When the rock music genre comes up in conversation, I usually think of Bruce Springsteen first. His classic guitar riffs, mesmerizing beats, and of course, power-grit vocals are unmistakable, but not only that, he seemed to pave the way for other artists to be creatively expressive, yet not afraid of a little mainstream accessibility. Kris Heaton Band’s most recent album, Stand Up, is no exception to the Springsteen influenced crowd, but their innovative, often socially charged lyrics set them on a sparkly path of their own, complete with nods to blues and…well…even a little pop/country.
The energized opening of the first track, “Stand Up,” immediately reminds me of Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” as well as, shocked as everyone may be to hear this, Taylor Swift’s “State of Grace,” complete with catchy melody, brass riffs, and inspirational chord changes. The immediate intensity of the relationship between drums and guitar especially sets the stage for drama, just as Springsteen and Swift set a similar stage for their aforementioned tunes. The biggest difference with “Stand Up,” is that Heaton delivers the drama on a broader, social commentary scale, not limited to the personal: “In this world there is an evil tide/rollin’ up upon our doors/build your walls/build them high/protect our world…stand up/stand up/standup.” Despite its potential influences, from here on in there’s no mistaking Heaton for anyone else.
For a self-proclaimed blues musician, Heaton sure gears this album toward rock, at least that’s what it sounds like on the surface…at first. Both blues and rock genres, like jazz and bop, often blur into each other, influencing each other’s evolution through the ages. Therefore, despite the heavily rock-like feel of songs like “Midnight Romeo,” “Family,” and “Shake it Up,” especially evident in emphasis on electric guitar/drums and the way the guitar chords are played, each song has an underbelly of blues in the chord changes and occasionally Heaton’s vocal stylings as well.
The main thing that distinguishes artists with a blues influence, however, isn’t necessarily their stylistic approach or use of ‘blues techniques’ or specific chord changes, but rather their interpretation of how to be soulful. And that, I can say with fully confidence, Heaton and his band have in spades. Especially the tunes “Home,” “Joe,” “Never Say Goodbye,” and “The Show,” demonstrate a heartfelt vocal timbre alongside (mostly) more moderate tempos, equally powerful guitar and drum work, and an extra musical surprise or two. Specifically, “Never Say Goodbye,” features a seductive drum beat, piano, prominent bass, solo electric guitar, and a choir, the combination of which lends itself to a very satisfying musical depth – a soul, a spirit, a beating heart – blues in its truest form.
Speaking of ‘truest forms,’ let’s slide back toward the conversation about rock for a moment. Can you say EIGHTIES? Even late seventies, if you take into the account this choir business, which harkens strikingly back to the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” In any case, Heaton draws from the most classic and true forms of rock music in existence, shooting for the innovation of the late seventies in rock music, and representing the magic of the eighties by including the occasional playful synth background. “Midnight Romeo,” which I mentioned before, is the most innocent, blast-from-the-past example, with its appealing harmonies, simple accompaniment, and somewhat expected, but catchy bridge riffs. As the album moves forward, though, the elements of rock become more complex in the tunes, just as they did from the mid-seventies to mid-eighties. “Heart of Stone” and “Stop Bringing Me Down,” for example, are both driven by the playfulness and creativity that can only come from a genre in transition, gaining energy with each shift, and complete with choir, warped vocals, synth, and a tempo of obsession, these tunes don’t disappoint.
Coming full circle: the lyrics. There’s a bit of obsession inherent in this aspect of each song as well, regardless of whether the message is more geared toward social commentary (“Stand Up” and “Win”), or more toward the personal, the direction in which many of the mid-album songs point. The lyrics dig deep into the desperation in obsession, with lines like: “without you I would die/time passes like the winds on the oceans/while the desert sands never seem to blow away/we’ll never say goodbye” from “Never Say Goodbye,” and “if you don’t know what number to call I say/Call me,” which is virtually the entire lyrical content of “Call Me.” My favorite example of Heaton’s lyrical prowess and forward moving energy is “Fallen Hero,” as it seems to include both the personal and allusions to a more worldly theme: “mama said a storm is formin’/she says when trouble comes get out of its way/he’s just another fallen hero…/he was my brother/he was a man.”
Every track of Stand Up seems to have a few deeper and ever-widening parallel strands that take the listener past what we initially expected, whether the strands be thematic, lyrical, or musical. This album definitely deserves congratulations for its perfectly influenced throw-back style and Heaton’s inspired way of combining this past with his very skilled, creative present. I’m very excited to hear what these guys have in store for the future. Bring it on.
Album: Stand Up
Artist: Kris Heaton Band
Reviewed by Alice Neiley
Rating: 5 stars out of 5