Inspired reassessment of The Stones’ 1966 classic.
Release Date: 4th February 2022
Label: Mascot Label Group/Cool Green Recordings
Formats: CD, Vinyl
In some ways, there’s nothing more difficult than trying to undertake a balanced appraisal of a tribute album, especially if the subject of the tribute is an album that you’ve known for as long as you can remember. So, I was not a little daunted by the prospect of reviewing the recreation, by Queens, NY five-piece outfit Hollis Brown of the Rolling Stones seminal Aftermath album – but I needn’t have worried, because the guys have done a fantastic job. In The Aftermath is a clean, fresh, reinterpretation that breathes new life into a great set of songs. Respectful and generally true to the originals, Hollis Brown adds just the right amount of depth and colour to urge me to dig out my old original copy of the album and enjoy a collection of songs that I revisit all too infrequently.
Hollis Brown is Mike Montali (guitar/vocals), Jonathan Bonilla (guitar/vocals), Andrew Zehnal (drums), Adam Bock (keyboards) and Chris Urriola (bass). They took their name (obviously) from the Bob Dylan song, The Ballad of Hollis Brown, for the very honourable reason that it “…neatly epitomizes the group’s commitment to melding a signature Americana blend with fine songcraft.” And that potent mixture of identity and idiosyncrasy is having a growing impact – they’re attracting an ever-increasing following both across the USA and across Europe due, in no small part to their relentless touring, often supporting acts as well-loved as Counting Crows, Citizen Cope, Jackie Green, Jesse Malin and The Zombies.
In The Aftermath isn’t Hollis Brown’s first attempt at an album-long tribute. In 2014, they released the acclaimed Hollis Brown Gets Loaded, their take on The Velvets’ Loaded album, and now they’re back for another go. They chose Aftermath because, in the view of the band, “[Aftermath] became The Stones’ album to dive into for a number of reasons. For one, it’s become something of a lost classic as it’s the first Stones album to consist entirely of Jagger/Richards compositions, including the defining track, Paint It Black. Also, many of the songs are concise, ultra-catchy rock ‘n’ roll rave-ups that mine similar blues and country roots to Hollis Brown’s own signature aesthetic.”
Well – I’m not sure that I agree with that definition of Aftermath as a “lost classic” (we’ll come back to that) but, as far as the rest of that statement goes, those are some pretty solid reasons why Hollis Brown was so keen to undertake this project – and they’ve done an excellent job.
Released in April 1966, Aftermath was the Rolling Stones’ fourth album and, as acknowledged above, it was their first to contain all-original material. Released right at the point when rock music was starting to get particularly adventurous and interesting – Pet Sounds, Blonde On Blonde and Revolver all saw the light of day at around the same time – it helped to redefine the boundaries of popular music by introducing baroque and Arabian influences into The Stones’ staple blues and rock & roll stylings. Indeed, Aftermath is viewed by many as the point at which The Stones achieved musical and artistic integrity and the songs on Aftermath serve as a fascinating time capsule, reflecting the habits and attitudes of the then-emerging British counterculture. I certainly rate Aftermath amongst my top half-dozen Stones albums, so I can’t really go along with the idea that the album is a “lost classic.”
But no matter – we’re really here to talk about Hollis Brown’s new recreation and it’s an effort for which I have nothing but praise. In The Aftermath shadows the tracklisting of the US version of the Aftermath album, so includes a take on Paint It Black, but omits Mother’s Little Helper, Take It Or Leave It and What To Do – songs that featured only on the UK versions of the album (and I’d have loved to hear how Hollis Brown would have handled Mother’s Little Helper, given the way they’ve interpreted the rest of the album). In The Aftermath was recorded in one single, marathon, 24-hour session and that approach has certainly contributed to the freshness and urgency of the recordings; singer/guitarist Mike Montali takes up the story: “It was a whirlwind recording session – we were on no sleep, getting liquored up. You can definitely hear the looseness on that final track, ‘Goin’ Home.’
Despite the “whirlwind” approach to the recording, it’s patently clear that Hollis Brown have put a massive amount of care and respect into their versions of these songs. They’ve retained the dangerous edge that The Stones invariably brought to their mid-late sixties work, whilst also cleaning up the sound and adding depth and colour, so that the particularly well-known songs like Paint It Black, Lady Jane and Under My Thumb take on extra dimensions. The folky elements of Paint It Black receive a greater emphasis, Lady Jane might lose some it’s baroque feel, but instead takes on a new widescreen aspect, and Under My Thumb is sharp and punky, built around a wonderfully solid bass/drum rhythm.
A particular pleasure that I took from the album was enjoying how many of the lesser-known tracks were revitalized, without losing any of their original assets. The umbilical cord to the sixties is never broken as Stupid Girl is given a crisp, light makeover, Doncha Bother Me turns into a rock-solid duel between soaring slide guitars and Think preserves Keith’s mid-sixties guitar stylings whilst taking on an altogether more forthright theme.
The roots of Glam Rock are laid bare in the riffing of Flight 505 and Adam Bock brings the spirit of Ian Stewart vividly to life with his piano licks; the harmonica-laden honky-tonk of High And Dry is authentically reproduced, and the rich, hard and funky interpretation of It’s Not Easy has prompted me to reassess a song that, in the past, I’ve been tempted to skip over.
Mike M saves his Jagger impersonation for the closing track, Goin’ Home. The Hollis Brown version of this epic track is wonderfully loose and sleazy and the pleasure, excitement and exhaustion of that marathon recording session is palpable as the lengthy jam brings this remarkable tribute to its close. Hollis Brown has achieved everything they set out to do – they’ve applied their own style to a set of songs that they clearly hold in great regard and, in doing so, they’ve reminded anyone who will hear this album what a classic the original was. Aftermath will always stand up as one of rock’s finest blooms. Hollis Brown has watered that bloom and allowed the flowers to open once again.
Watch Hollis Brown perform Under My Thumb – a track from the album – here: