Signs was derived out of the pain of losing influential mentors close to Derek, Susan, and other bandmates, and the album’s melancholy is clearly evident throughout the 11 tracks. I’ll start by saying this is not the simplified, hard-hitting rocker album we are hoping to eventually hear from TTB, and the mourning throughout the band’s 5th original music LP leads to an even slower pace than previous efforts. That said, the deaths of Butch Trucks, Gregg Allman, and Col. Bruce Hampton deserve proper eulogies, and this album serves that function well.
Signs is another solid TTB effort, again showing off more and more range and versatility. I expect the band will take away 3-4 hits off the album to add to a solid core of original music from previous recordings. Keep building the catalog, brick by brick.
Overall, here are our primary take-aways from our first listen to the new album:
- The songwriting is excellent – One thing that is a clear improvement from TTB’s previous LPs is that the lyrics are absolutely stunning. The band has come together to produce a full LP worth of excellently-written songs, a trend that we believe will serve to galvanize future efforts as well. This is a band that can write poetry and accompanying music on par with one of its biggest influencers: The Allman Brothers Band. I don’t say that lightly at all.
- The pace is generally too slow with some notable exceptions – For the most part, Signs’ delivery is inline with its function as a posthumous tribute to Butch, Gregg, and Col. Bruce. The album grinds to its tempo valley during the virtual lullaby “Strengthen What Remains”, which has a nice addition of strings and flute.
- There isn’t enough Derek Trucks – A recent Relix review of Signs by Dean Budnick compares Susan Tedeschi to the NBA player Scottie Pippen as an ultimate role/support player, which we would have echoed before catching the band at The Saenger Theater in New Orleans two weeks ago. That night however, it became apparent that Susan is every bit Derek’s equal on stage. But Derek fades into the backstage during Signs, and that is unacceptable. While the Scottie Pippen comparison is unfair to Susan, the Michael Jordan comparison is absolutely appropriate for Derek. This is not the guy you want trying to win the Sixth Man award for coming off the bench. We’d love to see a combination with someone like Marcus King on future albums to complement as a second guitar (probably at the expense of the horn section). What really worked well for The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd would also work for Tedeschi Trucks Band.
- The ensemble is still trying to do too much although the product is tighter than previous albums – We were pleased with the tighter ensemble on Signs as the band has become a “sum of the parts” as opposed to a collection of talented individuals. However, there’s still too much going on, and it can be distracting. Susan especially is showing more restraint in her vocals, which again should benefit the band going forward. I still don’t understand the need for multiple drummers, as Tedeschi Trucks Band is not benefitting from having four hands like the Allmans did.
- The band is still adding components and experimenting – Just listen to the opening of each song on Signs, and you’ll quickly grasp that TTB is not painting themselves into any corners. Each open is completely different ranging wildly from the folk rock “When Will I Begin” to the jazzy “Walk Through This Life” to the piano start of “Still Your Mind” and finally the rock and roll intros for “Shame” and “They Don’t Shine”. This variety of style is indicative of the album as a whole, moreso than previous TTB works.
In our opinion, there are three sure-fire hits on Signs: “Hard Case”, “Shame”, and “The Ending”. We will get into each of those later. There is one track that has us perplexed in “They Don’t Shine”, and we would lean to thinking this will be a 4th commercial hit. 4 hits out of 11 songs ain’t bad, and the remainder of the album will still have its TTB loyal followers. And the band has made some progression closer to what we think will ultimately be a more simplified, harder-hitting group that could generate the type of classic album we are hoping for and expecting to see down the road.
Where Signs shines is unsurprisingly with the rock and roll tracks. “Hard Case” is the most obvious hit from the release, smacking you from the open to the fade. This song is a great example of the guitar blending with Susan and a complementary male vocal to create good, refined sound. We got to hear the track live at The Saenger, and this is the direction we expect the band to trend towards. “Hard Case” will be a permanent staple in the TTB catalog.
“Shame” is another hit, but a much different, angrier sound than “Hard Case”. The opening is pure rock and roll, and the wailing between Susan and Derek is on point, echoing each other seemlessly. Look, we don’t think Susan Tedeschi is some sort of wallflower. Let’s be real, this is a woman who spends 200 nights per year on the road with rockstars (which she is, of course). But she can be dainty and polite on stage, and hearing her angry cursing during “Shame” is sexy as hell. Give us more.
Our favorite track from Signs is “The Ending”. This is a ballad we can put in the best company and play over and over again. The opening is acoustic and twangy which is really nicely synergistic with Susan’s smoky voice. The acoustic guitar had us confused at first – I would have thought that this would have been a waste of time for a band that possesses one of the greatest electric guitarists of all time. It wasn’t. This is a new element that could have a place as a softer interlude in future albums. While much more emotional, “The Ending” may earn a spot next to Widespread’s “End of the Show” as we close down nights to come.
We’ve listened to “They Don’t Shine” a dozen times in a week trying to really determine where this track will land. We are still unsure but leaning to the positive side. The track has another rock styling, the thing that works best on this album and for TTB in general. You hear “Proud Mary” clearly from the opening with a mix of Kings of Leon. Susan stays tight with her vocals, and it really works well. She and Derek again come together with excellent harmony, and these are some of the most encouraging moments of the entire album.
There are other solid tracks on Signs. “When Will I Begin” has a touch of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down” in the opening and then trends to slow and gospel-ly. Perhaps a little too slow, but the group’s song-writing chops are on full display. “Walk Through This Life” makes it clear that the ensemble is still experimenting, but there are some truly triumphant moments. “Still Your Mind” has a tinge of 90s grunge, almost Pearl Jam-esque. The piano open is another new element, and the band’s two stars really shine. Susan’s vocals are less smoky than normal, and she shows as much range as a singer as we’ve heard previously. And the song features one of the better Derek Trucks guitar solos.
If you figure that TTB is averaging 2-3 shows per market now, then that puts the band in a musical “No Man’s Land” where there aren’t many venues to properly suit their needs. That means that ultimately, you have to either move up into the 10,000+ seat venues or down into one-night shows in the 2,500-seat venues. I see potential for TTB to sell out arenas, but the band is not there yet. While pain and suffering led to the best of Fleetwood Mac, TTB should pivot back to its roots with a more triumphant and jammy vibe. Line up the guitars with Derek in front and wail. Don’t strive to replicate as Susan’s vocals are too valuable but string her around the incessant pounding of the guitars, perhaps with a complementary male vocal to support.