Monday, 10 December 2012

Five Horse Johnson - The Taking of Blackheart (album review)

Five Horse Johnson is a blues / southern rock band from Toledo, Ohio who play a satisfying style of blues providing daily recommended doses of harmonica, slide guitar and hard rock.  The Taking of Blackheart is their seventh full-length album and sixth on Small Stone records.  The album has been available for digital download since September, but it will be released in hard copy late January.  It is their first release in nearly six years and my first taste of the band.

I truly do wish I had discovered this band when I was a bit younger, I would have loved them for sure, they're right up my alley.  If you're into blues inflected hard rock with all the classic trimmings, you will not be disappointed by The Taking of Blackheart.  Five Horse Johnson don't like to waste time with a lot of ballads or slow songs.  They know what sound they want and they know how to deliver the goods.  They go straight for the hard stuff and keep hitting it until someone passes out.  This is classic man music here and what I mean by that is that the songs are honest and heartfelt, not emotional, tough without posturing and possessing a swagger without being obnoxious.

The album's sound is established on opening number "The Job" and the band pursues it relentlessly throughout.  "I've got a cannon and I call it Rosy, my horse's name is Mexico!"  That very horse named Mexico becomes the titular character to one of the standout tracks just a little deeper into the album.  I hesitate to call 'The Taking of Blackheart' a concept album in the classical sense but there is a lyrical narrative that runs through a lot of the songs, the latter two and "Black Heart Baby" at the front of the album being the most obvious, but each song can be seen as progressing a single storyline along.

Vocalist Eric Oblander's harmonica is used as a lead instrument throughout and is especially prominent on "The Job", "Mexico" and "Quick on the Trigger".  The latter song in particular showcases Oblander putting in work for the duration of the song on harmonica, I can't be sure about this but I'm guessing the song is sung by guitarist Brad Coffin, but if it is, their voices are so much alike it makes them indistinguishable.  My only other two guesses are that Coffin sings it live or the harmonica takes a bit of backseat for this one live and was overdubbed.  My money's on it being a Coffin song but I wish I had more definite information on that.  Either way it gets my vote for best harmonica song for 2012.  "Shoot My Way Out" would also be a Coffin song, freeing up Oblander for another good harmonica workout.  The song also spotlights some terrific guitar work.

That staple of good live blues, the hammond organ, rears its beautiful head in "Beating In My Hand", swelling constantly, and low enough in the mix that it's not intrusive.  "Smash and Grab" recalls Exile on Main Street or Let It Bleed era Stones while managing to sound tougher.  "Hangin' Tree" is a dark tune with a slightly more somber atmosphere to it than anything else on the album, save perhaps the finale "Die in the River".

"You're My Girl" features the vocal talents of Robin Zander from Cheap Trick.  It reminds of the kind of uptempo material Keith Richards would sing for the Stones, which was always striking as there's a big difference between his and Mick's respective voices.  The sound of Zander's voice, coupled with the variation between his voice and FHJ singer Oblander increase the Rolling Stones mood on this album, as Zander almost sounds Keith Richards-esque in his tone.  It's an uptempo rocker in which the band let's loose and almost feels as though they don't want to stop things short as they're having too much fun.  It's the longest cut on the album by a country mile.

The Taking of Blackheart is an album full of good beer-swilling, electric cowboy music.  Every song's a winner with a heavy vibe that runs throughout the album, yet the band finds ways of making each track distinguishable.  They establish a sound, then add to and build around it subtly, but to great effect.  There's a strong cowboy western element to the affair, most notably in the lyrics, while the music itself is built mostly from a blues foundation.  Every bar in the world should have a copy of The Taking of Blackheart in the jukebox and every bar in the whole world should really have a goddamn jukebox, shouldn't they?

Highlights include: "Mexico" and "The Job"

Rating: 4.5/5

Total Run Time: 45:53

From: Toledo, Ohio

Genre: Stoner Rock, Blues, Southern Rock, Western

Reminds me of: Mos Generator, Orange Goblin, Rolling Stones, Sun Gods in Exile, Wo Fat, ZZ Top

Release Date: January 29, 2013

Suggested listening activity for fellow non-stoners: Soundtrack

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