2013-05-07

Album Review: Maragold

It is somewhat unfortunate that any album review for Maragold, the self-titled debut of the new pop-rock supergroup, begins with a discussion of the history of Greg Howe.

It's not that anyone would consider it unfortunate to discuss Greg Howe; quite the opposite, in fact. By now, guitar virtuoso Howe is an industry veteran. More importantly (ha, ha), he is also a veteran of Stationary Waves, considering that I paid tribute to him last year in one of my recurring "Music As Art" posts. Much of what I would ordinarily say about Howe in an album review like this I have already written in that post. You can expect many other album reviews to invest a little too much time touting the storied career and impressive body of work of one of the music industry's very best electric guitar players.

The unfortunate part of starting a Maragold review with a Greg Howe biography is that the Maragold album itself feels new, fresh, and largely unrelated to previous albums with Howe's name attached.

I think that's part of what makes Maragold such a stroke of genius. Rather than leaning too heavily on the name "Greg Howe" and all the images of blistering fretboard work that comes with it, the album instead seems to be the culmination of Howe's many years as a pop-rock sideman working with artists like Justin Timberlake and Michael Jackson. Notwithstanding Howe's undeniably identifiable guitar sound, Maragold the band has managed to produce an album that sits easily atop the pop-rock throne.

For several years now, 80s rock veterans have been forming supergroup pop bands. The first one I remember was Jughead, consisting of Ty Tabor from King's X, Derek Sherinian from (among various sideman gigs) Dream Theater and Planet X, and the ingenious Bissonette brothers, who lent their brilliance to the albums and tours of David Lee Roth, Joe Satriani, Elton John, and so on. What made Jughead different from their contemporaries was that Jughead really was a vocal-oriented pop rock band. By contrast, Super-Transatlantic, Liquid Tension Experiment, and the Flower Kings were all designed to be prog-rock virtuoso bands heavy on the solos. As the years went by, we started seeing more and more of these pop-oriented supergroups. The Jelly Jam. Velvet Revolver. Audioslave. Slash. And more recently, Flying Colors, the Winery Dogs, Chickenfoot... The list goes on...

What defines all those other pop supergroups is that, despite their best intentions, they all fail to deliver genuine pop rock. Instead, their music quite predictably delivers vocal-oriented music and simplistic songwriting that... still manages to sound like it was written by the getting-on-in-years 80s rock veterans who founded them. There's still baggage. It's not genuine, it feels campy somehow, as though a group of virtuosos are sitting around declaring, "Oh, we could have been pop stars instead of prog rock virtuosos... See? Hear this album? See how it's totally pop? Okay, then. It's settled; we're capable of pop. Now back to soloing."

This is precisely what makes Maragold such a shock. We would expect a similarly disingenuous effort by a group capable of playing any of the most technical music out there. Instead, what we get is an album full of songs that simply and plainly deliver the goods.

A lot of this is thanks to the mind-blowingly good voice of frontwoman Meghan Krauss, touted on the band's website as "Delaware's best-kept secret." Krauss's voice is undeniably one in a million. From her first note to her last, Krauss manages to deliver the some of the best vocals that pop music has to offer in the year 2013. One can only assume that, had Krauss not landed a gig as frontwoman of the band Maragold, she would have landed one as frontwoman of the Meghan Krauss band.

I am reluctant to say so, because it will seem like an exaggeration, but it is nonetheless true: Krauss's voice can only really be compared to the very best female vocalist in rock history: Ann Wilson. Both women have what it takes to sing rock without sounding cheesy, like that girl from Evanescence. Both women can go from roaring rock brutality to soft, vulnerable sweetness, sometimes over the course of a single refrain. Both women have the kind of voice that sits equally at ease in pop, rock, country, and blues. The only thing Krauss' voice seems to lack is the maturity that comes from decades of experience. If her performances on the Maragold debut album are any indication, though, she is certainly in store for it.

Meanwhile, supporting some of the best vocals I have heard in years is a band of pop music veterans who are by now so experienced supporting the pop world's best vocalists that they do so naturally, comfortably. The instrumental performances are tight, understated when needed, and spotlit when the opportunity presents itself. Like any good pop band, Maragold's instrument players also have a knack for musical arrangements. This enables guitar, bass, and drums all to coexist in their own space and step in and out of the spotlight whenever they wish, without ever once stepping on each other or on the vocals.

But for all its polish, it still feels like the listener is sitting there in the studio with the band as it performs live. Each song has an excitement to it, an energy that typically only appears in the context of a live concert. To capture such energy on a studio album is no small feat.

Last but not least, there is the virtuosity of it all. The truth is, few listeners buy Greg Howe albums for any reason except to hear Greg Howe play guitar. Those listeners can rest assured that when they buy a Maragold album, they're getting all the electric guitar pyrotechnics they've come to expect from anything that has Greg Howe's name on it.

By now, it should be obvious: Maragold is a pop tour de force that offers everything to everyone. No matter what you like, you'll find it here. Beyond a doubt, this is the best album of the year so far, and a comfortable contender for the Stationary Waves album of the year 2013. Do not waste any more time reading reviews. Buy the album. You won't regret it.