On Backlash, Lewis and his Honeybears are finished retreading genre tropes of the past and set their sights on targeting their own musical identity.
Whenever someone listens to Black Joe Lewis and his band the Honeybears, the inevitable laundry list of comparisons to funk, blues and soul artists of yesteryear is spouted wistfully. These appraisals are not lacking in validity, for Lewis has released a steady flow of good music relying heavily on a nostalgic blend of genres. Increasingly, though, his work has relied less and less on past ideas up to his 2013 release, and it is on his most recent album Backlash that Lewis seems to have made an abridgment to the stylistic road he had close to worn down. Backlash finally feels like Lewis and his gang are making their own variety of songs. In a recent interview with Noisey, he stated, “We finally figured out what we wanted to be as a band. It took us a long time to figure out where at the table we should sit.”
Logically then, Backlash feels like the most coherent work from Lewis. Rather than retreading the retro song structures that had been used to a fun but imminently fatigued effect on their previous work, they feel as if they have finally made a record in which they have grown out of these influences. They seem to have obtained a musical identity in which they are through rehashing and into adapting an old sound into new and raw results.
“Flash Eyed”, the album’s opener, immediately sets the tone rather differently. Whereas on past albums Lewis’ songs could fool you into thinking the album was released decades ago, this opener makes no haste in situating the band in the present. This is not Scandalous or Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is; in other words not an album full of romping, retro party tunes. The guitar chords growl underneath Lewis’ singing, the horn sections resonate and even bellow to set a more foreboding mood. However, this is not to say that this album does not have its lighter, jiving moments as well.
The pace of the album’s second half is much more frenetic and lively. Songs like “PTP”, “Freakin’ Out”, “Prison” and “Shadow People” often lurch from clean-toned rhythms to whiplash-inducing distorted guitars, most notably on the heavy intro to lattermost song mentioned “Shadow People”. Additionally, the jumpy sound to the feminist-themed “PTP” makes it a dynamic listen midway through the album. The band’s maturation has also produced some of their most sonically pleasing work including maybe their most impressive “Lips of a Loser”. The strings and horns are eerily suggestive of the recently departed legend David Axelrod, and despite suffering from what are certainly not Lewis’ best set of lyrics, the song unfolds beautifully and rather cinematically and finishes with a brilliant three-minute instrumental outro.
Besides this, there are numerous other pleasing moments on this record. Lewis giving his best James Brown shrieks at the end of “Global”, the playful sound of the flute on “Wasted” and the slightly psychedelic finale track “Maroon” make this record certainly pleasing to the ear. Despite this fact, the enjoyment does only come in spurts.
Perhaps the theme of Backlash, responding positively and with motivation to past displeasures is ultimately fitting. Lewis has grown on his previous work and seen that he doesn’t retread his steps but rather aligns himself with a future sound. He is working towards abridging the genre, making a case for rock 'n’ roll’s sustainability and relevance in a modern era, and while that doesn't produce a perfect album, it is still one of merit.