Album Review – Blackberry Smoke’s ‘Like An Arrow’

blackberry-smoke-like-an-arrow

A fool once said in 2016, “There are no cool rock bands anymore.” This makes sense to someone like Jason Aldean, who puts out bad pop music parading to be country. It also makes sense to anyone who just follows mainstream music because rock has been dead in the mainstream for a while. But bands like Blackberry Smoke can assure that rock is not only alive, but it’s still kicking ass. It’s just not on the radio. It’s out there in the independent scene and at concerts across the world, its natural environment far away from corporations and suits who wouldn’t know rock if it bit them in the ass. Blackberry Smoke is one of those bands that occupies a unique space, somewhere between country and rock, or put more simply southern rock. They probably don’t get the respect they deserve from either genre because they have a foot in each. But they should because they’re one of the best bands in music today.

Their last album Holding All The Roses was one of the best of 2015 and served as my personal introduction to the band. I’ve since dug deep into their library and from beginning to present they’ve consistently put out some of the best southern rock in the modern era. They started out with Zac Brown’s label Southern Ground before moving onto being independent and partnering with Thirty Tigers, which suits the band just fine. Their music and attitude has a very independent spirit about it. They also have one of the most passionate and dedicated fan bases in both country and rock. Their new album Like an Arrow debuts at Billboard at #1 on the country chart (second in a row), #1 on the Americana chart and #3 on the rock chart. Needless to say this is an album I was anxiously ready to dive into and give a listen. I can confidently say that once again Blackberry Smoke delivers excellence.

This album kicks ass from the moment you hit play on “Waiting for the Thunder.” The impressive roaring guitars hit you in the face like a ton of bricks. The lyrics scathingly take down powerful institutions that put down the men and women who bust their ass to get by. It’s a tornado of a song that just sort of leaves you in awe after hearing it. This may be one of the band’s best songs ever. “Let It Burn” can be interpreted as a dig at Music Row and it’s bullshit (something the band addressed on their last album) or any old small town across the country where people are fed up with the way things are run. Either way the lyrics hit hard and the guitars hit harder.

One of the more sentimental moments on the album is “The Good Life.” It’s about a father passing onto his son the advice his own father gave him when he was young. It’s a song that promotes the values of family, hard work and tradition. The heart behind the lyrics could bring a tear to your eyes. This is probably one of the most well written songs I’ve ever heard from Blackberry Smoke. “Running Through Time” is one of those songs that band makes look and sound so easy. I love the soulful touches added in throughout the song, with an organ sneakily playing in the background. That soulful influence shows up again on “Believe You Me,” a song about you controlling your own destiny. Again the guitar work blows me away and combined with the soulful touches it just makes the band’s sound even better.

There are some songs on this album where you just have to sit back and admire the instrumentation work, like on “What Comes Naturally” and “Ought to Know.” The latter especially has a memorable riff in the bridge. The album’s title track is about life and how sometimes we go high and sometimes we go low, just like an arrow. The guitar work on this song is extremely impressive and you’ll find yourself jamming along to this song with ease. Both the lyrics and instrumentation are so damn infectious and catchy. The same can be said about “Workin’ for a Workin’ Man.” Starr and the band sing about the grievances and pains of the workingman under the man. It’s a battle cry for everyone who feels short-changed at their jobs and at life. I mean look at lyrics like, “This bait and switch is a son of a bitch, it ain’t workin’ for a workin’ man, I got to shuck and jive just to even survive.” I find it impossible not to be hooked by lyrics like this because it’s not only catchy, but it can have real anger and power behind it.

One song that sort of sneaks up on you is “Sunrise in Texas.” On the first listen it may not stand out as much as other songs on the album do, but with more listens it just gets better and better. Charlie Starr delivers one of his best vocal performances here, just belting the lyrics with conviction and fire. Then you have the crunchy guitars in the bridge and you just have to marvel at this song. “Ain’t Gonna Wait” leans more country than rock and shows this band could go straight country if they wanted to and sound just as great. But why choose one genre when you can nail two at once? Gregg Allman of the iconic Allman Brothers joins Blackberry Smoke on the album’s final song, “Free On The Wing.” This song is about finding your way in life and saying goodbye to old stories to say hello to new ones. It’s appropriate to see Allman do a song with the band because Blackberry Smoke is the modern-day successor to the Allman Brothers.

