San Francisco’s own The Stone Foxes release their second album, Bears & Bulls, this week, and it’s chock full of rip-roaring, bluesy rock songs that have a strong throwback feel to them, betraying the band’s actual age. This is accomplished in part by the band’s team-style vocals, as any or all of the Foxes take over main vocals duties on a song. Guitarist/singer/bassist Aaron Mort, guitarist/singer Spence Koehler, drummer/singer Shannon Koehler, and bassist/guitarist/singer Avi Vinocur have a tight cohesive sound together that they show off on every song. Stomp starts out the record with a 2-minute soulful stomp (I assume that’s the origin of the name), before Patience erupts with a driving guitar riff and jammy second-half, accentuated with some group vocals.
I’ve seen the Stone Foxes play a lot of these songs live for about two years (in the time between 2008’s debut album and this new one), and while the live versions were damn solid enough, the studio versions kick ass.
I Killed Robert Johnson was my favorite of the live songs, and it’s even better here, with crisp guitars and a steady rhythm going along with Avi’s vocals. Lyrically, the song is pretty creative, taking the point of view of the bartender who poisoned blues singer Robert Johnson with strychnine in 1938 (or so the myth goes). It's one of those "if you haven't heard this band yet, hear this first" - type songs.
I hadn’t previewed Passenger Train at a live show, so it was a nice surprise when I heard the album. It’s a slower, country-esque number with twangy guitars and Shannon on singing duty.
Young Man is a driving ditty with snarling vocals by Aaron. The song’s upbeat rhythm and thunderous sound make it a standout of the record, especially when the instrumental break kicks in during the second half and slows down, only to pick up again for the outro. Solid.
Easy is another highlight, another slower exercise with Avi and Aaron splitting vocals, set to a Southern-style acoustic melody. It’s a very smooth-sounding song.
Reno kicks things up again to another barn-storming rhythm, with Avi singing about the little Nevada town and its ability to break the hearts of aspiring gamblers who leave dejectedly with pennies in their pockets. After a minute and a half of energy, it slows down to a spaced-out jam session before picking up for the finale. The song finds the Foxes at their instrumental best, and makes it another highlight of the album. It’s a different sort of song for the Stone Foxes, but I really like what they did with it.
Through the Fire, one I’ve heard a handful of times in concert, finds Shannon manning the drums and microphone, which isn’t something to shake a stick at (whatever that means). It’s a tender ballad with a loud group chorus, and it works well.
Spence and his guitar are the stars on Little Red Rooster, a Willie Dixon blues standard that the Foxes have played for a while in concert. I’m glad they included it on Bears & Bulls, as their version is great. Spence’s raspy drawl meshes with the slow-creeping blues rhythm perfectly. The song really lets the band pay homage to their roots, and they do so with flying colors.
Hyde & Pine is another hard-driving upbeat affair, with Aaron snarling through his vocals until the quieter pre-chorus. I’d recommend this song to Stone Foxes newbies, as it’s a pretty solid demonstration of their best qualities, all wrapped into one song.
Mr. Hangman, a noisy ruckus in which Shannon abandons the drums and adopts a harmonica in concert, translated very well onto the record as well. It has a pounding beat and his emotive voice helps the song sound like they reached into the 1960s and brought it back with them, using some fancy time machine device.
That’s really the most impressive aspect of the Stone Foxes – their ability to create this vintage, throwback sound that is especially impressive given their young age. That’s what made me interested in them back in 2008, and they’ve honed their skills even more with Bears & Bulls. This album puts every one of their best qualities on display; their first record was great, but this one is even better.
If you haven’t heard of the Stone Foxes before, get your dirty mitts on Bears & Bulls, and most definitely check them out when they visit your town (they tour a lot, so there’s no excuse for missing out). You won’t regret it.
Check this out if you like: The Allman Brothers Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cream, Neil Young, the Raconteurs