Currently, Blackberry Smoke are looking hairier than the Black Crowes emerging from a barber’s bin. But although the image portrays the ultimate stoner jam band, their music is much more disciplined.
Formed 16 years ago in Atlanta, Georgia as something akin to a second coming of Lynyrd Skynyrd, over the course of four albums they drifted far closer to Nashville. Last year’s Holding All The Roses single was a No.1 country hit, and both it and their breakthrough album The Whippoorwill (2012) smoothed most of the southern rock edges off their first two albums. Like An Arrow continues the trend and begs the question: just what kind of band are Blackberry Smoke?
The first answer, as evidenced by opener Waiting For The Thunder, is blood-and-guts rockers. But then comes Let It Burn, a slice of good-time, down-south jukin’ that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Georgia Satellites album (even if, oddly, it sounds a bit like The Beatles’ Maxwell’s Silver Hammer). The mood then changes with the waltz-tempo The Good Life and What Comes Naturally, a slow-tempo singalong that might have been a hit for Chas & Dave if they were from Georgia.
Based on those four tracks alone, no jury could decide what kind of band the Smoke are. But over Like An Arrow’s 12 tracks and 49 minutes a more salient fact is beyond reasonable doubt: that this sometimes schizophrenic-sounding band are gifted arrangers proficient in many styles.
There are some really classy rock tunes on here, from the swamp-heavy guitars of the title track to the upbeat, drum-led swaggering hook of the more polished Ought To Know. Last track Free On The Wing follows a slow-an’-easy groove that builds from beautiful electric piano to slide-guitar that wouldn’t be out of place on a solo Gregg Allman release. And with Allman guesting on backing vocals, it’s impossible to resist.
But long before you get to that guest appearance, Like An Arrow’s stylisic breadth proves to be the album’s greatest strength. Believe You Me revisits the funky grooves of Whippoorwill’s Country Side Of Life; Running Through Time plays like a warm summer breeze; Sunrise In Texas, a mournful slow blues, is surely a country chart smash; and the combination of steel guitars and mandolins makes Ain’t Gonna Wait a thing of real beauty.
On this fifth album they do sound like a country band who like to rock sometimes, rather than southern rockers who do country, but their versatility makes such distinctions academic.