Retro Review: BoDeans – Outside Looking In (1987)

I recently wrote about the awesome podcast The Session with Christian James Hand and I started to re-consider some older albums. I was curious to see if the albums, and the bands, have withstood the test of time.

With the 1986 T-Bone Burnett produced Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams and being voted Best New American Band by the readers of Rolling Stone, Wisconsin’s BoDeans had officially arrived.

To record their second album they headed west. After a failed effort in LA with Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, the frustrated band returned home to plan their next move. That next move was having Talking Head Jerry Harrison step in to produce their sophomore album. And in October 1987, Outside Looking In was released.

After all the praise from their debut, this sophomore album was not well reviewed. So, how does it fare 31+ years later? Pretty damn well. It doesn’t sound dated and it all sounds just as good now as it did then. Unfortunately, I’m less confident saying that about the rest of their catalog.

There were a number of bass players and drummers who drifted in and out of the band over the years, too many to list. But the band was always centered around two principals, Kurt Neumann and Sam Llanas. They would trade off lead vocals and harmonize as needed. On Outside Looking In, it all worked and sounded solid. Not revolutionary, just straight up solid rock music.

No shame in the solid rock game.

Neumann has the more traditional rock voice and Llanas has the nasally sound. Since the songwriting is credited to He & He (Neumann & Llanas), I presume they followed the Lennon/McCartney rule of whoever sang lead, wrote it. If that’s true, by my count, at least on Outside Looking In, Neumann is the more prolific songwriter. He’s arguably the better singer too.

Some of the album’s best songs “Dreams”, “Only Love”, “Forever Young (The Wild Ones)” and the demo-sounding “I’m In Trouble Again” are sung by Neumann. Which is not to say the Llanas songs are bad, they’re not. Thematically, the songs match. Lyrically, neither songwriter is re-inventing the wheel. They stick to tried and true universal themes like love, heartache, etc. It’s just that Llanas’ lead vocals are incongruous, and disruptive, to the flow and sound of Neumann’s. They jar you out of the flow of the album.

While I can appreciate the desire to operate as a band sharing lead vocals, the discord starts on this record and becomes more pronounced on future BoDeans albums.

Clocking in at 49:00, and peaking at #86 on the Billboard Album chart, I think the album would’ve been better served trimming some of that fat. But that could also just be my preference because you couldn’t get 49:00 onto one side of a 90 minute cassette tape!

BoDeans were often labeled a “roots rock” band (a moniker they didn’t like). But, like it or not, Outside Looking In does lean into that sincere “roots rock” sound. BoDeans fit right in with fellow earnest Mid-westerners Bob Seger and John Mellencamp. I mean, as far as labels go, you could do worse than “roots rock” and a band could keep worse company than Seger and Mellencamp. (Side note: former Mellencamp & drumming impresario Kenny Aronoff has recorded and toured with BoDeans since 1989.)

They’ve also claimed that Outside Looking In didn’t capture the bands “essence”. Having listened to a lot of their work, I would argue that, outside looking in, it comes closest to what they are. A great rock band. But to be fair, I don’t think any album could capture their “essence”. BoDeans were, and remain, an almost peerless live band. They are that good. That’s impossible to capture in a studio, although Outside Looking In comes close.

While promoting Outside Looking In they continued gaining commercial momentum and higher profile gigs. They opened for U2 on The Joshua Tree tour, and along with Peter Gabriel and U2, they worked on rock legend Robbie Robertson’s (The Band) first solo album.

After Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams and Outside Looking In they seemed, and sounded, as though they were ready for the big time. I saw them right after the release of Outside Looking In in Cincinnati and there were maybe 100 people. Six months later the same place was sold out. I would’ve guessed the next stop was headlining arenas.

But it didn’t shake out that way.

They continued recording, with varying degrees of success and quality. For me, the last really strong BoDeans album was their third, Home (until the T-Bone Burnett produced 2008 Still). After that, maybe my tastes changed, but something felt different. Like they were trying too hard. It kinda paid off because in 1994 they reached their commercial peak with the, at the time, ubiquitous “Closer to Free”. After that, it seemed as the usual silliness took hold (lawsuits, record label nonsense, etc).

What followed were mostly live albums and best of packages. In 2008, they re-united with T-Bone Burnett and released Still, and a welcomed return to their earlier sound. Then they did what bands do, record and tour.

In 2011, principals Neumann and Llanas had an acrimonious and public split. It’s gotten worse so if you’re anticipating a reunion, I suspect you’ll be sadly disappointed.

However, Kurt Neumann continues to record and tour as BoDeans. And maybe that’s as it should be.

The cognoscenti be damned, 31 years later, Outside Looking In is still a damn fine rock album. Good rock and roll is like a well-worn pair of jeans . . . and jeans never go out of fashion. 

A version of this was posted on on Febraury 6, 2019.