After the stopgap Blues Pills Live in 2015, the international rock quartet returns with Lady in Gold, a proper sophomore full-length. It also marks the studio debut of drummer André Kvarnström. When the title track single was issued, some fans of the Blue Cheer-meets-Janis Joplin attack on the first album were taken aback by its embrace of rocking soul. Some even went so far as to accuse vocalist Elin Larsson of trying to emulate Adele. Evidently, they'd either forgotten -- or didn't know -- that Adele derived her singing style from Aretha Franklin. Larsson is a rabid Queen of Soul fan.
Lady in Gold was recorded in analog over two years with producer-engineer Don Alsterberg. The sound is much warmer, and the writing more varied. It's more reliant on psychedelic R&B than bluesy hard rock. The single opens the set with a pumping piano that recalls the production Norman Whitfield used with the Temptations (think "Friendship Train" circa 1970). Larsson pushes right into the guitars and bassline before soaring above them in the dense mix; she epitomizes the power and expression in the lyrics about death as a woman. The thrumming bassline and distorted wah-wah guitars create a spiraling racket underneath. "Little Boy Preacher" is deeper, heavier. It's a take on psychedelic gospel, with Kvarnström's funky, shuffling backbeats, Larsson's layered backing chorus vocals, and a stinging, fuzzed-out guitar vamp from Dorian Sorriaux. Zack Anderson's roiling bassline pushes everybody into the red. "I Felt a Change," introduced by Larsson's croon with a Rhodes piano and Mellotron, is an uncharacteristic ballad, weaving sweet Northern soul and Muscle Shoals rhythm & blues. "Gone So Long" makes use of a glockenspiel, organ, and a slide guitar in a sinister, dramatic, blues-inflected rocker. In "Bad Talker," Larsson re-employs her grainy Joplin-inspired falsetto in the opening section. But when the band kicks, she opens up and lets it rip, powering through them. The groove is like Delaney & Bonnie jamming with the Mad Dogs & Englishmen house band. "Won't Go Back" is a throbbing rocker with a whomping Wurlitzer, a vicious fuzzed-out bass, spiky guitar, and a double-time, popping snare rave-up under Larsson's Tina Turner-esque wailing delivery. The set closer is a completely reworked version of Tony Joe White's "Elements and Things" (from his 1969 Monument classic ..Continued). Rather than use the Swamp Fox's chart, the Blues Pills choogle and swagger through the melody and riff from the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" to thunderous result. Qualitatively, Lady in Gold goes way past the band's self-titled debut: Blues Pills' songwriting is more sophisticated, diverse, and confident. The production, while offering a willingness to experiment, doesn't sacrifice the raw power in their performance either. Forget the sophomore jinx, this set delivers on the promise of that first album and then some. ~ Thom Jurek