Rockford Road – 60 Grit – Album Review
Way back in grade nine, it was pretty much mere weeks into my math class that it was discovered I was gonna fail that year, and likely fail hard. Though MORE math was never gonna be the answer, that was the route we all collectively chose for me – I had one extra free block during the day that was devoted to math, I went both before AND after school…and most sadly of all, I ended up having to drop the only class I was looking forward to that year – woodworking – to sit through yet even MORE numbers I didn’t remotely understand. I was just cracking into the good wood y’all, and I was lovin’ life makin’ my first cheeseboard, sanding it down with the rough stuff – the ol’ 60 Grit. I think I managed to get’er to the ol’ 120, oil it up, and finish that project before it was all over for me if memory still serves me correctly…
Incidentally, I did at least end up passing Math that year, with a proud 50%, tyvm.
Anyhow. That was actually the first thing that struck me when it came to this new record by Rockford Road based out of Richmond, VA – when I heard their title-track start up, hearing the main metaphor of how life itself was like “60 Grit” in how it can wear us down…what can I say? That spoke to me right away. Could be because I’m in the thick of what seems to be like the craziest month I’ve ever gone through here at good ol’ sleepingbagstudios, I dunno – all I’m sayin’ is, I hear ya Rockford Road – life IS like “60 Grit” if we’re not taking great care to avoid it rubbing us raw. What a stellar concept & theme to work around! Lyrically, their new record’s centerpiece will dive right into this metaphor brilliantly – and you know something? They sure sound like they’re having a whole lot of fun in the process of detailing what a grind life can be. There’s a ton of personality on display in the music of Rockford Road that can instantly be heard…character in these songs that money can’t buy, you dig? Word on the street is that this is a band full of genuine veterans from the scene…so in that respect, it’s no huge surprise that they come out sounding confident, cool, and collected right from the start…these cats know their way around the studio. Keep in mind – I’ve got this record in advance…I’m not even 100% sure I’ve got the official track listing in order here…but “60 Grit” was my first experience with the music of Rockford Road on the playlist I’ve got, and you can confirm the details for yourself when their new album gets its release coming up on June 25th. Right off the bat though, I felt like I was in for a solid ride through this new record of theirs…”60 Grit” includes a wide array of musicianship & skills on display in addition to the tight songwriting & concept their working with…all the main ingredients checked out pretty quickly. What I think felt even more impressive was how, even with these good ol’ boys from Rockford Road doin’ their level best to create new songs with Classic Rock vibes – and succeeding mind you – they probably ended up with a more relevant sound than they might even realize themselves. Listening to “60 Grit” for example, you can hear this really ain’t that distant of a cousin to so much of what we dig happening within the Indie-music scene when you consider the personality & uniqueness to be found.
You’ll find a few guests also joining the core lineup of Bob Mahan (Lead/Rhythm Guitar, Keys, Vocals), Jim Davidson (Drums/Percussion), Tom Wisneski (Bass, Vocals), and Mike Lara (Rhythm Guitar, Vocals) – one of which you heard right away in the first track with Casey Cranford (Saxophone) & will again on “Meant To Be,” where they’re all also joined by the spectacularly soulful vocals of Victoria Cottrell as well. Did I get everyone in there? Hopefully so – they all deserve some credit for the results you’ll hear on 60 Grit; it’s crystal clear that the players of this band are genuinely dedicated & willing participants. Individually, both singers are strong and demonstrate their own character in what they bring to the microphone; I don’t know that I loved them together as much, but I’m not reallllllllly objecting either – they had several moments where “Meant To Be” really did sound exactly as the title implies. Bottom line however, is that they can both certainly sing…obviously that’s a good thing…Rockford Road isn’t about to let ya down from the microphone, or the music either for that matter – like I’ve been tellin’ ya, they know what they’re doin’ over there in Richmond, VA. More than anything else, “Meant To Be” reveals that this band has got more in-store for ya beyond their own original lineup, and the inclusion of artists like Cranford & Cottrell go on to prove they’re fully essential additions to this set-list on 60 Grit. While “Meant To Be” immediately heads into a deeper & more serious vibe to it than you’d experience on their title-track, the depth is welcomed…I like that we get multiple dimensions of their style & sound right away…or at least on this playlist I’m rockin’ right now…it establishes their true versatility upfront.
