At the end of the day, there’s an unadulterated titillation at the core of rock and roll to which we will inevitably return. Yes, there’s solace and satisfaction to be found in the triumphant spirit of chamber pop and the soul-bearing ruminations of folk, but it’s only a matter of time before we find ourselves once again held captive by the seductive charm of monstrous guitar riffs, percolating verses, and placating choruses. Nirvana and the Pixies famously championed the formula more than 20 years ago, and Jack White has become its most recent ambassador as the efficacious mastermind behind the White Stripes, Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather.
Here in 2012, no-frills, guileless rock music is once again basking in the limelight; the Kills enjoyed a taste of fame thanks to Alison Mosshart’s supergroup collaborations with White, and the Black Keys are storming SNL and talking trash about perennially reviled arena act Nickelback in the pages of Rolling Stone. It is in this extraordinary moment that we find English blues-rock act Band of Skulls jockeying for position at the apogee of all the distortion pedals and stacked amplifiers. The Southampton trio rode an unprecedented wave of hype to ubiquity some three years ago, as numerous cuts from their debut LP materialized in the unlikeliest of places, including the Twilight soundtrack and Friday Night Lights. Gritty tracks like “I Know What I Am” and “Hollywood Bowl” exuded a palpable swagger, rife with riffage, vocal hooks, and seismic grooves. It might’ve been formulaic, but it still felt somehow deliciously rebellious.
Out to conquer the infamous and aggrandized sophomore follow-up, Band of Skulls purportedly toiled under contentious working conditions to bring us the songs that comprise Sweet Sour. The album’s genesis may have been an irksome affair, but the results readily adhere to the pleasure principal with a calculated fusion of burnished alt-rock stompers and atmospheric ballads. Russel Marsden and Emma Richardson sing in sublime harmony, Matt Hayward’s drums bellow like Bonzo’s, and the guitars snarl and snap with anticipatory catharsis. It’s an irrefutable example of boilerplate rock and roll, and it feels completely awesome.
Certainly, it’s Mr. Seven Nation Army who casts the largest shadow over Sweet Sour. The titular track that gets things underway proffers a slinky, sultry blues-rock milieu that should be familiar to anyone who has Horehound or Sea of Cowards in their library. The production is that of any radio friendly unit shifter, with earworm melodies that get buried in your subconscious (“You’re sour by the minute but you’re sweeter by the hour”) and fiery guitar leads that could’ve been copped from an AC/DC record. Lead single “The Devil Takes Care of His Own” sets itself on a similar orbit, a propulsive fusion of towering drum fills and chugging guitar rhythms.
To their credit, the band doesn’t allow Sweet Sour to become a turgid affair of incessant midtempo rocking; “Bruises” sports sparking verses of acoustic guitar strums and harmonized vocals that come shockingly close to radio pop music, while “Wanderlust” rides a taut 7/8 drumbeat that finds Band of Skulls allaying duple meter temptations with considerable finesse.
The most notable shift in direction occurs on the album’s second side, where 3 of the 5 tracks eschew the fuzzy bluster of previous songs to indulge a more hypnotic and meditative sound. “Hometowns” speaks volumes about the unsettling suburban drama of going back to where you grew up (“All your loved ones / gather round you / to see what you have become”), even though the accompanying toe-tapping percussion and cooed vocals seem as if they were meant to assuage in the manner of a lullaby. “Close to Nowhere” is the quintessential slowburner, an expansive amalgam of hushed voices, chiming guitar chords, and minimalist percussion.
The vanguard spirit that’s present in the heavier moments of Sweet Sour shouldn’t be mistaken for ingenuity; it’s just the reactionary satisfaction that comes with turning the volume up when you’ve got a bone to pick. It’s the same kind of riposte that first encouraged rock’s evolution some 50 years ago, and while Band of Skulls may fail to replicate the zeal of the genre’s forbears on Sweet Sour, they make up for it with a calculated demonstration of its universal and timeless appeal.