Remember the first time you realized that Creedence Clearwater Revival were not, in fact, the Louisiana-born, bayou-bred hillbillies that they tried so hard to sound like? Despite their repertoire of Southrn gothic gems—“Bad Moon Rising”, “Run Through the Jungle”, “Born on the Bayou”, “Green River”—the band was a product of San Francisco’s lush hippie music scene, and were about as “Southern” as Jethro Tull.
San Francisco rockers the Stone Foxes have a few things in common with Creedence. They’re a four-piece built around guitars/bass/drums/vocals; they’re from San Francisco; their songs are riddled with imagery and figures of speech that suggest the rural Southern life. And yeah, they’re about as Southern as Jethro Tull. Kings of Leon they ain’t, but so what? Oh, and they share another trait with Creedence too: they have some great songs.
There’s one in particular. “I Killed Robert Johnson” is one of those career-defining tunes that both puts a band on the map and may, ultimately, drag them under its own weight. Time will tell; for now, all we can do is listen to it. A ragged tale that undertakes to explain the mysterious circumstances of the bluesman’s death by alcohol poisoning in the 1930s, the song benefits from Avi Vinocur’s tortured vocals and the skillfull interplay of guitar, bass, and drums. Most of all, it’s catchy as hell and it rocks. What else do you need?
This isn’t to say that the rest of the record is a letdown, exactly, but when you’ve got a standout track like that one, the rest of the songs will be hard put to measure up. Opener “Stomp” choogles along something like Zeppelin’s “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” from III, while “Patience” is a pleasantly thumping rocker built around piledriver guitar chordage. “Young Man” and “Reno” are uptempo rockers featuring snaky guitar lines, while “Passenger Train” opts for the country-rock vibe, telling a tale of a train robber who grows to have second thoughts and gives the money back. Or something. It’s one of the weaker songs on the album.
The second half of the record holds up reasonably well, but is hampered by the fact that the listener is waiting for another “I Killed Robert Johnson”. “Through the Fire” is too slow and too long, while blues standard “Little Red Rooster” features some slinky slide guitar and, at four minutes, doesn’t last long enough. “Hyde and Pine” is another rocker—these boys know what they’re good at—that segues nicely to the album’s second highlight.
“Mr Hangman” is the Bears & Bulls’ other standout track, featuring murky, distorted guitars, honking harmonica and fuzzy vocals. If there’s such a thing as “swamp rock”, this is a prime example. “You know I love you but you ain’t worth the trouble”, Vinocur spits in the chorus, which can sum up any number of relationships, not all of which involve hangmen. It’s too bad the record doesn’t end there, as closer “Come Again” tries for a mellow-country, Dylan-meets-Jagger vibe. It’s not a disaster, but we’ve already heard better things from this band. Doubtless, we’ll hear more in the future.