I ended up liking “Rhyme Or Reason” more than I honestly thought I might at first. I mean, I’ll be real with ya…it’s a tough thing to recreate the Classic Rock wheel, and that’s not what Rockford Road has set out to do to begin with – in fact, listening to the lyrics of this particular cut will give you much better insight into what they’re really all about. They’re making music mainly out of the pure love of the game – and I suspect, if we all happen to enjoy it, then bonus. I suppose if I had any real critique here, it would be what sounds like a split-second’s worth of hesitancy in singing the main vocals at a few points – but I can’t dispute the overall vibe here at all…like I said, this cut kinda surprised me by how attached I became to it. It’s got that dusty sound I love in something like Cracker’s Alt-spin on Americana…it’s got the oddly endearing Folk values of a band like Golden Smog…and the haunting atmospheres you’d quite often find in the later work put out by my beloved R.E.M. – you certainly pick that up from the guitars on “Rhyme Or Reason” and the magnificent tone they beam out through the solos in this tune. I really dig the warmth the keys bring to this song as well…the drums are right on-point…they’ve even got either a mandolin or their guitar to work very much like you’d hear in R.E.M. as well with the way it chimes in at points throughout “Rhyme Or Reason.” All-around, from the concept to the musicianship on display, I felt like Rockford Road gives you a solid glimpse into the heart of the band and the skills they possess. In listening to the absolutely killer guitar tones & textures, I have no doubt that we listen to music for a whole lot of the same reasons, Rockford Road & I – I’m addicted to the solos within “Rhyme Or Reason.”
As far as I can tell, they’ve released a few of these tracks in advance of their new record, with the next two on my list here, “Doin’ Nothin’” and “Irish Grass” already floating out there around the internet prior to the official release of 60 Grit. So let’s see here…single-worthy tunes…single-worthy tunes…I mean, yep – I’d say that they both qualify in that regard. “Doin’ Nothin’” has such an inviting & bright sound to it and an equally warm spirit…a song that’s pretty much about chillin’ out with your special someone and enjoying that for exactly what it is. Life is such a complex thing…and more often than not, it’s simply because we make it that way – it doesn’t have to be the case, and “Doin’ Nothin’” speaks to that. Sometimes the best idea is to enjoy the company you’ve got and appreciate the moments you have…you don’t need to travel when you’re “on vacation each and every day” – you dig? I get it, 100%. “Doin’ Nothin’” is pretty much my own personal anthem when it comes right down to it – there’s not a thing on this earth I love more than just spending a normal day with my wife…so believe me, I hear what these guys are puttin’ down here. “You’re the only place I wanna travel to” says it all in my opinion – that’s the heart of the sweetness in this sugar-bowl right there for ya. Rockford Road, you ol’ honey-drippers you! They get ya feelin’ the feels here…”Doin’ Nothin’” ends up being quite the inspired love song when it comes right down to it, built with memorable hooks and an authentically sincere spirit.
While I’d definitely argue that “Doin’ Nothin’” probably projects more of what we all associate with single-worthy sound than perhaps “Irish Grass” does afterwards – I’m still a big believer that the real definition of ‘single-worthy’ can mean multiple things. Sometimes, that’s as simple as having a song that genuinely stands out as doing things decidedly differently – and that’s kind of what they’ve got on their hands here when it comes to “Irish Grass.” In the context of the lineup of songs we’re heard so far, you could pretty much consider “Irish Grass” to be a radical departure from the rest, mellow as it may appear. There’s no doubt that Rockford Road expands both their sound, and their new album, with a song like this one, which is confidently led by the vocals of Victoria in the center of the spotlight here. I think of it this way…so far to this point, the band has more than proven they can put together a good tune & a catchy one at that, either for the musicianship or the hooks in the vocals – but a song like “Irish Grass” proves they’re capable of creating real artistic dimensions within the scope of their music as well. Love the tone in the drums, love the addition of the piano keys, and Victoria does a stellar job in the starring role…I wouldn’t tell ya that “Irish Grass” is necessarily a prime example of a typical single, but there’s no doubt that it’s a strong song in their catalog that once more speaks on behalf of their diverse sound & ideas, in addition to their clear willingness to explore the potential of where their music can go.
