I didn’t have the highest expectations for Black Stone Cherry‘s newest release, Kentucky. I instantly fell in love with their self-titled debut, and while I was happy with second release Folklore And Superstition, by third release, Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea, I was no longer a fan. They blended their southern swing with Nickelback-lite arena rock and all the bite, anger, and inspiration was gone. Fourth album Magic Mountain was a little better, but not enough to make me excited about the band again. So listening to Kentucky was a very welcome surprise. [columns] [column size=”1/3″]
Album Title: Kentucky
Release Date: 01 April 2016
Playing Time: 01:00:16
Label: Mascot Music
They haven’t gone back to the sound of their debut, but they have finally recaptured its attitude. The youthful energy is a little more tempered after ten years of growth, but the underlying anger is there again, and it’s present in the heaviness of the music, the bite of a lot of the lyrics, and especially the vocal performance of frontman Chris Robertson. On the previous three albums he abandoned a little of his signature sound to be more like all the other big radio bands, but throughout Kentucky, it’s very clear this is a Black Stone Cherry album. They might tour with Nickelback or Theory Of A Deadman sometimes, but no one is going to mistake any of the tracks here for any other band. Robertson’s vocals are less pristine or refined here, but instead of it sounding like his voice is being restrained to fit the hook, he’s cutting all the way loose. The difference is, instead of sounding like whatever vocal style he adopts for a song is because he thinks that’s what the song should sound like, on Kentucky it sounds like he’s singing the way he is because he wants to. The hooks here are all-natural, and not a single one feels forced.
The album kind of feels split into acts. To start with we have the heavy, southern, 90s-metal inspired songs. Opener “The Way Of The Future” features a down-tuned, grinding, sludge-packed riff so distorted and fuzzy it gives the song an early Alice In Chains vibe. Right out of the gate, Chris Robertson snarls and howls through a furious sing-along chorus that will easily be a live fan-favorite. The song serves as a rallying cry, and giving the first track on this album that title has to be intentional. The main riff to following track and lead single “In Our Dreams” is actually even heavier, with a thick bassline courtesy of Jon Lawhon dominating the song. Robertson’s reverb-drenched shouts on the pre-chorus are almost industrial-rock sounding, and the chorus hook sounds particularly massive coming out of it. “Shakin’ My Cage” revels in a swampy acoustic lick rolling through the verses and a chunky chorus that finds the sweet spot between country-rock and angry Shinedown, and “Soul Machine” could easily be a bland song, and the music isn’t as inspired as the previous trio, but Chris Robertson’s vocal performance elevates the entire song. He yelps along with a small gospel choir in the chorus and holds his own, and his voice through the verses is wonderfully imperfect. Even when his voice cracks, it sounds intentional, and aids the song rather than hurts it. A wonderful solo in the middle of the song is also worth giving a good listen to.
The second act is the classic-rock phase and it opens with “Long Ride,” the biggest surprise of the album. It is a big, bold, unapologetic 80s-loving power ballad. It’s cheesy, but it doesn’t sound fake, and I cannot stress how phenomenal the chorus hook is. I would not at all be surprised if this becomes the song that defines Black Stone Cherry‘s career, and it deserves to be. It may be the best cheesy power ballad in almost 30 years. Right after that comes a completely serious, sincere, and really damn good cover of Edwin Starr’s “War” (you know the one: “War, OUHH, good god y’all, what is it good for?”). The song is faithful in both spirit and tone to the original, but definitely still sounds like Black Stone Cherry. It’s also a whole lot of fun. “Hangman” goes straight back to serious (and seriously heavy) rock-n-roll, with a swirling, mean riff that battles with Robertson’s smooth snarl. The shout-along chorus makes this another easy choice for a single. “Cheaper To Drink Alone” is the type of song I usually hate: it’s overtly sexual and objectifying, but it’s also self-deprecating, desperate, and depressing. It’s a good-time party song about how much the party sucks. It also helps that the song has yet another killer hook and so much swagger it’s guaranteed to get some play in the strip clubs the song is about.
The last act is the home of the modern radio rock tunes, and it’s also where the album loses a little bit of steam. “Rescue Me” has a punishing main riff, but the chorus doesn’t really reach its potential. “Feelin’ Fuzzy” goes straight southern, with a simple but still catchy riff and equally straight-forward lyrics about freaking out on psychedelics. If you like it you’ll love it, but if you don’t you’ll probably tune out before the song’s over. “Darkest Secret” is probably the weakest track. It seems to be trying too hard to sound like Shinedown, which is an improvement over the copycat moments from the last few albums, but it still doesn’t go anywhere. “Born To Die” is a little softer, and while it’s not as memorable as similar tunes from the first two parts of the album, it’s not bad. Closer “The Rambler” tries nail the “acoustic finale” cliché and unfortunately misses the mark. There’s some pretty guitar work, but the melody just isn’t there.
Aside from a final third of relative filler (although most of those are still songs that would be above average to outstanding on their previous 3 albums), Kentucky is hands down the strongest album Black Stone Cherry have released in a decade, and I do not exaggerate when I call “Long Ride” an instant classic. If this album really is “The Way Of The Future” for Black Stone Cherry, I expect to be seeing and hearing a lot more of them for a long time.
Author’s Note: I also suggest getting the Deluxe edition. The two bonus tracks, “I Am The Lion” and “Evil” are both very good. “I Am The Lion” throws southern metal, modern radio rock, and 90s industrial into a blender and comes out with a bright, powerful chorus paired with a post-chrous and bridge straight out of Filter’s playbook. “Evil” is playful and very classic-rock inspired, from the instruments cutting out for drum fills, to the ascending engine-rev riff, to the whiskey-swilling-soul-man vocal showing. It sounds like an outtake directly from their debut.