It’s not yet clear which one of these I was veering towards when Stone Black’s first disc loaded up in the laptop and started spinning, but the freshly minted term “red state rock” shimmered in my head as the computer commenced to humming and clicking.
Thanks Rolling Stone.
Opening with “I’ll Be Gone” (a sort of country/rock power ballad type thing) Stone Black’s intentions are pretty clear — they want to write a hit song.
Through 33 minutes and 10 tracks, the band touches on most of the building blocks of the “modern country/rock” sound, playing up the rock part of things on tunes like “She’s Tough” and the country side in “I Don’t Blame Me,” which finds vocalist Jonathan Yates reaching for a little Earle/Mellencamp vibe in his delivery.
Shannon Clark demonstrates an ear for crafting appropriate and tasty guitar tones throughout, and save for a somewhat lackluster mix on the drums, the album sounds pretty decent for a local release.
In their bio, the band mentions several times that their goal is to write songs that people can relate to — and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the themes they draw from are often rife with clichés; women, drinking, more women, more drinking, some partying ... you get the picture. Sprinkle in some sadness when the sweet loving comes to an end, and you’ve got the frame.
Now, this isn’t a criticism that can only be aimed at them, seeing as how unadventurous, tried-and-true subject matter is pretty well the order of the day for the really successful crossover country acts. The difference is that those acts (let’s use Toby Keith/Dierks Bentley/Big & Rich as examples) have the budget to hang every bell and toot every whistle they can muster to cover what usually amounts to fairly banal songwriting.
If you’re the little guy, you simply have to try that much harder. One part of that is playing to your strengths, which Stone Black seems to have a bit of trouble recognizing.
There are plenty of ideas on the self-titled album, but some of those ideas simply don’t sound as fleshed-out as they could be, which easily could be due to budget constraints or a lack of time spent on arrangements.
Take a song like “I Love The Way You Say No,” which has most of the ingredients it needs. Sometimes the hook the band relies on isn’t the strongest idea in the song, and the catchier elements are hinted at but not capitalized upon.
In other places, it’s simply a case of not working a part until it’s where it should be — a few bum notes in the “big guitar solo” on “Ten Minutes” take away from what was surely the desired effect. The “wrong lyrics for the music” syndrome plagues “Party In The Parking Lot,” which tries to marry a strong JJ Cale styled riff to a tale of, well, a parking lot party.
When they keep it simple, Stone Black makes the most of its potential, as heard on the slightly tex-mex feel of “Diana” and the classic Skynyrd fueled twang and swagger of “Muddy Water.” The things that work for the band really do work well, and they more often hit their collective stride on the songs that don’t sound like they’re trying so hard to be “hits.” Simple and straightforward songwriting is great, but it shouldn’t be confused with formulaic and predictable songwriting.
With new material written and another album already in the works, Stone Black isn’t wasting any time taking the next step. They’ve a dedicated fan-base and a considerable amount of experience under their belts, so their next release will surely be a step further in the right direction — one that will probably find the band a lot more comfortable sounding like themselves.
Catch Stone Black and the new tunes (as well as a host of popular covers) at any number of local gigs, including at Sylva’s Rusty Lizard on Feb. 23.