Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears’ last album, 2013’s Electric Slave, was released under Lewis’s name alone—a signal that the band’s sound had changed too. Electric Slave pulled away from the singer’s gritty rhythm and blues and leaned into the sort of stadium-rock flourishes that have recently hobbled the Black Keys.
Fortunately, Lewis’s new album, Backlash (INgrooves Music Group, February 10), reinstates the band’s full name and the Texas-accented soul that made them a big draw on the Austin party circuit. Lewis’s booty-shaking ethos is on full display on tracks like “Sexual Tension,” which is buoyed by disco percussion, jangly guitar, and the sort of emphatic horn charts that Lewis has deployed throughout his career. “PTP” sets one of Lewis’s perennial favorite topics—the power of women—against fret-running blues guitar riffs that producer Stuart Sikes treats with the appropriate amount of crunch.
Beneath the good times, though, one can hear the darker side of Lewis’s music—a reflection, perhaps, of the fact that race has returned front and center to the American conversation. It’s there on the full-out shriek that bursts through the wall of sound on “Global,” and it’s certainly in the lyrics to “Nature’s Natural,” a solemn cut about black-on-black crime and police brutality. The trade-off is that Backlash never hits the euphoric highs that early singles like “Sugarfoot” can induce. For the first time in his career, Lewis seems more interested in the “blues” half of “rhythm and blues.”