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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Great American Robber Barons – Reno Nevada and Other Songs of Gambling, Vice and Betrayal

Great American Robber Barons – Reno Nevada and Other Songs of Gambling, Vice and Betrayal
2013, Great American Robber Barons

Some bands you can see coming from miles away, while others sideswipe you like a bread truck emerging from a dark alley at 4:00 a.m.  Great American Robber Barons fall into the latter category, but in sometimes subtle measures.  Led by Keith Dion (Ponsonby DC’s, The Ophelias, 3:05 AM and Corsica) and Diana Mangano (Jefferson Starship), Great American Robber Barons leave an impression.  Reno Nevada and Other Songs of Gambling, Vice and Betrayal is a cathartic and occasionally surreal musical journey that is much better experienced than described.

Keith Dion is an enigmatic vocalist, displaying a talk/sing style on Reno Nevada… that is a cross between Fred Schneider (The B-52’s) and John Plymale (The Pressure Boys, The Sex Police).  His sound is perhaps something of an acquired taste, but there is a stoic, geeky quality about his delivery that is ultimately charming.  On the other end of the vocal spectrum is collaborator and foil Diana Mangano, who has the sort of pipes that stop people dead in their tracks.  Their talents intertwine throughout the album, with sometimes amazing and sometimes mixed results.

Great American Robber Barons open up with “At The Hands of the Robber Barons”, a delightfully campy and catchy rocker with killer pop instinct.  Mangano belts this one out with aplomb, and the smooth guitar lead and backing instrumentation make this an instant winner.  The first class musicianship demonstrated here is apparent all throughout the album, with Great American Robber Barons never overplaying their musical hands.  “Reno Nevada” is an intriguing little story song, but how deep you dig into it will have much to do with how you respond to Dion’s voice.  Try to overcome any initial misgivings and focus on what he has to say, as Dion raises observational songwriting with wry wit to new heights at times.  The highlight of the album is “I Know You Just Don’t Want Me Anymore”, a bluesy, piano-based rocker ala Ray Charles.  Mangano gets a bit torchy here and sings her heart out.  It’s a goose bumps moment.

The band shows off their instrumental chops on “Nowhere Left To Go”, a smooth and pretty rocker with some pizzazz.  Like many rock instrumentals it outstays its welcome a tad, but it still manages to be a great listen.  Mangano takes another solid turn on “It’s All My Fault For Ever Trusting You”, a bluesy folk/rocker that feels slightly repressed.  Solid songwriting and strong performances all around make this work, but you can almost feel the band wanting to open up the throttle a bit here.  “Shut Up And Deal” has some of the best piano work on the album, but Dion’s angular talk/sing style makes this tune feel a little out of place.  Great American Robber Barons right the ship with “Hoo Hoo Man”, a classic bit of Saturday Night classic dance and roll. 

Things get a little uneven from here on out.  “Nobody Saw It Coming”, “Cemetary” and “What Were They Thinking” all enjoyable, if a bit off the wall at times, but the remainder of the second half of the album has more of a filler feel than anything else.  The 16 songs offered here could easily have been condensed to 11 or 12 and improved the overall listening experience.

Great American Robber Barons offer up some delightful turns on Reno Nevada and Other Songs of Gambling, Vice and Betrayal, with a few missteps along the way.   Keith Dion is a consummate musician and bandleader with a distinct persona and sound.  Diana Mangano, on the other hand, could fill concert halls with just the sound of her voice.  This seemingly strange pairing has a gravitational draw that is hard to ignore.  Reno Nevada… is driven by top-notch songwriting, first class musicianship and the fire and rain contrast of the two lead vocalists.  Great American Robber Barons are one lucky break away from being household names.

Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more on Great American Robber Barons’ Facebook page.

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