Joe Lewis and his then-named backing band The Honeybears (a cutesy name that they’ve shed with the arrival of this record) once made an appearance on late-night UK music variety stalwart Later… With Jools Holland in 2009, playing a brand of accessible yet somewhat restrained call-and-response blues-rock to a studio of curious and passively enchanted middle-aged Brits. But also in attendance that night, as YouTube rips of the performance attest, was Joss Stone, who looked annoyingly gleeful and lacking self-awareness as always as she was captured dancing inanely in the background.
Perhaps Lewis took note of the negative connotations that surround being publicly approved of by someone as vapid as Stone as he returns with a bruising and bolshy fourth record. Electric Slave, that’ll really separate the men from the boys (and the ladies from the girls, of course). The Austin, Texas man has ripped up the form book this time round by incorporating a predominantly rough-sounding, abrasive texture that emphasises the ragged edges of his band’s – now grouped under the moniker Black Joe Lewis – refreshing garage-blues sound. Even in the promotional pictures accompanying the release of Electric Slave there is a palpable shift towards a more uncompromising image as the group are dressed as late-nineteenth century cowboys, with at least one of them holding a shotgun as they stare menacingly down the lens, presumably with Stone in their sights (maybe).
So do the songs on Electric Slave transmit a coherent sense of this aggressive progression? Oh yes. Opener ‘Skulldiggin’ explodes gloriously, drenching you in distortion and a Jack White-swagger that many attempt to emulate but few can actually pull off (something that may or may not have been influenced by the production of one-time White Stripes-affiliate Stuart Sikes). Following track ‘Young Girls’ then demonstrates a change of pace in a display of genre-blending that appears to be a prominent theme of the record, shuffling along with the kind of intensity you’d find in a sweaty Austin performance space that puts Jake Bugg’s latest blues-aping pastiche to shame.
‘Come To My Party’, meanwhile, sounds like Black Joe Lewis covering an undiscovered Nile Rodgers jam, making you feel more inclined to attend Lewis’ revelry over anything that’s been organised by fellow Southerners Kings of Leon, who had a track of nearly the same name (2007’s ‘My Party’). ‘The Hipster’ chugs along delightfully, featuring brooding riffs and effusive drums that provide the kind of self- confidence for Lewis to spout “Come on man, fuck that shit” in what is probably the coolest vocal refrain on the entire record. And closer ‘Mamma’s Queen’ is a breathless ride from its irresistible opening riff to its climbing bass sequences which so underpin the thumping rhythm of this fitting finale.
There are moments that don’t quite sustain the momentum of these highlights. ‘Dar Es Salaam’ and ‘My Blood Ain’t Running Right’, which essentially sees the former seguing into the latter, are let down by some rather ineffectual horn sections (though this shouldn’t be taken as an all-encompassing criticism of their presence on the record) that detract from the scuzzy guitar brilliance otherwise on show.
And ‘Golem’, whilst channelling some James Brown-esque grooves (again with the horns!), falls short of the heights set earlier in the record by failing to let Lewis and his guitar take centre stage.
So Joss Stone, be gone. In Electric Slave, Black Joe Lewis has crafted a reference point that’ll supplant those old YouTube performances and provide future Lewis scholars with what is arguably the defining point of his career.
7Sam Moore's Score