The blues rock revival has seen two distinct halves follow their own paths. On one side, Jack White and The Black Keys moved steadily into the pop realm, their garage-riffed jams largely driven by simple guitar/drums instrumentation and digestible, genre-focused styles (give or take White’s marimba). Those that drift further into the roughed up psych-soul half of the equation have remained one odd step off of that path, the likes of King Khan too gleefully weird and perpetually near-nude, The Black Lips too ready to vomit and piss onstage, Nobunny too…Nobunny. For years now, Black Joe Lewis has been able to straddle the two, his soulful croon, incorporation of richly appointed backing band, and varied discography suggestive of the latter half, yet still approachable enough to suggest a possible move to the big time.
That trend continues on the Austinite’s new LP, Electric Slave. Lewis pushes some individual twists to the agenda without the choices becoming overwhelming. The album professes a strong anti-technology bent, and opener “Skulldiggin” sets that table with gigantic guitar and bone-breaking drum work. In heavier hands Lewis’ howled lyrics about mind control could come off as luddite paranoia, but the chainsaw riffs keep the song from slipping into unbridled mania. Rather than encouraging a Google Hangout, he’s the kind of guy that wants everybody to come over and spend time in person. “I got all the good jams/ gonna pull the furniture out the living room tonight/ cause everybody rockin’ at my party,” he yowls as he sets up a party for just about everyone. This isn’t just for the garage kids or the funk throwbacks; the rhythms are flecked with shimmery disco cymbals and the sax even breaks into a pretty good impression of “Rumpshaker”.
Lewis is accompanied here by members of the men once-called The Honeybears, the album featuring a full horn section and appropriately funky rhythms. The guitar prickles and stabs like a sewing machine needle throughout “Dar es Salaam”, brass players flaring up to match his James Brown-esque vocal grit. Later, “Make Dat Money” finds a bit of a gulf groove as swaggering muted trumpets mirror the wavering guitar, while a sax solo spices up the Blues Brothers reminiscent stomp of “The Hipster”. “Young Girls” opens with a rockabilly guitar windup, Lewis letting his inner punk come screaming out.
“Electric Slave is what people are today, with their faces buried in their iPhones and the only way to hold a conversation is through text,” Lewis explains in the album’s press release. While he’s not always singing about escaping modernity, the music itself carries a good deal of that weight. He may mythically title songs like ”Vampire” and “Golem”; the lyrics largely focus on timeless issues of the heart and an old-fashioned drive for good times.
These songs could be coming from a particularly rough-hewn bar band a few decades ago, one that’s been passing the whiskey bottle around between songs, drunk enough to let their emotions fly. The wild emotions, though, never take the well-oiled machine off the tracks, a fact that can be both a boon and a detraction. This professional outfit puts together incredibly tight blues rock, funk, soul, and more, all without missing a single beat. On the other hand, while Lewis can emote with the best of them, a little more nuanced emotion in the music would really let his vocals shine. The ironic thing is that Electric Slave is a strong enough album that it should get a lot more people walking around with headphones plugged in, attention focused on their iPhones. That said, the crowds that will assemble for the likely high-energy live shows will please Lewis’ drive for the human.
Essential Tracks: “Dar es Salaam”, “Come To My Party”, and “Skulldiggin”