If you’re a band creating a bluesy, garage rock sound, then you should be prepared for the comparisons to Jack White and White Stripes. Of course, it wasn’t surprising then that the first album by Band of Skulls brought plenty of these comparisons—from the heavy riffs to guitar tone, Band of Skulls tried to emulate the swagger of the White Stripes. Although more work needed to be done, the potential was there to fill in the void that the White Stripes left. Almost three years later, the band has finally released a second album, Sweet Sour, after going through plenty of internal band controversy. However, their new album can only best be described as a “sophomore slump”, maintaining few of the charms of the debut and building on many of its flaws.
Unfortunately, the album starts on a rough note. Opener and title track “Sweet Sour” introduces much of what is wrong with harder rock today. Its guitar riffs are heavy, but the soul of the music is lost in the sheen of the production. The strength of blues-based rock is in the raw strength of the guitars; by making the track glisten in the slickness of the production, Band of Skulls have tried to simultaneously create both a commercially viable and emotionally raw track. Regrettably, they succeed in neither.
The first half of the record is loaded with similar tracks. Many would best be labeled as hard rock by the numbers, as the band seems to coast through the album. The guitars crunch, leader singer Russell Marsden wails, and the drums pound. Yet, all of it sounds derivative, without the necessary hooks needed to make the record an enjoyable listen.
Luckily, the album does manage to pick up from the lackluster beginning. There are a few gems on the album, especially when the band decides to slow down the pace and turn down the amps. Bassist Emma Richardson takes over lead vocals on a few of the ballads. Especially of note are the harmonies between Richardson and Marsden on “Lay My Head Down”, easily the best track on the record. “Lay My Head Down” shows a more nuanced side of Band of Skulls; on this track and the other slower tracks, the band sounds both more sincere and honest. It is these raw emotions that Band of Skulls should be going for; only on the more tender tracks do they succeed.
In the end, Sweet Sour suffers from a lack of creativity and strange pacing. The inexplicable decision to put all of the harder tracks in the beginning and the slower tracks at the end is confusing at best. This combination creates an album that’s both monotonous in sound and surprisingly, soporific at the end, given the huge riffs the record begins with. A change in the order of the tracks of the album would help cover up some, but not all of the flaws of the album. But, what cannot be covered up is the generally weak and sometimes lazy songwriting. There are audiences that will enjoy Sweet Sour as a simple hard rock album, but most will find it lacking in creativity and hooks. This is not an awful album. Instead, its problem is that it is completely mediocre. Indeed, Band of Skulls shows that there is still much untapped potential, especially in Emma Richardson’s voice. Diversity, not the blunt force of hard rock, is the band’s strong suit—to improve, they will need to harness that force instead of trying to become the band that they’re not.