Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Joe Bonamassa - Sloe Gin (2007)

1. Ball Peen Hammer
2. One Of These Days
3. Seagull
4. Dirt In My Pocket
5. Sloe Gin
6. Another Kind Of Love
7. Around The Bend
8. Black Night
9. Jelly Roll
10. Richmond
11. India

Kevin Shirley helped to mold Joe Bonamassa's sound, and hone his talent, but he also encouraged him to stretch out and experiment - which is good, and something that I think Joe liked to do anyway. Experiments are, by their very nature, hit or miss - and you can't know until you try. Also, diversifying your sound means two things: 1) some of the people who already liked the way you sound will be disappointed, and 2) other people who didn't particularly like the way you sounded will perk up their ears and start listening. So it's a double-edged sword, but I don't disparage Joe his musical experiments. And as far as experiments go, this album is a pretty safe one - featuring polished, commercial, more acoustic songs. But for me personally, it's too middle of the road. I'd rather listen to him doing what he does best (yes, again): hard rocking, soulful blues. I mean, it's like Neil Young performing with The Stray Gators. The music is pretty, and undeniably popular, but hell, give me Crazy Horse any day of the week!

Take One Of These Days as the first of many examples. After tackling Led Zeppelin on You & Me, I was ecstatic to learn that Joe had covered a song by one of my favorite lesser known rock bands from the '70s - Ten Years After. But, sadly, this is one of the few cases where one of Joe's classic rock covers does not improve on the original. Musically, it's very accomplished, but the performance lacks a certain raw energy that Alvin Lee delivered, that made the original so good. I'd say that's the flaw with this whole album - it's like that scene in the Johnny Cash biopic. These songs don't sound like they're being played as if somebody's life depended on it.

You know, it's ironic that this Ten Years After cover should turn up on this album, because I feel like it occupies a similar space as the album the original appeared on. A Space In Time is probably Ten Years After's biggest album (it contains probably the only song of theirs you've ever heard - I'd Love To Change The World - unless you've watched the Woodstock movie), yet I've always felt that it's not as strong an album as some of the ones that came before and after it. In Ten Years After's case, those would be Cricklewood Green and Rock & Roll Music To The World. For Joe, it's the albums that directly preceded and followed it (You & Me, and The Ballad of John Henry).

The album's one saving grace is its title track, an unlikely cover of a song originally recorded by actor/entertainer Tim Curry (yes, the man who was Lord Darkness in Legend, and also the "sweet transvestite" from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) - and what a saving grace it is. Even the tasteful piano/keyboard accompaniment serves the mood, rather than detracts from it (something that's hard to pull off in a rock/blues song). I would unflinchingly call it Joe's own "Stairway To Heaven", as it is a slow and soulful ballad that builds to an incredible guitar solo, and has become (at least up until recently) the anchor around which Joe's live concerts pivot. But I don't feel too bad about not listening to the album it hails from more often, because you can hear it on just about every live album Joe's put out since, and it's always quite good.

The rest of the album contains a combination of musically diverse "pretty" songs, and acoustic/electric hybrids (which are too electric for acoustic fans, and too acoustic for electric fans, so I'm not sure who they're designed to impress). In the first camp, there is the acoustic ballad Seagull - a Bad Company song, but you wouldn't know it - the album closing duo of Richmond, followed by the appropriately titled instrumental India, and the fairly boring Jelly Roll - it's a decent spot for Joe's singing, but it doesn't even feature the technical prowess that Joe's best acoustic songs have. In the second camp, there is Ball Peen Hammer - not as strong an opener as High Water Everywhere was, in my opinion - Dirt In My Pocket, which features the first hard rock riff on the album (and yet, is still half acoustic), and Another Kind Of Love - a John Mayall cover I like that I would call one of Joe's "junk food rockers".

Also featured is a re-recording (a studio first for Joe!) of Around The Bend, last heard on Had To Cry Today. Comparing the two versions is illustrative of the problem I have with this album. The new version displays a level of maturity and sophistication that is laudable. It's sparser, more gentle, and with subtler accompaniment. Joe's vocals have improved. But it's also softer, and though it represents an evolution for Joe as a musician, I'm not sure I like it better than the earlier version. After all, as rough as Joe was back on his debut album, it's still one of my favorites in his entire discography. Studio polish is nice - it's amazing what it can do sometimes - but the content is the thing, and sometimes the polish gets in the way, and becomes the story more than the story. It can really change the feel of a song - for better or worse.

Even Black Night - one of Joe's typical slow blues - has never made much of an impression on me. It's a breath of fresh air amongst all these acoustic numbers, but it lacks the energy and immediacy that makes these kinds of songs usually so good. I mean, compare it to Reconsider Baby. Joe wields more control over his talents on this record, but sometimes unbridled energy is exactly the thing you need. In time, Joe will learn how to produce controlled musical aggression (the title track on this album is a taste of what that can sound like) - like a martial artist practicing mindfulness in the midst of a spontaneous attack - but at this point, the genuine article is more compelling. Sloe Gin is undoubtedly the more polished and commercial-sounding record, but would it be absolutely terrible if I said I'd rather listen to So, It's Like That? I don't need complex arrangements, and I don't mind lovelorn clichés - all I need is a screaming rock and roll guitar.

Rating: 💿 Rare Spin

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