The Black Lillies are one of the most esteemed, eclectic and hardest-working bands out on the Americana highway. But they transcend that label, blending Nashville gothic, psychedelic rock and oldschool soul into their hard-hitting mix. Their latest album Hard to Please is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing a relatively rare, intimate gig this Jan 28 at 8 PM at City Winery; general admission is $15.
Bandleader Cruz Contreras – who plays several keyboards and guitars here – gets a lot of production work, so he draws on an extensive talent base. The core of the band on this album includes singer Trisha Gene Brady, pedal steel player Matt Smith, guitarist Daniel Donato, bassist Bill Reynolds and drummer Bowman Townsend.
The album opens with the title cut, guests Jamel Mitchell’s baritone sax and Kris Donegan’s baritone guitar growling on the low end, building a vintage 60s R&B sway in the same vein as the Pretty Things or early Kinks. That’s the Way It Goes Down follows a familiar Americana rock pattern: catchy, jangly verse, explosive chorus as the BoDeans would have done it in their heyday twenty years ago. Donato’s savage lead blasts through into the third chorus and just doesn’t stop: it’s the album’s high point.
Contreras’ echoey Wurlitzer and Ed Roth’s Hammond organ infuse Mercy with a Memphis soul-gospel simmer, Mitchell leading a similarly summery horn section. Brady’s passionate vocals rise over the horns’ steady late 60s soul pulse in The First Time, with a neat exchange of solos, Donegan’s guitar and Smith’s steel over Contreras’ bubbly electric piano.
Matt Menfee’s banjo echoes mournfully in the grim duet Bound to Roam, an update on the folk classic Wayfaring Stranger. Then the band picks up the pace with Dancin’, Contreras’ bluegrass guitar contrasting with Smith’s honkytonk steel and Donegan’s southern-fried riffage; Menefee’s banjo is the icing on the cake.
Backlit by steel and easygoing acoustic picking, Desire sounds like a more down-to-earth Deer Tick. Contreras’ jaunty barrelhouse piano fuels the raucously Chuck Berry-ish band-on-the-road narrative 40 Days. He switches to mandolin for the album’s most relevant number, the broodingly allusive World War II Pacific theatre ballad Broken Shore. The album closes with a surreal mashup of mid-80s Cure pop and 70s dadrock. The band have a new one in the works; the show this weekend may be a good chance to get a taste of what they have in store.