Sound — 8
Since releasing his first album "Lie to Me" at the tender young age of 15, blues prodigy Jonny Lang has been a bit of a trailblazer for today's guitar legends that mix blues-rock with pop textures, artists like John Mayer and Quinn Sullivan and bands like Alabama Shakes may owe a lot to artists like Lang (and his contemporary, Kenny Wayne Shepherd). Over the years, Lang's style has heavily mixed blues-rock with an increasing pop awareness, leading to some of his most R&B-centric albums: 2006's "Turn Around" and 2013's "Fight for My Soul", which seemed to push Jonny's guitar playing to the background in favour of keyboards and electronic beats.
After spending a few years out of the limelight, it seems Lang is ready to return to a more rock-oriented sound on "Signs", with a renewed emphasis on guitar playing. Opening with "Make It Move" may be a smart decision for those who enjoyed his last two studio albums, starting with acoustic guitars and a stomping sort of Delta blues style and some very powerful vocals, but with just enough pop appeal to make the transition from his last few albums to this one comfortable. "Snakes" starts to show the album as a more guitar-heavy record, with a more organic guitar tone and backing from his band, steeped far more heavily in the kind of heavy blues-rock style that defined the earlier part of his career. "Last Man Standing" is purely a hard rock song, with a huge chorus and a really good main riff. The title track is far better blues-rock fare than you'll find from many of the artists performing in the style nowadays, with its effective chorus hook, though the seemingly purposely-sloppy guitar solo was not to my taste. "What You're Made Of" has a strong keyboard/guitar hook in the intro, and this track shows a bit of diversity, returning a bit to the R&B/pop style of his past two records, but still sounding very organic, and featuring some impressive falsetto vocals. "Bitter End" starts with a slow-burning build-up to one of the album's hardest-rocking riffs, underpinning a powerful chorus. "Stronger Together" turns the tables a bit with a more uplifting pop sound that'll fit right in with the John Mayers of today. "Into the Light" is another track with a more guitar-heavy blues element to it, but still loads of pop appeal. "Bring Me Back Home" is a slow ballad with a soulful guitar solo and great backing vocals. The album's final two tracks, the stomping "Wisdom" and the acoustic "Singing Songs", do very little to pick up the tempo, and the last one does get a tad on the repetitive side despite having some beautiful melodies.
Lang's playing is fairly good on this release, although as mentioned, the solo in the title track is not one of my favourite guitar moments. The rest of the band fills their roles perfectly throughout the album, fitting perfectly along with whatever Lang's songwriting has come up with. Certain songs, like "Wisdom" and "Make It Move" were written as they were recorded, giving the tracks a certain improvisational edge to them. Produced by Lang, Drew Ramsey, Dwan Hill, Josh Kelley, and Shannon Sanders, the sound on this album is as pristine and organic as one would expect from a blues-rock record, and while some of his more modern counterparts like John Mayer have gotten a bit clinical and "digital" with their sounds, there's still a very natural sound coming from all of the instruments on this album, replacing some of the electronic beats that marked Lang's previous few albums.
Lyrics — 8
Blues lyrics are not always known for their diversity, but Lang has covered a fair number of topics on "Signs", from the blues tradition of cautionary life tales outlining the difficulties of coming of age ("Snakes") to more politically-minded songs inspired by current events ("Signs" and "Bitter End"), there are certainly a fair number of your typical "darker" blues lyrics, but in keeping with his pop appeal, there are a few more uplifting lyrics, such as "What You're Made Of", which was an attempt to write a cheerful, optimistic song without getting overly cheesy, which can be a very difficult thing to do. "Stronger Together" was written for Lang's wife, speaking of the strength of the bond in their relationship, and is a very effective love song, as is "Bring It Back Home", a song about longing to be home with your lover while you're touring. "Singing Songs" outlines the importance music has in many peoples' lives, and how music has so much power to affect people. Sometimes, the lyrics do sort of go off on a tangent, such as the Tom Waits-inspired "Into the Light", but there does seem to be a very good message behind each track.
Vocally, Lang is on point throughout "Signs", with his vocals covering everything from raspy, emotional powerhouse vocals, Foo Fighters-esque rock vocal harmonies, soaring pop falsettos, and deep south bluesy drawls. He uses all of these different styles effortlessly, and they combine with the songwriting styles on this record perfectly.
Overall Impression — 8
Lang's "Signs" shows us that contemporary blues/pop-rock combinations don't necessarily need to sound overblown and inauthentic, that you can still have a lot of pop appeal without sacrificing the organic nature of the music. With guitar playing that recalls Howlin' Wolf and Robert Johnson as much as it does Dave Grohl and John Mayer, Lang proves to be incredibly versatile on "Signs". And the songs, while steeped in a lot of the cliches of the genre, do sound quite a bit more fresh and authentic than his contemporaries.
With his last few albums sort of going off into that more modern pop territory, "Signs" feels like a stunning return to form, and is definitely an album I'd recommend checking out if you're a fan of blues-rock, and I certainly feel that some of the current players on the scene could learn a thing or two from Lang.