Adam Stemple,
3 Solid Blows to the Head
(Fabulous Records, 1999)

Before you listen to 3 Solid Blows to the Head by Adam Stemple, you ought to be forewarned that "Dumbeks were harmed in the making of this album." This might tell you in advance just how hard the musicians are working. Stemple's album is rockin' if nothing else. Fortunately, Stemple has much, much more to offer than just fast-paced foot slamming (I like to think of this as a heavier version of toe tapping) songs.

This collection from Stemple, a Boiled in Lead veteran, is a mix of heavy rock and blues and some more mellow jazzy songs which just happen to be backed by the odd folk instrument. About half of the music is composed by Stemple, and the other half are collaborations with author Steven Brust. Lyrics are also written by Stemple for a few songs, others are collaborations with Brust, and still others have lyrics written by Jane Yolen (whom you might recognize as both a fantasy writer and Stemple's mother).

Stemple sings lead vocals on all of the songs. His voice is slightly reminiscent of Leonard Cohen, but it is more like Cohen should have sounded thirty years ago (and never did). This is mostly because Stemple sings in a way that just borders on spoken word. Stemple sings with a nice deep voice, and the fact that it sounds like he's almost talking means that (to sound like an old person complaining about modern music) I can always understand the lyrics. Since this album has such great writers that is a definite bonus.

The band that Stemple performs with on the album is the same on all tracks. Drums are bashed rather enthusiastically by Randy Olejnicak, the throbbing bass is played by Dave Luvin, Lojo Russo provides backing vocals and Leo Whitebird plays slide and dobro. Stemple, besides lead vocals and much of the writing, is featured on "everything else."

Most of the songs on the album are not all that heavy, but they're the ones that really stick out in my memory. (After listening to this once I'd decided that most of the songs were heavy, but when I later listened again, I found that there were only a few that would really qualify). Most of the songs do, however use either fairly heavy guitar, drums or some sort of distortion on vocals or guitar.

The one song I do not particularly like is by far the heaviest. "Killjoy" has loud electric guitar, really strong drums and heavily distorted vocals. Not to sound too much like someone 50 years older than me, I have to say that this song, in my opinion, borders on noise. Now that I have that one real dislike out of the way, I can turn to all of the good songs on the album.

The rest of the songs are fairly bluesy with a rock edge, ranging in speed and "weight." The title song exemplifies the faster rock/blues feel that Stemple and company are very good at. The vocals are slightly distorted, but flow well, and there are some very catchy guitar riffs. The drums are very present but not ponderous, and they keep your foot tapping through the song. "Love is Light" is a slow croon backed by vocals, another bluesy guitar and slow drums. Stemple moves well to this from the faster pieces that dominate the album. There are some in between paces and tones in the songs; some that are a little bit fast, with a little more in the lines of instrumentation. One of the best of this group is "Fool am I," which really shows off Stemple's singing/talking style. In some cases, this would be insulting. Some singers speak rather than sing because they can't quite hit or carry a note. But I like Stemple's voice, and I think this style suits some of his songs because they have such well-written lyrics -- you can hear the words. (I sometimes catch myself singing some song I like, and suddenly hear what I'm saying and am appalled.)

My favourite song on the album is the first track, "Black on Black." I like the ballad style, and Stemple's voice is really well-suited to the simple piano backing in this piece. There is a bit of guitar mixed in and distorted, but it manages to work well with the otherwise minimalist piece.

The one song that I am not fond of aside, I really enjoy this album. Stemple will keep you moving the entire album long with this collection of well-written songs and equally well-written lyrics.

[ by Kristy Tait ]