Like many hard rock junkies, I was blown away by the second album of Kentucky’s finest, Folklore and Superstition, and have been keenly anticipating its follow-up for some time. Now that it’s here – amidst the bruising fanfare of pounding lead single White Trash Millionaire – the critical question has to be: have they delivered?
The first thing to note is how different an album this is to its predecessor – maybe to the disappointment of some fans, but hopefully to the delight of just as many. White Trash, the album’s opener, certainly sets the tone for proceedings, with its instant singalong chorus and its muscular, chest-beating vitality; almost all of the songs on the album could be singles, such is the band’s current penchant for enormous hooks. While subtlety might not have been high on the band’s list of priorities for this particular opus, though, this is not to say that the songs lack depth; far from it. Once more, the band’s southern sensibility meshes beautifully with contemporary hard rock stylings, and they demonstrate time and again that their mastery of pacing, dynamics and structure is as adroit as is their ear for melody. Highlights in the heavier mode include Killing Floor, Such a Shame, Let Me See You Shake and Blame it on the Boom Boom – all destined to sit snugly alongside White Trash as fresh live juggernauts – while Won’t Let Go, Stay, In My Blood and the supremely chilled Like I Roll are really outstanding songs in a gentler vein, showcasing the band’s sophistication and easy command of an impressive variety of rock idioms. I must also say that Ben Wells pulls off some awesome lead guitar breaks over the course of the album, while the backdrop provided by rhythm section John Lawhon (bass) and John Fred Young (drums), along with frontman Chris Robertson’s rhythm guitar, is as consistently potent and flexible as ever.
Judged as a unified programme, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea might not be as absorbingly introspective and compelling as Folklore and Superstition – it’s an album which lends itself much more readily to the shuffle button – but that is, I am sure part of a deliberate strategy on the band’s part. Admirably, they have eschewed the easy option of following up a successful album with a facsimile, providing a different kind of listening experience altogether. I also suspect that they are determined, with this release, to strike out beyond the niche market of ‘old school’ rock, and grab the wider world by the scruff of the neck – an aspiration in which I firmly hope that they succeed; they deserve it, and the anodyne mainstream musical landscape needs it.
All in all, then, while Between the Devil . . . might not have been the album you were expecting from Black Stone Cherry, they have, in my judgement, done it again. If you’re one of those people for whom a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and Skynyrd’s back catalogue constitutes a good night (and if you’re not, what’s wrong with you?), there’s another one for your collection, right here.