Friday, 6 March 2015

Blackberry Smoke's 'Holding all the Roses' - Album Review

While southern rock is not as popular as it once was, Blackberry Smoke are beginning to make some real waves with their music. With their feet in many camps - namely country and rock - the band have amassed a large fanbase since their formation in the year 2000. Despite the fact they have been around for nearly fifteen years, it is only relatively recently that the band have started to become popular here in the UK. Their first two albums: 2004's Bad Luck Ain't No Crime and 2009's Little Piece of Dixie have still never been officially released over here, but that does not seem to have put off their growing number of UK fans. Despite it's original release being in 2012, The Whippoorwill - the band's third album - was only released in the UK last year after the band were picked up by Earache Records. Earache Records are more known for their roster of extreme metal bands, with the label's first release being Napalm Death's groundbreaking grindcore album Scum in 1987, but the label has diversified somewhat since then. They were the ones who picked up on British blues rockers The Temperance Movement, whose debut album reached number 12 in the Official UK Album Chart two years ago. Earache must be rubbing their hands together now as, after that success, Holding all the Roses (Blackberry Smoke's fourth studio album) has reached number 17 on the same chart! This is, of course, great for the band. Considering half of their back catalogue is still unavailable officially over here, reaching number 17 in the charts is no mean feat. Clearly the band is on the up, as their successful UK tour towards the back end of last year shows. While I was not originally that struck by Holding all the Roses, it is an album that has grown on me over repeated listens. At first I was disappointed that it was not as good as Little Piece of Dixie (you can order it via the band's website) and The Whippoorwill, but it pays to stick with the album. It might not be as raucous or as spiritual as the band's earlier work, but it is certainly more calculated. This probably has something to do with working with veteran producer Brendan O'Brien who has worked with AC/DC and Bruce Springsteen among many others. His guidance has helped to trim some of the fat off here and there, which makes for a more commercial and focused album - but also means the band has lost some of their rawness and natural feel, which can be seen as a positive and a negative.

The album starts off with Let Me Help You (Find the Door) which is probably the most rocking song here. Frantic acoustic guitar mixes well with strident guitar riffs, which adds a surprising depth to the track. This is an uncomplicated piece, based around a tight guitar hook and Charlie Starr's forceful vocal delivery during the verses. Brandon Still's washes of organ during the choruses add an organic feel to the whole thing, and the song feels like a throwback to their earlier work. The album's title track is up next, and has a great up-beat feel to it. Acoustic guitars again dominate the sound, with some complicated little picking workouts really standing out. The country-twinged duel between guitar and fiddle (courtesy of Ann Marie Simpson) makes way for a more traditional rock guitar solo, before another go-round of the foot-stomping chorus is sure to get heads nodding. Living in the Song is a more reflective piece and has much in common with the material found on their last album. Starr and Paul Jackson's guitars lock in together well to create a loose, raw sound; and the highly melodic chorus is one of the more memorable ones on the album. This song is a really nice country rocker that, although a little cliché, is extremely enjoyable. Rock and Roll Again has a real Status Quo vibe with chunky power chord rhythms and a solid mid-paced tempo held down by rhythm section, brothers Richard and Brit Turner. Short bursts of honky tonk piano just add to this British rock 'n' roll feel to it, but some nice southern rock guitar slides take us back across the pond. Woman in the Moon is a ballad and, although nice, does not pack the punch of their earlier ballads. The washes of organ and the almost Alice in Chains-esque vocal harmonies give the song a slightly uneasy feel, which does work quite well in the song's context. Enjoyable, but not the album's best song. The album really gets back on track afterwards with Too High, which is one of the album's best songs. This is a proper country rock song that makes liberal use of acoustic guitars, some slide, and more fiddle that mixes really well with the guitars during the song's chorus. While the verses are a little down-beat, the song really is elevated by the chorus. Subtle mandolin lines are thrown in too, and all of it comes together perfectly to create something that is extremely simple, but a real pleasure to listen to.

Wish in One Hand resembles the album's opening song in some ways, as a crunchy guitar riff and a wall of organ really dominate this piece. This is another foot-stomping song with some good twin lead guitar sections and a strident chorus which sees Starr belt out some cynical lyrics. This is about as heavy as the band get, but it shows that they can still rock out when they have to. After a rather strange short instrumental piece called Randolph County Farewell we get to Payback's a Bitch. This has a similar feel to Sleeping Dogs from the band's previous album, and is held together by some excellent playing from Still. Whether it be subtle piano lines sitting behind the distorted guitar riffs, or some classic organ sounds - he does his best to offer something else to listen to. Keyboards are always a key element to this type of music, and he makes the band a better unit. The instrumental section mid-song is pure classic southern rock, and something Lynyrd Skynyrd probably wish they had written in the 1970s. Lay it all on Me is another uncomplicated slab of gentle country rock. Still evokes the great Billy Powell with some excellent piano flourishes, but the stand out melody here is Starr's vocals. He does a great job delivering this song, and also playing some nice pedal steel lines some places for that extra doses of country. No Way Back to Eden is a down-beat acoustic song which would have made a good album closer if it was not for the song that follows it. It is not the band's greatest song, but it has something about it that is enchanting. Starr's vocal performance is great, and the percussive feel of the whole thing means that you cannot keep still, despite the fact this is not an energetic piece. Fire in the Hole is the album's final track and makes sure the album ends on a high. It's another mid-paced rocker, but it has subtle power through some big guitar parts and some laid back piano that sounds like something from an early Led Zeppelin album with all the effects on it. The whole end section has a slight psychedelic vibe to it anyway, with conga drums being audible as well as regular drums, and a spacey guitar solo that really fits the mood. Overall, Holding all the Roses is a really solidly enjoyable piece of work from a band that is still on the rise. They are currently on a huge US tour, which I hope will raise their profile even more - which is should as their reputation as a live act is very good. I just hope that they will not forget about the UK, and will return again before long!

The album was released on 9th February 2015 via Earache Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Too High.

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