Five Horse Johnson, The Taking of Black Heart: Roped In

[NOTE: Five Horse Johnson will play Small Stone’s Obelisk-presented Detroit showcase on Dec. 1 at the Magic Stick, with Halfway to Gone, Sasquatch, Freedom Hawk and Luder. Also note: You should go.]

It has been a quick six years since bluesy Ohio stalwarts Five Horse Johnson released The Mystery Spot. In that time, frontman Eric Oblander toured the world with Clutch during what I’ve come to think of as their “family band” period that also included an organ and was brought in to sing for Sorcen, a partial Necros reunion. Guitarist Phil Dürr (also of Big Chief) joined forces with Luder, Five Horse Johnson’s Small Stone compatriot act which also features label head Scott Hamilton on guitar. And Jean-Paul Gaster, who played drums on The Mystery Spot, also happens to play in Clutch. The ties especially between Five Horse Johnson and Clutch prove pervasive throughout the former’s upcoming seventh album, The Taking of Black Heart. Gaster makes a return appearance on drums for the 11-track outing, and the record was produced in everything but Oblander’s vocals by longtime Clutch engineer J. Robbins at The Magpie Cage in Baltimore. Robbins, also of Jawbox, also contributes organ and percussion throughout The Taking of Black Heart, and Cheap Trick vocalist Robin Zander steps up for a take on Rod Stewart’s “You’re My Girl (I Don’t Want to Discuss It)” that trades off the parenthetical “Discuss” for the more genial “Talk About.” Through several of its tracks, The Taking of Black Heart seems to rely on some consistent lyrical thematic, though if there’s a narrative arc to the tracks, I don’t know what it is. Nonetheless, on opener “The Job,” Oblander mentions his horse, named Mexico, which appears a short time later on the track “Mexico” and tracks like “Black Heart Baby,” “Smash and Grab” and the closing pair of “Shoot My Way Out” and “Die in the River” seem to work in a successive progression toward the unhappy ending of the last cut, and the atmosphere remains relatively close to the Western-style vibing evident on the cover art. So if nothing else, there’s a lot of context behind Five Horse Johnson’s seventh, though the songs themselves arrive with as little pretense as possible, coated in blues influence and driving heavy rock that, unsurprisingly, finds a lot of common ground with latter-day Clutch.

There are, however, numerous distinctions to be pointed out between the two. A huge factor in Five Horse Johnson’s sound is Oblander’s blues harp. Filling the space between verse lines, doing call and response with Dürr and Brad Coffin’s guitars on “Keep on Diggin’,” taking the occasional solo throughout the record, it’s a defining element of what the band does, no less an instrument at play than either of the guitars, Gaster’s drums or Steve Smith’s bass. Another difference is influence. While Gaster is bound to be a consistent element, and his snare work early into “Black Heart Baby” or the later highlight “Hangin’ Tree” (not a Queens of the Stone Age cover) is easily pegged as his style, the songs he’s playing on are more straightforwardly influenced by classic rock. Clutch’s funky guitar progressions are all but absent here, and even when blatant commonalities show up, as they do toward the middle of the record on “Beating in My Hand” – Robbins’ organ helps drive the comparison as well – or the following “Quick on the Trigger,” which treads close in its bounce to “Electric Worry,” the track on Clutch’s 2007 outing, From Beale Street to Oblivion, on which Oblander’s guest appearance led him to tour with the band in the first place, those elements have a different stylistic context. Five Horse Johnson’s blues come stuffed tight into classic rock swagger on The Taking of Black Heart, and in that way, the album makes a solid follow-up to The Mystery Spot, and one can hear that the last six years has furthered the maturity level that that album showed coming off of 2003’s The Last Men on Earth, though were it not for the consistent quality of songwriting I’d be hesitant to even compare the two with so much time having elapsed between them. Nonetheless, “Mexico” and the ultra-catchy “Beating in My Hand” and “Quick on the Trigger” carry the record through its halfway point and Five Horse Johnson offer a new-feeling take on their trademark brashness, sounding all the more dynamic for the realization that you don’t necessarily have to go as hard as possible at all times.

And if “Quick on the Trigger” sounds like “Electric Worry,” well, I might want to recapture that feeling too. It fits well as the centerpiece, and the slide of the following “Smash and Grab” makes for suitable accompaniment, complemented of course by Oblander’s ever-vigilant harp. “Hangin’ Tree,” despite being one of The Taking of Black Heart’s strongest hooks alongside “Mexico” and “Beating in My Hand,” is moodier in its feel but gives “You’re My Girl (I Don’t Want to Talk About It)” a solid lead-in all the same, Zander’s voice piped in at just the right moment to revive Five Horse Johnson’s kick-in-the-pants classic rock. Some of the best guitar soloing on the album ensues, and Gaster, who seems shorted by not getting a drum solo somewhere throughout these tracks, delivers a standout performance nonetheless as the jam in the closing minutes of the song comes around to its finish. Reenergized, the push into “Shoot My Way Out” is head-first, and though the chorus seems to want more of Robbins’ organ work, Five Horse keep it simple and to the point with an insistent heavy rock groove that sticks through the verse and beyond. At 3:10, the song breaks down, but they’re not finished yet, and Gaster ups the pace on drums while Oblander and the guitars trade off solos to close, Oblander recounting half the chorus to serve as an outro. “Die in the River” has no such build to it, but the acoustic/electric slide guitar interplay, harp, rolling groove and lyrics about the speaker throwing himself in the river make for plenty enough a sense of conclusion. The album ends with an affirmation of that groove but ultimately no more ceremony or pomp than it started, and while that is among the numerous reasons Five Horse Johnson’s seventh outing is a welcome listen, I can’t help but feel like after six years since the last time out, they couldn’t be giving themselves a little more than they are. Nonetheless, The Taking of Black Heart states its case clearly in the songwriting, traditional electric blues arrangements, classic rock thrust and the excellent guitars of Coffin and Dürr. I won’t pretend to know how long it will be until Five Horse Johnson follows it with another album, of if they will, or what their plans might or might not be in that regard, but there’s still room to grow and these tracks show the band has no interest in being stagnant, so hopefully the next installment arrives sooner than the next half-decade.

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