- Sole' Brothers and Stones lovers: Ben Swank, Oliver Henry, and Johnny Walker (from left).
Critics of this century's garage- and blues-rock revivals like to remind everyone that it's all been done before, that the line between homage and rip-off is now as porous as the Mexican border. True, folks aren't exactly reinventing the wheel here; they're merely adding their own flourishes to the original blueprints. But we've been having this discussion about originality since rock's adolescence. Take, for instance, Lenny Kaye's 1972 Rolling Stone review of Exile on Main Street:
"The Stones have never set themselves in the forefront of any musical revolution, instead preferring to take what's already been laid down and then gear it to its highest, most slashing level."
The bottom line generally comes down to honesty and chops; if you're gonna talk it, you'd best be able to walk it. And the Stones have been an acknowledged influence on Toledo's Soledad Brothers since the group's 1998 inception. The Soledad Brothers' reviews almost invariably invoke the Stones, and Soledad records -- including the latest, The Hardest Walk (Alive Records) -- are awash in the liquored-up, fuzzed-out blues rock the Stones made their own in the '60s and early '70s.
No one's suggesting that the Brothers' fourth full-length is the equal of the Stones' seminal work, but there is context enough to suggest that The Hardest Walk might just be this band's Exile on Main Street. Just as the '72 classic expanded the Stones' sonic palette, The Hardest Walk finds the Brothers mutating their roots to include soul, Britpop melodies, psychedelia, and even a touch of avant-garde jazz.
"It wasn't by design," says frontman Johnny Walker, fresh off a brief sold-out U.K. tour. "It was a very organic experience that took shape as we went along."
There's one other Exile parallel: The Hardest Walk was also recorded in the South of France, in a farmhouse near Bordeaux, where the band turned in a month of 12- and 14-hour days. Walker likens the Bordeaux scene to the one in Detroit that spawned the Soledad Brothers, the Greenhornes, the Von Bondies, Brendan Benson, and the White Stripes (whose Jack White helped produce the Brothers' debut).
"Bordeaux is pretty down-and-dirty," Walker says of the clubs located in the grottos and wine cellars that double as bars in France. "The underground music scene is amazing there. You walk into these teeny, tiny bars and down these spiral staircases into the cellar, and there are a hundred kids in there, sweating and rocking out."
The band recorded The Hardest Walk in the heart of France's wine country, and the album, appropriately, feels soaked in booze. For the sessions, Soledad regulars Walker (vocals, harmonica, guitar), Oliver Henry (piano, sax, organ), and Ben Swank (percussion) were joined by Dechman, a member of the primal French garage duo Deche Dans Face. Dechman plays bass, sitar, banjo, cello, and keyboards, and the Soledads made the most of his skills.
The Hardest Walk takes off on a familiar note with a raunchy quadruple shot of MC5-meets-the-Stones blues-tinged garage rock: Disc-opener "Truth or Consequences" has a "Jumpin' Jack Flash" feel to go along with its baritone sax blasts; the cuckold tale "Downtown Paranoia Blues" roils with pent-up angst and treated vocals; "Crying Out Loud (Tears of Joy)" unfurls in a slow blues reminiscent of "Heart of Stone," and "Crooked Crown" is powered by Walker's wailing harmonica.
The record then seems to open up and embrace a variety of other influences. Henry sings "Sweet & Easy," a song that sounds as if it could have come from T-Rex's Electric Warrior sessions. "Good Feeling" has a Spencer Davis Group groove, while "True to Zou Zou" combines Skip James finger-picking with Dechman's pyschedelic sitar runs. "Let Me Down" features bowed cello scrapes and slide guitar to evoke John Lee Hooker's slinky "King Snake Crawlin'" vibe, and "White Jazz" is a short blast of Albert Ayler chaos.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Soledad Brothers record without some agitation in the mix -- this is a band that takes its name from African American inmates at California's notorious Soledad Prison and performs under a Black Panthers logo. "Mean Ol' Toledo" chronicles that town's 1934 Auto-Lite strike and ensuing violence that eventually led to a number of reforms for workers in the industry.
The Hardest Walk doesn't feature the outrage that characterized the band's only major-label release, 2004's Voice of Treason (Sanctuary), but that doesn't mean Walker's keeping quiet. In fact, the fallout from that record has only reinforced Walker's libertarian inclinations. (You can read more about them at http://www.self-gov.org/celebrities/johnny-walker.html.)
"When we recorded Voice of Treason, we went over to Europe to do promotion, and there were a lot of A&R people sniffing around over here," Walker remembers. "Then the actual title came out, and when I came back, no one would even talk to me. Everybody here was still banging the drum and waving flags.
"I'm not really in this to be a superstar or anything, so I don't care if my political convictions have sidetracked us a bit," he says. "I wouldn't be who I am if I didn't believe in something passionately, so screw it."