Five Horse Johnson: The Taking of Blackheart.
Label: Small Stone Recordings
Producer: J. Robbins
Five Horse Johnson exploded out of Toledo, Ohio in 1996 with their debut album Blues for Henry. A raw, visceral recording, Blues for Henry came through with a growling, blues soaked passion supported by a heavy, grinding stoner groove. Eric Oblander's coarse vocals and harp playing howled with ache, anger and a thorny sense of humor. The guitar work of Brad Coffin and Phil Durr dredged up, as if from the bottom of a dirty lake, the sounds of classic rock, blues and the heavy resonance of stoner rock. Dripping with mud, each song was the gritty, jagged edged shade of it's influences. The combination of these elements with the raw production of the album genuinely gives one the sense that they are "hearing in sepia tone", if that's possible- the sense that the music is dog-eared and venerated by time.
While the production of their albums may have become more polished over the years, Five Horse Johnson has accomplished this without sacrificing the gritty and raw feel of the music, which is really saying a lot. To be able to polish and refine the recording process while holding onto the initial grimy, brooding passion of the sound indicates that the grit is truly in them and inevitably a part of every note and syllable of their work. And as such, FHJ has, album after album, demonstrated the ability to masterfully combine blues, classic and southern rock, and stoner groove at will, creating a sound and feel truly their own.
Five Horse Johnson recorded fairly consistently between 1996 and 2006, releasing 6 albums in that time. After the release of The Mystery Spot (2006), however, we saw a seven year hiatus for the band, at least in terms of releases. And now in 2013- the year of the snake- Five Horse Johnson is back with The Taking of Blackheart. And, as per their norm, they do not disappoint. For the second time since 2006's The Mystery Spot, the great Jean-Paul Gaster of Clutch has manned the drum kit for FHJ. Needless to say, his work on The Taking of Blackheart is stellar, laying down his unique brand of groove rhythm to support the bands already well established raucous and bawdy sound. I was, however, a bit surprised and disappointed to find that JP didn't have a solo anywhere on the eleven track offering. None the less, Jean-Paul Gaster and FHJ work brilliantly together to create yet another memorable release.
The album contains a number of tracks which ride a softer, quieter wave than we might normally expect from a FHJ album, giving The Taking of Blackheart a slightly more mellow feel than previous releases. Whereas past outings have hit pretty hard from the first note with the FHJ style of ruckus, The Taking of Blackheart's 1st track, The Job, begins with some diffuse, haunting sound effects which the band gracefully slides into. JP is the first to appear, laying down the groove, then the guitar and harp enter into the track, sequentially building to the FHJ sound we have come to expect. And all the while the ominous echo of the sound effects remain persistent though the intro. Hangin' Tree, the 8th track of the album, starts off with an easy classic rock riff with sparse, quiet guitar work. It periodically climbs to points a little noisier and drops back down, eventually building to the chorus, where the guitar stands and delivers a ballsyness more familiar of the FHJ sound. The track finishes strong with the kind of southern rock guitar solo and energy we would expect from a FHJ song, demonstrating the ability to blend various aesthetic qualities and intents into a coherent whole. The final track of the album, Die in the River, finishes the outing off with a consistently slow, sad sound befitting the theme of the song. The harp playing has a mournful quality. The guitar work consists of slow, sliding country blues and the solos, rather then ascending to noisy heights, bemoan the thematic sadness of the track.
As a real change of pace for FHJ, track 9 finds the cover of Rod Stewart's Your my Girl. And if that's not enough, Robin Zander of Cheap Trick steps in for the track's vocals.While the music is more or less a note for note rendition, the guitar work of Brad Coffin and Phil Dur along with Erik Oblander's harp, push their version of Your my Girl ahead with a hell of a lot more chutzpah than the original.
Thematically, the most interesting aspect of the album is the vaguely described story arc of a wild west gun for hire which pervades the whole of the album. The opening track, "The Job", describes a gunslinger who has accepted some sort of felonious mission and, in which, we are told the name of his gun and horse- Rosie and Mexico respectively. Mexico is the title of of the 4th track, tying it back into the theme presented in The Job, and describes the gunslinger's difficulty in getting the horse to ford a river so that he might escape the law. Track 5, Beating in my Hand, references 'the job' mentioned earlier, but how it otherwise fits into the story arc is hard to say. The following track, "Quick on the Trigger", however, fits much more readily into the story arc, describing vengeance against a double crossing 'employer'. One would think this is the man who hired him for the job initially described. The second to last track (10), "Shoot my way Out", describes the climax of the story. The consequences of murdering his former employer come in the form of a gun fight (presumably with the victim's henchmen) in which the gun fighter is hopelessly out manned and must, as the title suggests, shoot his way out of the situation. This is probably my favorite track on the album. The song crescendos in an explosion of southern blues fury which, given the thematic nature of the song, vividly paints, with sound alone, the picture of the gun fight's violent conclusion and the character's escape. He is however, shot during his escape which leads into the 11th and final track, Die in the River. This completes the story arc with the death of the gunslinger at a river bank, his corpse floating downstream.
A story arc of this sort is certainly unusual for FHJ. This, in combination with with the aforementioned areas of experimentation in tempo and sound, create an exciting derivation in album composition for FHJ. And they manage to accomplish this without loosing any of the qualities we have come to love in this band, demonstrating their ability to grow and change and still be exactly who they are.
Even an average FHJ album would be welcome after such a long hiatus, but to step up and deliver a top notch offering like The Taking of Blacheart, full of balls and new ideas is nothing short of super bad ass. But that's FHJ, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised.
Five Horse Johnson is:
Eric Oblander: Vocals and harp
Brad Coffin: Guitar and vocals
Steve Smith: Bass
Phil Durr: Guitar
Chuck Mauk: Drums