Albums like La Chinga‘s Free Wheelin’ make me feel like my brain is splitting in two. On the one hand, I love a good ol’ rock n’ roll record as much as the next guy. You love Zeppelin, The Who and ZZ Top, too? Your lead singer actually sounds like Robert Plant? Man, let that retro flag fly free and proud, brother! You even have some tasty cowbell? Well say no more. You’re welcome in my ear canals any time you want. Yet on the other hand…
I just can’t shake the feeling that so much of this is something I’ve heard before…something most of us (if you grew up on classic rock from the 70s and 80s) have heard before. And look, before you ream me out about how there’s nothing new under the sun and everything is a derivative in some form or fashion, yes, you’re absolutely right. There are ways to take inspiration from what’s come before (and even go for a very similar vibe) and manage to pull it off. I’m looking at you, TILTS. Hot For Pizza, anyone? (Rest In Peace, Ken!)
But (and this is a huge BUTTE), pulling off that throwback sound without coming across like a straight-up copycat is a dangerous tightrope act and not everyone with the chops to play retro riffs can do it. Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes, well, he eats you. On Free Wheelin’, I’d say the La Chinga gang makes it out alive, but a lot of these tracks have teeth marks. “Gone Gypsy” starts things off solidly enough, kicking the doors open with a catchy guitar riff, followed by some nice call-and-response vocal lines in the chorus. For a group hailing from the Great White North (Vancouver, in case you’re wondering), they sure sound like they were born and raised down South.
Their basic song template is made abundantly clear here: kick out the jams by rocking out and shakin’ what your momma gave ya. “Mother Of All Snakeheads” repeatedly tells us to “get to the choppa!”, so props to them for the Predator shoutout. The song title itself appears to be a reference to the head of an international human smuggling ring. These guys are fun AND educational. It all makes for a fun time, but when you get to the mid-section of the album, you hit “Faded Angel” and “Mountain Momma.” Don’t get me wrong, these are enjoyable tracks, but you’ll be wondering when someone slipped in the lost songs of Bon Jovi and Led Zeppelin. Seriously, if you played “Mountain Momma” for me, sight unseen, and told me that Jimmy Page found it while uncovering long-lost Led tapes, I’d believe you without hesitation. Whether that’s high praise or a condemnation is probably in the eye of the beholder.
And for me, this is the real kicker of this whole record: this is only La Chinga’s second album. They are clearly some talented dudes. The fact that even the derivative stuff here is still fun is a testament to their songwriting skills. If they want to keep on playing this sort of rock, more power to them. But there are some really great flashes of original vibes here that I would love to hear more of in the future. The stuff I’m talking about is best summed up in the album closer, “The Dawn of Man.” It’s an epic, 10-minute spacey jam that, while sipping from the same fountain of 70s rock that informs the rest of the record, manages to sound vibrant and original. I want more of that.
So where does that leave y’all? By all means, give this a listen if you’re into any of the classic bands mentioned here. I guarantee you’ll hear a tune or two that you’ll like. But calibrate your expectations accordingly. If nothing else, listen to the final song. It’s a good’un.
– Jeremy Hunt