Soledad Brothers, bless their rock and roll hearts, often get mislabeled as blues revivalists, right along with their Detroit neighbors and friends, the White Stripes. Granted, blues music is the primary element in their new The Hardest Walk CD. It would be shortsighted, however, to call this strictly a blues recording, because many shades other than navy blue also help color it in.
This project’s contrasting hues attract, and sometimes distract your focus, the way planes catch your eyes when placed against the overhead backdrop of a clear blue sky. It’s an album filled with many pleasantly surprising “one of these things is not like the others” moments.
One called “Downtown Paranoia Blues” presents this musical portrait’s most striking tone of all. Vocalist Johnny Walker sings it with a distinctly Dylan-inspired cadence and sardonic attitude, like something straight out of Bob’s especially creative Blonde on Blonde period. Walker is worried sick over his lover’s suspected downtown fling. He admits, “I’m afraid I’m going to find her downtown”, before confessing, “I can see her laying down in a half a million beds”. This is not Petula Clark’s innocent “forget all your troubles, forget all your cares” downtown, that’s for sure.
Subsequent tracks, “White Jazz”, “Good Feeling”, and “True to Zou Zou” further establish Soledad Brother’s solid rock credentials. “White Jazz” isn’t jazz at all, but instead almost a minute of guitar feedback fun, whereas “Good Feeling” finds the bros having a go at upbeat, ‘60s soul-pop-rock. With its jangling guitar and squeaking sax solo, it stands out as a bright delight. The closer, “True to Zou Zou”, which is partially acoustic/slightly psychedelic, includes sitar of all things. Every one of these songs offers something different, and not a single one can be easily labeled (and that’s a good thing).
While The Hardest Walk is more eclectic than expected, these boys have by no means completely abandoned the blues. “Crying Outloud (Tears of Joy)” is a slice of slow, rolling blues, accented by nicely churchy acoustic piano, and “Crooked Crown” offers up chugging, Chicago blues, spiced with harmonica and slide guitar.
It’s essential that all serious rock bands remember the blues. I’d be worried about any group that heart-washed all the blues out of its sound. Hard rock without blues is heavy metal, as I see it, and most metal is simply bad noise. (Remember: I said most metal, not all). In my opinion, anytime you play amplified rock & roll with sincere soul, it comes out as the blues, whether you want to call it by that genre title or not. Conversely, if you combine screaming vocals with calculatedly cold guitar noises, the results are musical deformities such as heavy metal and, God forbid, its incestuous sister speed metal.
Walker’s Dylan tone on “Downtown Paranoia Blues” is only a temporary stylistic turn, because Mick Jagger’s whine is the rock star vocal comparison that befits him best. He puts a touch of jumping jack flash into “Truth or Consequences”, then revives it again during the lazily paced “Crying Out Loud (Tears of Joy)”. He even approximates Jagger’s knowing voice of experience throughout, even though he’s likely half that Glimmer Twin’s age.
Along with Walker, Soledad Brothers are Oliver Henry, who plays piano, tenor and baritone sax, guitar, percussion, flutes, organ, and even sings a little, and Ben Swank, who primarily provides percussion. One other musician, Dechman, chips in synth, lap steel, banjo, cello, and maraca. With all of these different instruments, it’s nearly impossible for Soledad Brothers to restrict themselves to just blues licks.
This CD’s title is taken from “Dark Horses”, a song that explores romantic betrayal of the worst kind, though then again, there is no such thing as “good” betrayal. Anyhow, Walker is clearly on the losing end of some bit of romantic rule breaking or other, and his “Downtown Paranoia Blues” suspicions are likely right on target. This leaves him with a depressing case of the blues, whether the music he and his band plays sounds like that well worn style or not. In the end, the blues is emotional sincerity, more than a sound.