Big Head Todd & the Monsters roared into the public consciousness with their third album, 1993’s Sister Sweetly, a ferocious Blues/Classic Rock masterstroke and an album that the Denver trio has been trying to live up to for the past 17 years. They might have come as close as they ever have on 2007’s All the Love You Need, an album that the Monsters cleverly marketed by giving away a total of a quarter million copies, a ploy that actually drove up their attendance numbers on their subsequent tour.
The Monsters have returned to the concept of retail with their eighth studio album, Rocksteady, but the sad reality is there’s only about half an album here to sell. The first five tracks follow a similar path, a Caribbean/Soul stew that simmers but rarely boils up into anything substantial. The title track opens the albums and starts promisingly, with Todd Park Mohr’s guitar creating a swirling and inviting atmosphere, but the song quickly shifts gears into a predictable and rather pedestrian rhythm that doesn’t offer much other than a decent solo and a little more variety at song’s end.
“Beautiful” is a pleasant enough attempt at R&B, and “After Gold” has a certain quiet charm, but Mohr’s tribute in “Muhammad Ali” is all floating butterfly and little bee sting and “Happiness Is” has the clichéd sound of someone trying to steal Maroon 5’s lunch money.
Rocksteady doesn’t really get started in earnest until “Back to the Garden,” which blends Caribbean/Soul with an almost Native American undercurrent and an infinitely more engaging lyrical perspective (“She can break a sweat jumping on the dance floor/She can sell you world peace at the mall book store”). Mohr’s cover of “Smokestack Lightning” starts off like a period homage but launches into a contemporary reading that swings while retaining the gritty soul of the original and “I Hate It When You’re Gone” and the funky “People Train” seem closer to Rocksteady’s overall intent. The album finishes with a quiet acoustic-shuffle cover of the Stones’ “Beast of Burden” that features an electric solo that Peter Frampton would be proud to claim and “Fake Diamond Kind,” which chugs along on an Indie Blues/Funk groove that would sound pretty good on most Modern Rock playlists.The first half of Rocksteady might require time to take root in the listener’s ear, but Big Head Todd & the Monsters have invested so much more energy in the second half that it makes the rest seem forgettable by comparison.