Hands down Like an Arrow is one of the best albums of 2016. Blackberry Smoke continue to demonstrate why they’re amongst the best in both country and rock. What’s amazing is how flawless they make it look. But I probably shouldn’t be surprised. Blackberry Smoke isn’t your ordinary band that goes through slumps and bad albums. They consistently churn out some of the best music you’ll hear today. You can chalk up Like an Arrow as another fantastic album from Blackberry Smoke.

Grade: 9/10

 

Recommend? – YES

Album Highlights: Waiting for the Thunder, The Good Life, Running Through Time, Like an Arrow, Sunrise in Texas, Workin’ For A Workin’ Man, Let It Burn

Bad Songs: Nope!

Wallpaper: Nope!


Review – Down Home Band’s “Black Snake”

Down Home Band

In the city of Nashville, there are hundreds of independent bands and artists working their asses off to make it to the top and land that lucrative label deal that will allow them to do what they love for a living and make money while doing it. Jeff Estes, the frontman, guitarist and chief songwriter of the Down Home Band believes they are “the hardest working, most dedicated band” in the city. The seeds of this band began on an open mic night in Nashville and it’s been a whirlwind ever since for the group. Down Home Band is made up of Estes, Matt Jaggers (lead guitarist/vocalist), Stephen Hopkins (bass/vocals) and Griffin Criste (drummer). They describe the sound of their music as a blending of blues, alt country, folk rock and Americana (they refer to is as “American Rock”). They just released a new single “Black Snake” and I have to say it’s a pretty apt description.

“Black Snake” is a rollicking and rocking song that draws on several genres’ influences. The electric guitars roar throughout, especially in the final three minutes of the song. The arrangement feels very Allman Brothers-esqué, which is a good thing. The opening minute you can definitely hear the Americana/folk rock sound, which sets up the rocking part of the song well. It was wise to bring the sound down then rise back up after the minute mark to really set up the meat of the song. As for the theme of the song, it’s a little hard to find at first. The crux of the song revolves around the main line “they are the shepherd, you are the sheep, I am the wolf.” I’m sure the band has a certain theme in mind here, but I really think it’s open enough that it could be interpreted in multiple ways by the listener. It could be comparing a man, who doesn’t have the best intentions (the wolf) with a woman he’s after (the sheep) with the people convincing her not to go with him (the shepherd). Some may not like such a loose theme, but I think it works here.

The Down Home Band are certainly a talented group and their hard work shows in “Black Snake.” It’s a southern rock type jam that I think many listeners can appreciate and enjoy listening to. The rough edges of the song give it good character and the instrumentation is just flat-out great. Even though I enjoy the rough edges, I think the sound could use just a touch of polish and could be honed in just a little to make it even more appealing. So while I don’t think Down Home Band reaches their full potential on this song, I think they have all the tools to stand out and be a great band. “Black Snake” is definitely worth checking out and I think the band’s “hardest working” moniker is backed up on this single.

Grade: 8/10

Review – A Thousand Horses’ “Smoke”

Smoke

With every new year, there’s always going to be new country acts emerging. It’s still quite early in 2015 and we’ve already been introduced to some new acts. One of them is band called A Thousand Horses. They’re signed to the major label Republic Nashville and they’re releasing their debut album Southernality on June 9. The band consists of Michael Hobby (lead vocalist), Bill Satcher (lead guitarist), Zach Brown (guitarist/vocalist) and Graham DeLoach (bass/vocalist). They describe their sound as a combination of southern rock and country (as they mention on their site, they say Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers influence their sound). Their lead single “Smoke” has rocketed up the Country Airplay chart quickly, placing 26th on last week’s chart. This surprising surge in popularity has certainly caught my attention, so let’s take a look at “Smoke.”

Right from the beginning of the song you can hear the steel guitar and the mandolin, which provides a nice sound. This is pretty much consistent throughout the song. It’s a nice sound, but it’s also very safe and radio friendly. There isn’t an edge at all. No risks are taken instrumentation wise, which isn’t surprising with a lead single. When it comes to an act’s first single they want to play it as safe as possible to appeal to the largest amount of people possible. So I completely understand this. With that being said though, it makes for just a decent performance.

