Black Joe Lewis: Electric Slave

Black Joe Lewis' Electric Slave is a lip-smacking collection of righteous tunes. Rock doesn't get much better than this.

Black Joe Lewis

Electric Slave

Label: Vagrant
US release date: 2013-08-27
UK release date: 2013-08-26

Black Joe Lewis has made a career out of kicking out the jams, and his latest, Electric Slave, is no different. This is a thick, swampy monster of an album, rife with distorted riffs and howling vocals, a kind of sludgy hyperventiliating blues-rock that injects verve into a tired genre and, perhaps, reinstills one's faith in the healing power of rock and roll. It is, in brief, a terrific record.

Album opener "Skulldiggin" kicks off the proceedings in typically unrestrained fashion. A repeating riff of thick, sludgy fuzz provides the tune's backbone, upon which are piled organ lines, meandering guitar leads, and the ripped-from-the-underworld vocals of Lewis himself. Those vocals, here and elsewhere, sound distorted and processed, but this is no detriment to the songs. If anything, the vocal distortion is of a piece with the rest of the album's sonic palette.

Given this ass-kicking start to things, it's a shame that the record’s weakest tune immediately follows. "Young Girls" sounds tinny and weak, with a quick tempo entirely lacking in groove, and suffers from some pretty dumb vocals as well. But fear not -- this is no one-hit album. "Dar Es Salaam" soon appears to right the ship with its mid-tempo chug, needling guitar work and committed vocals. With a stripped-down structure and throaty singing performance, this tune is reminiscent of Rubber Factory-era output by the Black Keys. That's a compliment.

The rest of the album ploughs the furrow set by these opening tracks, and if nothing is quite as head-explodingly transcendent as "Skulldiggin", well, nothing is as weak as "Young Girls". There's an abundance of fuzzed-out riffs and fly-against-the-windowpane leads, while touches of brass spruce up the corners of "My Blood Ain't Runnin' Right" and "Golem", among others. Through it all, Lewis howls and wails, exhorts the audiences and rails against the injustices of life. There aren't a lot of ballads here -- hell, there are no ballads here at all -- but there is a range of emotional expression. It just gets buried a little bit under the layers of rockage.

There are also moments in which Lewis and the band -- a remarkably tight unit -- transcend the expected limits of the garage/blues/rock genre. "Come to My Party" channels a good-time dance vibe, with light-fingered guitar scratching approaching a funky, almost disco feel (!) without any of the studio gloss which that might imply. Nice saxophone solo too! Lest you think that Lewis has sold out, though, this track is immediately followed by "Vampire", the longest tune here at nearly seven minutes and one of the best. Channeling the Black Keys once again, "Vampire" is about as far from disco-inflected dance funk as anything on the record, and a second-half highlight. A subtle piano line adds something new to the sonic stew even as other elements -- the chugging tempo, anguished vocals, shuffling bassline -- remain comfortably familiar.

There are other excellent songs here, particularly "Make Dat Money" and "Golem", with its skip-sliding rhythm and irresistible shuffling beat, but by now the point should be clear: this is one of the strongest rock albums you're likely to hear this year. Black Joe Lewis and his full-tilt-boogie band of musicians has assembled an outstanding set of tunes, full of gutsy, barely-restrained performances. Any music fan should take the time to check it out. The garage doesn't rock much more convincingly than this.

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