The weather is beautiful, the sun is shining, flowers are blooming, and you’re ready to put the windows down and crank the tunes to 11. And being the season of rebirth and rejuvenation, sometimes you need to toss some new music into your library to keep things fresh. This doesn’t mean you’ve got to hunt down the latest releases or Top 40 hits (in fact, the musician in me implores you not to) – but digging into some albums you may not be familiar with and giving them a shot is a great way to shake things up and find a new seasonal soundtrack. So I’m coming at you with my (fairly biased) list of five great records for the urban beardsman worth checking out and playing loud in your spring playlist this year.
1. Great Western Valkyrie by Rival Sons
Guitarist Scott Holiday is known for his crazy-cool handlebar mustache, bassist Dave Beste is usually sporting a beard, and singer Jay Buchanan has taken to letting his man mane grow. Is this perfect storm of facial hair the reason behind one of the most kickass rock and roll records in recent memory? We can’t rule it out.
The Long Beach, California quartet has been making records for the last seven years, and in my opinion this one is their strongest yet. With obvious roots in classic rock and blues, and pulling inspiration from acts like Led Zeppelin, Free, the Doors, and a slew of outfits from the Golden Age of rock and roll, Rival Sons are chock full of heavy riffs, soaring vocals, and straight-ahead rock tunes that are guaranteed to get your toe tapping and your head bobbing. Buchanan’s powerhouse vocals and Holiday’s fuzz-drenched guitar work are reminiscent of the one-two-punch of Free’s vocalist Paul Rodgers and guitarist Paul Kossoff as well as Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, leading to an interplay you can’t stop listening to. These dudes absolutely blow the doors off most current rock bands.
Personal Faves: “Electric Man”, “Secret”, “Open My Eyes”, “Where I’ve Been”
2. Keep Coming Back by Marc Broussard
A dude I’ve been listening to for over a decade, Marc Broussard can do no wrong in my eyes. With a beard as majestic as they come, and a raspy and soulful voice that promises to warm your center like a glass of whiskey, the Louisiana native is constantly moving effortlessly between soul, rock, blues, and folk music, often blending them all together to create – what many have dubbed – bayou soul. Keep Coming Back is his foray into vintage 60’s and 70’s style soul music, complete with a killer horn section and a cracking rhythm section that sits tight in the pocket. But for all the sprawling and expansive arrangements and instrumentation, Broussard never loses sight of what comes at the forefront of his music – his stellar vocals and songwriting.
Personal Faves: “Hard Knocks”, “Keep Coming Back”, “Man For Life”, “Power’s In The People”
3. White Lies for Dark Times by Ben Harper and Relentless7
Ben Harper has changed his personal style as many times as he’s changed musicians in his various backing bands over the years. Starting his career with a supporting band called “The Innocent Criminals”, Harper broke onto the music scene in the early 90’s with his debut record Welcome to the Cruel World and has since worked with a rotating lineup of stellar musicians, but in 2009 he reemerged with the newly formed Relentless7 and released – in my opinion – one of the finest albums in his discography. Longtime fans of Harper know he’s a talented and versatile slide guitarist with a penchant for dabbling in various styles from funk and blues to folk and acoustic music. White Lies for Dark Times sees Harper and the band crank up the amps and let it all hang out for a record that is equal parts ass-kicking blues-rock (“Number With No Name”, “Keep It Together (So I Can Fall Apart)”) and somber slow-burners (“The Word Suicide”, “Fly One Time”).
Personal Faves: “Number With No Name”, “The Word Suicide”, “Shimmer and Shine”, “Keep It Together (So I Can Fall Apart)”
4. Major/Minor by Thrice
Thrice’s evolution and growth over the years might be one of the most amazing and creatively impressive things I’ve ever witnessed as a musician. To listen chronologically from their early hardcore albums like The Illusion of Safety and The Artist in the Ambulance to their later works like The Alchemy Index and Beggars is to hear a band quite literally mature, grow up, and continually improve and produce awesomely diverse work right in front of your eyes (or ears). You can’t go wrong with any Thrice record, but Major/Minor was their last release before their hiatus in 2012 (which officially ended in 2015 when they resurfaced for some shows, and are now about to release a new record this year) and was the epitome of going out with a bang. Lead singer/guitarist Dustin Kensrue is a juggernaut lyricist and songwriter with a powerhouse set of pipes to boot. The complexities of the song arrangements and nuanced instrumentation elevate Thrice’s tunes far above their contemporaries, and Major/Minor is a solid offering from start to finish.
Personal Faves: “Yellow Belly”, “Treading Paper”, “Words in the Water”, “Anthology”
Bonus: Carry The Fire by Dustin Kensrue
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Thrice frontman Dustin Kensrue’s solo records. His first was 2006’s Please Come Home and is one of my favorite albums of all-time – more acoustic and folk-driven, it’s a stripped down offering from a guy usually belting out wall-shaking notes in front of a four-piece hardcore rock outfit. His sophomore effort Carry The Fire is interesting in that it strikes a fine balance between the heavier sounds of Thrice and the more bare-bones singer/songwriter sounds of Please Come Home.
Personal Faves: “Back to Back”, “Of Crows and Crowns”, “Gallows”, “Death or Glory”
5. Fire and Water by Free
Being a singer, Paul Rodgers is one of my heroes. Being a guitarist, Paul Kossoff is one of my idols. Lucky me, they were in the same band. As one of the UK’s biggest exports at the time, Free exploded onto the scene in 1970 with the release of their third studio record Fire and Water, with the band members barely out of their teens when the single “All Right Now” shot up the international charts. The real gem on this record is the raw musicianship and emotive singing/playing of Rodgers and Kossoff, respectively. The rhythm section – consisting of Simon Kirke on drums and Andy Fraser on bass – are locked in and padding the bottom end of the music, leaving room for Rodgers’ soulful and brawny vocals and Kossoff’s monster bends and vibrato to cut through and carry the tunes. A record that has influenced artists from Joe Bonamassa to Jason Isbell, Free’s Fire and Water is a must-have classic album.
Personal Faves: “Fire and Water”, “Mr. Big”, “All Right Now”, “Heavy Load”
Want to see more album recommendations? Have an album I should check out for the next installment? Let me know on Twitter – @zachcaruso