Rock and roll doesn’t need to be raw to be effective. Roses Are Black features the Ghost Hounds producing music that rocks hard, but that is also tight and polished. The cohesiveness of the sound is especially impressive given the circumstances that led to the album.
The band began in Los Angeles, releasing a self-titled debut, and then dissipating. But guitar player Thomas Tull eventually felt the pull of band life and began collaborating with David Grissom, best known for his guitar work with John Mellencamp, and with songwriter Kevin Bowe, who’s worked with everyone from The Replacements to Etta James. With songs in hand, Tull rebuilt the band, which included finding new lead singer Tre’ Nation, who came from a gospel background.
On paper, the band origin and construction shouldn’t work, but listening to Roses Are Black, it comes off as an absurdly obvious combination: ‘Of course a Mellencamp sound with heavier guitars and more soulful vocals makes sense. Why wouldn’t it?’
The songs have a strong Mellencamp energy. It’s rock and roll crossed with midwestern country. “Almost Loved You” is a ballad with a country lilt, aided by some country guitar bends and a gallop of a beat. But Nation’s vocals have an emotional resonance and range that isn’t universal in country songs. When he sings about driving away someone who’s trying to love him, there’s no air of cool of detachment. He feels bad and we feel bad for him.
The album also features some pretty big-name guests. Slash appears on two tracks, tearing it up on the upbeat and dramatic “Black Rose,” which is heavy country, and on “We Roll Hard,” a blues rock boogie. Stevie Ray Vaughan keyboardist Reese Wynans, drummer Kenny Aronoff (who has also worked with Grissom and Mellencamp) and session bassist Michael Rhodes appear together on three tracks. “Fire Under Water,” one of those tracks, benefits from the star power, with the three guests giving the song a spacious groove, which allows Tull and Nation plenty of room to work, aided by what sounds like an army of background singers.
The album concludes with acoustic versions of two earlier album cuts: “Second Time Around” and “Push That Rock Up the Hill.” On the one hand, two versions of the same song on an album can feel like you’re not getting your money’s worth. But Ghost Hounds make the acoustic versions different enough that it doesn’t feel like padding. The unplugged “Second Time Around” sounds even more 80s than the electric version, now rendered a cross between Extreme and Baby Face. “Push That Rock Up the Hill” is bluesier than the electric version, and a little cooler and looser.
Roses Are Black feels deliberately constructed, which makes sense given that the songs came before the band. While the album might benefit from a little more spontaneity, you can’t deny the performances. The fact that Nation didn’t come out of a blues rock environment makes him an especially clever choice. He understands the genres and can do country and blues and rock all day, but it’s always rooted in something a little different that gives every song its own unique twist. It’s especially evident on the acoustic reprises, where Nation finds ways to provide fresh takes on his previous performances.
The Review: 8/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Almost Loved You
– Push That Rock Up the Hill (acoustic)
– Black Rose
– Second Time Around (electric)
– Fire Under Water
The Big Hit
– Fire Under Water
Review by Steven Ovadia