Mike + the Mechanics – The Road (2011) – an album review

Mike Rutherford, who used to play in some rock band you may have heard of, also made a couple of solo albums and a handful of albums under the moniker Mike + the Mechanics. Then he put the band on ice, seemingly permanently. But you know how it is with old work horses, so Mike came up with a new album and a new band featuring singers he’d never used before. I tend to think that this makes it Mike + the New Mechanics, but no one goes around naming their band like that any more. Still, the more things change…

tl;dr Version: It’s most emphatically not the Mike + the Mechanics you grew up with, but it’s a far better album than we (meaning me) deserve.

‘Splain, Lucy Version: I’ve been a bad fan. I’ve been neglecting one of my influences because of a couple of singles I didn’t care for, which I know fully well does not define an album. So after enjoying the first album immensely (despite finding it a bit uneven), I then found the second album quite a bit less enjoyable, at least in part because I didn’t enjoy the title track, The Living Years. I like a little sentiment now and then, and Mike (and in this case B.A. Robertson) has every right to write about things that happen to him, but something about that tune always struck me as mawkish, or perhaps, to be fair, just a bit too heavy-handed. But hey, that’s just me.

Anyway, the problem is, it put me off the band, and I never really did give the later albums a fair chance to sink in. I’d heard a single or two, but I’d failed to latch on to any of them, and retreated to Mike’s earlier solo albums (Smallcreep’s Day, Acting Very Strange), which to my mind were so much better, warts and all. However, it seems I may have written Mike off far too soon.

Boring Version: Mike Rutherford is an interesting study in contrasts. He’s known as the Rock ‘n’ Roller of Genesis, the one who pushes hardest for muscular rhythms and crunchy guitar, which I love about him. And yet, some of his songs have been incredibly romantic, sentimental and gorgeous, like Follow You, Follow Me and Alone Tonight. In many ways, his contributions to Genesis were what initially won me over as a fan of the band, despite the fact that I initially came to Genesis as a fan of Phil Collins, and in later years have become a staunch fan of Tony Banks.

For my part, I love Mike’s bass playing, which was and is very elastic and clever, particularly back in the 70s, but even his bass work in the 80s demonstrates a great deal of skill and flare. I consider him a strong influence on my own bass playing. While I haven’t always considered Mike the finest example of a rock lead guitarist, he’s shone visibly on a number of occasions, when inspiration and opportunity took him down the road of the guitar hero. He may not be Steve Hackett or Daryl Stuermer, but you have to give him his due on things like Out Into The Daylight and Tonight Tonight Tonight, amongst others.

The thing about Mike + the Mechanics, at least for me, is that there was a heavy reliance on the keyboard work of Adrian Lee in those early days, and while I’ve always been a fan of well-played synth, when I was hearing those first albums, I was a fan of heavy guitar bands, so I ended up finding a lot of the early material a little too washed out and impotent for my tastes. It wasn’t until a decade later when I started writing music myself that I came to appreciate the elegant construction of those songs. Where I instantly loved Silent Running and A Call to Arms, it took me time to learn to appreciate Par Avion, You Are The One and Taken In. All I Need Is A Miracle is a perfect example of that balancing of contrasts, and while I originally enjoyed it on the radio in 1985, it’s taken me years to come back to appreciating it properly, simply because it enjoyed such popularity on radio up here in Canada that I eventually grew tired of it.

Which is probably the best way to explain how I got to the point of deliberately avoiding the later albums: Mike’s music is incredibly well-crafted, but often walks a bit too close to the freeway for my tastes. However, it seems that it’s time to reassess my basic assumption that the later albums pale by comparison to his early work. The proof is in this new album.

The original, famous line-up of Mike + the Mechanics consisted of Mike himself on guitars and bass, Paul Carrack and the late Paul Young on vocals (Carrack would later contribute increasingly to the songwriting and keyboard department as well), Adrian Lee on keys and Peter Van Hooke on drums, as well as Christopher Neil (producer) and B.A. Robertson as songwriting partners. However, over the years, many of these stalwarts have moved on or become unavailable. Mike himself had stated, around the time of the Genesis reunion tour (2007) that he felt the Mechanics had run their course.

