The ’80s were one of the key periods for New Jersey music. With visible bands such as The Smithereens, the Misfits and Skid Row covering wide ground, the myriad of underlings that came so close was astounding. Everyone I know has a story of “almost.” From signing toothless contracts to losing key label mentors, the “Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda” list is vast. The real winners from that crazy time are the individuals that see the writing on the wall and make chess-like moves to guarantee some continuity for their career future.
One of those grounded visionaries is Bruce Tunkel. Tunkel got his start with the Jersey Shore jangle of The Red House. The Red House was a popular blue collar/alternative band during the late ’80s, and they got extremely close to the dream. So close as to, in fact, commence working with Mark Opitz (INXS, the Divinyls, and Hoodoo Gurus) in spring of 1990 for the band’s self-titled SBK Records release.
The Red House looked to be the premier launching pad for this Jersey unit but for whatever the reason, it just didn’t happen. Tunkel chalked up his past experiences and invested in his future, dumping the democratic group approach and moving into his unique direction.
When you search the web for background history on Tunkel’s past, it’s a veritable ghost town. There just isn’t a lot of press when it comes to Tunkel’s achievements from those days, and that’s a big part of the problem when it comes to New Jersey’s musical history. If you weren’t successfully signed, endorsed by Bruce or Jon or in some ridiculous and popular cover band, fickle clubgoers turned on a dime, and so did the publications and other media outlets of the day. But truth be told, Tunkel and crew were part of a talented decade that made it possible for a Legion of Amish-looking hipsters to play their ukulele and banjo folk mix all over a town that hails them as beer garden geniuses.
That original timeframe has led to Tunkel’s revolutionary new disc, We’ll Make It Up As We Go. This is Tunkel’s sixth solo effort since leaving The Red House in 1992 and his most poignant to date.
Produced by Tunkel, he is joined by Kelly McGrath on songwriting duties. McGrath co-wrote four of the whopping 18 songs on this double set. Recorded and mixed at Tunkel’s Beanland Studios, the two-platter presentation features an interesting enlistment of local players. Guitar duties are covered by the ever-present PK Lavengood, Frankie McGrath and Joe Padula, and Bob Nicol and Rob Tanico handle drum and bass duties, respectively. Kelly McGrath, Emily McKenna, Donna Roth and Sam Tunkel handle vocal administrations alongside and behind Bruce.
“Losing Kind” opens the classic, rock and roll door with style. Organs whirl under slashing, open chord guitar power as Tunkel unwinds. In the rare and hard-to-find journalistic readables, Bruce is always praised for his powerful and melodic vocals. That remains true on “Losing Kind” as Tunkel soars from gruff and tumble lows into concise, well-elevated highs. Bruce is still a master at putting the right musical puzzle pieces into enticing order, and this is a great leadoff track that puts you in the mood of getting out of your chair and “air guitaring” till the cows come home. Lavengood’s signature country rock swagger pierces the room with the sizzling slide work of a guy who has walked the six-string walk for a very long time. Tunkel’s vocal approach comes from the same self-assured area of Robin Wilson (Gin Blossoms). The compositional Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers band attack is pure joy. Nicol and Tanico hit you like a defibrillator, zapping rhythmic life into the theme of the piece. If, like me, you dig that gritty, barroom-styled power, you’ll love this top-notch tune.
One of my favorite standouts on the set is “God Don’t Want That.” Thundering out of the player with all the attitude of The Replacements, Tunkel proves that he’s no mere ballad churner. Once again, Lavengood is on point and cranks out some of the gnarliest crunch this side of The Godfathers. String-bending salvos of pentatonic brilliance abound as Tunkel revs up and blasts raw, full power cries of lyrical warning. Bob Nicol is a main focus here. His intricate drum work thunders down the middle of this pocket-tight tune, delivering truckloads of double stops, tom-drenched punch and all the compositional phrasing of the elder Bonham. Lavengood’s slow bends in the back eight bring me back to the fire-hot patterns of Robin Trower and Warren E. Hodges (Jason & The Scorchers). Tanico races alongside Nicol, throwing out chest-punching countermeasures like a boss. This is a wild and raucous ride down to the darkened crossroads of rock and roll rebellion.
“Drive Me Sane” recalls the old spirit of The Red House and demonstrates the reason Tunkel achieved visibility in the first place. Simple, beat-heavy goodness, “Drive Me Sane” is a calculated, feel-good vehicle that races into the Americana fast lane of love. Pianos bang out bell-clear patterns above the sheen of electric guitar, bass and drums. Verses pump under Nicol’s kick drum as Tunkel and crew set the listener up with a simple and dynamic dose of ear candy. Emily McKenna is featured on the track, and she smoothes raw edges with her seamless background vocals, paving the way for Lavengood’s middle-eight madness. I guarantee that fans will be up and out of their seats for this undeniably addictive rock and roll rampage.
“We’re Gonna Get Somewhere” pops into the commercial crosshairs of viable adult Top 40. Tunkel is a smooth operator, guiding his band through each new turn and level of compositional forward motion, and he knows how to process each one of his songs into the collective continuity of the whole. Pianos drop catchy and repetitive hooks, inserting them between upstroked, expressive electrics (Frankie McGrath) and dynamic rhythm pauses as Tunkel laments the inaction of putting down roots. This is the restless plight of action. The fight and flight for eventual happiness, the struggle of attaining our dreams and the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. The background choruses of Frankie and Kelly McGrath, Donna Roth and Sam Tunkel provide massive “wall of sound” action as the rhythm section ebbs and crashes, skimming over the top of Tunkel’s easy, breezy delivery. While “We’re Gonna Get Somewhere” takes a while to get close to, by the middle-eight I understand the placement within the parameters of the disc.
Exploring disc two, I wanted to mention the CD namesake. “We’ll Make It Up As We Go” is a waltzing sojourn of compositional finesse and a traditional salute to writers such as Harry Chapin and James Taylor. Tunkel’s imagination takes us on an all-too-short journey of beautiful melodic passages and heartfelt lyrical content. Tunkel’s spacious piano patterns reverberate throughout the soundscape, beckoning the laidback, pocketed tempos of Nicol as Tanico two-steps along the backbone of this ethereal song.
I’m out of space but I wanted to mention one more tune. “Nothing’s Changed” is a stark, piano-driven piece in the traditional vein of Jackson Brown and the Boss. Filled with broad, lyrical analogies and imagery, Tunkel soars in darkened and somber communications. “I dreamed that I could touch the sky, nothing was out of my reach. I got to walk in everyone’s shoes from the wilderness to the beach.” The intimate approach is perfection and focuses the listener on each eagerly awaited passage. Tunkel has always lived on that traditional, no frills fringe, and that’s the quiet and noble isolation I feel on “Nothing’s Changed.” As the band shuffles in, Tunkel elevates each verse with the grandeur of purposeful space. The finality of the lyrical content washes out in the last reverberated keys of Tunkel’s piano magic.
Bruce Tunkel has been an integral part of the music community for years. The problem with the music scene (and its promoters) is that in a world of new ways to make more money, popularity is the name of the game. One day you’re on the big stage, and the next week you’re busking on the boardwalk. The art of survival sometimes means stepping away from a person, place or thing to achieve clarity for your art, and I’m glad that Bruce has worked things out on his terms and come back with a great record.
You can see Bruce Tunkel live on May 30 at the Asbury Yacht Club down on Ocean Avenue. Set time is 10 p.m.
For more information on Bruce Tunkel and his new record, We’ll Make It Up As We Go, head over to facebook.com/brucetunkelmusic.