LISTEN to the beginning of “Calling Of The Clowns” will ya? Noodlin’ with superb results, that’s what that is right there y’all…the kind of sound that’s genuinely interesting to listen to, and draws you in. The crank out some really excellent, hypnotic vibes on this cut that continually keep ya mesmerized & locked onto their every move as they twist & turn through the dynamics of “Calling Of The Clowns.” There is a part of me that would definitely recommend that Rockford Road gets a bit more critical when it comes to the metering & flow of the lyricism & vocals combined…I think there’s still a bit of room to evolve in that respect, and pinpoint those moments where it seems like an extra syllable is still one too many, and eliminate’em. I suspect that’s because when it comes to the lyrics of this band, these songs serve as a vehicle to get’em out as they naturally appear – but there are still spots where you can find a way to generate the smoothness they’re seeking out by shuffling words in & out until that balance is reached where they’re still saying what they wanna say, but without that moment or two where it feels like they might have said too much, you following me? Take a line like “to deaf to hear requiem’s drum” for example…you can hear the ‘requiem’ part of that line is where the complications come in for a brief moment – that ain’t an easy word to add into a song to begin with, but it’s tiny moments like that where Rockford Road reveals there’s still more potential to be mined in the music they’re making. And of course, that’s a good thing. If it seems like I’m complaining, I promise you I’m not – I love so very much of what I hear on “Calling Of The Clowns” and the vast majority of this tune is more than intact; it’s pure sonic brilliance and a highly sensory experience to be heard all-around. You know me, I’m always just doin’ my best to locate those spots where the art and music can further evolve in the future to follow. Ultimately, I think “Calling Of The Clowns” would still be right up there with some of my favorites on this record for the diversity it brings to this record & the wild low-key vibes they’re rockin’ with here – so don’t go gettin’ it twisted…all I’ve got are opinions & nothing more, take’em or leave’em is fine with me.
Musically, from what I can hear, these guys are really all aces. Vocally & lyrically, I have the occasional issue here & there…but at the same time, it’d be super tough to not respect the fact that Rockford Road isn’t out to change the world, they’re here to make the music they wanna make, and I truly love that about’em. I’m not gonna be the guy to tell’em to stop, that’s for sure – and nor do I hear any reason so strong that indicates they should! Could the vocals of “Socks On The Floor Blues” flow a bit smoother? Sure! Big deal & so WHAT – you’re still having fun when you listen to this song, aren’t ya? So isn’t that mission accomplished then? Rockford Road switches up the lead-vocal duties on this cut, which is also something to note in regards to the microphone…I’m not sure which one of’em took over, but I do dig the fact that he kinda like, acknowledges a little awkwardness within the first verses of this tune inside the words. Personally, I think that’s the way to go – embrace it, be proud of it, own it – and believe me, when you can do that, you end up with results like you’ll hear on “Socks On The Floor Blues” that might arguably reveal a looser tune when it comes to the performance, but also provides an endearing magic that pulls us onboard through sincerity, personality, and authentically humble character. I would trade a note-for-note perfect performance for those qualities I listed every day of the week & twice on Sundays. The very inclusion of “Socks On The Floor Blues” in this lineup, also speaks strongly on behalf of the unity they share between them in this band, and their willingness to let each player have their own moment in the spotlight to do what they do, however it is they wanna do it. You’ll hear how much this attitude & approach plays a significant role throughout the entire lineup of songs throughout 60 Grit.
“One Step Ahead, One Step Behind” was another track that stood out to me in an insightful way akin to how this all began with “60 Grit” – you know, clever, grounded, and real observations on what life is like. Perhaps I’m projecting, or at the very least siding with the point of view & perspective to be found upon “One Step Ahead, One Step Behind” – I suppose I’ve got no problems admitting that. Lots going right for Rockford Road here…this whole vibe they’re rockin’ has style & swagger and tons of colorful instrumentation goin’ on, in particular the highlight performance from Casey on the saxophone. Fully exploring the theme you see right there in the title, this cut is all about trying to find that balance in life, somehow, someway…and ultimately rests on the sage advice of taking it one step at a time being best. I dig the concept, I dig the guitars, I love that the rhythm section of Rockford Road is consistently steady & reliable, the vocals are earnest & authentic, and there’s still a good chance that with all this great stuff goin’ on that Casey still steals the show with the saxophone…I mean…it just sounds freakin’ spectacular! For as tongue-in-cheek and playfully self-deprecating as it is, Rockford Road also puts out a track that has a widespread appeal to it here – people will likely love the perspective to begin with, but beyond that, “One Step Ahead, One Step Behind” also has memorable hooks and all-out stellar musicianship.
Highlight bass-lines from Tom on “Still Loving You” – he gets the bonus points here. Ultimately I’m gonna side with this track…we all know I only ever have these records for a short time before I’m onto the next, but this to me sounds like the kind of cut where our attachment to it will grow exponentially. My first impression is that I dig the fact that Rockford Road is again moving their music in a different direction, and that the design of the verses was probably a bit more involved than most in terms of depth, emotion, and contrast. Catchy yes, but still bending towards the artistic side of sound type-thing. Victoria reappears once again to deliver another stunning performance – she’s been fantastic on this record, and right away, she’ll prove she can hold her own no problemo. However! The real facts of this matter are that, while I was enjoying myself as “Still Loving You” began without a doubt, it wasn’t until about 1:50 into this tune that its full potential & melodic magic came surging to life. Beyond expectation, truly…it was an awesome surprise and a great reveal. Rockford Road has clearly done so much so very well, but hearing them hit the main hooks of “Still Loving You” felt like they’d taken this whole record to a new level, and quite possibly put one of the biggest highlights you’ll find on 60 Grit right into the heart of this here song. I ain’t gonna lie to ya – I’m NOT a ‘get to the chorus’ type-dude I swear…but I’d be lyin’ to ya by omission if I didn’t say that within a couple spins I was mercilessly addicted to the chorus of “Still Loving You” and desperately waiting for those stellar hooks to come back around again on repeat. I enjoyed the journey to get there for sure, but it’s the chorus that fully reveals the magic in this collaborative effort – “Still Loving You” both feels & sounds like a truly complete idea overall, and it’s just as much of a highlight for their performances as it is for their songwriting as well.
