Lots of music critic jargon gets recycled when reviewing Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. Words like “revivalist”, “retro” and “traditionalist” get used and reused so many times that the critics would single-handedly save the earth if these terms were, say, aluminum cans. And then there are the comparisons, of which there are many. James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding. The list goes on and on, but that’s one kick-ass list. If you had to be the repeated victim of critical laziness, those are the comparisons you’d want to see over and over.
Truth is, though, this recycling of terms and comparisons has less to do with the critics and more to do with Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears themselves. With no true peers, they require reference points to describe, and all of those references point to the past. Yes, they do sound a lot like the aforementioned acts at any given moment on their albums. Lewis possesses the sexual bravado of Brown, the primal intensity of Howlin’ Wolf, the fiery soul of Redding. And yet, for all the comparisons they invite, the Honeybears don’t do mere pastiche.
No, the difference between Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears and other recent acts that get shoved into the “revivalist” category is that this gritty band from Austin isn’t interested in updating any sound. An artist can garner lots of praise doing precisely that sort of thing, essentially reinventing modern music by infusing it with elements of past eras. Amy Winehouse, Adele, Duffy—lots of cred can be won with a little knowledge of classic blues and R&B—or by enlisting the help of a producer with such knowledge. But listening to Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, you get the feeling that they simply don’t give a shit about paying due homage to their musical forebears.
So what you get on Scandalous, the latest offering from Lewis and his crew, is not an attempt to blend past and present, to allow the two to coexist in a unique, refreshing manner. No sir. Instead, you get a bunch of guys who have the history of American music burning red hot through their veins, and the only way they can get some relief is by sweating it out in song after song. This is a musical exorcism, if you will, and it’s not for the easily disturbed.
Indeed, Lewis sings like a man possessed, whether he be singing about sex or … well, mainly sex. “Booty City” is a party chant about—what else?—booty. “Mustang Ranch” is a lovely little story in which the narrator and his pals make a pilgrimage to the infamous brothel to get their “ham glazed”. “She’s So Scandalous” is about being obsessed with a woman whose monogamy skills leave a lot to be desired—in more ways than one. “Messin’” is pretty much about the same thing.
But if topical diversity is your main concern when listening to Scandalous, you’re missing the point entirely. The main draw here is the music, and just how deft Lewis and the Honeybears are at hopping from one genre to another, sometimes within the space of a single song. “Mustang Ranch”, for example, starts out as talking blues, only to explode into a full-on boogie shuffle. “Booty City” is nasty funk, anchored by a tightly-syncopated drum beat and collapsing bass line. “Messin’” is twangy blues that flirts with country, much like the Stones’ “Sweet Virginia” (Lewis even has that skanky snarl in his voice). And “She’s So Scandalous” is built atop a repeating guitar riff that wouldn’t sound out of place in a porno.
All of this genre hopping works because the Honeybears play it tight and straight, never trying to improve upon something that is perfect to begin with. Much of this has to do with the production, supplied by Spoon’s Jim Eno. The 11 tracks here sound like they were recorded in a small, sweaty club or on a front porch somewhere in the Mississippi Delta. That is, Eno realizes a beautiful thing when he hears it, and he doesn’t doll it up unnecessarily with overdubs or effects. And if you’ve had the good fortune of seeing Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears live, you know they don’t need any such dolling up.
Yes, if you’ve ever found yourself shaking your head at what passes for modern R&B, blues and soul these days, wondering just what the hell happened to the primal groove, the stanky strut, the carnal possession of it all, Scandalous is the soundtrack to your next party. In fact, after giving it a spin or two, you might just throw a party in its honor. Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, no doubt, would approve.