I first saw them when I judged a battle of the bands for the opening slot at this summer's Wheelzstock. Just a gangly group of kids, they were taking a shot at a gig that would put them in the same show with April Wine, Edgar Winter, and Eddie Money.
They walked up, plugged in their amps, and consulted with one another for a few minutes on the set list. They tuned. They fidgeted. They waited patiently while Wheelz Program Director Stan Parman made his requisite announcements.
They smiled politely, if not nervously, in the general direction of the judges' table when we were introduced. They counted off, and plunged into the audition set like a kid doing a cannonball.
Only, in this pool, they were the small fish. Up against bands like Jedi and Dr. Rock, The Esperantos held their own against years of experienced and well-established local talent. As impressive in their determination as they were in their ability, the group's enthusiasm and upbeat material compelled me to listen to their music and post a review on it.
Purposely, and perhaps unfairly, I am seldom willing to review a very young artist's material.
There are a few reasons for that.
A). Any artist this young is still developing his sound. B). It's nearly impossible to be honest when a young artist is anxiously looking over what you've written, hoping to see some good in it.
But I thought to myself, "I've done a review of friends with some negatives and I ain't dead yet". So with some hesitation, I gave a listen to The Esperantos first CD release. I was truly impressed with the band live, and wanted to hear what they could do when they had complete control over their sound.
Though the pseudo-punk/alternative/ retro-sound is not my bag, this group of Mid-Michigan guys does a fairly good job of it. In their self-titled Debut, The Esperantos show some long awaited new sounds and some sparks of ingenuity.
Throughout the work, there are some interesting clues to the band's ability to create. Again, I don't much care to review the work of someone I view as just developing his/her talent, so I am going to disclaimer the negatives here as "well meant suggestions".
Guitarist/vocalist Phil Roth throws off a surprisingly good Rick Ocasek/Elvis Costello style vocal line in songs like Escort, I'm You, and Cool it Down. Bassist Aaron Cianek and Drummer Joe Jacobs are credited with vocals, yet I heard no discernable harmonies or worthwhile vocal interplay anywhere in the album.
Given the lack of solos or substantial breaks/turnarounds in the material, some well arranged vocal lines would have made a huge difference in my overall impression of the work. (It should be mentioned at the outset that the production value leaves a great deal to be desired, so there may be a lot I'm missing).
I had to dig through the album a couple of times to see if I could find any solos played on more than one string, and got a little frustrated at the lack of diversity in the guitar sound. (Somebody PLEASE show this guy something OTHER than a fuzz box).
It's often the case that arrangements and lyrical content can be obfuscated by their simple repetition. Newer artists can sometimes lean on the compulsion to cram a vocal line over the music in an effort to bring a substance to the work, or to simply fill time.
For example, I heard the phrase "Cool it Down" over 18 times in one verse, and simply stopped counting. Though it WAS an issue in the Esperantos debut, I didn't feel that I was suffering through it. Inexorably, I had a good time with the CD as I tooled around town giving it a passive listen. Again, those sparks of creative genius were in there.
As a first effort, the band has produced a very fun, very danceable mix of great hooks that would have shown far better potential if the arrangements had been placed in the hands of a quality mentor.
As is often the case, I think that the Esperantos' potential was limited by the short sightedness of a dispassionate producer and a lack of artist ability to demand better.
Lest you think I was not at all impressed with the Esperantos, it bears mentioning that they were my primary vote in the Wheelzstock Battle of the Bands. I thought they were a wonderful and refreshing change of pace on the local music scene, and I'm encouraged by their contribution.
They have strung together some interesting chord progressions with upbeat rhythm and vibe. As musicians, with the material they do, all of the band can readily hold their own. I just wonder, given the potential I heard live, if the group has challenged itself enough in recording these tracks.
Many musicians who have recorded are well aware that the music that you commit to CD is, in essence, your legacy. Someone may hold a copy of this effort long after the band is dead of old age. In that case, you have to ask yourself if, indeed, you've left your best stuff literally "on the record."
But then, too many of us agonize over that one.
When all the criticizing is put to rest, the album does well in causing one to tap the toe, bounce around
The Esperantos are a good band, and soon enough, they'll have the experience and the chops to make folks pay very close attention to what they can do. They are a work in progress, but what they've done thus far is certainly worth hearing.