I didn’t see this coming. Sure, Earl Greyhound’s first album, Soft Targets, was excellent, bluesy hard rock. About six or seven songs had killer riffs, interesting melodies, or some other feature that revealed a band working on a higher plane than most. They were good and loud live, and had every indication of being a solid, dependable group that could put together a phenomenal best-of mix in a few years.
Then they went and made Suspicious Package. If this isn’t on every best-of-2010 list, then there’s just no goddamn justice left. The level of variety and invention the band has teased out of the power trio format is scarcely believable. After an electric piano intro and Afro-Cuban percussion freakout, the band kicks into “The Eyes of Cassandra”. With its plainsong harmonies, keening guitar part, and mythological overtones, it sounds almost like a heavy metal version of some forgotten Richard and Linda Thompson song. Immediately afterward comes “Oye Vaya”, which sounds like Led Zeppelin covering Santana. This, predictably, is completely awesome. And that’s just the first three tracks.
One major improvement from last time is the increased level of focus on bassist/vocalist Kamara Thomas. Guitarist Matt Whyte is certainly capable of carrying a song on his own — he did for most of the last album, and does it again here, most notably on the comparatively poppy and restrained “Black Sea Vacation”. However, Thomas exudes a sense of groove and charisma that elevates a song like the wordy “Holy Immortality”. Her performance on the album’s highlight, “Shotgun”, is incredible. She propels a slithery, almost Middle Eastern melody over a heavy blues-rock grind. And, lest we leave anyone out, drummer Big Ricc Sheridan deserves major props for sustaining a flawless John Bonham impression for 45 minutes.
The rhythms demand further analysis. In interviews, Keith Richards will periodically bemoan the fact that while rocking is easy, precious few bands roll anymore. Well, Earl Greyhound rolls. Even though the band has clearly augmented their power trio sound with copious overdubs, Suspicious Package retains a loose, live, immediate feel. Even the heaviest, slowest tracks have a sense of swing and propulsion. It’s hard to quantify — if I knew exactly what they were doing, I’d do it myself, all the time — but it separates Earl Greyhound from the scores of middling hard rock bands in thrall to the sounds of the ’70s. And make no mistake: Earl Greyhound is no mere revival act. These musicians have emerged with their own voice: one with clear antecedents, sure, but without any apparent peer.
Alas, the record is not perfect. “The Ghost and the Witness” isn’t so much a song as it is four or five different riffs mashed up together (though the riffs are so cool it took me a few listens to actually notice). And while there’s nothing wrong with “Out of Air” or “Misty Morning” themselves, placing the two longest and slowest songs at the end of the album kills the momentum when it feels like it should be building to a climax.
It’s sort of a shame that this sort of music doesn’t have the cachet or hipness it ought to right now. ’70s hard rock revivalism doesn’t seem to be the taste these days, no matter how groovetastic or idiosyncratic this version of it might be. Earl Greyhound might not be fully in step with the times, but they end up sounding timeless, which can only serve them well. Physical Graffiti certainly isn’t any better or worse because it’s 30 years old; put it on right now and it’ll kick your ass. Suspicious Package kicks ass now, it would have kicked ass then, and it will continue to kick ass long into the future.