Cigar box guitars are made from wooden cigar boxes, with the box taking the place of a traditional guitar body. They go back to the mid-19th century, with periodic revivals, including during the Great Depression. The cigar box sound, especially plugged in, has an interesting resonance, making everything sound just a little oversaturated. Cigar box guitars are experiencing a resurgence, with lots of makers, festivals, and, of course, a documentary (Songs Inside the Box). There’s even a podcast, cementing this as a true 2020 trend. But RB Stone and Ben Rice’s Out of the Box, a fun tribute to the instrument, made using a variety of cigar box guitars, isn’t trendy or crass. Rather it’s a solid blues album that would be just as good a time with regular guitars; it just might not sound as smoky and mysterious.
Rice and Stone are blues singers/guitarists (Stone also contributes harmonica) and solo artists teaming up on a collection of 11 originals performed on cigar box guitars made by different builders, including a variety of string counts. Despite that, there’s an impressive cohesion to the album. There is lots of tonal potpourri, but nothing shifts too dramatically. There are differences in songwriting styles but all of the songs make sense together. Rice and Stone have similarly bluesy voices which pair nicely and also help unite the different tracks. This is a concept album, but not a gimmick album. And even if you don’t know the concept, it’s still an enjoyable record.
That’s because the album’s other underlying concept is simple, slide-based blues performed by talented musicians. So while the songs are familiar grooves and progressions, they’re executed at a very high level. “Hey Politician” swings like a Creedence Clearwater tune, if a song could also somehow get drunk and find its way onto ice skates. The slide isn’t played throughout the song so much as it crackles like a downed power line. It’s raw until the solo, which is melodic and composed, reinforcing the deliberateness of the song. Rice and Stone (and Guy Hale, co-writer but also co-owner of the Gulf Coast Records blues rock label) aren’t just jamming out. There’s thought and intent in their songs, too.
The album is chock full of great moments like “Hey Politician.” “Bad Blood on Mean Whiskey” features just Stone, a bass drum kick, and, of course, his cigar box. The guitar is plugged in and trying for a clean tone, but, as is the nature of these guitars, it feels like it could heat up into distortion at any moment. Considering the sparse arrangement, the song sounds like a full band. “Train of Time” is Rice’s solo turn, with no percussion and acoustic cigar box guitar. It’s low-key and feels like it almost could have been captured during the time of the birth of the original instrument.
The cigar box guitars don’t make or break the album. They certainly provide interestingly sonic variety, but the album would still work without them. So instead, Out of the Box is a great pretense to spend some quality time with Rice and Stone and to also learn about the possibilities of cigar box guitars. Until music returns to the time where it’s enough for artists to just be, you know, entertaining, it’s nice to see that talented musicians are also figuring out ways to be clever promoters. Out of the Box works as a cool record and as a smart marketing case study.
The Review: 9/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Bad Blood on Mean Whiskey
– Train of Time
– Hoodoo Workin’ Overtime
– Jesus Needs A Gig
– Hey Politician
The Big Hit
– Hey Politician
Review by Steven Ovadia