You wouldn’t think a guy like Eric Sardinas would have trouble with the ladies. Plenty of women out there would throw themselves all over a tattooed, braided-hair blues rock guitarist. Maybe it’s because he plays acoustic Dobro and electric slide, as opposed to regular old guaranteed-chick-magnet electric guitar, or maybe it’s because he’s dressed like Liberace’s axe-slinging cousin on the back cover of his latest release, Black Pearls, but Sardinas sings a lot of songs about how women have done him wrong. Fortunately, Sardinas is an ace guitarist, and his virtuosity makes up for his pedestrian songwriting. Sardinas’s misery is the listeners’ benefit, as Black Pearls is, simply, a great guitar record.
Sardinas’s voice—gritty, raspy with a tendency to only half-sing—wouldn’t land him a slot on American Idol, but the man grinds a mean axe (a feat not associated with the typically staid Dobro), and he earns a free pass from me in the vocals department. (When he does sing, however, he sounds akin to Phish’s Trey Anastacio, of all people.) So yes, Sardinas’s guitar is the star here. While his backing musicians, bassist Paul Lopranger and drummer Mike Dupke could have succeeded just by showing up, their rhythm section performs the important task of grounding Sardinas and keeping him from blasting himself into the stratosphere during one of his solos.
Hard-charging rockers like “Flames of Love” and “Four Roses” shatter the stereotype (in my mind at least; maybe yours too) of the Dobro as a-sittin’ and a-pickin’ on the backporch cousin of the banjo, or as an essential component of an innocuous 1950s-era singing cowboy variety show. In Sardinas’s hands, the Dobro is a mean instrument, the perfect base for his tales of lyin’, cheatin’ women (what is it about the blues that makes people drop their g‘s?). The southern-fried “Same Ol’ Way” and the smoky, slow-cooking jam “Liar’s Dice Blues” both find the Dobro soaring, overcoming Sardinas’s laments. The latter is especially fine; it’s one of those epic blues tunes that should be 20 minutes long when played in concert.
Sardinas’s sound is fuller than it was on previous outings (think the spare “Murdering Blues” and “Cherry Bomb” off his 1999 debut, Treat Me Right), and the bigger sound has given him leeway to dabble in a few new styles. “Big Red Line” and “Old Smyrna Road” are both simple, almost folks arrangements, and mirror each other thematically: on the former (the album’s cheeriest cut), Sardinas’s narrator is bubbling over, taking the titular train to see his lady (one of the few instances where girls aren’t bad); on the latter, his woman gets lost forever on Old Smyrna Road. That these tracks work—and might be Black Pearls’ best despite not being guitar romps—speaks to Sardinas’s versatility and command over his instrument. His only true misstep is “Sorrow’s Kitchen”, which relies too heavily on atmosphere and gets coated with an unnecessary pop sheen by producer Eddie Kramer.
“Sorrow’s Kitchen” aside, Black Pearls is one of those albums that guitar freaks get off on while everyone else shrugs and moves on. Sardinas’s passion and ability are unmatched and the fact that he’s doing it with a Dobro (and tattoos and braids) should be able to land him a blues-lovin’ woman who’ll treat him right. Until Sardinas gets happy, blues rock guitar fans the world over should be thankful that he’s got the blues.