So what we have on this album is an almost completely new band; the only familiar faces are Mike himself and the returning Christopher Neil to the songwriting and producing chair after an absence of years. However, the trio of vocalists he employed for this album are all capable and powerful. They do not suffer by comparison to Carrack and Young. Arno Carstens and Tim Howar both acquit themselves admirably, but the lions share of the album is sung by Andrew Roachford, a vocalist who hasn’t made much headway here in North America, but whom I’ve been familiar with thanks to an early album of his landing in my collection for a time. I remember enjoying that album, which was amongst a stack of CDs that got liberated from my apartment several years ago. My memory of Roachford is vindicated, because his work on this album… well, maybe I should just start the review and let you decide for yourselves.

THE REVIEW
The Road opens with a sunny little drum machine rhythm and is soon joined by some very Santana-like guitar playing, and introduces us to Andrew Roachford, who has one of those warm alto R&B voices that is somewhat reminiscent of Youngy without being a creepy carbon copy. It’s a warm, affirmative number, with some nice Hammond organ vamping quietly in the background with the rhythm guitar, and Mike’s bass playing is catchy and effective without sticking too far out. This song is clearly written to feature the vocals, and Roachford delivers in spades. Nice closing guitar figure, again riding in the background as the track rides out.

Reach Out (Touch The Sun) swoops in on an effected drum pattern, an understated acoustic, and echoing keys, with Roachford once again taking the lead, this time for what I have to confess is my absolute favourite track from this album. It has this killer chorus with piano and cymbals that I defy you NOT to feel 110% better after hearing. It’s the most uplifting thing I’ve heard in years, and easily sails into my top ten Mike Rutherford songs of all time. The middle eight with the strings and keys takes it to a lovely place that just makes the recap of the chorus with flanged drums sound epic. I’m gonna be singing this song until the day I die. Andrew Roachford’s performance is elegiac. Play it again. And again.

Try To Save Me starts with programmed drums and guitar, and Roachford returns for a third helping, with a meaty, slightly moody but driving number that reminds me favourably of certain past Mechanics numbers. It’s a strong song, and would probably really stand out for me if it hadn’t followed Reach Out, which I’m totally biased about. Still, this song lacks for nothing, with a strong, emotional vocal delivery.

Background Noise is the first of this album’s songs performed by Arno Carstens, who has a rather country rock feel to his voice, which suits this track perfectly, as it has an A+ New Country feel to it, complete with acoustic and telecaster rhythm guitar parts and string ensemble swells playing against atypical drum programming. It’s a very pretty song, actually, and illustrates perfectly what a genre chameleon Mike is.

I Don’t Do Love opens with rhythm guitar and piano with a string pad in the background, and Roachford returning to the mic with another lovely R&B ballad delivery. It’s another gorgeous tune, and it has a solid groove that swings nicely. Backing vocals provided, I believe, by Tim Howar, thus cementing the new vocal team. This is Mike + the Mechanics circa 2012.

Heaven Doesn’t Care (For Neda) gives us our first taste of Tim Howar on lead vocals, and it does so rather bravely by putting him right up front at the start with little more than a synth pad. As the song builds, Tim pulls out the stops and delivers the chorus with all the chops and bombast needed to win his own against Roachford. There’s a kind of Youngy feel to his delivery, but he’s got a warmth and grit that differentiates him nicely. Not quite as smoky as Paul Carrack; clearer, but still warm and fiery. They bring in a child choir to back him up, and it’s just beautiful. Gorgeous.

It Only Hurts For A While returns Arno to the mic, and he delivers a very Paul Carrack-feeling performance, which might seem a little uncanny at points, but still isn’t derivative. It’s a slightly moody, piano-driven number that seems to suit his voice perfectly, while having a more R&B feel, complete with organ so very reminiscent of Carrack’s work. It clearly delineates why Arno was selected for this album, which makes it strange that he’s apparently not continuing with the band, as it occurs to me that his voice would be something Mike has no trouble writing for, even if Roachford winds up singing more of the powerful classic material.

