In the liner notes for Chico—the debut full-length album from Milwaukee’s Herman Astro—the band members thank “all of our ex-girlfriends, without whom, none of this would be possible.” It’s that kind of winking, boys’ club mentality that permeates much of the album (there’s even a jokey hidden track, for goodness’ sake), yet the band is far from boorish and unlikable. Bluesy, jazzy, and funky in equal measures, Herman Astro may have all of the hallmarks of a jam band, but a well-honed sound, a crack rhythm section, and a strong vocal presence set it apart from the dorm-ready pack.
Give credit to a surprisingly mature and thoughtful M.O. Though a handful of Chico’s tracks are dance-ready anthems (see: the funky “Boilerplate”), the bulk of the album is a relatively introspective affair, given over to tales of broken-down relationships and their messy aftermaths. Opener “New Orleans” is slinky and subdued, while the lovely closer “Pennies And Dimes” is delicate and remorseful. Singer Zachary Pluer’s strong, soulful vocals are front and center throughout, calling to mind the distinctive growl of Blues Travelers’ John Popper. (Dig Pluer belting out “Are you going to find your own way?” on the standout “Tongues.”) The band’s ace in the hole, however, is drummer Cody Calderon, whose jazz leanings give the album a rich, vibrant hue.
Engineered by Shane Hochstetler at Howl Street Recordings, Chico sounds terrific, and maintains a steady pulse from song to song. Still, Hochstetler and the band aren’t afraid to toss in some brass during “Shoulder” and “Tell Me (What I Gotta Do),” and a guest spot from Crooked Keys vocalist Leah Kowalewski is equally welcome. The disc often seems in search of a memorable hook, though it remains a solid, fully realized introduction to a talented, affable band.
The group will celebrate the release of Chico Dec. 17 at Mad Planet.