Picks and Pans Review: Axe to Grind
Guitar prodigies Jonny Lang, 16, and Monster Mike Welch, 17, can come across as seasoned beyond their years—or like kids straining hard to sound adult. Lang is more subtle, playing tasty, understated licks that, like his expressive, radio-friendly singing voice, belie his youth. He benefits from savvy arrangements of varied, well-chosen material—blues chestnuts, original tunes written by (and in two cases with) collaborators. The sleek production on Lie to Me (A&M), from former Prince sideman David Z, deftly plays to Lang's strengths, supporting but not overwhelming him with an unobtrusive gloss. By not trying to sound like either a guitar god or a Mississippi cotton-field laborer, Lang comes up with a pleasing blues-pop.
Welch, on Axe to Grind (Tone-Cool), grasps a wider range of stylings, including slide and jump blues, and occasionally displays a welcome light touch, notably on the crafty instrumental "The Elkmont Stomp." But Welch isn't ready to be the star of the show and would be better served by laboring in someone's band and mastering the subtleties inherent in all great blues. Still, the possibilities are vast for someone of his prodigious abilities if overexposure—this is his second album, and Dan Aykroyd has touted him on his nationally syndicated radio program—doesn't damn him.
Listening to these precocious kids run up and down the guitar neck and growl out adult-themed blues is a bit like watching a Little League phenom risk destroying his arm by breaking off nasty curve balls. Just because you can do something isn't always reason enough to do it.