Once in a rare while, a new band takes familiar hard rock, and puts a fresh spin on it.
For all the criticism mainstream modern rock receives, as long as the bands continue to deliver the same old stuff time in and time out, it will never fail to attract audiences. Audioslave is a perfect example, as their third album Revelations, while a plodding, borderline embarrassing exercise in post-grunge blandness that reduces Chris Cornell and Tom Morello to bloated rock parodies, flew off record store shelves the day it was released. The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam are past their prime, but continue to rake in the massive sales numbers, and not far behind are Godsmack, whose repetitive formula panders to the listeners and succeeds disturbingly well. Australian upstarts Wolfmother, who ape '70s hard rock with enough energy and charisma to make it enjoyable, and the much more middling Black Label Society, who continue their inexplicable rise to stardom thanks to Zakk Wylde's shameless milking of biker rock gimmickry, are both on the verge of becoming major acts.
Classic rock audiences thrive on that kind of familiarity, so it's no surprise that record companies continue to churn out the young cookie-cutter acts, and 2006 has not been without its much-hyped noobs, such as ballsy Canadians Priestess, Texas MySpace success story Faktion, and Georgia rednecks Artimus Pyledriver, but at the rate the labels are going, by the time a band with real promise comes along, they risk being forgotten as soon as they come out.
Black Stone Cherry is a good example. Like Hanna, Alberta natives Nickelback, they have humble small-town roots, hailing from Edmonton, Kentucky. Like Nickelback, they specialize in the kind of mid-tempo hard rock that rock radio loves. And like Nickelback, they have a tendency to let their lyrics lapse into dunderheaded cock rock cliché. But unlike the Canadian kings of Bearded Idiot Rawk, there's some surprisingly strong songwriting on Black Stone Cherry's eponymous debut album, not to mention a lead singer with one helluva voice. Couple that with a tasty dose of people-pleasin' Southern rock, and you've got something that could really work.
Of course, the Southern thing has been done to death lately, from the current masters Drive-By Truckers, to clever upstarts Kings of Leon and My Morning Jacket, to the booze-drenched metal strains of Black Label Society and Brand New Sin, but once you get past Black Stone Cherry's rather slipshod start ("Rain Wizard" and "Backwoods Cold" amounting to little more than Audioslave and Godsmack knock-offs), the quartet starts to turn on the charm. "Lonely Train" is driven by a propulsive Pantera-style riff that offsets singer/guitarist Chris Robertson's leather-throated howl, and while "Crosstown Woman" contains some nifty slide guitar, the song bears a strong resemblance to the underrated melodic early-80s metal of Y&T, right down to the sing-along bridge. "Maybe Someday" combines the lumbering riffs of Zeppelin with the ferocious Southern rock of Molly Hatchet, and "When the Weight Comes Down" slickly shifts from straightforward rock verses to languid, blues-inspired choruses, Robertson displaying impressive vocal range.
The boys save the best for last, as the album's second half takes a welcome left turn. The upbeat "Hell and High Water" is a straight-up blues rock tune, the lead guitar fills hinting at Carlos Santana, and Robertson's vocals are soulful, his unpretentious delivery making the song sound all the more genuine. "Shapes of Things" heads even further toward Southern jam band territory, the twin guitars of Robertson and Ben Wells doing battle with John Fred Young's ferocious drumming. Even better is "Tired of the Rain", which, thanks to the B3 organ of guest musician Reese Wynans, adds a nifty Deep Purple tinge to a song that hearkens back to the days of the Yardbrids, the dual guitar leads showing remarkable restraint, while the buoyant "Rollin' On" maintains that momentum right to the end of the album, nestled comfortably in a relaxed, summertime groove.
So good are the last 20 minutes, that one can't help but wish the fictional band Stillwater from the film Almost Famous followed this band's example. Black Stone Cherry is a young band (between the ages of 20 and 23), and they need to work on toning down the metaphors (the double entendre of the otherwise rollicking "Drive" is nearly comical), but their small-town sincerity goes a long way. Like Peoria, Illinois' the Forecast, this is a group of youngsters who might be onto something potentially great, combining roots rock with a more modern edge. It ain't perfect, but it's damn near impossible to dislike.