The Northern Lights might be missing from his moniker these days, but Jonathan Tyler‘s new LP, Holy Smokes, is certainly not want for anything: particularly crunchy, roots-rock hooks. Though he endured a breakup with Atlantic Records, a battle with alcohol and a legal scuffle that forced him to release this record under his name alone, Holy Smokes, exclusively streaming below, opens with a shot of distortion-filled optimism.
“Hallelujah, I’ve been saved,” he sings on “Hallelujah,” which ignites in a freewheeling swirl of guitars that barrel into a gospel chorus. Living and recording in his native Texas, Tyler wasn’t about to wallow in his misery when it came to make Holy Smokes — with a new label (Thirty Tigers) in tow, he crafted a set of songs that, at times, can even ring as joyful, touching a whole trajectory of the American musical tradition from Howlin’ Wolf to the Allman Brothers to Pink Floyd. It’s a road trip through the south on a speeding motorcycle: a Delta porch-pluck here, a Nashville steel lick or jazzy New Orleans piano vamp there, all held together by Tyler’s well-frayed vocals and infectious rock riffs.
“I was always trying to push for being Americana, but more edgy than most Americana bands that are out there,” Tyler tells Rolling Stone Country. “I came from a blues background, and I wanted to make a record like that, but with a rock edge.”
There’s non-stop edge on Holy Smokes: except for a duet with Nikki Lane (the Townes Van Zandt-inspired stunner “To Love Is to Fly”), most of the record bursts forward in a high-octane charge, finding him dissolving into a near skat on “Going Down to the City” or tapping into the danceable, Muscle Shoals moments of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers on “Honey Pie,” a song that flips a bummer of a breakup into giddy fun. It’s been five years since he released Pardon Me, and its clear that if there’s one person most excited about the revival of Jonathan Tyler, it’s Tyler himself. Holy Smokes is more than just the album title, it’s an exclamation.