Monday, February 23, 2015

album review: 'holding all the roses' by blackberry smoke

You know, I don't tend to talk much about southern rock - and really, I'm a little surprised at that myself. Inspired by blues, country, and hard rock - three genres I do really like, it was most prevalent in the 70s from the country rock scene originally driven by the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd and from there it's been around for decades in scattered that do accrue a fair amount of popularity, spanning Tom Petty to Kid Rock to the genesis of sludge metal. As such, it falls into a bit of a weird niche, typically landing on classic rock radio or some of the harder country stations, never quite reaching the peaks of the 70s beyond scattered success from a few acts. You could almost argue that it's gone underground, but it's less that and more that like other genres such as bluegrass or grunge or some offshoots of punk, it's just not as popular as it was and ends up catering to smaller, cult fanbases.

That's not saying that there aren't some southern rock bands that are worth following. Case in point, Georgia band Blackberry Smoke. Affiliated with acts like the Zac Brown Band and Eric Church, if you're looking for an act that would define modern southern rock - a distinctive country twang matched with groove-heavy hard rock - Blackberry Smoke would be that band. And for the most part, they were a pretty damn solid band - the melodies were prominent, the guitar solos were great, Charlie Starr's vocals had real flavour, and with every record, the songwriting was steadily getting more nuanced and distinctive. If I were to pinpoint an early weakness on those first few albums, it'd probably be in some of the lyrics - not that they were bad for the genre, but that some of their material began to run together a bit. And like most hard rock, sometimes the sleaze could get a little obnoxious.

But their 2012 album The Whipporwill was their best yet, and I was curious to check out their 2015 record Holding All The Roses, especially when it managed to top the country album charts last week. And sure, country's been slow thus far this year, but to think that the album had enough coming from an independent label without a huge single tearing up the radio was promising, especially considering the album has notched some solid critical acclaim. So I checked it out - how is it?

Well, it's pretty damn good. Hell, I'd probably make the argument that over a decade into their career, Blackberry Smoke has probably made their best album yet with serious improvements across the board in all the areas where they needed it. As such, if you're looking for a slice of textured, bluesy southern rock bursting with ideas and smarter lyrics than you'd ever expect, Holding All The Roses by Blackberry Smoke definitely delivers, and it really did catch me off-guard in the best possible way.

Now the best place to start would be the instrumentation, and it's clear that the shift over to a new label has done the band some good, sharpened up their more indulgent tendencies in their song construction to something much tighter. Blackberry Smoke has always had a knack for melodic construction, and yet simply through quicker tempos and better writing means they can ram together fast-picked guitar solos and grooves with efficiency. Even better is the production texture, especially in the warm acoustic strumming and the solos, clearly highlighted with the bass and percussion adding just enough of a thicker foundation to add heaviness and the organ and keyboards adding some subtle but definitely appreciated harmonies. And while I do wish the bass had a little more pluck and prominence, I can't argue that the grooves on this album are some of the band's best. And there are a lot of instrumental moments I really dug - the acoustic accents, the explosive roiling solo on 'Let Me Help You', the phenomenal interplay between the fiddles and guitars on the title track, the traditional country composition paired with chunky guitars and rockability keyboards on 'Rock and Roll Again', the excellent fluttery bluesy slow burn of 'Too High', the thick smoky sizzle of 'Wish In One Had', and the rattling acoustic groove of 'No Way Back To Eden'. And then there's 'Woman In The Moon', which took many of the spacier, psychedelic sounds that are steadily growing more popular in country and pairing it with this thick, measured groove and waves of gleaming strings and a mix that wouldn't be out of place in 70s progressive rock! It's easily one of the best country songs I've heard this year so far, a good sign that Sturgill Simpson's influence is bleeding through, and one of the few places where the vocal layering actually works pretty damn well.

Yeah, if there's going to be a production issue I have, it's here, in that while the vocals are great, recalling a lot of vintage hard rock, the vocal pickup has a distinctive compressed texture to it that doesn't always fit with the rest of the composition. Sometimes it feels a bit buried, sometimes it just comes across a little flat, but especially when it's paired with a backing chorus that sound even thinner, it becomes very easy to ignore the vocals and focus on the guitars, which is plainly the intention of the production, especially considering how the textures on the solos are much more vibrant and sharp than many of the tracks as a whole, which does get distracting.

But I'll admit, it's a shame that the lyrics are being de-emphasized - and not just because of Charlie Starr's voice, but because his lyricism has improved by leaps and bounds. Previously my biggest issue with Blackberry Smoke is that they tended to tread some fairly well-established ground for southern rock, but they took steps to correct this as early as the first damn song where it's clear they're setting the tone to change things up. And not only has the technical writing gotten better in terms of rhymes and flow, but the band opts to go for broader, more nuanced, even more abstract concepts on this album that show a lot more maturity. Now sure, you're going to get songs like 'Payback's A Bitch' angled at an ex, or 'Whose Cheatin' Who' riff on 'Lay It All On Me', but for the most part even when the stories are here they're more complex. The meta-commentary of 'Living In A Song' as he watches what could have been a love story in music fizzle in real life, the kiss-off on 'Wish In One Hand' to a vain asshole trying to be the center of attention, most of these songs are rooted in themes of not exactly getting everything you're hoping for, but instead what you deserve, for better or worse.

And really, this underlying humility does a lot for this record on a broader level. Songs like 'Too High' face impossible challenges, and the surprisingly daring 'No Way Back To Eden' questions real redemption, implying that there are often scars from the past that don't always get washed away. From the point of view of Blackberry Smoke, we're all searching for that truth, trying to find that wish, a little damned but we know it and are still trying to get by regardless, even if it's not destined to work. It's one of the reasons I love 'Woman In The Moon' so much, where it takes that barely-defined journey, perhaps for vaguely defined love or fulfillment or purpose, and sketches out how daunting that hunt can be. And while I don't quite love the song 'Fire In The Hole' that ends out of the album, I do love the moral - the relationship it describes is rocky and frustrating, but that's life, and really, our protagonist wouldn't want to have it any other way.

In short, man, this was a great surprise. Outside of a few nitpicks I have, Blackberry Smoke dropped a insightful, well-written, genuinely tight southern rock record that keeps a solid clip and shows even more promise for the future. Not only does it show a band maturing, but refining and purifying their sound and showing they're capable to building off an incredibly solid core. For me, it's an easy 8/10 and definitely a recommendation, especially if you're looking for a damn fun, kickass country rock record. And for those of you who wonder why I've been hard on Brantley Gilbert and Eric Church before... well, records like these show exactly how damn great southern rock can be, and you should all definitely check this out.

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