While it will be impossible to view or hear ‘All of Your Stones’ without taking into consideration it’s tragic background and context, it’s nonetheless The Steel Woods’ tightest album yet, and one of the best albums of 2021 thus far.
I know how I’m supposed to open this review, and I absolutely hate that.
If you’ve been following southern-rock band The Steel Woods for any length of time now – and you really should, if not – you know the background surrounding their newest release, All of Your Stones, written and recorded before band co-founder and guitarist Jason “Rowdy” Cope’s unfortunate passing in January. And if you had been following him for any length of time, you know that his musical resume spoke for itself – including his work with Jamey Johnson, Lindi Ortega, and Nikki Lane, among so many others.
Now, that naturally sets up weighted expectations for any new release when something tragic happens beforehand, and I can’t say I’m always good about approaching it with an open mind. Granted, it’s all a bit easier here, and that’s the talking point I wish I could have used to start this review – the one that says how The Steel Woods have been knocking it out of the park live and on record since the release of their debut album, Straw in the Wind, in 2017, and how they went two-for-two with their tribute to country and southern-rock in 2019’s Old News.
Seriously, of the heavy-hitters working within that musical vein today, The Steel Woods absolutely deserve to be mentioned within that class. What I’ve always enjoyed is their approach and presentation, namely how instead of coasting off machismo, pride, or swagger that can work but also sometimes hinder the sub-genre, this is a band that gets grittier and darker with their stories. There’s always been a southern-Gothic flair to their heavier sound and content, and their songs have always known how to tell stories with dramatically gripping arcs and excellent framing to boot. If anything, it’s what made the dual tribute to southern-rock and country music in Old News work seamlessly and effectively. But we’re two years past that now, and the hype surrounding their newest project suggested it was reportedly leaner and sharper than those other projects … but there’s also a hard truth to face of how much that praise is actual praise, given the unfortunate context. Then again, I’ve never cared much for trying to feign objectivity when approaching music and art, and I knew going in that this would be a tough review.
Call it bias or whatever else, then, but after properly absorbing this album and viewing both within and outside of that context, not only are The Steel Woods now three-for-three with their albums, but this new one just may be their best yet. It’s an unfortunate ending of a chapter and turning of a page more than it is the loud victory cry it should be, but … no, wait, that’s not right. It is a victory, albeit a much different one. And for as much as I always did appreciate how adventurous their first two albums were, I also get the arguments against them that they were slightly bloated efforts that overplayed their respective hands. That isn’t the case here, and if you want an example of The Steel Woods at their tightest and most accessible, it’s here. Now, is it stronger, sadly, when viewed and heard by taking in that aforementioned context? Honestly, yes. But I also can argue that the band hit their mark regardless of that, and while it stings nevertheless, it’s a cathartic journey all the same.
But let’s get the most obvious talking point out of the way first. It’s eerie how much this album sounds like it was made after the fact, and while that’s a note for the content that we’ll address, it’s also evident in the sound. I mean, if you know the band, you know what to expect: thick, heavy, thudding riffs and guitar tones that have a ton of snarl and bite to them, well-balanced percussion lines to define and drive the grooves, and plenty of phenomenal solos and progressions to support the actual compositions … at least as far as the purely southern-rock moments go, that is, because All of Your Stones is surprisingly downbeat and also arguably the band’s farthest step into hard country music. Now, given how this band has resorted to clearly defined country melodies before while amping up the actual compositions elsewhere – here, too, like on the title track – it’s an unsurprisingly great fit for the band, especially with how much weathered yet crisp texture their fiddle pickups have on “Ole Pal.” Of course, that track also features some excellent interplay and parallels with its dobro tones, which is what really, among other reasons, drives “Run On Ahead” to pure excellence and gives it its potency, especially with the terrifically understated mandolin for that deftly somber touch.
Which is also to say that, for the most part, this isn’t an album that relies on larger dynamics or a dramatic swell to sell its sentiments like past projects have; the potency comes naturally in the delivery and content. A large credit goes to lead singer Wes Bayliss for that, who has always let his expressive howl define his performances but has also gotten noticeably better with time at conveying more outright texture than tone. He and the production are enough to sell “Out of the Blue” with the heavy sigh of exhaustion it needs, for sure, but he’s also playing multiple roles here, perhaps juxtaposed best by the one-two punch and dual perspectives of “You’re Cold” and “You Never Came Home.” But he’s also good at dialing it back to convey real hurt and anguish on “Ole Pal” and “Run on Ahead,” and when he’s forced to ramp up the dramatic swell by playing into the perspective of a worried mother on “Baby Slow Down,” he’s convincing there, too. Of course, there’s also the lone cover here of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “I Need You,” not the most obvious one, mind you, but one that works better by recruiting Ashley Monroe. They even did what they didn’t necessarily have to by making it a real duet, which creates a dual longing between the two that serves the original lyric so much better than before, even if it also drags on way too long.
