Rock Album Review: Neighbor’s Debut Studio Recording Shows Plenty of Breadth and Depth

By Scott McLennan

Neighbor is steeped in what could be considered rock ’n’ roll’s golden era — the ’70s. That is when bands could be — and were damn well expected to be — both technically dazzling and broadly appealing.

As we wrestle with what, if any, role artificial intelligence will play in the future of the creative process, the band Neighbor is dropping a debut album that is full of decidedly and pointedly “human” music. And that’s not at all surprising coming from an ensemble that found its footing the old-fashioned way — in front of living beings in a live setting.

Neighbor’s sound took shape in 2019 with a weekly residency at a club in Somerville, MA. Keyboard player, songwriter, and singer Richard James, guitarist and songwriter Lyle Brewer, bass player Dan Kelly, and drummer Dean Johnston — all of whom were busy performing with groups extending into the region’s psychedelic, jazz, roots music, and funk scenes — started convening Tuesday nights at the now-shuttered Thunder Road to work on original material. Brewer and James were literally neighbors as kids, though each forged his own musical path before reconnecting on this project and settling on that band name.

This workshop/residency attracted a large and loyal following that fueled Neighbor’s rise through the local and regional concert circuit and eventually onto the national stage.

While the band has put out a few live recordings and made countless “homemade bootlegs” for whoever wanted them, Neighbor is releasing its debut studio album this week (and finally putting its music on streaming platforms after long resisting doing so). The self-titled record is a 12-track survey that shows off this group’s depth and breadth.

In terms of raw talent, any one of the Neighbor guys is a first-call musician. But, as much as this group is capable of going off on wild tangents, Neighbor is steeped in what could be considered rock ’n’ roll’s golden era — the ’70s. That is when bands could be — and were damn well expected to be — both technically dazzling and broadly appealing. From Little Feat to Steely Dan, groups of that period could stretch out on their instruments, take chances with their arrangements, and also feel free to land on a sweet spot that was accessible to a mass audience.

This studio album highlights a fertile artistic tension between accessible songs and ferocious musicianship. In the hands of other bands, nostalgic reminiscences about palling around with “amigos” in a pine forest or barking out pleas to “put on a happy face” become really maudlin really quickly. But Neighbor gets away with this kind of familiar openheartedness because, at any given moment, Brewer will spring a solo that stops you in your tracks or James will generate elegant piano swells that will send what seem to be heavy-handed sentiments aloft.

Kelly and Johnston’s exceptional rhythm work is an indispensable assist in moving Neighbor’s music across diverse sonic terrain.

The band opens its album with a pair of straight-out rockers, “Take Me Alive” and “Isla.” The songs showcase the individual ingredients that will soon be blended in more exotic ways.

“Lonely Rider” shifts to a honky-tonk vibe with lots of fleet-fingered guitar picking by Brewer. Don’t get too comfortable in that spot, though, because Neighbor next moves into the howling noir blues of “Don’t You Cry.”

James’s big, theatrical vocal delivery is another well-deployed instrument in this mix. For instance, the dark clouds of “Don’t You Cry” part with the first notes of “You Could Be Mine” as James and company embrace a breezier pop-R&B motif. A few tracks later, Neighbor veers into full cabaret mode with “Crashing Down.”

Neighbor is at its strongest when the band digs into songs that blend styles and influences. Photo: courtesy of the artist

None of these stylistic leaps, however, sound gimmicky.

“Tripping in a Van” is probably the only instance when you could accuse Neighbor of going for the easy shot. Given its cartoonish sound effects, rat-a-tat rhythm, and pun-fueled lyrics, this tune serves as a tolerable novelty. It comes at a time when wink-and-nod drug songs are back in vogue (Billy Strings’s “Dust in a Baggie” and Molly Tuttle’s “Dooley’s Farm” are superior examples of the genre).

Neighbor is at its strongest when the band digs into songs that blend styles and influences, and there are plenty of examples here, starting with “I Saw You,” a dreamy song with a slow-burn arrangement that leads to a beautiful solo by Brewer.

The group’s originality emerges again on “Pine Tree” and “Mighty Apple Tree,” songs that are crowd-pleasers in concert and lose none of their rah-rah allure in these studio versions.

“Weeds” is a long, funky, and meditative composition in which the clever word play is more rewarding than the lighter attempts at wit in “Tripping in a Van.”

Neighbor closes out its self-titled album with the hymn-like ballad “Mary and Martha,” completing a compelling arc of emotions, sounds, and experiences. Yes, there is a reassuring familiarity in Neighbor’s sound but, to its credit, the band doesn’t wallow in the past but uses that well-rooted perspective to move the music forward.

Neighbor will celebrate the release of its debut album with a concert on May 19 at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston. The band also has a show on May 20 at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and will be performing at the Northlands Festival in Swanzey, New Hampshire, on June 17.

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.

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