In 2000, singer-guitarist Max Scherbi moved to Liverpool to follow in The Beatles’ footsteps. Crystallizing his ambition, Scherbi formed The Rideouts in 2003. Today, Max Scherbi is joined by Andrea Radini on guitars and programming, Michela Grilli on backing vox, Gianpiero de Candia on bass and Federico Gullo on drums. For Heart & Soul a string quartet was formed under the leadership of Davide Albanese: Paola Bezi (violins), Lucija Bernadi (viola) and Jasen Chelfi (cello).
From the start Max avowed a clear and bold intention: to make new music by taking every possible influence from The Beatles.
In 1920 TS Eliot wrote that; “bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.”
With The Rideouts it’s tempting to make claims to saying that, by most of TS Eliot’s standards, they are good poets. Sadly, there’s none of that small spark of inventive imagination needed to truly illuminate a fresh work of art. Even the cover of the album, Heart & Soul, borrows from genius – it’s in the graffiti style of Banksy.
Released in January 2016, Heart & Soul (available now from iTunes) is the latest album from The Rideouts. Heart & Soul is an eleven track opus which safely parachutes into near mediocrity. So closely missing the actual targets of fascinating and exciting.
It’s probably fairer to say that Max and The Rideouts more closely resemble Danny Janssen than Lennon and McCartney. Danny Janssen and his team of session musicians were the minds behind the songs featured in episodes of Josie and the Pussycats and the Scooby Doo cartoons of the early 1970’s. This is not to deny Danny and his band of skilled musicians a place in history. It’s more by way of comparison. Danny intentionally borrowed from the pop sound then made popular by Motown – to create universally inoffensive songs in Josie and the Pussycats. Danny had to fulfil an obligation to write a song per episode. His discography of over 470 songs stands as a testament to his work ethic and talent. By way of comparison, Lennon and McCartney released about 200 songs on various singles and studio albums. However, Heart & Soul, unlike TS Eliot’s advice to good poets to add something unique, and merely emulates the key features of a style and sound.
It’s hard to find anything remarkable about Not Enough, the dull opening track on Heart & Soul. In fact, it was Not Enough that provoked me to consider the comparison between The Rideouts and the work of Danny Janssen. Plastic Soul follows. It is uninspired and dreary. Full of lyrical cliché it’s immediately forgettable. Not even the injection of a bouncy guitar riff, borrowing heavily from the early works of Fleetwood Mac, can rescue it. The echoes in I’m So Sorry of Jealous Guy and Imagine make it seem more like a pastiche than homage. It is soulful and steady in approach. Even the mournful string accompaniment fails to make it memorable. The track sounds more like early Robbie Williams than Lennon and McCartney.
Things begin to improve with Give It To Me. Opening with a blast of interesting guitar and electronic organ – not with the of insane energy of Helter Skelter, but closer to the pop drive of Back in the USSR! The whole album would definitely have benefited from harnessing more of the high energy visible here. The next track also taunts us with the glimpses of what The Rideouts are capable of. I’ll Be Free is brisk and pacey. It doesn’t outstay its welcome. Opening with a nice steady bass guitar riff, there’s solid tambourine accompaniment and drums too. It’s the standout track on the whole album. The lyrics are more adventurous. Advancing away from the dull rhymes that take up so much of the album’s lyrics. In that regard, the writing owes more to the true spirit of early Beatles.
After showing us what’s possible, Put The Blame On Me seems to be a let-down. The writing returns to uninspired lyrics and a hypnotic acoustic wash from the string quartet. It’s inoffensive and, as such, should probably appear on the soundtrack of the second season of a Young Adult themed supernatural thriller series. Who I Am’s distorted vocals and guitar echo the early Beatles and is a welcome departure from the sound of the rest of the album.
Wait has a bounce to it that, like I’ll Be Free, brightens up the album. There’s echoes of The Kinks here too. There’s a nice insight into the clarity of singing and vocal power from Michela. The lyrical hook and friendly guitar riff again put me in mind of risk averse Saturday cartoon style songs. Take It Easy is an unimaginative and straight narrative in the template of a Day In the Life. However, Take It Easy avoids the sombre intro of the Sgt. Pepper classic and skips to the up-tempo later section. The piano here elevates the tune, as does the inclusion of a faux clarinet – making it possible to see more clearly potential influences of When I’m Sixty Four.
The final two tracks are frustrating. There’s a real Chicago blues feel to Be A Man. The gritty sound and desperate lyrics have all the energy missing from Take It Easy and Put The Blame On Me. Likewise, Don’t Cry is another stand-out track. Lo-fi and powerful lyrics unite with a harmony of singing make it frustrating. We can see in these excellent songs what The Rideouts can really do. These songs bring into focus solid craft and vocal quality that can really conjure a Lennon and McCartney atmosphere.
This review might sound brutal and unkind. I hope not. Danny Janssen and The Rideouts can both be proud of their discographies. Everything is so nearly in place for them to be brilliant. The Rideouts exhibit a solid and close working relationship. They possess professional and deep expertise, allied with hard experience from both the studio and live shows. Returning to TS Eliot’s test, both Janssen and The Rideouts operate within a cohesive vision too. This album should work like a Saturn V rocket at lift-off. Yet, it somehow misses the mark.
What are the missing ingredients? It’s hard to say, but instinct tells me that it’s two things.
In the first instance, it’s perhaps that utterly unique lyrical dynamic emerging from the near-constant struggle between the cynical realism of Lennon’s writing versus the jovial optimism of McCartney. Naturally, there’s exceptions to this rule, but their ideological tensions prompted works of real genius. Bouncing off the energy and tensions, The Beatles experimented, improvised and regularly put their artistic reputations to hazard.
Secondly, the over emphasis on guitar based songs points to a reluctance to incorporate a more consistent presence of brass instruments and a keyboard. Many of the Beatles’ greatest and most imaginative songs benefited from the melodic colour added by the accompaniment of some form of brass section or keyboard, be it a piano, celesta, harmonium or Hammond organ.
Overall, Heart & Soul is an interesting and skilled – if risk-free – endeavour which, with the glimpses of brilliance, shouldn’t be ignored.