Blacktop Mojo’s Highly anticipated third album, Under The Sun, simply sizzles!
Review by Scott Harmon
Music has rules, well music other than free jazz apparently. And those rules apply to a mere twelve notes including the accidentals. So, with such a seemingly limited arsenal of tools how is it that one band can carve out a little space for themselves that can be called their own? I mean how many times can a band play a song consisting of an A chord, followed by a D chord, which is then followed by an E chord and still keep a listener not just listening, but moved emotionally? Of course, there have been some bands that staked their claim to fame based entirely on branding. And, let’s be honest, branding can be a powerful tool when communicating with a band’s fans and potential fans. Good music, however, cannot rest upon cheap musical parlor tricks; not if the artist wants their music to survive them after they’ve shuffled off their collective mortal coils.
So, how is it done? Well, with seemingly the same ingredients, you add a little of this and a little of that in the hopes yours will stand out. You borrow and steal and re-imagine and throw in a generous helping of commitment and Viola! You’ve got something worthy of sharing. And so it is with Blacktop Mojo and the recent addition to their catalog called Under The Sun, due to drop Sept 13th.
These road dogs hail from the megalopolis of Palestine, Texas, population roughly 18,000, the largest employer of which is the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The City, known for its dogwood floral blooming season is no doubt a prisoner’s seasonal delight. I mention this bit of trivia only because I think an artist cannot help but be informed by their community and their relation to it. And so, it is with Blacktop Mojo that their music incubated in relative isolation. Sure, they had sketchy WIFI and thus were privy to all the music being disgorged by the major record labels; no one in the world is denied access to the American zeitgeist any longer. But, still, when your closest major city is at least 110 miles away you can pretty much fly beneath the radar during your formative years. This gives one a certain amount of freedom to explore and experiment without the threat of stifling rebuke.
That Blacktop Mojo has been influenced by some of our recent masters of the rock genre is indisputable. When the song “Lay It On Me” bursts into its main theme you’ll be reminded of Audioslaves’ Cochise. Is that a bad thing? Of course not, they’re both powerful moments that will grab you by the tentacles and shake you up. If you’re not familiar with lead singer Matt James, think of a Chris Cornell-Zak Wylde-Hagrid mash-up. But he’s got some real serious pipes. On most of the songs, he’s belting out lyrics against the two guitars and the rhythm section with his powerful chest voice. But, he’s got some range and can emote as in the song “It Won’t Last”. One more thing to appreciate is Matt James’ phrasing. I recall someone describing Frank Sinatra’s gift as his phrasing; the ability to hit the right note at exactly the right moment and hold it for precisely the right amount of time. Matt James is very good at this oft-overlooked skill.
Working generally in the rock genre on Under The Sun, the band works hard to make sure there’s something in its songs that is unexpected. For example in “Set It Free” there’s a cool syncopated chord break at about three minutes in. That’s the kind of thing that breaks the rules and fans remember forever. Many of the songs guitar fills are biting but not obtrusive. Lead guitar player Ryan Keiffer can shred with the best of them, and so if ascending and descending legato runs move you to break out your air guitar be prepared to change some strings on that bad boy.
Finally, one cannot or rather should not overlook the rhythm section on “Under The Sun”. Things are kept tight and steady throughout, but special recognition should be given to drummer Nathan Gillis. His touch on both the kick-drum and floor tom can be bone-rattling, so much so, that if one has had a hip replacement, they may want to check with their doctor to see if that joint can handle the punch. (Hey! Hip replacements happen. Even Eddie Van Halen had hip replacement surgery in his forties.)
If one is looking for a bit of the familiar with some unexpected surprises and intense emotion performed by some very skillful musicians, give Under The Sun a listen or two. Their synthesis of musical influences is transparent yet played with such commitment and chops that it begs to be remembered as Blacktop Mojo only. My suspicion is that Blacktop Mojo, which keeps a busy touring schedule, is probably a monster live. So, if you see they’re playing locally I would suggest you drag your significant other down to the venue and get a front-row seat. Or go solo. Sometimes that’s even better.
Check out Blacktop Mojo’s official music video for their single, “Can’t Sleep” released earlier this year.