Paul Wong

Head On Straight

Univerisal Records

“I don’t know when I got bitter / but love is surely better when it’s gone,” sings Emerson Hart on Tonic’s second album, Sugar. It’s a surprise that he doesn’t know the answer to this question, because it’s right there in his music. While Sugar did have its share of sunny love songs, it also contained powerful, emotional songs full of anger and bitterness over relationships gone awry. Tracks like “You Wanted More,” “Knock Down Walls” and “Mean to Me” added force to Sugar and traversed emotional territory left unexplored by Tonic’s debut, Lemon Parade.

On Tonic’s latest release, Head on Straight, we find an Emerson Hart cured of the bitterness that added so much strength to Sugar. The third album in the Tonic catalog consists of twelve well-crafted rock songs and it sounds great, even if it is homogenous at times. Unfortunately, though, much of the poignancy and bite of Sugar is missing.

From the first listen, it is clear that Tonic is aiming straight at FM radio with Head on Straight. Possibly trying to knock Creed down from their stance at the summit of Heavy-Handed Ballad Peak, Tonic chose to fill half of the album with power ballads – which, incidentally, are much better than Creed’s. While these songs are of exceptional quality – especially the lush, beautiful “Ring Around Her Finger” – a few sound suspiciously familiar. The final song, “Let Me Go,” is one of the most intricately developed on the record, but its chorus is nearly identical to that of “Head on Straight.” Even more unfortunately, that same chord progression has been used about a thousand times elsewhere – like in Matchbox Twenty’s “Push” from their 1996 debut album, for example. Tonic really should be able to come up with something more original than such an overused, tried-and-true chord progression.

Head on Straight is a picture of the band with its chops well intact, and there is some added ambition in Hart’s vocal work. Some excellent harmonies appear throughout the record; plus, Hart stretches out his vocal range on the title track and others. Jeff Russo’s chunky guitar riffs drive a number of tracks – it wouldn’t be a Tonic album without them – and Dan Lavery’s tight bass never gets lost in the mix, thankfully.

Although there is little bitterness on Head on Straight, there is still plenty of muscle. The opening track, “Roses,” as well as “Liar” and “Come Rest Your Head” will not disappoint fans of Tonic’s brand of heavy rock.. But the standout track on this album is “Irish.” Reminiscent of “Celtic Aggression” from Lemon Parade, this politically-charged, rock-infused, modern Irish folk song, is as intense as anything Tonic has ever done. The driving rhythm and shouted refrain, “I won’t die for England!” add tremendous force to the song. “Irish” is destined to become a live favorite.

Even if Head on Straight sees Tonic lacking originality at times and is occasionally weighed down by its high number of heavy ballads, the quality of the songwriting and musicianship keeps the album from ever getting boring. In many ways, Head on Straight sounds more like the band trying to earn new followers than actually growing musically. There are enough standout tracks here to please old and new fans alike, but not much new ground is broken.

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