As for the lyrics in this song, they’re also pretty safe. Hobby sings about a woman in his life, which he compares to smoke. Here’s the chorus lyrics, which are repeated ad nauseam:

She’s smoke

I pull her in nice and slow/She’s a habit that I can’t let go

Blowing rings around my heart

Once she stole, watching her sway and glow

It’s killing me and I know/I can’t stop her once she starts

She’s smoke

These lyrics aren’t terrible and at least it isn’t another song comparing a woman to alcohol. Then again these aren’t great lyrics either. Just like the instrumentation these are very safe, in-between lyrics that won’t offend anybody nor make people cry “bro country.” Basically what this song is saying is the man in it is addicted to this woman and can’t her out of his head. It’s a simple, straight forward love story. At least that’s what the story that is being told by just listening to the song.

As for the music video for “Smoke,” which you’ll see below, it tells a slightly different story. In the music video the band hits a club. And in this club there’s a woman who is on stage stripping, which has caught the eye of lead vocalist Hobby. Oh and one more thing. The name of the stripper is “Smoke,” as you’ll see in the video she walks into her dressing room and there’s a sign that says “Smoke.” So what I thought was just a harmless love story before is now a story about a man becoming enamored with a stripper named “Smoke.” Now music videos don’t have an effect on my grades of songs, but it’s really hard to shake the image this video gave me of this song after watching it. I don’t think Florida Georgia Line has even put strippers in their music videos.

If I was grading this music video, I would give it a 0/10 because it’s unoriginal, dumb and once again a country song objectified women. These are the kind of things that impede mainstream country music from moving forward. But fortunately for A Thousand Horses I’m only reviewing the song. It’s certainly better than the video, but this song doesn’t leave me in awe like the band was with the stripper in the video. It bores me more than anything and at best makes neutral background music. I think this band’s talented and has potential. They’re certainly capable of much more. I hope their album is better and I’ll certainly give it a chance. But when it comes to “Smoke” it’s just meh for me. This is just another average country song.

Grade: 5/10 ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Album Review – The Doobie Brothers’ Southbound Sees Current Country Artists Tackle Classic Hits

Classic rock artists having current country stars cover their hits seems to be a new trend. This all really began, if memory serves me correctly, when Lionel Richie put out an album of current country artists covering his biggest hits. It went over great and Richie has even said he has thought about doing another album like that one. This year alone we’ve had a tribute album to The Allman Brothers, a terrible Mötley Crüe tribute album and mainstream country artists even attempted to cover the great Merle Haggard’s greatest songs. Now we have The Doobie Brothers doing that exact same thing. Did you really think The Doobie Brothers just showed up at 2014 CMA Awards for nothing? All about business and promotion, baby. Personally I enjoyed their performances, although I thought Jennifer Nettles brought them down a little with her terrible dancing. Nevertheless, let’s go through another classic rock tribute album done by mainstream country artists. It can’t be as bad as the Mötley Crüe one, right?

The Best Songs on the Album

Well I’ll tell you right up front that this is better than the Crüe tribute album, but that isn’t saying much. There are some definite bright spots on this album. The Zac Brown Band fits perfectly with “Black Water.” Southern fried country is Zac Brown Band, so of course they do great with a southern roots rock song. Keep in mind this review is slightly different from normal reviews because I’m judging more of how the artist covers the song and the choices made by production rather than the song itself. The signifier of a great cover to me is if it does justice to the integrity of the song and yet makes it feel fresh. The Zac Brown Band nails both of these aspects. They already did justice to their cover of The Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider” earlier this year with Vince Gill and they deliver again with this Doobie Brothers cover.

The choice of Sara Evans for “What a Fool Believes” is a fantastic choice. It’s higher pitched and perfectly suits a dynamic female voice. This song is a great reminder of how great Evans’ vocals are and how I wish she was still on radio. It’s evident The Doobie Brothers and Evans have good chemistry, making for a great cover. You may not like this song and I understand that completely because it could get annoying after several plays. But give credit to Evans doing a grade A job with this cover. You’ll never believe who else does a great job on this album: Tyler Farr. He covers “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me)” and hits a home run. The heavy rock influence suits Farr’s rough voice and style, which makes for a great cover. Farr makes it his own and still pays homage to the sound of the song. He stands out and shines beside The Doobie Brothers. His vocal range is stretched a little, but he makes it work. I want to see more of this Farr and never again want to see the “Redneck Crazy” version of Farr.

