While instability is familiar territory for Trouble, the changes of the last few years are of an order of magnitude beyond anything it has experienced previously. The reissue of Unplugged, featuring outgoing vocalist Eric Wagner, and Live in Los Angeles, featuring the debut of replacement Kory Clarke (Warrior Soul), jointly symbolize the end of one era and the start of a new era.
Initially released in late 2007, the reissued version of Unplugged revises the original track sequence and tacks on four previously-unreleased tracks (several of which, while more delicate than the typical Trouble fare in order to compliment the mood of the album, are far from being unplugged). While unplugged albums are a risky proposition on the best of days, Trouble adroitly balances atop the tightrope through a smart track selection and performances that are generally passionate and well conceived. A crisp, full-bodied production presents acoustic reinterpretations of songs that are mellow, but certainly not limp. Eric Wagner shifts from his acerbic high register to a mid-range baritone that better fits the approach, although he does allow his voice to venture upward on occasion.
“7:00 a.m.” kicks off the album with detailed acoustic guitar work and a mellow but powerful delivery by Wagner, who balances low and high pitches in fine fashion. “Rain,” a classic from Manic Frustration, throws a little piano into the mix that interacts in a memorable fashion with the rhythm team. “Flowers” and “Requiem,” both from the often-overlooked Plastic Green Head, are stripped down to their pop-psych essence. “Requiem,” as its name suggests, takes on an air of mourning; if there could be a song that serves as the epitaph for the Wagner-led incarnation of Trouble, it would be this. Most surprising of all is a swingin’ new ditty, “Smile,” which is appropriately bright in mood and lyric. Of the tracks exclusive to this reissue, “Mythic Hero” is a swirling psych-folk number with a spelunking bassline and a chorus that attempts to punch it up a notch but suffers from Wagner’s unenthusiastic delivery. “Waiting for the Sun” is one of the heaviest tracks on the album due to its use of electric guitars and the predominance of Wagner’s signature high tones. After the moping “Fly,” a fantastic cover of The Yardbirds’ “Heart of Soul” catches the attention with its infectious chorus and bright mood.
While the reissue of Unplugged marks a fine conclusion to Trouble’s days (daze?) with Eric Wagner at the helm, Live in Los Angeles, which marks the debut of Kory Clarke, is not so fine. The liner notes claim that this album intends to “introduce the band’s new front man and lead singer.” As far as introductions go, Live in Los Angeles is the equivalent of showing up to a first date without putting an iota of effort into proper hygiene. Trouble has claimed in interviews that Clarke adds a cigarettes-and-whiskey throated dimension to its songs that is more reminiscent of Nazareth than Led Zeppelin. While this is fine (in fact, I praise the band for not going the easy route of simply finding a Wagner impersonator), Clarke’s approach is brutal. His voice is shot. He has absolutely no technique or finesse. He often sounds like he is not even breathing properly as he forces out the lyrics in a hoarse and uneven fashion.
If you can manage to get past the vocals (believe me, it is a challenge that few will overcome), the performance of the other members is reasonably good. Tracks such as “Touch the Sky” are energetic and raw, tight and groovy on the rhythm side, aggressively riffed, and permitting a degree of creative spontaneity to creep into the solo sections. Unfortunately, Clarke’s tuneless emphysemic caterwaul disrupts even the finest instrumental performance, rendering it virtually unlistenable.
I desperately want to give Trouble the benefit of the doubt. Reinvention is no easy task. If the liner notes are taken at face value, the guys clearly feel that Clarke’s addition has led to “a renewal of the rebellious spirit” of the band. Perhaps this will prove true once Trouble has a chance to hit the studio with Clarke working the microphone. Perhaps, with considerable studio magic, Clarke will at least appear to deliver the goods. Unfortunately for Trouble, this album represents a terrible first foot forward and never should have been released.
Unplugged – 8.5
Live in Los Angeles – 1