As guitarist in the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Jamie McLean is accustomed to playing the sideman. But this isn’t to say he’s not capable of owning the spotlight in his own right. On his solo debut, This Time Around, he enlists help from an accomplished backing band to prove he can handle the spotlight. Though it isn’t breaking any new ground, This Time Around is solid from start to finish that could’ve stood more variation.
This Time Around is a set of eleven proficient thought not astonishing songs steeped in Southern blues-rock. The grooves are all there from opener “Home Movies,” but “One of the Innocent” and the title track are the only two songs that stray from the album’s otherwise formulaic mid-tempo guitar-based feel. This doesn’t necessarily take away from the album’s strength. The musicians excel, especially McLean’s exciting slide guitar work on the New Orleans second-line shuffle of “Innocence Lost” and the fiery solo on “Holy Water,” but it doesn’t take much time for the singular style and tempo to wear thin.
McLean’s voice is equal parts Chris Robinson and a falsetto-less Jeff Buckley, and songs such as “Holy Water” and “Home Movies” show him not so much stretching vocally but rather allowing his slight rasp to complement the bluesy strut. With less bite than Warren Haynes but a more masculine edge than Buckley, there’s a split sense of excitement in hearing him let loose (just a little) on a few tracks. “Woman Stay,” with a killer harmonica solo by Gregoire Maret (who’s played with Charlie Hunter and Pat Metheny, among others), is a perfect showcase for McLean’s inspired guitar and top-notch band. Other tracks have similar emotion, but it’s restrained. “Queen of Make Believe,” remarkably similar to Buckley’s “Grace” off the 1994 album of the same name, sets a fantastic foundation. But instead of soaring, the music hits a peak and levels. It’s hard to complain about consistent quality, but McLean’s talent brings it upon himself: we’re invested enough after a few listens to root for McLean to mix it up more in the future, to break out of the mold he seems stuck in.
Because many of the songs seem interchangeable — they’re all solid grooves, but which is which? — the album functions better as an entire mood rather than a swing of emotions. The solos are crisp and tasteful, the backing band insistent and creative (notably the drumming of Jamie’s brother Carter McLean, John Solo on Hammond organ and piano, and Shelby Johnson’s wonderful backing vocals), but the sum of the parts doesn’t equal something greater. As a frontman McLean is proficient, but that isn’t always enough to make a dent or separate him from his more well-known project. This Time Around is a strong but uniform collection — with all the fuel but not all the fire.