Blackberry Smoke: Holding All The Roses
The 21st-century kings of southern rock wear their roots on their sleeves for their fourth album, but still have a hell of a time doing it.
“Have no fear. We didn’t make a hip-hop record,” frontman Charlie Starr has assured us, having suggested that Blackberry Smoke “mixed it up a little” for this new album. While the thought of the Atlanta fivesome going all Jay-Z on us is hilarious, it’s definitely not happened. And why should they veer drastically left field? Blackberry Smoke do Dixie-battered rock’n’roll very well. We know this – they’ve done it for over 10 years now, turning rootsy southern sensibilities into catchy, rollicking beasts. Our reviews editor will almost certainly shoot me for writing this, but in this instance the old adage is sort of true: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. [You’re fired - Reviews Ed.]
Except something has changed here. Not in a radical from-farm-to-da-ghetto sense, but these tracks sound somehow more... important. Without being ‘self-important’, they’ve edged just a little outside the well-oiled formula that’s reaped them so much smiley, Stetson-throwing material so far. Their founding ‘yee haw’ factor is still there, but accompanied by a more sophisticated palette of light and shade.
Lest we forget, these Southern gents were raised around acoustically rooted music, along with a lot of church soul (alongside Skynyrd, ZZ Top etc). Starr grew up with a guitarist father who only really liked acoustic bluegrass. All of which seems to have filtered into Holding All The Roses – acoustic at heart, rock’n’roll in spirit.
Up to now, record label practicalities have prevented Blackberry Smoke from releasing as many LPs as they’d have liked. Three in a decade might not sound like much, but no question, they’ve had tunes coming out of their ears consistently: EPs, live cuts, stuff that just never got a proper release... Now happily teamed up with British label Earache – and with AC/DC/Bruce Springsteen/Aerosmith producer Brendan O’Brien – it seems we’re finally seeing the full scope of their musical arsenal.
Getting past the first track proved challenging at first, in so far as I couldn’t stop playing it. Literally. Let Me Help You (Find The Door) is stupidly addictive, in all its swinging, southern roll style. If you’re feeling low, it’ll restore your spirits. If you’re already in a good mood, you’ll be bloody flying by the end.
Worried that’s as good as it gets? Step up track two. It improves with listens, but the title track here is probably one of the best things the Smoke have ever done. An exhilarating rush of hand claps, keys and a propulsive acoustic hook which swirl into distorted crunch, racing violin lines and a triumphant electric flourish.
Where previously our neck hair has tingled at the sound of upbeat hits (as on Shakin’ Hands With The Holy Ghost), often it’s the slow numbers that create a magical effect here. Not that Blackberry Smoke haven’t trodden slow ’n’ meaningful waters before. Prayer For The Little Man, Sure Was Good... all lovely stuff. This time, however, we get the likes of Woman In The Moon, which hits an entirely new level of ‘rock’n’roll slowie’. Original, moody, melodic, spine-quivering strings – if previous ballads in their career seemed more like exercises in ‘sad song’ box-ticking, this feels like a profound musical evolution.
Elsewhere, pensive, essentially upbeat tunes like Too High (inspired, appropriately enough, by Starr’s old housemate who cooked methamphetamine in their basement) demonstrate the swingy, feelgood soul of their previous albums, with added adult textures. Part O Brother Where Art Thou?, part thinking man’s ZZ Top, part something newer altogether, it’s the sound of a band who’ve grown up, without becoming stuffy.
Having said all this, no Blackberry Smoke album is complete without at least one ‘doing it’ song. The Whippoorwill had Six Ways To Sunday (thought it was just a cute, bouncy singalong? Listen again: ‘I’m gonna love you six ways to Sunday/I’m gonna do it like it’s never been done/I wanna hear my baby speakin’ in tongues...’ Pure filth).
Now we have Rock And Roll Again, a bluesy, Once Bitten Twice Shy-esque boogie, and affirmation that so much of the best rock’n’roll is still about shagging. ‘She put the dirty in my mind again/She know just how to put the wind back in my sail/If I get slow, she lets me know, I gotta get up and go.’
So yes, a huge part of the band’s success still lies in the sheer joy at work. It’s just that this time it comes in more thoughtful guises. Wonderful major soloing and Allman Brothers-esque twin leads in Wish In One Hand, for instance, are all the more effective for the way they lead into the contemplative, stirring likes of No Way Back To Eden – which, like so much of this record, showcases the Smoke’s rich, acoustically minded instincts.
The bottom line then: if you thought Blackberry Smoke might be fun but lack depth, Holding All The Roses provides luscious, well-balanced evidence to the contrary. A highly more-ish record with real soul and class.