Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra’s For The Baby Doll: A Rollicking Retro Ride

By on May 27, 2013

babydollcover (Click to listen as you read: For The Baby Doll)

Let’s face it: there’s officially nothing new under the sun – at least as it shines on the enormous historical canon of popular music. Now that we’ve reached the seventh decade of rock and roll as a commercial entity, everything is an amalgam of something. Hence, if you decide to step too far outside the realm of the staggering musical greatness that has made up the last half of the twentieth century, you end up alienating yourself from listeners who’ve become accustomed to the anchor of familiarity. But you also understandably want to chart some of your own territory in the process as well, lest you inadvertently become “traditionalist” in your quest to sound like your heroes. Veteran Chicago rock & roll singer/songwriter Nicholas Tremulis and his band are well aware of this delicate balance, and on their latest album For The Baby Doll they let their influences shine through in just the right measure while delivering a unique, high-octane, swampy sound that struts and swaggers like Mick Jagger on any given night between ’69 and ’72. This is the type of record that people are complaining isn’t being made anymore. The term “orchestra” in the Tremulis context refers less to the Classical music genre and more to the amount of musicians venturing in and out Tremulis’ orbit since the ‘80s. It also reflects the arrangement style of the songs, which is more complex and adventurous than your typical rock band. Marking their silver anniversary, the band pulls out all the stops with an echo-drenched, delightful blend of classic rock, blues, soul, and country. For The Baby Doll, set for a June 18 release, features a provocative, voyeuristic front cover. According to NTO’s press release, it is is a “black-and-white rear view of an unclothed Simone de Beauvoir [French writer], taken in 1952 by famed photographer Art Shay at the home of legendary Chicago-bred author Nelson Algren.” The accompanying 36-page CD booklet contains memoirs written by Tremulis himself, which span the length of his career and depict his adventures on both the high and low roads of a career in music. This effort on the hard copy side of things is rather rare in this 2013 iTunes world, where music as a product has all but divorced itself from photography and the written word. Highlights from the record include the acoustic-based opening track “Pitiful,” with overdriven slide that would make Ry Cooder grin and a horn section that nicely punctuates the vocals. Tremulis’ voice sounds like a jacked-up pre-rehab Steve Earle, imploring his guitarist (“Come on, Ricky!”) to dig in to the bottleneck solo. The “black-up” vocals give this track a dash of southern rock charm, which fits the groove just right. Another standout is “You’re Gonna Lose,” which is a direct nod to the early Rolling Stones. They even go as far as nicking a quick melodic/chordal passage from “19th Nervous Breakdown,” more as a tribute than a deliberate steal. The hand-clap intro sets the rollicking rhythm that borrows a bit from Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited historical blues combo of guitarist Mike Bloomfield, bassist Harvey Brookes and drummer Bobby Gregg. “Without You, Without Me” sounds like the Byrds if they’d been from Texas. It also has some early Lennon vibes as well, a la Meet the Beatles vocally. If there were going to be a single released, this one should be it. Other tracks like “Push It” and “You’re Too Much But Never Enough” are more modern rock and experimental, with Tremulis’ voice run through filters and amps to give it a haunting, aggressive edge. However, they still retain that Exile on Main Street Chuck Berry-esque looseness. “If God Were the Devil” utilizes a doo-wop quarter-time waltz, mixing in some Leonard Cohen-style yearning background vocals that eventually crescendo into more of a “Gimmie Shelter” roar. Perhaps the most poignant song on the album is the title track. It’s got a beautiful, romantic lyric, and after the initial low-fi acoustic intro in the style of “Wish You Were Here,” it quickly takes on the grandeur of Electric Light Orchestra in an enigmatic instrumental that rides out the rest of the song. It’s a difficult task to appropriate your heroes on record without aping them or going overboard. Thankfully, the Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra is comprised of veteran musicians who use their collective experience wisely and skillfully. With just right mixture of ingredients, they satisfy a hunger for classic sounds and arrangements while not overwhelming the musical taste buds with blatant assimilation. In less experienced hands, this approach can very quickly disintegrate into into musical theivery. With Tremulis and his seasoned pros drafting the blueprints, the hoist is pulled off without a hitch.

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