Other than being Beatles-esque in popularity in Japan and a few pockets around the globe, Mr. Big has long been the band that many have heard of, but few actually know. Sure, the band’s campy ballad “To Be With You” was an airwaves staple in 1991, and songs such as “Green Tinted Sixties Mind” and “Just Take My Heart” were attention-getters, but in general, Mr. Big was known in musicians’ circles as the quartet that — when it wanted to — could stand note-for-note musically with any band of its day. Period.
The band boasted not one, but two, virtuosos in legendary bassist Billy Sheehan and guitar maestro Paul Gilbert. Add to the mix the unique vocal stylings of Eric Martin and the solid drumming of Pat Torpey, and, on paper at least, the four formed a musical force dejour that seemingly could not fail.
The band’s self-titled debut album in 1989 didn’t set the world on fire, but tracks such as “Addicted to That Rush” “Blame It On My Youth,” and “Wind Me Up” were glowing hints of what could be and landed them a slot on Rush’s “Presto” tour in 1990.
Then came “To Be With You.”
The song, which appeared on the band’s sophomore and commercial breakthrough album, “Lean Into It,” was a blessing on one hand and a curse on the other. The masses embraced the tune’s acoustic singalong sound, but on the other side of the fence, fans yearning for more Sheehan/Gilbert fretboard fireworks were left scratching their collective heads. Thus began the struggle within. Atlantic Records wanted more “To Be With You”s. Hardcore fans wanted the Mikita Drills of “Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy.” After a rather unceremonious third album (1993’s “Bump,” released amongst the onslaught of the grunge revolution), Gilbert left the group, and Ritchie Kotzen was brought on board for 1999’s “Get Over It” and 2001’s “Actual Size” albums. The band disbanded in 2002 following a farewell tour, and things remained silent on the the Mr. Big front until the original quartet reformed in 2014 and released “The Stories We Could Tell,” a solid grouping of tunes that proved the band was still a hugely viable musical entity. The stage was then set for the group’s latest release, “Defying Gravity.”
The 11-track offering sees the band in familiar territory — specifically, trying to maintain the momentum of a strong previous album. Fans wondering which version of the band they’ll get this time can rest easy — all is well once again.
The album’s title track and the lead-off, “Open Your Eyes,” are classic, true-to-form Mr. Big offerings with their bluesy, hook-heavy compositions. “Everybody Needs A Little Trouble,” the album’s third track, thunders with Sheehan’s grooving bass line underneath Gilbert’s fuzz-infused work. If there were a blueprint for the ultimate Mr. Big song, this is it. Are there cracks in the armor? Yes, beginning with the acoustic “Damn I’m In Love Again,” and the meddling “Forever and Back,” as part of a short string of mid-tempo tunes that are neither particularly inspired, but aren’t throwaways either. But just when the band seems to be mired in vanilla, out comes a gem in the form in “1992,” with its great lyrics of the band’s life circa the aforementioned year, the height of Mr. Big’s popularity. Closers “Nothing At All” and “Be Kind,” with its slide guitar courtesy of Mr. Gilbert, shine as well. And just when you thought it was over, the band returns after a few seconds of silence with a fantastic, up-tempo jam for a couple of minutes to round out the album, a musical calling card, if you will, reminding listeners of what the band is capable of when it’s hitting on all cylinders.
“Defying Gravity” may not be as groundbreaking as the band’s debut, but by releasing back-to-back solid albums at this point in their career — especially when most acts from their era are content to rehash already-existing catalogs on tour rather than create new material — Mr. Big has done what all bands hope to do this far down the line: defy gravity.