It’s hard to believe that Blackberry Smoke are already on their fifth album and that twelve years have passed since the band first appeared with ‘Bad luck ain’t no crime’. Like the bands that have influenced them, Blackberry Smoke have worked hard at their craft, honing their skills out on the road and touring with bands such as ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Gov’t Mule. The hard work has paid off and from the moment it appears in a haze of herbal smoke and whiskey fumes, ‘Like an arrow’ lives up to its name. Featuring twelve tracks in just under fifty-minutes, it’s a varied, down-to-earth album that takes in hard rock, blues and country with a charm and enthusiasm that is impossible to deny.
‘Like an arrow’ opens hard with the crackling riff of ‘waiting for the thunder’. Underpinned by the monumental drums of Brit Turner, who appears to be channelling John Bonham, it’s a hard-hitting rock monster with a blues edge and a hook that digs in and stays put. In contrast ‘let it burn’ is a slab of down-home country that trades floor-quaking riffs for toe-tapping shuffle and Honky-tonk piano. That country feel continues on the acoustic-led ‘the good life’, a track that draws welcome attention onto Charlie Starr’s heart-felt lyrics. An album highlight, ‘what comes naturally’ (surely the album’s unofficial title?) is a dusty, blues stomp complete with Brandon Still’s twinkling ivories and a gritty, distorted vocal. It taps into a cultural heritage that harks back to the likes of the Allman Brothers and Vince Gill and stakes a claim for Blackberry Smoke being one of the most prominent torch-bearers for Americana right now. The album continues to plough a laid-back furrow with the blues strum of ‘running through time’ which, with its sweet-yet-subtle lead work and vocal harmonies harks back to Clapton’s first solo effort. There’s a warm Southern breeze that drifts across all of these tracks, but this occasionally rises to a squall, as it does on the gutsy title track which sounds like Zakk Wylde taking on Neil Young with its heavily distorted guitar and slithery vocals leading the listener into an ecstatic, gospel-infused chorus worthy of the Black Crowes in their heyday.
The second half of the album swings into view with the driving rock of ‘ought to know’, a countrified rock number with an addictive beat and a melodic nous that should carry a health warning. In contrast the rich, liquid slide guitar and regretful tone of ‘Sunrise in Texas’ slows the pace beautifully, capturing the lethargic heat of a Texan homestead just rising for the day, and the track proves to be both evocative and powerful. Sticking in a quieter vein, the acoustic guitars of ‘Ain’t gonna wait’ is a simple, country gem with some gorgeous interplay between the guitars and keys but it’s the growling guitars and organ trill of ‘workin’ for a workin’ man’ that gets the blood pumping once more and its taut stomp, not to mention the sweet solo at its core, is another album highlight. Somewhat unexpectedly the band get down ‘n’ funky on ‘believe you me’ which sees Richard Turner’s springy bass underpin a sweet, hot-wired riff. It’s quite different to the other material on the album, but it somehow slots right into place and leads into the closing ‘free on the wing’, a track which features the great Gregg Allman, just to really cement the connection the band have to their own illustrious influences. With honeyed vocals, smooth guitar work and just a touch of nostalgia all designed to keep playing in the jukebox in your brain long after the album itself has finished spinning; it very much leaves you wanting to play the whole thing over again.
‘Like an arrow’ is a musical journey that takes the listener on a tour of Blackberry Smoke’s many influences, all tied together by the instrumental skill and enthusiasm of the band itself. In many ways the record is reminiscent of The Blues Brothers movie which journeys across a similar musical landscape and there’s a pleasure in listening to the band digging into the rich musical heritage of America, adding touches of gospel, blues, R&B, funk and country into a rich brew that is wonderfully intoxicating. Put the album on, close your eyes and you’re in some dusty bar in the Deep South, chicken wire over the stage and beer bottles clanking in time to the music. It’s the sound of good times and good company and there’s an earthy charm to the music that is impossible to ignore. An album that only grows in stature with repeated plays, ‘Like an arrow’ is simply a pleasure to listen to. 8