A quick way to describe the sound of the June 2012 release “Johnny On The Spot” is the word “Olympian,” both in the sense of athletic power-lifting and in the sense of large columns of marble (i.e. “rock”). But it isn’t in your best interest to be too hasty in trying to describe what Rob Eldridge and Josh Egan are doing in this first major offering under the banner of Steelesque. The equation that Steelesque’s super computer is running on is dense and deserves the time to decode carefully.
The overdrive energy of the two-man guitar and drum front might remind a bit of a Black Keys arrangement, however the soundscape varies way beyond the heavy-handed, gin-joint persona of that duo. Also on this album, recorded in studio time split between the Pittsburgh and Burlington Vermont are guest musicians Mick Lykens (lead and slide guitar), Eric Bee (guitar), and Kevin Maurer (with an impressive mix of horns). This addition of artists makes one track to the next an adventurous shift. In fact, the variation of influences makes it difficult to identify a signature in the sound of Steelesque, but this more than resolves itself in the fact that the songs are unlimited by any formulaic approach. In a sense, Johnny On The Spot has the feel of a greatest hits album for what Steelesque can do with the wide range of licks and lyricism at their disposal. The predominant vibe of what emerges is an unapologetic rock-homage to rock-itself.
By way of a run-list of what you might listen for: Big board effects on vocals and crazy amped guitars (not loud or dramatically distorted, but crazy good in the effect combinations that are fitted together); Occasional wild background recordings and sound bites; Some British festival rock qualities that lean toward jam band aspects (particularly in track 3, “Life Fast Wheel,” which takes off flying like a neo-Dead track or Lotus/Phish piece); Some old-school country guitar popping up in the midst of smoothly syncopated vocals on track 4, “Raven Don’t Mind;” Well engineered cross-fading, big electric rift-outs on several tracks as well as a quirky Apple Studios-style spoken word and electric drift-in on the sixth/final track “Dead Bee;” J.R.R. Tolkien fan-boy references on the Rush-spirited track 5, “Tom Bombadill;” and, Overall, cool variations in lyrical/vocal mood and color from song to song – sometimes a bit Robin Trowery, sometimes a bit Alice Cooperish, sometimes a bit Bowiesque. If that all sounds a bit tour de force, it’s because it really is.
To express the resounding effect of Johnny On The Spot I have to give a personal association that became obvious to me while listening. My brother beat the snot out of me on a somewhat regular basis growing up, but he more than made up for it by introducing me to the breadth of Classic Rock (from AC/DC to Zappa) before it was called “classic.” Although he listened to a wide array of artists, he was discriminating in his rock interest, even down to the finer distinctions between bands like RATT, Twisted Sister, Quiet Riot, and WASP. I mention this because, as far afield as Steelesque’s Johnny on the Spot is from being a glam rock product, you can nevertheless hear a studied ear of rock-at-large working in the instrumentation and structure of each track on the album. When I consider the virtues of rock songs I often ask myself if my big brother would like it. He lives in the Chicago area now, but when I send him Johnny on the Spot I know he is going to rock out this album in his Steeler-fied garage.