With that said, for as straightforward as this album is, I do love that we get an isolated moment at the beginning with the swirling rage driving the guitar tones and skittering percussion on “You’re Cold,” especially when it transitions into those chugging, thick bass riffs and ends on a somber orchestral swell that bleeds nicely into “You Never Came Home.” And of course the band’s reliance on heavier, thumping tones means the more straightforward moments go down well, too. I have my issues with the title track, but those ascending riffs that cut in after the hook are not among them.
Of course, any further discussion of tone will inevitably bleed into one of the content itself, which is trickier to discuss than one might imagine. On its own, I’d say this is an incredibly loose concept album surrounding confrontations of loss or events potentially leading to them and the reactions to both the inevitable fall or the aftermath of it – both from the characters headed for disaster and the ones left to pick up the pieces, at that. But when you listen to tracks like “Ole Pal” or “Run on Ahead” about trying to find comfort in talking to those departed friends … yeah, forget any notions of objectivity there. Still, that can’t be what solely drives the album. So I’ll also point out how I like that “Ole Pal” tells of a friend who died in action and how the small town and family he left behind has adjusted, but hasn’t quite moved on, made all too clear by its own narrator. And when the subtle quiver in Bayliss’ delivery is evident against the brittle acoustics on “Run on Ahead,” that track cuts no matter what.
It’s also worth noting, of course, that a lot of this is from Cope’s pen, too, like the mother worrying for her wayward son on “Baby Slow Down” that draws its deeper details from the tracks around it. Even though I don’t think “Out of the Blue” is the most detailed look at redemption, it not only draws its irony from those other tracks as well, but also in its presentation. There’s an uncertainty to the thudding tones that always frames the track with an uncertainty and acknowledgement that it’s easy to fall back into the blue.
Now, I wish we got more details into that downward spiral to strengthen the overall emotional pathos, especially with that weirdly wasted intro track that doesn’t serve much purpose. I would also say the title track is the worst possible closing moment they could have chosen. It’s fine on its own, but when you’re crafting an album built upon leaning on others for comfort and support, the deflection cast on that track is an odd fit that doesn’t offer much closure. I appreciate “Aiming For You” more, especially with its promise to aim for something better, yet still exhaustive in its drawn-out, sludgier tones that suggest its character may not have the stamina to see it through, mostly due to self-destruction caused by their own vices. Subtext, sure, but powerful enough to draw it all together.
Now, if we do get a more direct moment, it’s through “You’re Cold,” which is here more to carry on an ongoing love triangle-turned-murder story told through tracks on previous albums like “Della Jane’s Heart” and “Anna Lee,” and I honestly might actually prefer that, if only because I’ve long loved the connection and am happy to hear another piece of the puzzle here. It’s strong enough on its own anyway, mostly because there’s a strong focus on the hesitation and remorse expressed by the woman about to kill her cheating, soon-to-be-ex-significant other … yet still determined to see it through, because he didn’t see her the same way. “You Never Came Home” is more of a coda that ties up loose ends from “the other woman’s” perspective who never heard back from her lover, but it’s a nice touch I did appreciate. It’s also a nod to the album’s larger theme of self-destruction that can make both of those songs work as more than just isolated moments.
And as for where the band goes from there, I don’t know. This is one of those albums nearly impossible to absorb and judge as it is, but if the question is whether or not it succeeds on its own merits … well, yes, it absolutely does. But I’d also say there’s nothing wrong with letting the context define the core potency of this album, especially when, again, it’s a tribute to how far the band as a whole has come and how far they can still go. All of Your Stones is certainly an album of endings, but also one of new beginnings, too, even if it’s just wishful thinking and hope stringing it along. Sometimes that’s enough to start something new or ignite a new fire, though. And to borrow from a song here, that’s a goal worth aiming for, indeed.
- Favorite tracks: “Run on Ahead,” “You’re Cold,” “Ole Pal,” “Aiming For You,” “Baby Slow Down,” “Out of the Blue”
- Least favorite track: “All of Your Stones”