might expect a piano-inclusive six-piece to sound, and the self-titled has a palpable flow and changes in mood that seem to come almost on a track-by-track basis, opening with a crisp (there’s that word again) trio of rockers in “Sad Sam,” “Where the Bodies Lay” and “Ridin’” before “When I’m in Pain” slows down the momentum – Tennis offering an engaging bass groove in the process – and begins a tug-of-war of energy that plays out in the back and forth of “Lioness,” “Senorita,” and the riffier mid-paced blues stomp of “Love Hammer,” which leads the way into the effectively rocked back end of the album, the later cuts affirming the unpretentious pop accessibility of the earlier ones without being redundant stylistically in the process. It continues to amaze me how a band like this can be so unabashedly accessible and remain – for lack of a better word – unaccessed. With the rampant commodification of popular music that’s seen every day in commercials, television, film – hell, even greeting cards play songs now – there has to be some room for a band like Mellow Bravo to cash in on what they’re already doing, which basically is that level of pop rock, just with louder drums.
Maybe that’s enough to make all the difference, but even so, the songs on Mellow Bravo don’t sound like they’re trying to cash in on something – why the hell would they? There’s nothing to cash in on (and also, now that I say that out loud, not purposefully being vacuous in the name of accessibility might also be part of the issue), radio’s a cesspool, and even if there was money to be made, Mellow Bravo seem to be more about the live show than whatever they might be able to get out of doing a record, even one as solid as this self-titled. Certainly “Shake Shake Shake” makes that argument, with Pierce playing a bit of the raving madman to give “Prairie Dog” something to bounce off of, so that as he and Collins trade lines and complement each other on the farther-off-the-mic first half of the song, it can remind some of the band’s range and their range as individual performers within it. It’s a solid bit of country shuffle, ol’ timey meeting with boozy swagger, and the ’80s keys of “Leave When You Please” are something of a shock afterwards, but it’s hard to imagine that wasn’t the intent all along. Pierce shouts a strong verse and is well backed during the chorus, which winds up as one of the best hooks the album has on hand, but it’s a longer, somewhat moodier instrumental break that helps stand the song out, Collins’ keys staying prominent while the guitars elicit drawn-out leads, Jarvis builds tension in the toms and soon the track opens up to a lead that, in another context, might be very, very metal. They bring back the chorus one last time – songwriting, after all, being a core value – and soon acoustic closer “Big Block” ends with a last-minute splurge of dual-vocal charm. I find myself liking that side of Mellow Bravo’s sound a lot – the mellow side, oddly enough – but though it’s familiar, the can’t-put-my-finger-on-it nature of the louder, more rocking material is still what would make me want to show up and catch the band on a too-small stage, preferably in an uncomfortably hot room with cheap beer and a cheaper P.A., winding up afterwards poorly singing the chorus of “Lioness” in a Beantown gutter. I can think of far worse ways to spend an evening.Boston, Mad Oak Recordings, Massachusetts, Mellow Bravo