Blame it on the Stones. That pack of aging rogues may or may not fit the bill for the Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World circa 1990, but the group's influence remains surprisingly vital — or haven't you heard Aerosmith strut its stuff lately? Well, here's another set of hopped-up white boys, four young bands trying to get over by mixing highly amped variations on the Chess Records catalog with a rasping, exaggerated take on soul music's man-and-a-half braggadocio. And guess what? This tried-and-true approach can still produce righteous, cobweb-clearing boogie as well as occasional bursts of bleary-eyed insight. If these four debut albums are any indication, the blooze — like its illegitimate parent, the blues — will endure.
A cynic might dismiss Atlanta's Black Crowes or the London Quireboys as third-hand rip-offs, imitations of imitations. To some degree, both groups do recall the Faces, a band that was both reviled and revered as an ersatz Rolling Stones in its mid-Seventies heyday. In the video for "Jealous Again," the Crowes' lead singer, Chris Robinson, even cops a few patented Rod Stewart moves.
Listening to the song, however, is too immediate an experience to qualify as nostalgia. Robinson slurs the vocal hook with an artful, expressive drawl, and the guitarists flay their fingers raw. The Black Crowes aren't merely trying to "reinvent" the Faces' ginsoaked rock; instead, they manage to reinvest it with innocent fervor and a swaggering grace. Steel Wheels is a good album and all, but this is how the Stones might sound today if Keith had spent his salad days banging steroids instead of smack.
Shake Your Money Maker is the kind of streamlined, supertight groove album that bar-band dreams are made of. On "Could I've Been So Blind," the Crowes achieve a howling, brutal eloquence: The band imitates a five-piece rhythm section, pounding like a jackhammer behind the pointed disbelief of the vocals. Their version of Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle" is a smoking, horny surge of roots substantiation, urged along by former Allman bro Chuck Leavell's dirty, delicious piano.
"She Talks to Angels" is Money Maker's requisite acoustic-based centerpiece — only it turns out to be a devastating account of drug addiction. "Stare It Cold" concludes the album with the same stirring Ron Wood-derived power chords that open it, and the miniraveup near the end gives a nice indication of the Crowes' live chops. Once you get past surface similarities, Shake Your Money Maker delivers a kick all its own.
Unfortunately, repeated exposure to A Bit of What You Fancy has quite the opposite effect. The London Quireboys are little more than a cover band draped in major-label glad rags. "Sweet Mary Ann," "Misled," "Roses & Rings" and "Take Me Home" are all blatant Faces rewrites; each tune begins with a tossed-off intro before the Quireboys lurch into a distorted country-blues vamp, and lead singer Spike earns his moniker with some, ummm, piercing Stewart appropriations.
"Sex Party" is stupid and irresistible — like a beery chorale at a party out of bounds, you can enjoy it because nobody's gonna remember anyway — but "Whippin' Boy" is merely stupid. In this misbegotten ballad, a white English rock singer tries to depict the antebellum American South from a slave's point of view. Even at their most tasteless, Mick and Rod never made such a blatant attempt to pass themselves off as black men.
Company of Wolves is probably the most versatile and proficient group of musicians in this bunch, and the band's debut album careens around the map in search of a sure thing. Lead singer Kyf Brewer has a vaguely Midwestern twang that makes tunes like "Call of the Wild" and "Hangin' by a Thread" sound like a grungier rehash of Loverboy's smarmy pop-metal hits. But the Wolves also tap into the blooze vein on several cuts, drawing blood when you'd least expect it. "Jilted!" cranks a jangling heartland rhythm-guitar riff into a cathartic blast of morning-after regrets, and "The Distance" is a sweetly yearning breakup song. Guitarist Steve Conte strokes his fat Gibson to great effect on the honky-tonk "Romance on the Rocks," tossing off gleeful Chuck Berry tropes while the rhythm section obliterates the singer's nagging doubts like a double Jim Beam boilermaker.
Not that the Wolves are party animals. "St. Jane's Infirmary" owes everything to Beggars Banquet and nothing to the blues standard by which the title is inspired, but this sing-along about scoring drugs captures the numbing rituals of addiction. That song and the Black Crowes' "She Talks to Angels" may sound like they were recorded before 1975, but their haunted, cautionary point of view perfectly reflects the current popular attitude about where "the quickest way to heaven" actually terminates.
Junkyard doesn't affect such emotional distance. This Los Angeles quintet confronts sex, drugs and rock & roll head-on. Junkyard opens with an explosive track called "Blooze," a beautifully succinct, heart-rending statement of purpose. "I ain't talkin' 'bout no lightweight, pennyante weekend warrior," singer David Roach declares; then he proceeds to scat, shriek and spit his way to oblivion. His rap about good-time habits veering out of control puts across a sullen, double-edged desperation accurately enough to give you the shakes, while the band's distorted guitars and churning, nearly arrhythmic punch never let up.
While the London Quireboys, Company of Wolves and even the Black Crowes can seem a bit studied, Junkyard blares with a total lack of self-consciousness. Of these four albums, Junkyard is the only one that couldn't be mistaken for a period piece from any time other than our own. Lead guitarists Chris Gates and Brian Baker soup up their blues borrowings to hardcore pace on "Hot Rod," and when they break out the bottleneck on "Simple Man," the slide unwinds a knotty melody rather than merely serving as a nostalgic reference. "Can't Hold Back" and "Long Way Home" rely on a solid blues base that lies beneath producer Tom Werman's heavy-metal finish. The consistently gritty vision transcends hommage; Junkyard is what Southern rock might resemble after being sun-dried in the California suburbs for fifteen years.
"Hands Off" ends Junkyard on a resounding but somewhat frustrating note. Roach pokes at the embers of a dying relationship, building to a dramatic spoken bridge in which he confronts his betrayer with the ugly truth: "Baby, you gave him head." That line is enough to guarantee "Hands Off" a place in the PMRC's Hall of Shame, which is too bad, because this slow-burning, hard-rock torch song could melt power balladeers like Warrant and Skid Row in midpose.
And that confrontational, absolute sense of relevance is what sets Junkyard apart from all the last decade's fuzzy psychedelic throwbacks and the mindless, newly minted Seventies revival. Twenty years ago the blooze provided an escape route from the rock counterculture's progressively mellow direction and reflected the all-out hedonism of a new generation. Today a loyal postmodernist would say this stuff lacks significance, but there's something real lurking within these grooves, something just beneath the surface that speaks to our contemporary experience. You either hear it or — if you're too precious or self-serious — you don't.