As the soul-streaked strains of Todd Park Mohr’s voice laments the laws of love and justice on the band’s new single “Beautiful,” carried on the wings of one of modern rock’s most effortlessly nimble rhythm sections, it feels as if the Monsters are back again … even if they never went away.
The single arrives two cuts down the roster of Big Head Todd and The Monsters’ newest and ninth CD, Rocksteady, just now hitting the streets and broadband, and its success puts a little smile on Mohr’s face.
“We’ve been doing better at radio with this track than anything we’ve done since ‘Sister Sweetly,’ and that was almost 20 years ago,” he says. “Y’know, I don’t know where it’s going to lead, but I’m pretty pleased with what’s been going on so far.
“When it was done, I think it was obvious to all of us [that “Beautiful” was going to be the single], even though we weren’t aiming for it. It was just so haphazard and out of the way; I thought of it as a secondary kind of song … kind of a ‘filler’ song, you know? I just didn’t know it would work out so well.”
That happens of course, a sleeper song gets the right arrangement and a little throw of magic dust and suddenly becomes a CD’s hood ornament, but Rocksteady bears some depth and breadth that should grow it into an essential entry in the BHTM catalog.
We told Mohr that we really liked the following track, the brash rock-funk stomp of “Muhammad Ali,” a first-person testimony pivoting around that floating and stinging thing.
Mohr says it’s one of his favorites also. “Sure, absolutely, for a lot of reasons. Obviously, Muhammad Ali himself is inspirational, just a great subject for a song. It’s basically all his words, every line in it is something he said. There’s something so wonderful about that supreme self-confidence … ‘I was great before I knew I was.’ He just has a million of ‘em.”
And swimming against the tide, we likewise appreciated the band’s read of Howlin’ Wolf ’s “Smokestack Lightning,” a nugget of Chicago mojo that roots-validating bands have rolled into their sets for decades, but thankfully delivered here without facile, festival-groove smugness. All business, no apologies and a gutbucket Mohr solo, a little reminder for the casually distracted that this band can rock your stuff.
“Y’know, I’ve always loved Howlin’ Wolf, I just think he’s the greatest,” Mohr says. “It’s really funny about that song, because rhythmically, there’s something that’s surprising about it. The way the vocal melody happens on the one. Other versions of it, like Dead’s version and a couple of other versions of it, tend to be a bit more ‘poppy’ with the rhythm. It was fun to do a really traditional version of it.”
Mohr is clearly pleased with this project, the first release of a two-CD project that will be followed by another, edgier release soon. Two and a half decades into the band’s career, it’s obvious to anyone really paying attention that making CDs, even for a franchise like BHTM that has earned its bread and butter from touring, is still an essential competency.
Wait … two and half decades? Seriously, how does anyone last in this business anymore for two and a half decades?
“Fear of having to get into other businesses, mostly,” Mohr laughs. “But … it’s a wonderful business model to work in. Friends who are your peers and your partners, and anytime someone can get into a business like that, it’s probably going to last.
“We’ve never really had the gratification of … y’know, winning a Grammy or being on Saturday Night Live. We’re not really celebrities in the pop culture sense. The way I look at it is … some people out there, we’re they’re favorite band. So, what else do you want?” And he says the band is still getting better. “Oh, absolutely,” he says. “I think I’m getting better. I think my singing is better, my songwriting’s improving. … I’m definitely a better guitar player. So, that’s another dimension to being a musician and an artist.
“I think for me, culture’s the most important thing, the most important contribution I can make, because I’m good at it. And that’s how I live my life, I think that’s how everybody should live their life. What do you have to give? And when you can get better at it, it’s very easy to be engaged, and doing it, and want to win at doing it.”