Rival Sons continue to mine gold on 'Great Western Valkyrie', their fifth long player with producer Dave Cobb, making meaningful rock in the heart of a country music wasteland called Nashville.
To review this record, I attempted to time travel in my mind, back to 1970, where I imagine placing Rival Sons right in the middle of The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Free, to see how they would have fared. These seem to be the points I see struck by most writers, so I figure those are the glasses I'll put on to look into the distant past to see how the present stands up.
Jay Buchanan and Scott Holiday may be using a template from the past, but they're writing their own story within that context, and while I don't get a sense of genius, I do acknowledge that this is a great band who do what's near and dear to their hearts, and really, that's the gig.
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Dave Cobb's presence is again huge, and I agree with one of Rival Sons' biggest fans, Glenn Hughes, he of California Breed, who just got the Cobb treatment on their excellent debut platter. Cobb understands drum sounds, he knows that with a single guitarist in a trio you need some condiments and side dishes, and he makes sure that a singer isn't stitched into a single sound for an entire record - in other words, he earns his pay as a producer, taking this knowledge and laying it out on glorious two inch tape. They've just made a great record.
I love a band with no weak links, and Rival Sons are one such band - everyone pulls their weight, and the rhythm section of bassist Dave Beste and drummer Michael Miley fill every tune on this record with great twists and turns, Miley playing fills that make me smile and think Moon, while Beste adds melodic flourishes that would make Jack Bruce grin from ear to ear.
You've got to love a band and an album that saves the best cut for last in these instant gratification, I'm too f'n lazy to listen to an album, EP infected days, but let's take a step back and check out the songs.
Electric Man busts out with big rick swagger, and very Plant-like vocal from Jay Buchanan as Holiday whips out a fuzz fried riff the cuffs like a chainsaw while a shaker fueled freight train rhythm moves things along nicely. In the hands of a lesser band this tune would wilt, but Rival Sons milk every moment and never cruise or coast when they can fly. Whoever sequenced this record got it right - this is a great place to start.
Scott Holiday takes us back to the sixties with his tremolo soaked dance riff that announces 'Good Luck', and Jay Buchanan nods his hat in the direction of classic Eric Burdon before Holiday takes the reigns back to throw down a very unconventional solo that fits perfectly - he could have went down the road of pentatonic wankery, but he opts for a fun filled bit of sonic madness.
Remember The Amboy Dukes? That was Ted Nugent's psychedelic metal band of the late sixties, and I'll be damned if the Sons don't nail their vibe on Secret - old Ted was extremely cool when he hung out with druggies, and this is a joy, as well. Beste plays some incredible bass and Miley tours the toms like they did when drummers still knew Krupa - this guy swings while he beats the hell out of the tubs, and that's how it should be, it takes routine rock and makes it great. Buchanan gets better as a vocalist with each album, and we remember why it was so important for labels to let bands develop their sounds - Rival Sons are hitting their stride, and it's pretty glorious.
'Play The Fool' is great crotch rock - a big bluesy riff fed through fuzz pedals and big tube amps - don't buy the lie, big rock requires big amps and the balls to play loud. Turn this up, and dig it. I'm going to continue quoting references from the past and throw out the band Spirit on this one - when the chorus arrives it's melodic and takes the tune from blues rock to classic melody, and you get a full meal and not just an appetizer. Hey Spirit's in the news what with finally getting around to suing Zep for copping the Stairway riff, so this ain't far off base at all.
The band slows it down a bit for 'Good Things', and some silken organ pads make this one rather cinematic - this is a soundtrack for a movie not yet made, but Holiday's tasty fills make this something special, as Buchanan again raises the bar for modern rock vocalists. He covers a lot of ground, and he uses his phrasing and expert sense of dynamics to tell the tale that keeps you rapt and listening. Another unconventional guitar solo by a blessed noise maker keeps the smile on my face.
I'll admit that I've been slow to get on the Rival Sons' bus, but I get it now, and this will most likely end up on the dreaded top ten lists in January.
'Open My Eyes' opens with perhaps a bit too much of a Zep nod, but I'll forgive that as the rhythm section takes this one from dinosaur stomp to a folk inflected rocker. Acoustic guitars and flanged cymbals sweeten things up, and when the fuzz riffs return they're all the more welcome. This bunch never cruises, like I said, and that makes all the difference in the world - in a time when fake, lame drum tracks pass for music and static synths stand in for real arrangements, this music is revelatory.
Buchanan ups the ante with the epic 'Rich And The Poor', an instant classic with one of the best refrains we'll hear this year. I'll leave it to you to seek it out, but you'll dig it - this guy sounds like Morrison with chops on this, and it places him among the giants.
How often does an album get better and better in these times - we're generally hit with the best right off the bat, and the inevitable slow down transpires. Not this time - 'Great Western Valkyrie' gets better with every turn and 'Belle Star' suggests a mashup of The Who and Zeppelin in a most beautiful way. Melody, goddammit, melody - that's what singers have lost, and that's where Buchanan keeps impressing me more and more. Holiday's guitar orchestrations are exemplary and I'm smiling all the way.
Gentle acoustics ring in Where I've Been, and the enters the realm of some bad company. Perfect drums sounds are rare, and Cobb nails it on this ballad - the drums are crisp, full of tone, and musical. Producers, please take note, please. Holiday plays a sumptuous, beautiful solo that fits the song like a glove, and I wonder how so many manage not to get it right. Taste is the key here, and everyone is wearing it on their sleeves.
'Destination On Course' is the closer, and it's one of the best tracks I've heard in eons. Buchanan uses a pristine falsetto that tugs heart strings, and Holiday weaves a tapestry of tone that makes him a new master. These guys are making music - they're not just laying down the next track, they go through no motions, and they never stop listening to one another.
The vocal arrangement here is stunning, and when Holiday goes into his detective novel of a solo, the rhythm section percolates just under boiling, and the key to rock greatness is revealed. Then there's the big instrumental/vocal breakdown, and it's off into the stratosphere of the gods. Maybe the best song I've heard this year.
There you have it - go get it. Pay for this record, pay these guys, it's important. Rock Ain't Near Dead, and I'll be damned if Rival Sons have not proven it mightily with 'Great Western Valkyrie'. Buy it.