There’s a central problem that arises when a rock subgenre moves from the underground to the mainstream. No, it’s not the cliché spewed by those sour hearts that the artists who pushed their work to the surface “sold out” or anything of that nature; it’s that when a musical type becomes so en vogue, it winds up mined to death, watered down and redundant. The garage-rock-blues revivalism popularized by the White Stripes in the late ‘90s/early 2000s, and more recently inherited by the Black Keys and others, is in that predicament now. There is, after all, only so much one can do with the blues-rock paradigm to still fit into the field, and it’s this issue similar bands such as the Stone Foxes are facing.
On Small Fires, the San Francisco quartet’s third album since 2008, the Stone Foxes attempt to bring something fresh into the blues-rock mold, to stand on their own merits and avoid go-to comparisons to their better-known contemporaries. The degree of their success is marginal.
The album has a strong opening with the voodoo stomp braggadocio of “Everybody Knows”. Don’t let the name fool you; it’s not a Leonard Cohen cover. It is, however, the type of song you’d expect to hear in a sweltering Deep South juke joint. “Everybody knows, everybody knows / I’m a madman with a telltale heart”, Shannon Koehler belts out, a railroad-whistling harmonica and crunchy guitars backing his strut across the stage. The second cut, “Ulysses Jones”, tones it down with a more pulsating tempo, bubbling up from the mire with menace to match that of the song’s protagonist, a man with “blood-locked bones and a heart of steel”. His defiant refusal to move from his land, thereby throwing a stick in the spokes of some greedy developers, and his explicit statements to this effect are bolstered in the refrain by a choir of gospel-twinged backing vocalists. It’s a powerful, rousing song of individualism and giving the middle finger to corrupt powers-that-be. Unfortunately, after these two infectious cuts, the album sputters out of fuel.
While the Stone Foxes continue to do everything technically correct for the remainder of the record, there is something missing. There remains the tight interplay of the instruments and harmonics between their tones, indicating the tunes were crafted with deft workmanship. The presence of an electric organ and other manners of keyboard does set their sound apart, acting as the firmament from which the frenzied guitars and hammering drums rain down. As you listen more and more, trying to discern what it is that’s absent, it hits you — the feeling of authenticity or any challenge to their chosen subgenre’s archetype. There is a sense of playing it safe, of sounding too much like a more benign Black Keys (I’m sorry, but the comparison is unavoidable, a criticism in itself that the album’s sound dictates such a reference). The comparatively polished production strips the record of most semblances of down-and-dirty, blues-rock primitivism. As a result, rather than being any sort of deconstruction or unique interpretation of the blues, Small Fires is a far more straight-forward translation of the form, something we’ve heard countless times by innumerable artists. Thus, the listener is left with the impression that the bluster is but posturing, an air of artifice, void of the indefinable, visceral soul quality that deals you the extra oomph to the gut.
One song which does see the band try something different shows that not all experiments are successes. Arriving smack dab in the middle of the record, “Battles, Blades & Bones” is a sparse ballad of minor piano chords and spooky washes of electric guitar depicting the inanity of man’s drive for large-scale slaughter. Throughout the piece, atrocities from the Trail of Tears to the First Gulf War are name-checked and juxtaposed with abstruse references to humanity’s efforts to control the natural world. “Jesus / His tears turn to stone”, the chorus runs, the lofty subject matter handled in such a way that it veers into the realm of the melodramatic, failing to deliver the insightful impact its authors were predictably striving for. When showing their sensitive side, all is not lost, though; closer “Goodnight Moon” successfully evokes the pathos of an aged hobo reflecting on his callow youth and waving goodbye to a harsh world. Had this album been an EP, featuring the first two tracks and this final one, it would have been quite stellar. The cuts in-between, though, serve to mar the overall work and show a little more innovation and daring would have gone a long way.