The Black Lillies raised the funds for their fourth studio album, Hard to Please, with the help of Pledgemusic. The goals were met, the studio time was booked, a producer was hired, then life threw the band a curveball: two of the band members left, leaving the remaining three in a tight spot. Frontman Cruz Contreras ultimately decided to move forward with the recording as scheduled and wrote the album in two weeks. Session players Bill Reynolds from Band of Horses on bass, Matt Smith on pedal steel and Daniel Donato on guitar joined the Black Lillies (Contreras, Bowman Townsend on drums and Trisha Gene Brady on vocals) for the recording of Hard to Please alongside prouder Ryan Hewitt.
The album kicks off with the title track, a rocking number about a man lamenting over the fact that his woman is impossible to please. The guitars play a key role in the instrumentation with Contreras singing lead while Trisha Gene Brady provides some great harmonies. The Black Lillies fuse country and rock together seamlessly throughout the album, and “That’s the Way It Goes Down” is a prime example of that fusion. A song about moving forward and learning from the mistakes you make, “That the Way It Goes Down” has a driving production that builds to a roaring guitar solo.
The Black Lillies explore love on the next few songs. The bluesy, gospel-like “Mercy” finds two people who are shamelessly in need of one another. Contreras and Gene Brady sing the song as a duet, brilliantly using both singers’ vocal power to deliver the emotional punch of the song. “The First Time” is a mid-tempo heartbreak song where Trisha takes the lead on vocals. Here she sings of consistently falling for a man who continues to let her down and leave her heartbroken. “The First Time” uses what appears to be the pedal steel within a rock setting, and it sounds great out of its usual country element.
“Bound to Roam” chronicles a dysfunctional couple in their last moments together. Contreras sings as a rambling man, Willy, who believes he’s bound to roam and travel, while Gene Brady sings as his love, Sarah, who doesn’t want him to leave her alone and heartbroken. Sarah uses Willy’s devoted love to her to manipulate him into staying by her side forever. It’s a story you should hear for yourself, aided by a great acoustic country production. The Black Lillies sing of a happier love in “Dancin’.” Fittingly, it’s an upbeat country dancing number loaded with steel guitar and a driving guitar and drum beat. The song details a couple who look to reignite their passion and love by going out dancing: the one area in their life where they constantly shine together. It’s a well done song from the lyrics to the production, but I feel like “Dancin'” is too long as the outro of the song gets rather repetitive.
Contreras sings solo in the acoustic “Desire.” He holds onto the love and desire he feels for the one that stole his heart, even he’s been left alone and broken. The country fans reading this will love the steel guitar solo found in “Desire.” The music gets cranked up on the rocking “40 Days”, a song influenced by the band’s first national tour where they played 40 shows in 40 days. It’s the ups and downs of life on the road with an old-time rock n’ roll production led by a piano and electric guitars.
Cruz Contreras wrote “Broken Shore” about his grandfather, who fought in Iwo Jima. This country rock epic is led with a mandolin with heavy guitars and pianos chiming in at various times. “Broken Shore” is a song where the lyrics introduce the settings and feelings of our character, but it’s the production that tells the story. The production rises and falls, moving from simple to chaotic, keeping a song with few lyrics moving forward. It’s another one of those songs that needs to be heard to fully appreciate what The Black Lillies accomplish with it. Hard to Please ends with “Fade.” This piano ballad steadily builds as Contreras sings to his love not to fade away from him. The relationship is facing a rough patch and he doesn’t want to see them give in to the pressure of the situation.
The Black Lillies have accomplished a lot within their short, six-year lifespan. Their previous album, Runaway Freeway Blues, was an Americana staple back in 2013, and it’s hard not to consider Hard to Please in the same way. In spite of all the challenges the band faced before going into record the album, The Black Lillies still deliver a great Americana album with perfect fusions of rock and country with some blues and gospel influences splashed in. Even with songs that are decidedly rock and decidedly country on the same album, every song has a place and purpose on Hard to Please.