Anybody Out There?

Sadler Vaden

Thirty Tigers, 2020

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


It should come as no surprise whatsoever that the guitars on this album sound fantastic—turbo-charged here, sweetly jangling there, crisp, shiny acoustics trading riffs with flexing, growling electrics. It’s exactly what most fans are hoping to hear when an ace guitar player steps out solo, and exactly what you get with Sadler Vaden’s new album Anybody Out There?

For his main gig Vaden—gifted at birth with a better stage name than you could ever make up—plays the Mike Campbell to Jason Isbell’s Tom Petty, the stage right guitar-slinger in Isbell’s outstanding backing band The 400 Unit. (Anyone with doubts about this analogy should YouTube search the stellar string of live Petty covers Isbell and company delivered in the weeks after his death, including “American Girl,” “Refugee,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and more.) Prior to joining Isbell in 2013, South Carolina native Vaden was a member of Southern rock / Americana cult favorites Drivin’ N Cryin’ and his own locally beloved rock’n’roll power trio Leslie.

After the guitars themselves, the next questions that generally come to mind when a guitar player makes a solo album revolve around vocals and songwriting. Vaden is a solid performer on both counts, and admirably self-aware in that he never overreaches, framing his songs in ways that play to his strengths. His rather keening voice has enough scratch in it to provide natural character, and reminds me at times of the late Adrian Slattery of Big Smoke in terms of both tone and their common, obvious affection for ’70s rock.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

That point of reference is apparent from the opening bars of “Next To You,” the simultaneously sunny and yearning kickoff cut, matching fat, crunchy riffing with a propulsive backbeat as Vaden sings earnestly of “chasing a dream destination unknown” before declaring that “I knew the truth by a look in your eyes.” As if to prove this won’t be a one-note album, Vaden immediately sidesteps the anthemic rock in favor of a country-blues ballad (“Don’t Worry”) with more than a little of The Band in its musical DNA.

The pace picks up again with the tight, snappy “Golden Child” and the thunderous title track, both of which feature a certain Joe Walsh / James Gang muscle and flair that’s undeniably appealing to this reviewer of a certain age. “Anybody Out There?” in particular goes heavy, with big, bluesy riffing and reverb-drenched vocals, culminating in an expansive, rather Robin Trower-ish solo. The classic rock call-back in the subsequent, string-adorned “Curtain Call” comes in the lyric, a cautionary tale about fame with a direct Petty reference (“I won’t back down”).

“Modern Times” features an airy strummed acoustic / synth wash / echoey percussion arrangement that immediately reminds of Tunnel Of Love-era Springsteen, framing a lyric about the feelings of disconnection fostered by modern technology. Then “Peace + Harmony” draws us out of the darkness and back into the light, an urgent, big-boned plea for better days. Like the preceding pair, “Good Man” feels both familiar and slightly undercooked on the lyrics side, forgoing subtlety and storytelling in favor of sincerity and directness.

“I want to take you away somewhere safe and warm,” sings Vaden as he urges himself to “Be Here, Right Now” in the album’s penultimate ballad, about the urge to cocoon with a lover and “leave it all behind.” Closer “Tried And True” pulls us out of the shade and into the light one more time with a tight, bright, punchy number that feels like a cross between the Heartbreakers and the Raspberries, verging on power-pop when it isn’t jangling like crazy. It’s the confection of a genuine classic rock savant, a sonic sunburst that’s both uniquely Vaden’s and the product of a musical imagination steeped in ’70s rock.

The packaging to this album completes the picture, awash in golden oranges and yellows, looking like an artifact of right out of 1974 Malibu. The comfortable vibe throughout no doubt benefited from the presence of Vaden’s 400 Unit bandmates Jimbo Hart (bass) and Derry DeBorja (keys), joined by Fred Eltringham on drums and John Eldridge on Hammond organ, with Vaden self-producing.

The best decision Sadler Vaden makes on Anybody Out There? is the simplest: he doesn’t try to be anyone other than himself. He frames these songs with arrangements that reflect his personality and musical passions, delivers them with sincere enthusiasm, and lights them up with a rainbow’s worth of bold, often gorgeous guitar tones. The end result is undeniably appealing.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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