…Medicine Man … has every single aspect of what made the Stones genuinely thrilling in 1972 right in place.
Okay, an admission here before we go any further: when I see EPs by a new band I generally tend to give them cursory attention at best. Not because of any distrust of the music contained therein, but more because there are so many releases out there that I normally decide to wait for the album. Just occasionally, however, one does appear which demands one’s attention because there is something special there. Such is the case with this four-track offering from London outfit Stone Thieves. One look at the band, or perusal of their PR blurb, is likely to pigeonhole them in your mind as one of the many, many blues-rock / ‘Americana’ sort of bands on the circuit at the moment, but while there are elements of that for sure, there is something more going on as the Thieves demonstrate their versatility here.
Opening track Wheels is an absolute corker which channels the spirit of classic-era Neil Young and simply begs to be listened to while driving. So much so, in fact, that I almost expect to see grown men sitting in one of those coin-operated vehicle rides outside the supermarket with their headphones on, just to get the correct ambience! The vocals are pure Young, with the track being propelled along by a crunchingly distorted guitar recalling Like A Hurricane or Hey Hey My My (Into The Black). The chorus is big, meaty and fully earworm-primed, and overall the song would not look out of place driving up to the upper reaches of the singles charts. It won’t, of course, in these days of increasingly baffling chart botherers, but good Lord, it would be a welcome presence!
From this we move on to the semi-title-track, Medicine Man, and if you thought that Crazy Horse fix you just got was the order of the day you’re about to have those expectations dashed away, as we’re deep into Stones territory for this one. Not just the Stones in an abstract sense either, but specifically Exile On Main Street. It’s probably fair to say that Exile itself represents the apotheosis of the trademark loose, louche Stones swagger, and even more true to say that not many other songs would fit in with the curiously self-contained and self-referential ambience of that seminal double album. Well, enter the Medicine Man, which has every single aspect of what made the Stones genuinely thrilling in 1972 right in place, from the beautifully Jagger-esque vocals of the impressive Aaron Gardner (who also writes the songs, incidentally) to the guitars which sound as if they all have cigarettes casually placed onto their headstocks. It’s a track which evokes the good-time atmosphere that the Exile sessions were full of, while also being possessed of much more musical maturity and subtlety than you might think. It’s another winner.
It’s not THE winner, however, as that honour to these ears goes to Let The Good Times Roll. On this occasion you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s going to be a throwaway up-tempo rock and roller which is written to be a good live track. You would, however, be very wrong to write it off as that. In fact, while the influence here is certainly the Stones again without a doubt, it’s a move on from that loose Exile sound to the tighter, soulful semi-ballad material that more reflected the underrated Goats Head Soup album of 1973. You remember the single Angie, and also the superb Winter from that album? Well, that’s the magic that the Thieves have managed to bottle and ferment here. Instead of the good times rolling in a celebration of dancing, drinking and generally having a hedonous time, wish you were here, it engenders a much more world-weary tone which imbues it with more depth and gravitas than anything else here. Great as the other tracks are, this one is one of the best new songs of this ilk that I’ve come across in quite some time.
Cue the last song now, and it’s Wheels (Reprise), which makes you suspect a rather lazy way of rehashing that opening cut to make four tracks out of three. Well, not so, as the track is stripped down to its barest bones of instrumentation and pitched as an entirely different beast. Once again, less celebratory and more reflective. You can still drive to it, sure, but you can equally sit slumped over a whisky and some old photographs as it draws you in. It is almost like a different song, and shows the quality of the composition by proving it can be twisted around and still work.
Judging by this the debut album could be a real stormer. The Church Of The Medicine Man is now open to believers. Try to catch a service if you can. Hallelujah!