Thursday, 1 December 2016

Blackberry Smoke's 'Like an Arrow' - Album Review

While southern rock is a genre that never really progressed beyond it's 1970s heyday, Atlanta's Blackberry Smoke have been a shining light for the genre over recent years. The UK, and Europe in general, was a bit late to the party when it comes to Blackberry Smoke. The band's third album, 2012's The Whippoorwill, was finally officially distributed over here in 2014 when Earache Records, a label that found it's fame with extreme metal bands in the late 1980s and early 1990s, picked them up. While I think their first two albums are still not officially available in stores in the UK, the country really seemed to embrace Blackberry Smoke. Sales of The Whippoorwill were strong, and a UK tour later on in 2014 saw big crowds flocking to see the band up and down the country. The band's first two albums are easy enough to get hold of online, and fans readily purchased them. The first three Blackberry Smoke albums are modern southern rock classics, packed full of heartfelt songwriting that brings to mind a less-heavy version of Lynyrd Skynyrd and more refined version of the Allman Brothers Band. The band's perfect mix of hard-hitting rock and more gentle country influences made the band standout, and allowed them to appeal to a wide range of people. Wanting to capitalise on this more global success, the band's fourth album Holding all the Roses (which I reviewed here) was released early last year. It was a commercial success, reaching the Top 20 on the Official UK Album Chart, but it was musically less interesting than what came before. It was an enjoyable album, but I find myself returning to less and less as time passes. The big-name producer (Brendan O'Brien) did little to improve their sound, and I felt the more streamlined approach on Holding all the Roses actually damaged the impact of the material. After all, southern rock is meant to be a little raw and dirty-sounding! Just over 18 months later and the band are back again with their fifth album, Like an Arrow, which has been self-produced by the band this time. I thought that this might mean a return to the band's harder rocking roots, but to my disappointment the country element of their sound has been amplified further here. We in the UK will never realise just how big and popular country music is in America, as it has never had the same success here, so in some respects I can understand Blackberry Smoke's decision to push themselves more in that direction, but I have a feeling this is alienate a lot of their newer European fans. Like an Arrow is not a terrible album, and there are some really good songs to be found here, but it is definitely the band's weakest album so far and has quite a few moments are just plain bland. It has been a commercial success however, reaching number 8 in the UK album charts, but I wonder how many of those people who bought it have ended up having similar views to me?

The album starts off well with Waiting for the Thunder, a hard rock number that is worthy of their early albums. Charlie Starr's southern twang sounds as good as ever, and Brandon Still's hammond organ gives the song a great retro rock vibe. The song is a mid-paced rocker, with Starr and Paul Jackson's guitars mixing together well to play the driving, chunky riff. Still shines further with a great organ solo midway through the song, something which he has never had many opportunities to do previously, and it really helps to lift the song to the next level. A simple, but memorable chorus, is the icing on the cake. This is as rocking as the album gets however, with many of the rest of the songs emphasising the band's country side. That being said, Let it Burn is still a really solid tune. Still swaps his organ for boogie piano this time, which drives the song with jaunty melodies and rhythms. In fairness, Starr's voice is probably better suited to songs like this than the hard rockers, and he turns in a great performance here, while his fingers churn out country-infused blues guitar licks over Jackson's solid riffing. His solos is great too, and shows that country rock can still be exciting. For a country ballad, The Good Life is pretty enjoyable. Starr plays some pedal steel guitar here, which helps to amplify the band's country side, but the verses are largely uninspired. They plod along without any real attitude, but the chorus helps to rescue the song somewhat with some gorgeous vocal harmonies and pedal steel swells. The band have done this sort of song much better before however, and overall it feels somewhat flat. What Comes Naturally is a decent country blues stomp, with a suitably raw sound all held together by Still's laid back bar room piano playing. The Turner brothers, the band's rhythm section, switch to an upright bass and percussion for the song, which helps to the sparse and raw feel. Slide guitarist Benji Shanks guests on the song for some tasteful slide playing, which certainly adds a lot to song. The main problem with this song however is it sounds almost exactly the same Ain't Got the Blues from The Whippoorwill. The vocal melodies and rhythms are almost identical, and the vibe is the same. Running Through Time is bland. It is one of those songs you can hear over and over again and not be able to hum a single part of it as soon as it is over. Nothing about this song sticks, as the melodies are so generic and lazy. Some of the keyboard work is good however, with both piano and organ used throughout to good effect. The extended jammed instrumental outro fails to deliver to, with the guitar playing sadly not standout out at all. The title track is up next, and we hear a crunchy rock guitar for the first time since the opening song. The raw bluesy intro riff is strong, and the song definitely packs much more of the punch the previous few. The verses are fairly low key, with swirling keyboards and a prominent bassline, but the choruses really soar with driving hammond organ and strong harmony vocals. Like an Arrow comes in as a real breath of fresh air after three songs that fail to really excite, and shows what the band is like when they choose to rock. The sloppy, southern rock feel here is excellent, and really hits home what a great band they can be.

