Sound — 8
With their debut album "Permission To Land" and its follow-up "One Way Ticket To Hell... And Back", The Darkness sparked a revival of the days of spandex catsuits, stratospheric singing, Les-Paul-into-Marshall tone, and four-on-the-floor drumming. After their initial breakup in 2006, bands like Steel Panther took the tribute to 80s glam metal even further, though more into the realms of satire, and bands with a different background began adopting elements of the style, like Black Veil Brides. In the meantime, The Darkness returned in 2012 with their album "Hot Cakes", and again in 2015 with "Last of Our Kind". Retaining three quarters of their classic lineup (vocalist/guitarist Justin Hawkins, his brother Dan on guitar, and bassist Frankie Poullain), and featuring new member Rufus Tiger Taylor (son of legendary Queen drummer Roger Taylor) on drums, replacing Emily Dolan Davies (who briefly replaced original drummer Ed Graham), "Pinewood Smile" is a quirky and endearing album, though maybe not one that'll match the punch of their debut.
Musically, as always, the album is a tribute to 70s classic rock and 80s glam metal, chock full of stomping riffs, wailing guitar solos, and simple, fun songwriting. The hooky "All The Pretty Girls" opens the album with some convincing late-70s power-pop, and a deliciously Chuck Berry-esque solo, and it's a clear-cut good choice for first single and a great opening statement for the album. "Buccaneers of Hispaniola" continues in this vein, but with an almost progressive edge to it and some really excellent guitar riffs. The AC/DC-styled "Solid Gold" is some pure hard-rock fun with some absolutely hilarious lyrics about making it in the music industry. "Southern Trains" takes a slightly harder-rocking departure with some of the album's fastest and most aggressive riffing, but the band still finds the time to include a psychedelic bridge before one of the album's most furious guitar solos. Taking us to the realm of late 70s glam-rock is "Why Don't the Beautiful Cry?", one of the softer songs on the album, with plenty of Justin's high-pitched vocals and clean guitars.
This tune is further sandwiched by another one of the album's most aggressive rock tunes, "Japanese Prisoner of Love", starting with one of the album's heavier riffs, before shifting into territory that wouldn't be terribly uncomfortable for fans of Thin Lizzy. "Lay Down With Me, Barbara" is a love song that comes close to ballad territory at times, but does feature a pretty rockin' chorus. "I Wish I Was In Heaven" starts with a chord progression that could almost be considered "modern" in a pop context, but the fast drumming gives the tune a power-pop edge, almost making one of the album's saddest songs sound positively jangly. On the complete opposite side of the coin, acoustic guitars start off "Happiness" before bringing us into a Cheap Trick-style tune about summer (ironic considering the album is being released in early autumn). Closing out the album is "Stampede of Love", a folky acoustic ballad with some hilarious lyrics that picks up a bit in the latter half with heavier guitars and drums.
As with all of the other albums by The Darkness, the musicianship is particularly top-notch, with excellent classic rock riffing and soloing all over the place, great interplay between the bass and drums, and a great way with taking a simple song and arranging it into something a bit more complex and deep. It never really feels like the band overplays at any point on the record, almost to the point of the album feeling a bit more "restrained" than previous efforts. There's a bit of variety in the writing, too, with pop hooks sharing space with some totally hard-rocking riffs. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of pianos and synthesizers on this record, contrasting a bit with the overblown production of the band's first two albums, and it almost feels like the production on this album is likewise a bit restrained compared to past albums, though there's still plenty of stacked vocal harmonies. The mix is also nice and clear, perhaps even a bit raw at times, but it's great to hear the bass so clearly on many points of the album.
Lyrics — 8
Lyrics are perhaps one of the hardest things to really quantify about The Darkness. At times, the band seems to almost revel in satire, and need to be taken with a particularly big grain of salt. There is a distinct comedy element about the band, from dealing with the music business on "Solid Gold" ("There's a guy coming down from Sony/Artist an' repertoire/If he likes what he hears in those stupid ears/I'll buy myself a faster car/He's blowing smoke up our asses/Everything we do is ace/He wants to wine and dine us, desperate to sign us/'Cause we melted his fuckin' face") and some particularly outrageous lyrics on "Stampede of Love" ("You walked in and the ground shook/can't believe how much food you took/looked to me with those hungry eyes/you were eyeing up my fries/to the naked eye you're a perfect sphere/stomach bulging out to here/don't know if my heart will last/never had a love this fast"). But there's also a sort of sincerity to the band's lyrics at times that almost makes them quite endearing, whether it's an honest love song in "Lay Down With Me, Barbara", a very chipper and positive "Happiness" ("This is the best summer ever/We're so gonna make love, tonight/Alone on the beach, here together/Holding each other so tight/And I said/This is my heart/No one ever broke it/But what about my ego?/You don't have to stroke it/Repeat after me/I love you (I love you), you said").
There are also moments where the band gets a little deeper, without losing their sense of humour. "All the Pretty Girls" describes some of the issues that come with becoming popular with the opposite sex after "making it" as a musician, while "Buccaneers of Hispaniola" flirts with the historical lyrics the band used to their full potential on 2015's conceptual "The Last of Our Kind". "Southern Trains" is a scathing review of the rail service in the south of England ("It's a journey into pure despair/there are fucking assholes everywhere/I can smell piss and shit in the air/fuck you southern trains/we're not getting anywhere"). And the band even gets a little maudlin on "Why Don't the Beautiful Cry?" and "I Wish I Was In Heaven", though both describe depression with the band's typical tongue-in-cheek attitude.
Justin Hawkins' vocals remain the centerpiece of the album, often soaring into the stratosphere, occasionally stacked high with as many harmonies as can be fit onto a track. While past Darkness albums may have been accused of overproduction on a musical level as well, the more raw production of this record actually lends itself a little better to the harmonies, even if they do feel a little out of place on a couple tracks (particularly "All the Pretty Girls").
Overall Impression — 8
With a revival of sorts of the glam-rock scene, it's good to see one of the originators of that revival still has the chops, the charisma and the humour to compete with other bands in their style, and still have the ability to keep a very distinctive sound all the while. This album may not end up being the classic that "Permission To Land" was, and while there are plenty of good hooks, nothing really comes as close on "Pinewood Smile" to the likes of "I Believe In A Thing Called Love". But this is not necessarily a bad thing, and the songs on this album are probably some of the best that the band has crafted since their debut.
Their music is not necessarily the most original style out there, but as a tribute to a simpler time for hard rock, it's excellent, and "Pinewood Smile" is definitely something to smile about. If you're a fan of fun, classic hard rock, this could be the album you're looking for.