It’s time for yet another classic rock throwback band, though Larkin Poe do have more to them than the average one of these acts might. For one, their roots go all the way back to 2005 to Rebecca and Megan Lovell’s bluegrass project The Lovell Sisters, which disbanded in 2009 with the pair regrouping in 2010 as Larkin Poe. Unlike so many of these bands that just seem to crop up out of nowhere, there is actually pedigree here, not only with both sisters filling roles as backing musicians for a number of roots-rock and country acts, but with Larkin Poe themselves picking up some fairly decent reach within that more Americana-focused scene. As such, it results in Self Made Man being a rare instance with albums like this where there’s an expectation beyond the bare minimum; sure, their hype has generally been confined to that one musical corner, but that still sets them apart from the bands that don’t even make it that far.
But even with that in mind, Self Made Man isn’t all that great, and doesn’t give the impression of a band with the level of experience that Larkin Poe have. To their credit, they aren’t trying to wedge themselves too deeply among retro-rock banality either, but that just has them hanging in liminality overall, where they’re making generally passable music that their set is likely to eat up, but at the same time, it’s not all that compelling when placed next to other blues- and southern-rock bands who are at least striving to do more. This just feels kind of tired and lacking in drive, and for as hemmed-in as Larkin Poe’s overall crop of ideas seems to be here, that unfortunately isn’t too surprising.
It’s generally a result of Larkin Poe being able to circumvent some of the more chronic instances of clunk that modern variations of this sound abide by, but not so deftly that it counts too much. As such, there’s still a bottom-heavy sensibility to a track like She’s A Self Made Man that really can plod with very little urgency, or, in tracks like Keep Diggin’ and Back Down South, an approach to production that’s muted and synthesised without much personality, especially in the case of the former that feels fit to replace any drums whatsoever with flimsy snare skitters. Any sense of groove or noticeable swing isn’t all that consistent, though that’s not to say it’s not welcome when it shows up; Holy Ghost Fire has a smoulder and fantastic bass presence that makes it an easy highlight, while the gospel rollick of Tears Of Blue To Gold and the soulful country-rock slow-burn Ex-Con represent how pliable Larkin Poe can be while still keeping in their rootsier boundaries. It’s just a shame that’s not the case more often, as Self Made Man rarely swings for the fences in a way that albums like this rightly could and should. It largely sounds fine enough in its scuzzy guitar and Rebecca Lovell’s vocals which do have gravity and personality to them (she can occasionally sound like Lady Gaga in her more soulful moments which is always welcome), but Self Made Man refuses to click all that emphatically, and what’s left is an album that feels thinner and less impactful than it should.
The writing doesn’t help in that regard either, which, after the pleasingly tongue-in-cheek flip of stereotypical southern-rock machismo on the opener She’s A Self Made Man, tends to fall into the usual genre tropes without much to set it apart. At least Ex-Con adds a bit more storytelling to a rather cut-and-dry femme fatale archetype that’s sketched out in both Scorpion and Danger Angel that precede it, but between another music-referencing southern tribute in Back Down South and God Moves On The Water which opts for a strangely disconnected link between various disasters and God, it’s not all that compelling and can certainly tip into being actively boring. For all the criticism that can be levelled towards it though, Self Made Man isn’t exactly egregious; there’s nothing offensively bad here, and even if that does mean that standouts are pretty thin on the ground besides the occasional moment, it’s better than nothing.
But on the whole though, that doesn’t do all that much for Larkin Poe here, besides bump them up a notch from the absolute mediocrity that their scene often births that’s pretty much inconsequential in the long run. After all, it’s not like Self Made Man was going to be some big, widespread breakthrough anyway, and the fact they’ve now effectively limited its appeal to their existing scene and pulled no punches in terms of what they can get away with isn’t all that surprising. It’s still a bit disappointing though, seeing as Larkin Poe do have genuine talent, and when it’s as marginalised as it is here, the end result definitely feels like a missed opportunity to do something great. It’s not worth upset or angry about, nor is it worth singing its praises; like so many throwback album, it simply exists, and that’s its greatest strength and most damning flaw all at the same time.
For fans of: Blackberry Smoke, Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown, The Stone Foxes
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Self Made Man’ by Larkin Poe is released on 12th June on Tricki-Woo Records.