Following in the footsteps of Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Johnny Lang and Derek Trucks, blues prodigy Joe Bonamassa has attempted to separate himself from the rest of the guitar-wielding twentysomethings with You & Me, his fifth solo album since 2000. Produced by Kevin Shirley (whose resume includes Led Zeppelin, the Black Crowes and Aerosmith), You & Me is wunderkind Bonamassa’s attempt at an album made up entirely of “heavy music played in a blues style.”
Although Bonamassa’s cover of Charley Patton’s “High Water Everywhere” fails to pack the wallop we might expect from the lead track on a “heavy blues album,” its snaky rhythms and Billy Gibbons-approved double-stops make for an interesting listen. “Asking Around for You” allows Bonamassa to display his vocal chops, but its decidedly synth-y strings make it sound less like heavy blues and more like Christmas music. Throughout You & Me, Bonamassa demonstrates why among his blue-eyed soul brethren, his voice ranks somewhere in the middle. Whereas the slower tempo of “Asking Around” gives Bonamassa time to emote, his out-of-breath elocution on “Your Funeral and My Trial” makes Sonny Boy Williamson’s lyrics sound uncomfortable and clumsy. Two instrumental tracks (“DJango” and “Palm Trees Helicopters and Gasoline”) provide a chance for Bonamassa to showcase his musical talents, but both seem like ill-conceived filler.
With Jason Bonham in the band, it probably wasn’t difficult to secure the rights to cover “Tea for One” from Led Zeppelin’s Presence. Bonamassa does a dutiful job evoking Jimmy Page (less so Robert Plant), but the aforementioned computer-based strings are an unwelcome addition. With its throbbing bass and jabs of piano, “Torn Down” is the first and last time Bonamassa permits his prominent guitar work to be challenged. It’s easily the best of the Bonamassa-penned tunes, however; he uses vocal masking to achieve a memorable melody.
You & Me suffers from an illness common to many guitar-centric works: The songs (four of which Bonamassa wrote or co-wrote) are largely made up of tedious noodling, shredding and wanking. Exactly two minutes and six seconds of “Bridge to Better Days” (which clocks in at five minutes and seven seconds) is devoted to a guitar solo. I understand that most everyone who will purchase this album expects no less, but such self-indulgence means You & Me will never transcend its guitar-enthusiast niche. If Joe’s okay with that, I certainly am.