REVIEW: Paul Gilbert – Werewolves of Portland

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Portland is a city in the U.S. state of Oregon and it has been affectionately referred to as America’s Capital of Weird for decades. According to the Culture Trip website, it might have something to do with the fact that Portland has the most strip clubs per capita in the nation as well as a substantial prevalence of man buns and mustaches. It stands to reason that a werewolf-themed album full of guitar instrumentals is set to this particular U.S. city. As it happens, “Werewolves of Portland” is the title of the 16th solo album of the consummate craftsman and artist that the non-guitarist world probably best remembers by his contributions in the ranks of MR. BIG and RACER X in the 1980s and 1990s – Paul Gilbert. His new studio outing will be released on June 4 th, 2021, via the Mascot Label Group sub-label, The Players Club. It stands as yet another expression of the soul and spirit, demonstrating how virtuosic guitarism need not sound mechanical and bland.

The album kicks off with a somewhat anthemic intro that resonates with the thick air of the signature harmonic style of the guitarist, Brian May. For a moment, you might even ponder whether you put on some vintage QUEEN album from the mid-1970s. The impression soon dissolves, though, when the opening track, “Hello! North Dakota!” gears up with some funky power-riffing that steers more towards the fusion-laced style of Jeff Beck. In a way, the song is sparkling with the kind of Sunday picnic vibes that would fit on the soundtrack of, say, the Adult Soapbox Derby held in Portland every August – that is, the song is the perfect musical backdrop for racing down the hills of Mt. Tabor Park in all sorts of crazy-wheeled contraptions.

Having the talent to tell a story without any lyrical cues is no small feat. When it comes to writing music, Gilbert reveals that, surprisingly, it is not the guitar which provides the impetus. He mostly writes by singing. It probably explains why the melodies, licks, and musical phrases on the album resonate in such a strong lyrical fashion. Take the track, “My Goodness,” for example; the playful mood created by the myriad guitar twists makes you say exactly that: my goodness! Those of us who have nurtured their love for guitar-noodling with instructional videos are likely aware that Gilbert has had quite a lengthy tenure as a much-in-demand teacher and instructor in the prestigious Guitar Institute of Technology (GIT) in Los Angeles. As he muses in the press release, “I have probably surprised my students a lot; they’ll come to me, expecting a shred assignment, and instead I’ll say, let’s play Tom Jones‘ vocal part in “What’s New Pussycat?” but, man, you learn a lot from that kind of work!” Here is a man who certainly practices what he preaches.

The title track is, apparently, inspired partly by Gilbert‘s hometown and partly by the classic 1978 Warren Zevon song, “Werewolves of London.” His guitar does an awful lot of howling at the moon on the track by turns accompanied by some heavily syncopated, progressive riffs and brief sideways glance into the realms of classic 12-bar blues. For some reason, I cannot help but imagine replacing the soundtrack of the 1981 John Landis horror comedy, An American Werewolf in London, with the new Paul Gilbert solo offering. Maybe this strange urge stems from the quirky song titles on the album. It seems to be a common feat on many instrumental albums all over the world. In this case, most of the peculiar titles come from the lyrics Gilbert originally wrote in order to get the melodies going. These lyrics are even printed in the liner notes of the album.

The rest of the album holds no surprise blows. Each song tells a new tale with the themes ranging from the dispute against a slice of strawberry pie (“Argument About Pie”) to the audience’s reaction to the debut performance of Shostakovich‘s 5th symphony (“A Thunderous Ovation Shook the Columns”). Gilbert offers us small hints, something that sparks our imagination and emotions, what with the quirky song titles and highly evocative music, but it is up to our own mind to fill in the blanks – to add a layer of personal meaning to the music. “I didn’t become a musician to shout my ideas,” he states – and after listening to his new album a few times over, it becomes obvious that his musical philosophy of providing a gentle push works much better anyway. Paul Gilbert is a formidable musical force and his new album is a must-have for all of us who have a fondness for quality guitar instrumentals.

Written by Jani Lehtinen

Tracklist

  1. Hello! North Dakota!   
  2. My Goodness   
  3. Werewolves of Portland   
  4. Professorship at the Leningrad Conservatory   
  5. Argument About Pie   
  6. Meaningful
  7. I Wanna Cry (Even Though I Ain’t Sad)   
  8. A Thunderous Ovation Shook the Columns
  9. Problem-Solving People
  10. (You Would Not Be Able to Handle) What I Handle Everyday

Lineup

Paul Gilbert – everything

Label

The Players Club

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