Style: Southern Rock
Release Date: 24 May 2019
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2019 continues to surprise us with albums from bands we never thought would release anything ever again. I've reviewed a lot of them here at Apocalypse Later. This month alone I've reviewed albums by bands as diverse as Saint Vitus, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso and Possessed, not to forget solid releases from recent returnees Whitesnake and Lucifer's Friend.
Well, if they aren't enough, here's the new album by Black Oak Arkansas, a band who haven't released a studio album under that name since 1976's 10 Yr Overnight Success, although lead vocalist Jim 'Dandy' Mangrum has generally kept the band going over the years under various names. One of these years I'll make it out to Joey Skidmore's Skid-o-Rama Garage Fest in Kansas City, MO, but I missed Black Oak Arkansas there last year.
Clearly, they're the latest to drink whatever it is in the water this year to prompt a strong look backwards at the past. I'm not sure what else might explain why two founding members, vocalist James 'Jim Dandy' Mangrum and guitarist, Rickie Lee Reynolds, rolled back the hands of time, but that's quite obviously what they were doing because, frankly, it's all over the lyrics like a rash.
The final track, Johnnie Won't Be Good, makes it most obvious, with lines like, "Today's rock 'n' roll ain't doin' what it should", but it's there in earlier tracks too. Channeling Spirits is almost a spoken word performance art piece that looks back at those names the world has music has lost over the years, from Etta James and Chuck Berry on to Dimebag Darrell and Randy Rhoads. It wraps with those members of Black Oak Arkansas who have passed.
"It is a sin to forget the unforgettable," it suggests, a line repeated on the next song verbatim, because it's Ruby's Heartbreaker and it's all about the last name spoken on the prior song, Ruby Starr, who often sang with the band back in the seventies. It's worth mentioning here that there's work on this album from another deceased band alumnus, Shawn Lane, who contributes guitar work to Do Unto Others, even though he died in 2003.
While the point of Channeling Spirits, is all wrapped up in the names that constitute most of the lyrics, there's a wailing guitar that never leaves the song and that becomes a common thread as the album runs on. I presume this is the work of David Flexer and frankly he's all over this album, so much so that he eventually becomes its focal point by sheer perserverance. Sometimes it's a searing lead and sometimes more introspective noodling but it makes me wonder if they just left him in the studio to solo for a couple of hours, then wrote songs around his material, because he keeps on going throughout the verses as well as the gaps between them.
It's been a few decades since I've heard Black Oak Arkansas, so I ought to go back and revisit their heyday. Even without that heritage at the back of my mind (and they charted with ten albums in the seventies), I dug this new album. They've generally been described as southern rock, but this is less a take on the Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd than it is a heady gumbo of Tom Waits, Dr. John and Memphis soul, set to that wailing Flexer guitar.
At its best, this is glorious stuff, unlike anything else I'm hearing this year, because Black Oak Arkansas always went their own way and I'm happy to see that they're still doing that over four decades on. The highlights are dotted in and amongst the others, but I would highlight the emotional Don't Let It Show and the glorious and atmospheric Arkansas Medicine Man, two songs that open the two halves of the album.
At its worst, it's just redundant. There are no stinkers here but there are songs that don't add anything to the album, which would have been better had they been shifted to the flipsides of singles. There's over an hour of music here and it does flag at points, even if that guitar never gets old.
I'd have given this a 7/10 if it had been more consistent, or an 8/10 if it had more standouts of the quality of Arkansas Medicine Man, but I feel that I have to drop a point for inconsistency. If you're a fan already, I'm sure that you're going to pick this up anyway, but, if you aren't, you'll want to hit its high spots first to see if this is for you.