Wednesday, October 19, 2016

album review: 'like an arrow' by blackberry smoke

If you saw my Whiskey Myers review about a month or so ago, you knew this was coming. 

Hell, even if you didn't you probably would expect that I'd cover Blackberry Smoke's newest album, especially considering how much I liked their last album Holding All The Roses early last year. The compositions and grooves were tighter, their production was better than ever courtesy of legend Brenden O'Brien, and the lyrics showed the band taking southern rock tropes into fresh new directions that were a little more high concept, especially when the instrumentation got a little more experimental along the way. In short, it was easily Blackberry Smoke's best album to date...

And it also went to #1 on the US Country album charts. This is for a band, I should remind you, with no crossover singles or big radio push, and while you could give some credit to the release not facing huge competition, it also was another sign of the sea change that's been happening in country music, especially on the album charts. And keep in mind they hit #1 after leaving Zac Brown's Southern Ground label - they did this off an independent label, and that says a lot, especially in country. So when you hear that they're planning to follow it up with a record this year that they also produced themselves... well, I'm always cautious about this sort of thing, but I wasn't going to miss it, especially if they could keep up their momentum. So how does Like An Arrow shoot?

Well, here's the thing: this is one of those records that cut right through most of my critical faculties to hit a real sweet spot in terms of sound and style: it's 70s-inspired southern rock with modern texture and muscle with writing that's smart enough to back it up. That's just a winning combination in my books, especially considering how damn well Blackberry Smoke pull it off. Does it have the insane high points of Holding All The Roses, or is it as ridiculously tight as that record was? Arguably no, but I'd still say this is better as a whole, falling into the same category as that Gotthard album Bang! I covered in 2014, reaching the upper echelons of albums in 2016 on consistent strengths, great solos, and fantastic hooks all the way.

But it's also the sort of album that is so consistent in its strengths that it's kind of difficult to talk about, so for a change let's get my nitpicks out of the way. Like on Holding All the Roses I'm not wild about the more lo-fi pickup on the vocals, which is even switched to a compressed filter on the title track - I get why it's there, it just doesn't really need to be, especially with how much of a vocal powerhouse Charlie Starr is. And I'll also say there are a few songs that can run a tad long and don't quite evolve as much as I'd like, with the two examples being 'What Comes Naturally' and 'Running Through Time', although the outro on the closer 'Free On The Wing' does get close to this as well, although the contributions of Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers Band more than makes up for it.

And that's really it - seriously, I can't find a lot of problems with this record! And while I'll admit part of it is because I'm a sucker for this brand of southern rock that had prominence in the 70s and 80s, Blackberry Smoke approach this sound with a modern enough touch to never feel like a throwback, especially in the production. I was initially quite concerned that production in house might lead to missteps, but it's clear the band was learning from their previous producers because the sonic palette on this record is everything I wanted it to be. The acoustic guitars come through with plenty of rattling texture, the basslines are prominent and on songs like the title track and 'Ought to Know' do plenty of work, and while the drumwork doesn't quite get progressive, it still has well-balanced sandy texture to work with the country and blues tones. And then you have the keyboards, either the richer warble of organ or saloon piano adding just enough melodic embellishment to further drive these hooks. But what I really need to call out are the electric guitar tones, because Blackberry Smoke got the perfect balance, blend, and variety to round out this record. From the scuzzy, nasty muscle of 'Let It Burn', 'What Comes Naturally', the title track that gets heavy as hell on the bridge, the huge snarl of the solo on 'Sunrise In Texas', the sizzling melodic riff on 'Ought To Know' and the faster 'Workin' For A Workin' Man', all the way to the warbling tones on 'Running Through Time' or the higher tones of the solos on 'The Good Life' and 'Ain't Gonna Wait', which has such a great warm 70s flavour on the song I had to like it! And really, the solos are great too, mostly because Blackberry Smoke are smart enough to incorporate melodic elements running through the rest of the song into the foundations of the grooves that do wonders for the momentum. And that's not even touching on the - no joke - the country funk rock of 'Believe You Me'. I'm not going to say the experiment entirely works, but it's easily as loose and rough-edged as it would need to be, and when the track opens up to a little more fire it's got personality.

But let's get real here: the one consistent strike for me against southern rock are lyrics and themes... and yet just like Holding All The Roses, I think Blackberry Smoke deliver here. Part of this is that they avoid the vast majority of pitfalls where southern rock can stumble: no overbearing Southern pandering, no casual misogyny, and when the swaggering machismo does come in on 'What Comes Naturally', it's tempered by an acknowledgement that even as he gets screwed over, he's happy to have that fleeting connection. I think it helps that Blackberry Smoke speak with more age and maturity than most of their modern contemporaries, aiming a little higher in their writing as they have to toe the harsh line they set for themselves, and deal with the consequences. They might have their mischievous fun watching Nashville go up in flames on 'Let It Burn', but they temper that with 'Like An Arrow' and 'Ain't Gonna Wait' and the frustration of 'Workin' For A Workin' Man'. Sure, the concepts can feel broad - 'Believe You Me' basically operates on 'what goes around comes around', but as a song it's very much aware that any bits of wisdom he gets should be questioned, and it's what makes 'Ought To Know' and 'Running Through Time' a celebration of maturity knows best - sure, with time comes wisdom and foresight to know abandoning friends and going hard will eventually come back harder, but there is something to admire about that spark, mostly in the admission that they're all following the same throughline and thought process regardless of age. It's why 'The Good Life' has so much poignancy describing a hardbitten cowboy father passing down life lessons, or why 'Free On The Wing' works in the aftermath of a breakup - things didn't work out, they both might find happiness... or maybe not, he can't know. In an apocalyptic, uncertain world that is defined from the first song, the only thing you can hold onto is your principles and code... and even that's not guarantee, and as songs like 'Sunrise In Texas', any luck that brings you needs to be cherished.

In other words, this record reminds a lot of Texas country artist Cody Jinks' release I'm Not The Devil from earlier this year, and while I do indeed love that record, Blackberry Smoke's Like An Arrow takes that same broad focus and lends it stronger hooks, better solos, more texture and more firepower. It clearly draws from southern rock of the past, but it knows how to update it with energy, swagger, and sharper writing than I think anyone could expect. In other words, I can see this being among my favourites of 2016, because this is getting a very light 9/10 and the highest of my recommendations. Folks, if you like rock or country of any stripe, this is required listening, but even if you don't, Blackberry Smoke might change your mind with Like An Arrow - definitely check this out!

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