Picking up where the strong title track left off, Ought to Know is another enjoyable song that channels country rock legends the Eagles somewhat. The guitar work is subtly intricate, with lots of little riffs and melodies playing off each other well, and the chorus has a great smooth feel with great harmony vocals and washes of organ. The song is not a high energy number, but is just very well written and contains lots of singable melodies. The guitar solo is excellent too, and ends with Starr and Jackson harmonising well with lots of strong bluesy licks. Sunrise in Texas is the only song on the album credited as being written by the full band (Starr pretty much has the monopoly on songwriting for Blackberry Smoke these days), so I would have expected more of a hard rocker. Instead what we get is another fairly bland country ballad. I do like the way it slowly builds up however, starting with acoustic guitar chords, and slowly moving towards a more 'rock' arrangement with lots of retro organ sounds and warm electric guitars. The chorus is actually quite good, but again you just get the feeling that the band have done this before, and done it much better. Ain't Gonna Wait is an acoustic-led number, but it is one of the more interesting songs on the album. Starr plays mandolin and Still plays accordion, which helps to add some different sound into the mix, and the overall acoustic shuffle of the song is memorable. There are some great bursts of bluesy electric guitar, with a fairly lengthy solo in the middle that is packed full of feeling. Songs like this show that the band do not always have to rock to be at their best, but that creative songwriting and feeling is much more important. Workin' for a Workin' Man is the last of the album three proper rocker songs (yes, only three) and shows the band at something close to their best. It reminds me quite a lot of a modern Lynyrd Skynyrd song, with a simple big guitar riff and a good mix of rock piano and bluesy organ. The chorus is really upbeat, and shows the band firing on all cylinders with a great vocal display from Starr and some tight guitar riffing. A short, but sweet, solo adds a lot to song and it just makes you wish there were more songs like this on the album. Believe You Me is actually a fairly decent tune, but does not sound much like Blackberry Smoke! It opens with a funky-sounding riff, that owes quite a lot to bands like Chicago, and this vibe is carried on throughout. Bassist Richard Turner is the star of this song, with lots of intricate basslines to sink his teeth into, and his instrument is prominently placed in the mix to really bring the grooves out. The album's closing number, Free on the Wing, is a really nice ballad. Co-written by Still, the song is understandably keyboard driven with a bluesy piano riff driving everything. Genre legend Gregg Allman is featured here on vocals along with Starr. The pair duet on the verses and harmonise nicely on the choruses. This is easily the best ballad on the album, and manages to rank up there with some of their efforts from the past. It ensures the album ends on a high, and helps to wipe away the memories of some of the bland moments. Overall, Like an Arrow is an album that fails to live up to the high standards Blackberry Smoke have set themselves on previous works. While there are enough good songs here to make it worth owning, it lacks the spark and heart of their earlier works. I hope their next album is an improvement.

The album was released on 14th October 2016 via Earache Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Sunrise in Texas.

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