29 April, 2010

Black Rock

Joe Bonamassa's latest album, Black Rock (released about a month ago), continuing Joe's partnership with producer Kevin Shirley, has a bit of a world flavor, while not straying too far from Joe's blues rock foundation. It was recorded in Greece, which inspired the mood of the album. From the liner notes:

"Our mandate was clear - first instruction: play loud. Second: play reckless. Third: channel the music that inspired you to pick the damn thing up in the first place. Fourth: have fun with it. The result is an album that is the product of good times, reckless abandonment and the environment in which it was recorded."

Sounds like a raucous good time, right? As one could expect from any Joe Bonamassa album. Even so, the album didn't hit me the first time I listened to it, unlike when I first listened to The Ballad of John Henry. This is likely due to my ambivalence towards "world" music. Still, as could be expected, a few more listens has warmed me up considerably to the material on this album, and it fits snugly into Joe's constantly growing catalog of good music.

The album opens with an upbeat track, Steal Your Heart Away, penned by Bobby Parker, who played the riff that Led Zeppelin surreptitiously "borrowed" for the guitar part to their song Moby Dick, once upon a time. After a couple more steady rockers, including one with a title - When The Fire Hits The Sea - that definitely makes me think of Greece (Greek fire, anyone?), we get Quarryman's Lament, which recalls the previous album's Story of a Quarryman, except with a heavy coating of that world flavor.

Following that is Joe's third cover of a Jeff Beck Group song (the first two being Rice Pudding and the magnificent Blues Deluxe) - Spanish Boots. Joe's version sounds great, a heavy rocker, and I'm inclined to say that I like it better than Jeff Beck's! Granted, Joe Bonamassa is one of the better cover artists I've heard (though not to downplay his equally impressive writing ability), but with cover songs, it's always going to be a case of hit and miss. Joe just happens to be a star hitter, and this one counts toward his total.

The album then rests with a Leonard Cohen song, Bird on a Wire, the first truly laid-back song on the album. It's a slow acoustic piece, with a heavy dose of world-style accompaniment. If you like those kind of songs, you'll probably like it. I, however, live for the higher-energy songs. Speaking of which, the next song is an Otis Rush number titled Three Times A Fool - a standard blues. Following that is the track that guest stars Joe's inspirational mentor and friend (and blues legend) B.B. King, a song called Night Life. Joe and B.B. trade off licks and vocals through the song, and it's a very B.B.-flavored track, and a nice addition to Joe's recorded legacy. You knew it was just a matter of time before they got together in the studio.

The next song, Wandering Earth, is a slow paced bluesy rocker with a melancholy theme - just my style. Look Over Yonders Wall picks up the pace a bit, then it drops back down a notch for the worldly (and acoustic) Athens to Athens. Then we get hit with what is probably my favorite track on the album - Blue and Evil, which is just like it sounds. It's got a mean, heavy riff, and a persistent recurring chorus of the song's title. The song opens and closes with an acoustic line that gives it texture, when placed in stark contrast to the electric energy of the bulk of the song. If you can't tell, I like it a lot. The album then finishes with an acoustic Blind Boy Fuller song, Baby You Gotta Change Your Mind. It's a good blues, and while the almost quirky acoustic mood is not my style, it's a nice way to close out the album on a bit of a mellow note.

To reiterate, as a piece, Black Rock isn't my favorite Bonamassa album (and honestly, they can't all be), but it's a solid effort with a lot of substance, and though the world flavor isn't my bag (others may respond significantly better to it than I), I think it's good for Joe to continue to experiment, to keep his material from sounding all the same. Although, there is a striking character to Joe's music that manages to keep it all internally consistent - even his covers take on a "Joe Bonamassa" feel. Considering the importance for a guitarist and a musician to create a unique style, I'd say this is a good thing. In any case, I like Joe Bonamassa's style, and as long as he continues to make music, I'll be listening.

For clarification: everywhere that I've used the word "world" above, you can probably interpret that to mean the addition of instrument(s) not commonly found in a rock band. :p

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