I’ve known of Bruce Tunkel for decades. The main reason I know him was for his role as the lead man for the Red Bank group The Red House. This New Jersey quartet was led by lead singer (talked about here) Bruce Tunkel (who also played guitar and piano, and served as primary lyricist). The Red House released their self-titled debut in 1990. Barely out of their teens at the time, the band were an apparent affinity for U2 on their collective sleeve.
They approach their subjects of spirituality and the human condition with an earnestness that, while not entirely original, is still endearing. Musically, the band delivers an earful of catchy choruses set in a melodic modern rock setting, with producer Mark Opitz (Lenny Kravitz, Ray Charles, The Beach Boys and so much more) giving everything a high-sheen buff. And while many great tunes appeared on the record, nothing stands out here more than the urgent “Rain,” the impassioned “I Said A Prayer” (which benefits from a raw vocal growl from Tunkel), and the bracing “The Dream I Never Had” which are worth checking out. But that was the start of what I consider an ongoing quest for songwriting and compositional excellence that Bruce continues to do well in.
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 favorite cover band, fickle clubgoers turned on a dime, and so did the most of the publications (with the exception of the Aquarian) 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 hipster musicians to currently play their ukulele and banjo folk mix all over a town that hails them as beer garden geniuses.
Tunkel’s latest musical foray is called Bittersweet. This record is a simple combination of vocals and keyboards with minimal additional instrumentation that focuses on a darker side of reality. When you ask him about the direction and focus of what’s going on now, he has this to say: “I stumbled onto the Dragonfly Music & Coffee Cafe scene in late 2015, along with Mark Nuzzi and Joe Furnari, which not only gave birth to The Susan Rumors project but to the Bittersweet project as well. The Dragonfly open mic became an impetus to write new material to play each week, so I accumulated quite a few new songs. I still have more than enough songs left over for several more projects. One of the best things for me about the Dragonfly is that there’s a piano there to play. So, I got back into piano-based writing. These songs were created as solo piano/vocal presentations and first performed that way at open mic night. I could have done fully arranged versions of the songs, but ultimately decided that it would be both something new and very fast to do them as they were initially presented. What you hear on the recording is, for the most part, me playing the songs live in my studio. I added a few minor embellishments. I also had some terrific guest performers contribute. Mark Nuzzi, who you are familiar with, sings on a couple of songs. Everyone else, I met last year at the Dragonfly. Peter Prasa is the guy that runs the Dragonfly music scene. Emi DeLia, Ericka Conshue, Michelle Peatick and Jenny Cat are all people that perform there. The vocal group thing we did on the song ‘Common Ground’ was initially an impromptu jam at an open mic night.”
So, we can start to see the way this intricate record started and what it meant to Tunkel and his band of merry musicians. Many of the songs don’t have happy endings or subjects of glee. Tunkel himself says that many of the songs are based on depression, reconciliation, dreams, and failed relationships. While not every song has references to negativity or failure, Tunkel himself says that each tune has meaning in many of these areas.
Let’s take a listen to Bittersweet and see what the results are when it comes to quality music and the ongoing career of Bruce Tunkel.
First song up is the disc namesake “Bittersweet.” Tunkel’s vocal tone is sharp, clean and powerful. If I had to compare him to someone famous, it would be Dennis DeYoung from Styx. There is nothing about Tunkel that doesn’t note clear and clean vocal power. His piano work is reminiscent of Billy Joel, and he mixes his style of dynamic deliverance with complex chords and addictive choruses with lyrical tales of depression and the life we all know. Chords mix fine block playing and intricate measures of the errors of all our lives.
The next song up is called “Dream 28.” “Dream 28” takes into consideration all the elements of our real dreams. Piano work is both gentle and metered as Tunkel unravels his sleep-empowered tales of the supernatural tale. If there’s one thing I would say about this sleepy tune, it would be that Tunkel has used all his combined experience to come up with an unusual song. “Dream” may have a compositional base of something honed while asleep, but Tunkel tells a story that everyone can consider in their current and upfront reality.
The next song up is called “Between The Banks.” This song contains the lyrical content of an artist deep in the reconciliation of his existence. The piano work is reminiscent of Paul Griffin (Don McLean) and lifts this song into its own hemisphere. Once again, Tunkel brings his own unique style into the focus and makes the song a unique piece that blends verse, chorus, and middle-eight to mix his own sounds into a great and original tune of radio gold. I especially love his pacing here, watching and listening to Tunkel bring musical harmony to the listening public.
Next up is “Late December Morning.” Tunkel doesn’t waste time here. Blending piano work that sounds very much like Elton John from his very early days, Tunkel lays down vocal magic on the topic of his wife and their enduring life and love. Tunkel has a gift when it comes to the compositional directive, and his combination of verse work and catchy chorus work makes “Late December Morning” a radio friendly hit not unlike many from today’s unharmonious society. Once again, choruses stand out and do bridges and verses that all come from the vibrant mind of a writer who still has plenty left to tell us.
The next tune is called “Common Ground.” Covering the delicate subject of political divineness, Tunkel lays out his lyrical idea of a better society and a happier world. Tunkel eases back into a piano style that reminds me of Neil Young from After The Gold Rush and a lyrical deliverance of the Eagles. Backing harmonies come courtesy of Emi DeLia and Jenny Cat. Their contribution help make “Common Ground” another vital piece on this record. Tunkel digs deep here, compositionally speaking, and “Common Ground” reminds me of “People Get Ready” by The Impressions back in 1965. The song has its own original vibe and feel, and Tunkel does a hell of a job bringing his emotional story to light. Another group of vocal contributors is Peter Prassa, Ericka Conshue, and Mark Nuzzi, who add tons of moxie to the tune.
Moving around the disc, I came to a song called “I Have What It Takes.” This song features the vocal assist of Ericka Conshue alongside Bruce, and it works like wildfire. Tunkel waxes politically about confidence and relationship divisiveness. Tunkel is a master at combining musical composition and lyrical directness, and it shows here. The backing percussion work pops in sections where it’s needed before fading out into the background. Piano work is sparse and simple, giving the tune a very Mark Cohen vibe which rules throughout.
Track 10 is called “Thirty Years.” Featuring the vocal work of Michelle Peatick, Tunkel aligns everything well. Piano work is both fluid and melodic as he runs through his piece on “Thirty Years.” Peatick and Tunkel blend well, mixing a vocal team up very much like Natalie Merchant (10,000 Maniacs) and Jeff Buckley. Percussion work rolls throughout the piece as Tunkel lays out melodic piano work beside Peatick. Choruses and verse work are formidable and tight as Tunkel lays down piano work reminiscent of Leon Russell.
There are several other tracks that I didn’t have space for, but it would suffice to say that you should grab Bittersweet if you have the change. Bruce Tunkel is a musician that could have easily laid down and gone the way of many great players that felt that they no longer had relevance on the scene, but he never did. Tunkel continues to prove that his experience and style are modern day examples of someone who still has a lot to say and tons of talent to back him up.
For more information on Bruce Tunkel and Bittersweet, head over to brucetunkel.com and pick up his great new CD. Bittersweet is an aural soundscape of terrific music and outstanding vocal work laid out on a simple, piano-based journey through ballad-based rock and roll, and it’s outstanding.