When it came to reviewing the new Mr. Big album I admitted I had a soft spot for their early 90’s output but equally I also know next to nothing about the band itself. To put it into perspective back in the early 90’s, coverage of rock and metal was very, very different to how it is today. You had two magazines covering the genre and just a couple of hours on a Friday night on the radio dedicated to rock. The only other way you could learn about bands was word of mouth or just checking out the new releases at the local record shop (yep, we had those so things weren’t all bad).
I knew very little about Mr. Big, I don’t think they were considered cool enough for the magazines. The one thing I did not know is that Mr. Big was (and still is) a terrible name. However, I was lent a copy of their 1991 release Lean on Me and instantly fell in love with the overall vibe of the album. It was in the same sort of category as Enuff Z’Nuff’s Strength the following year. As an album, it had the ability to create its own world and transform you into it. Both albums had a unique sound that was nostalgic, part heavy sadness but both unique to their creators.
Of course, times have changed and it is easy to look up almost anything. Mr. Big themselves were formed in California in 1988 by previous David Lee Roth band member Billy Sheehan (which makes a whole lot of sense as there are similarities in sound between the two bands). Like a lot of bands, they split up in 2002 and then reformed in 2013 so although I am not familiar with a lot of their work, I didn’t miss out on too much.
For lovers of the early Mr. Big sound, Defying Gravity is not going to disappoint you. It’s a perfect accompaniment to that earlier work but for fans of hard rock in general who are not familiar with their sound then this is a band that is most definitely worth checking out. They have a familiar sound but also a uniqueness that makes them special and stand out. If I had to compare them to a contemporary band that The Moshville Times have covered extensively in recent times it would be The Darker My Horizon. What I think makes Mr. Big even more unique though is not just the brilliant songwriting but that for me, it is more vocal and harmony led. Where you would expect big guitar solos, Mr Big have never taken that route and instead this role in the band is much more likely to be filled with a band harmony than the narrative lead guitar. Both lead guitar and bass solos are there but they are used sparingly as part of the overall band sound rather than part of the main story.
The opening two tracks on the album really do demonstrate that Mr. Big sound. Opening track “Open Your Eyes” has that David Lee Roth feel to it. Very funky guitar and bass backed up with vocals that include an almost falsetto backing. It is very funky in a Lenny Kravitz type of way. This style is repeated again on second track “Defying Gravity” but instead, is led by an entirely tuneful and addictive main riff. Where they start to shine is in the chorus. Vocally, there is a tone and style perhaps not heard so much anymore, but this only adds to this style of song. Mr. Big after all are a big song band. Overall, this is a lively and engaging opening to the record.
It is tracks like “Damn I’m in Love Again” that really defines the sound that Mr. Big have become known for and also provides that nostalgia factor that I previously mentioned. Mr. Big can throw out a pretty mean ballad and this is no exception; simple, heartfelt but when they do produce this type of track, for some reason there always seems to be a wistfulness and a feel of times gone past. It is this that makes me love what they do. It speaks straight to you. It allows you to dream, to think to float back into times gone past but in a happy way. This same vibe is recreated on “Nothing Bad (About Feeling Good)”. Again, it is a simple song and structure. Acoustic guitar, simple lead, those strong vocals over top but again the style hints at times gone past, giving it a rose-tinted feel. This inclusiveness is the reason that Mr. Big have been able to carve a career and pace in rock history for themselves. Their albums may not be too challenging or revolutionary but they take you to a place that feels warm, fuzzy and ultimately enjoyable.
One of the best songs on the album for me is “Forever and Back”. On the one hand, it has the slightly irritating “back, back, back” refrain throughout but despite being another ballad (less stripped back this time, more of a big band song) it has a structure and verse combination that really works and makes it a track that stands out. I am not the only one in a nostalgic mood however, Mr. Big join me with this with the song “1992”. It is basically a track about their surprise number one hit in fifteen different countries back in 1992. Mr. Big seem as surprised by that success now as they were then and this track pays tribute to that, “I was Number 1 in 1992”. It’s a kind of thank you in a way. It good to see bands being humble and thankful rather than boastful to be honest.
Mr. Big Fans are not going to be disappointed with Defying Gravity. If you are new to the band and like good time rock and roll, funk and well-crafted songs with a large dose of nostalgia but never losing that optimism then I would recommend this album. Sometimes I sit here and write about bands that define the times, that fight the system but it is just as well to have bands like Mr. Big in your life as well. A place to go away from it all, hide, wallow but most of all come back up for air positively refreshed.
Defying Gravity is out now