“You Belong to Me” is covered by an artist I had never heard of before. Amanda Sudano Ramirez covers this song and does a fantastic job. She is one half of the indie duo Johnnyswim and is the daughter of the late “Queen of Disco,” Donna Summer. While her inclusion on an album of country artists is interesting since she’s more of a folk/blues singer, she really stands out. Her voice is great and I want to hear more of her music personally. Vince Gill plays guitar on this song and does phenomenal as always. The other song that stood out to me is Charlie Worsham covering “Nobody.” There’s a separate introduction to this track, giving it a special feel and for good reason Charlie Worsham does a great job with The Doobie Brothers on this song and it’s great to see an underrated artist like Worsham get this special attention. This is how a cover should be done and it’s a good way to close the album.

The Worst Songs on the Album

While there were these bright moments, there were also some downright puzzling moments. Take for instance “Long Train Runnin’.” The choice of Toby Keith for this song is at best puzzling. Really it’s a bad choice. This song is another higher pitched song that suits a female artist more so than a male artist, especially a male artist like Keith who doesn’t have dynamic vocals. I would have picked Carrie Underwood to cover this song. Keith just sounds so out-of-place and is stretching his vocals too far at times. Huey Lewis sounds great on the harmonica at least.

There’s one point in this album where there are three straight songs where I have the same criticism with each of them. When covering a song with the original artist it’s important not to get buried by the original artist. You should shine along side them and make the song sound new. Love & Theft does not do this on “Takin’ It to the Streets.” Casey James does not do this on “Jesus Is Just Alright” and Brad Paisley doesn’t do it on “Rockin’ Down the Highway.” It feels like they’re just in the background and contribute absolutely nothing to the song. They are all forgettable covers and you won’t remember them tomorrow.

This is all leads to perhaps the most puzzling choice of artist on the entire album. I would say “South City Midnight Lady” is the most serious toned song on the album. Who do they pick to cover it? Jerrod Niemann, the same artist who put out a song called “Donkey” and rapped alongside Pitbull earlier this year. This is a stupid choice, despite the fact Niemann does okay with the song. Just like those three songs above though, it’s not very memorable. The performance is dry and boring.

The Rest of the Album

Blake Shelton and Hunter Hayes cover “Listen to the Music.” This is an interesting duo to cover this song. Then again they decided to take a more pop country approach with this upbeat and memorable song, so it makes sense to put Blake and Hayes on this song. It was also a good move to put Hayes just on guitar and not have him sing. It would’ve been funny hearing him attempt to cover this song. The original is still better, but this isn’t a bad cover. It’s just a little too generic for my taste. Chris Young covers the upbeat “China Grove.” Even though I find Young’s voice to sound a little generic at times, I think he does a solid job covering the song. It seems to fit his comfort zone just right and Young doesn’t sound like he’s out of place at any point. He also reminds everyone that he has the chops to sing more dynamic songs and not the boring pop country he has put out recently.

Overall Thoughts

This is pretty much what I expected out of The Doobie Brothers’ Southbound album. There are some good moments, bad moments and boring moments. Most of the time cover albums prove to be pretty pointless from a quality and artistic standpoint. This is nothing but a quick cash grab. If I want to hear these songs I’ll go listen to the original versions, not bastardized versions with Toby Keith or Love & Theft. Cover albums work in when the artists actually collaborate together to create great, new versions of the song. The most recent example of a good cover album would be Mary Sarah’s Bridges earlier this year. You could tell Sarah actually spent a good amount of time with these artists and it shined through in the final product. Other than Bridges, I would say this is the best cover/tribute album I’ve seen put out by mainstream country music this year. Not a high bar to hurdle, but there was still a few covers worth listening to on Southland. I would recommend this album only if you’re a hardcore Doobie Brothers’ fan or if you like mediocre cover albums.

Grade: 6/10