Walking On Water Roachford opens this one, giving it a little gospel Motown until the chorus, with another of Mike’s most infectious and uplifting hooks in years. Lovely. String and piano playing against the drum machine, with solid acoustic drumming for the choruses, and some simple, moving guitar for the middle eight. More guitar taking us to the finish

Hunt You Down brings Arno back to sing a very organ-driven pop song in a classic, almost Carrack-era Squeeze feel. It’s charming, and even a bit cute, which makes it an eclectic song for Mike to write, but it definitely brings the mood of the album up a notch. If Paul ever does come back tot he band, he might enjoy playing and singing this one, which was probably the original impetus for writing it.

Oh No brings Tim back to the mic, and opens with strings and synths before the drum programming kicks in and turns into a gorgeous, danceable pop song worthy of classic M+tM. Tim’s delivery is fabulous here, and it might be the air conditioning, but the combination of his voice with the backing vocals causes goose flesh on my arms. A very good sign for a guy who didn’t get to sing too much stuff on this album.

You Can Be The Rock brings Roachford back for one more spin, laughing wryly as the track opens, guitar and drum machine setting up a smoky groove. It’s a moody little number, but it’s got a great hook in the refrain that gives Andrew a chance to shine one more time. There’s a little bit of Middle Eastern scale string orchestration swirling around in the background of the second verse. The bridge gives Mike a chance to bring his rhythm guitar playing to the fore, just before he gets to trot out some bluesy rock guitar soloing, which has been a little conspicuous by its absence on this album. Beautiful way to finish the record. I originally felt that not ending this album with Reach Up was a mistake, but with repeated listenings, and considering the heroic guitar playing, it’s perhaps understandable that Mike saved this until last. Some great drumming here, too, very reminiscent of Phil Collins. Lovely song.

SUMMARY
To prepare for this review, I actually sat down and listened to the entire discography (HEY! I didn’t say I didn’t have the albums… just that I didn’t listen to them). What I found was that, contrary to my original opinion, Mike’s songwriting, which I’d always thought was much better when he didn’t dilute it through the songwriting collective of the Mechanics, was actually quite good, often strong and occasionally brilliant. I knew of songs in the catalogue that satisfied me, but listening to the albums properly, taking each song as its own creature rather than regarding them in context with Mike’s solo and Genesis careers, helped me to see that there are quite a few songs I’d been neglecting, and albums I’d been misjudging.

That said, the biggest thing I’d discovered listening to this new album after all of those others (which I assure you is an undertaking; six studio albums of ten to thirteen tracks equals four hours and fifty three minutes, which I had to play more than once to get my ideas straight) is that, while it’s still Mike Rutherford and it’s still the Mechanics format, in many ways, it’s not simply a sequel but a grand rebirth, like a phoenix rising majestically from the ashes of the old band. Mike Rutherford has achieved here what he and Tony had felt they’d failed to achieve with Calling All Stations; the complete reinvention of a well-known band. There are tracks on this album that stand up to absolutely anything Mike has written in his entire career, and following the formula of the original M+tM album, they used three vocalists, but have pared down to two going forward, both of whom got to sing the most powerful tracks on the album.

I don’t care to prognosticate what might be in store for this new band, or if they will get to work together some more. The fact is, Mike Rutherford is a pretty wealthy guy, and doesn’t need to work unless he really wants to. Being a songwriter myself, I can understand how the siren call of music might draw a man back to the well, even after he’s made a significant sum of money. Clearly, it’s not about money. The great thing about this album is, it proves the man hasn’t lost his touch or his muse, and it gives him the opportunity to work with a new band that really suits his style. It’s a gorgeous album, and fully deserving of a wide audience. I hope it’s far fromt he last time we hear these people working together. Welcome back, Mike.

Now, about that Genesis album I was mentioning…

© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

Don't be shy. Tell me what you really think, now.

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