Yes, yes, and yes.
Blackberry Smoke comes rip rearing out of Atlanta, GA with their asses on fire, delivering this power packed, rockin’, country-fried brand new offering called Holding All The Roses that doesn’t let up, doesn’t give in, and keeps spitting out flavorful hooks, delicious riffs, and infectious grooves one after another, all adding up to one hell of a good time worthy of immediate repeat and strong recommendations to friends and loved ones.
Where their last album The Whippoorwill from 2012 had surprisingly more country than what you would expect from a band labeled Southern rock, Holding All The Roses swings in the opposite direction, submitting itself to the holy ghost of the loud and resonant guitar riff and holding nothing back. Did that send this cultured and dignified country music critic recoiling away from the speakers, holding my tender ears more preferential to the dulcet moans of the steel guitar in abhorrent objection? Hell no. When the music hits home so hard and heavy as it does on Holding All The Roses, who gives a holy hot damn how you label it, or what’s counted at its heaviest influences. Just sit back and enjoy.
If I had to offer a summation of this album in one phrase, I would say that Holding all the Roses is Blackberry Smoke in its purest form. For the first time we find the band totally unfettered from superfluous obligations to labels and overbearing business lackeys, and in this space they’re simply allowed to be themselves. Seven days in the studio and this puppy was sent off to mastering without anyone breathing down their necks or making undue calculations unfit for the creative process. And the result is a golden effort that’s hard to press pause on.
Heading into this album the talk was about how producer Brendan O’ Brien was Blackberry Smoke’s dream collaborator; the one the band wanted to work with their entire careers. But this is the sort of word you hear ahead of almost every album. Nobody says, “We settled for the producer that fell in our lap.” Well except Jason Isbell, whose Southeastern was supposed to be a Ryan Adams production, and he ended up settling for Dave Cobb. And we all know how that turned out.
Frankly, I find myself being surprised by just how good Blackberry Smoke is, even though I should know better by now. It’s because no single element of the band is going to blow your mind or be considered the apex best of any discipline. It’s the entire package, the blue collar approach, and the vibe they put out when it’s all humming together that makes them one of the preeminent acts in their Southern rock field.
But the production of Holding All The Roses is where it goes from damn good, to being their best album to date in this critic’s esteemed opinion. The entire thing is just so damn tasteful. There’s brilliant separation in mood and texture between the various songs. You’re ears never given a chance to rest. There’s no lull. It’s not that the guitar playing is God-like, or the songwriting is the be all end all of the discipline. It’s that it all works together so seamlessly and becomes immediately seductive to the listener.
Something else surprising about this album, and something that I never though I would hear myself say, is that there’s some 80’s rock textures involved, and not only do they not feel dated, they may be one of the album’s premier assets. The almost gated reverb vibe of “Woman in the Moon” makes for this spatial experience that is completely unexpected. The final track “Fire in the Hole” also has a very 80’s rock vibe, but one that also adds some compositional wrinkles and an extended, loose-ended jam that takes a song clocking in at 3:47 and makes it feel like it goes for over seven minutes.
If you’re looking for some direction of where to find the country in this album, point your nose towards “Too High” which has these restless and lonesome verses, and an excellent twangy payoff in the chorus. “Lay It All on Me,” might be the most straight up country offering of the album, while the fingerpicking of the unexpected and stripped back instrumental “Randolph County Farewell” is a track music fans of all stripes will enjoy, and is the perfect gear shift in the center of the album.
About the only mild moment for this listener was the song “Payback’s a Bitch.” But even though the song felt a little immature, the structure still pulls you in, and makes you resist reaching for the skip button. “Lay It All on Me” seemed to lack just a little bit in energy compared to the other tracks. But “Living in the Song” includes just about everything that’s right and good about music. Great writing, perfect textures, timing, and pentameter—songs like this never go out of style, and never get old. “Wish in One Hand” is another standout, getting you to sing along to the “Wish in one hand, shit in the other,” line and laughing.
Maybe not as much country as some will hope for, but as many good times and as much good music as you can expect from any outfit, Holding All The Roses stands out as simply one of the most enjoyable listens this cantankerous and hard-to-please critic has had the pleasure in listening to for a long while.
Two guns up.
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