Keyboards become the essential ingredient on “Anymore” as it begins – loving what I hear from Bob in this tune, and he’s the main glue holding this track together, along with the wisdom found in his lyrics. While it’s still presented in a somewhat gentle & delicate demeanor, make no mistake, this is about as ‘frustrated’ as you might find Rockford Road when it comes to the sound, style, and theme they’re rockin’ with here. “Anymore” deals with miscommunication, misinformation, mistrust, what’s real, what’s not, and the concept that a lot of what we don’t say is just as important to who we are, as what we do. At least, that’s if I’m picking all this up correctly…it’s definitely fair to say there’s still a lot of interpretive value on display that’s bound to generate multiple theories on what “Anymore” is all about, but that’s the theory I’m goin’ with. No glaring issues here…I’ll admit the smooth & chill way that “Anymore” moves & grooves actually makes this cut a bit harder to get truly amped-up and excited over, but at the same time it’s always been welcome when it came back around in the lineup as well, and I never felt indifferent about it, which of course to me, is crucial. “Is it even worth our time to, try to help them change their minds anymore? Better make’em change in time or, we won’t even need to try anymore” – to me, that’s not only insightful, but highly relevant for the state the world is currently in.
It’s funny…there are actually several moments along the way that have, for a very brief and somewhat inexplicable second or two, reminded me as much of real Canadiana, just as much as Americana…as in, I kept running into vibes that occasionally bore similarities to the Folk/Rock style of our own 54-40 at a few points throughout this record. Which is of course, A-OK with me. It never seemed to last too long, never felt like something I could even fully pinpoint into this part or that part – it just seemed to be an aspect of the overall sound of Rockford Road somehow…they kept drawing comparisons to the subtle intensity of the early tunes in that legendary Canadian band with the many twists & turns to be found in the range of styles & ambitious nature of the songs on this 60 Grit record. I felt it again on “Temptation” for a moment or two…almost like it was a slightly more pepped-up version of something not too far removed from a record like 54-40’s Dear Dear back in the day, or perhaps even earlier in their catalog than that. For a more current reference to our good ol’ independent music-scene, I’d say you’d be looking closer towards the vibes you get in listening to something like Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders, but arguably with a bit more focus on melody & flair here in the final results. Anyhow – it’s a solid tune! I’m not gonna say that “Temptation” was the number one cut on the album for me, but I definitely think they’ve got hooks that works, one of the better combinations between the vocals of Rockford Road & Victoria in collaboration, and of course, tons of that great instrumentation we love.
While I’ve never been the hand-clap guy…I gotta say, I really liked the way they brightened things up at the very end of this set-list I’ve got here in advance of the record’s release, called “Waiting At Home” – Rockford Road is rockin’ with highly welcoming vibes that make it feel like you just walked right into an impromptu jam session that is breaking out right here, right now, at this very moment. The sentiment is sweet – “Waiting At Home” is very much a love song in the way it’s designed, though as clever as you’d expect from Rockford Road in the sense that they’ll often take you through a list of what’s in the way of the main theme they’re looking to really speak on. “Waiting At Home” will take you through a laundry list of obstacles & things within the daily grind of our 9-5s, while also highlighting the fact that most of us are exactly like Rockford Road is here, just looking forward to that moment we can get back home where we belong, with the people we truly love. Love the saxophone here just as much as I have throughout the record…maybe even a bit more so – it really, really fits this final vibe sensationally well, and takes that living-room feeling of the vibe in this track to an even more unique & all-out fun atmosphere that still sounds like you’re right there with Rockford Road at home, but now you know there’s some serious musicianship in their crowd of friends around’em too, you dig? “Waiting At Home” was a solid conclusion to what’s been a highly versatile, fun, and creative record…all-in-all, it’s the passion & interest they play their songs with that’s more addictive than anything else – Rockford Road has the power to communicate the real magic of music in a way that translates directly to us in truly unmistakable ways – you really gotta love that both about this band, and this new record they’ve got.
Find out more about Rockford Road at their official website at: https://www.rockfordroadmusic.com