DELAWARE COUNTY SUNDAY TIMES
Sunday August 7, 1988
Rumblers hit the big time
By Len Le Barth
Sunday Times Staff Writer
Finally the wait is over.
One year after being the prized object sought in an intense war among a dozen record companies, local rock and roll heroes Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers are set to prove themselves beyond the Philadelphia area. This is the week Rumble, the band's debut album on Columbia Records, hits record stores across the nation.
The jury --- record-buyers and reviewers --- will be returning a verdict in the case of a hot-shot young rock 'n' roller and his four musical mates who have delivered a no-nonsense 10-track effort that accurately captures the straight-ahead approach espoused by the band on Delaware valley stages since its origin.
Longtime fans will surely be delighted that Rumble includes four songs found on the Rumblers' 1986 independent release, and the Chuck Berry-ish "Workout", which was an early Conwell composition.
Produced by Rick Chertoff (Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual, Hooters Nervous Night and One Way Home), the album features the Rumblers' trademark blues-tinged, guitar-and-drums fueled sound but with a new focus on Rob Miller's keyboards (especially "Workout"), crafted harmonies and strong collaborative efforts between Conwell and several songwriters, including Jules Shear ("If She Knew What She Wants," a Bangles hit).
More importantly, however, is the fact that Conwell now sounds like a singer, not just another anonymous young punk who enjoys screaming and growling, although he does plenty of both on the promising debut.
Think of [Conwell] as George Thorogood's younger brother who apprenticed with the Ramones but thinks Charlie Parker was the greatest musician that ever lived.
Side One kicks off with a frenetic reworked version of "I'm Not Your Man," that starts with buzz-saw guitar chords, then finds Conwell doing an amusing (albeit initially annoying) "bad woman" rap reminiscent of Springsteen's live comments back when the Boss was into having fun.
Always a great driving-with-the-top-down-and radio-blasting tune, the new rendition, which has been on local radio for a couple weeks, is now even more gutsy, with the guitar heroics of Conwell and rhythm guitarist Chris Day complemented by Miller's heavy pounding of the ivories.
The three other tunes from the Rumblers' local-label record Walkin' on the Water --- "Love's on Fire," "Everything They Say is True," (both co-written by Conwell and Robert Hazard) and the title track --- remain virtually unchanged on the new vinyl, save for added vocal prowess and a more delicious thump-a-thump sound from the rhythm section of bassist Paul Slivka and drummer Jim Hannum. "Love's on Fire" was a great choice but "Do You Still Believe in Me" is conspicuously absent.
As far as collaborations go --- and Rumblers' manager Steve Mountain said to expect them --- the album's weakest cut, oddly enough, is "Half a Heart," the collective effort from Conwell, Chertoff, and the Hooters Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian. It's just too obviously geared for the commercial Top 40.
What should be on the radio soon is "If We Never Meet Again," a wonderful six-string dominated tune penned by Shear that finds the band harmonizing well on this hook filled love song. Conwell sounds like he believes the words when he sings "I know how just one smile/Can be planted like a seed/ And I want to do that for somebody else/The way it was done for me."
Shear and Cowell also combined for the bluesy romp, "Tell Me What You Want to Be."
The bass-heavy and keyboards-driven "Gonna Breakdown," co-written with area songwriter Marcy Rauer (who also collaborated on "I'm Not You Man") is the Rumblers' fine idea of a gospel stomp.
Over wailing guitar, Conwell imparts his spirituality:
Sing it strong and sing it loud
I believe I'm glory bound
Broken wings take up and fly
Kiss the ground and touch the sky
The surprise gem of the album is the first track on Side Two, which finds the Rumblers getting down and groovy on a tune ground-worked by funk songwriter/producer Kae Williams. Conwell cites Sly Stone as an influence on this song, but the gritty shuka-shuka guitars and mean vocals recall the best of the Stax-Volt hits of the Sixties. There's more than a liberal dose of Steve Cropper-like guitar licks sprinkled throughout the tune that could easily be a product of the Muscle Shoals studio.
For someone who's followed Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers progression over the years, it's impossible not to feel a dose of hometown pride about the band's national breakout. There's a temptation to gloss over the less-than-brilliant moments on Rumble, but Conwell and his music is nothing if not honest --- and that's why the band will progress far beyond this promising start.