(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Recording review - Black Joe Lewis, Electric Slave (2013)

Sonic change-ups muddle the band's direction

Some things never change. Oh, the record label can change. They can have the band streamline and change their name. They can even bring in a new producer to change the sound. With the opening grunge grind of “Skulldiggin”, Black Joe Lewis makes it clear that Electric Slave is not covering the same old ground of Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is! and Scandalous. The thick acid rock tones still have a taste of blues, but the raw, primal sound of titanic guitars is far from the funk-soul tribute vibe that they cultivated on their earlier albums. Evoking bands like Nirvana, Black Sabbath, and the White Stripes, it makes sense that they’d drop “and the Honeybears” from the band name.

In fact, it’s not until the third track, “Dar es Salaam”, that Joe Lewis remembers to pull out his James Brown impression. The short, declarative verse lines and the song’s soul roots thread back to the band’s older material, but the heavy beat is driven with a newfound psychedelic bass. The horn arrangement adds a touch of Afro-beat, but the guitar riff and Lewis’ singing are the main focus. The tension between the horns and the hard rock guitars makes this my favorite example of the band’s new direction; the coordinated brass accents defy the essentially loose feel of the rhythm section, but the combined jam feels locked into the moment. The only thing that hasn't really changed is Lewis’ slurring vocal style. It’s almost impossible to pick up on all the lyrics.

While there’s plenty of soulful blues and psychedelia, Electric Slave often draws on a thrashy punk attitude to make its musical point. The punches aren't always in synch, but the group doesn't seem too concerned with sonic consistency as long as they find the right level of nervous energy. I appreciate the pacing and it’s good to hear Black Joe Lewis broaden their sonic footprint, but the collection doesn't have a coherent flow to maximize the impact. It just doesn't make any sense to follow the trippy madness of “Skulldiggin” with the hyped up punk-a-billy of “Young Girls.” The low-fi garage production fits, but nothing else meshes. A few songs later, the group blends garage rock and greasy new wave for “Guilty”, which pairs the guitar with a baritone sax in a buzz-saw grind. A tenor coarsely wails over the top for the first solo, borrowing a trick from Romeo Void’s “Never Say Never”. It’s a great song but has little in common with soul funk of the next track, “Come To My Party”, which gets closest to the band’s earlier tunes.

The remaining constant across the band’s catalog is that the studio only captures a shadow of their stage performance. If Jim Eno's production on the first two albums suggested a sweaty soul band fresh in from the Chitlin' Circuit, then producers Stuart Sikes (White Stripes, Cat Power) and John Congleton (Explosions in the Sky, St. Vincent) evoke their own versions of brick echo, heat and jam-packed dives on this project. As Lewis hollers his way through each tune and the band pushes forward with abandon, it’s a cinch to imagine how much wilder it would be in real life. That’s a fitting reaction, given that Lewis intends Electric Slave as a commentary on society’s obsession with technology. Here’s to hoping that they order their set lists better than the track listing here.

{This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture}

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