The Stone Foxes, Bears & Bulls
I’ve had some misgivings about this one for a while now. To be sure, The Stone Foxes’ Bears & Bulls is well-done — very well-done, in fact, and I’ll get to that in a sec — but… Well, there’s just something about it that rubbed me the wrong way and made me wary. It almost felt, frankly, like the band was trying too damn hard.
I think part of the problem, for me, is that while it’s meant to be bluesy and raw and rocking (at least, I think that’s the goal), at the same time, most of it’s clean and shiny and pretty, far, far too pretty. I worry that these guys aren’t really there, y’know? Listening to Bears & Bulls feels like watching a “hard” band of supposed wild dudes who look too clean-cut and polished to be as sleazy and hard-livin’ as they claim to be.
All that said, I’m gradually coming around. There’re still several tracks on the album that I can easily skip and not miss (looking at you, “Little Red Rooster” and “Hyde & Pine”), but two songs, in particular, made me stop and rethink my initial impression of the Foxes. The first is the country-edged, biker-anthem blues-rock tune “I Killed Robert Johnson,” which harnesses up the supposed confession of an unnamed, cuckolded man who poisoned the blues legend with strychnine; the thundering guitars work awesomely well, as do both the yell-along chorus and the softer, more somber break bit in the middle. And then, towards the end, when the wah-wah guitars cut loose…hell, that very nearly made me a believer, right there.
The other song, “Passenger Train,” is so damn good it makes me nearly forget everything else; it’s a story-song like “Johnson” but takes a completely different tack from that tune. Over the mournful, train-like lap steel and Son Volt-esque rhythms, a regretful, ageing train robber looks back at his life and tries to explain why he did what he did and how he couldn’t live with the guilt anymore. It’s pleading and desperate and lost, with a sublimely-crafted, heartbreaking chorus hook and riff, and I find myself skipping back to the start every dang time the song finishes.
After that, I find myself feeling a lot more willing to give The Stone Foxes a chance, and they do deliver, a fair amount of the time. “Young Man” is bluesy and rollicking, with almost a ZZ Top vibe to the vocals and some oddly groove-metal-like, Tom Morello-esque guitar parts (a weird resemblance that also pops up at the start of “Patience,” by the way). Then there’s “Easy,” which roams quietly through a warmly-lit South with a mandolin in its hand, the intense, frantic, “Manic Depression”-like roar of “Reno,” and the git-down, floor-shaking, backwoods country-blues of opener “Stomp,” all of which are well worth a listen.
There’s a nice, double-fisted surprise near the end of Bears & Bulls, too, with “Mr. Hangman” and album closer “Come Again.” The former’s a raw, rough-edged chunk of dirty, harmonica-filled, confrontational blues that sounds for once like the band decided to leave the studio polish by the roadside — it almost comes off like a deeper-voiced White Stripes track, and that’s no bad thing. The latter, on the other hand, is a mournful, broken-down, resigned-sounding blues ballad that’s the voice of a man sitting alone in the ashes of a failed relationship, and it’s pretty great for that.
In the end, then, maybe I didn’t give The Stone Foxes a fair shake the first time through. Sure, they’re young, and if I’m expecting them to be “true to the blues” or something like that, well, that’s a pretty ridiculous bar to set before any band like this. And like I hinted at above, hell, I’m just about willing to give ‘em a pass on the strength of “Passenger Train,” alone.
Hopefully as these guys grow into their sound, misgivings like the ones I started out with will fall away; I’m betting that’ll be the case.