The Cold Stares’ thirteen song studio album Ways harkens back to an era when rock music strutted across national stages reveling in its bluesy origins rather than rejecting or glossing over them. Even a passing listen to many of the songs included on this release reveals a duo thoroughly steeped in the language and traditions of the genre, but make no mistake about it – The Cold Stares can summon transformative and bulldozing rock music at will. I think those latter aspects of their talent are especially prominent in the album opener “Any Way the Wind Blows”. You can tell Chris Tapp has guitar chops for days, but he never turns in navel-gazing performances intent on demonstrating his virtuosity. He has a straight forward approach like a knife lunge to your heart and his partner in the band, drummer Brian Mullins, lays down thunderous grooves supporting his riffing and lead work.
The interplay between Tapp and Mullins is especially strong during the album’s title track. “Ways” percolates with hard rock riffing, blues drenched vamps, and a rambunctious Tapp vocal. Some listeners might find his broken grammar to be a bit of an affectation the band can do without, but it does draw the song closer to its traditional roots. Tapp doesn’t play a lot of straight up traditional guitar solos, ala Eric Clapton or others of that ilk, but unleashes his lead guitar talents in concentrated bursts that nevertheless make a positive impression.
“I Was a Fool” brings a funkier side of the band’s musical identity into the mix that may surprise those hearing the band for the first time. They pull it off in uber convincing fashion, however, and you can hear a little Stevie Ray Vaughn influence coming through here. The song’s instrumental breaks will singe your hair. “White Girl” has a grinding arrangement and the guitar riff dominating the track rates among the best on Ways. It’s curious why the songwriting chooses a white girl as its subject, but you won’t spend your time wondering about that while the song is playing – it engages your full attention on both a mental and physical level.. It doesn’t match or exceed the pace set by the preceding song, but it is far from embracing the same mid-tempo attack we heard on the opening two tracks.
“Thorns”, “I Ain’t the One”, “Angeline”, “Jackson Mississippi” and the finale “Might As Well Die” are rooted in softer sounds than the aforementioned tracks, though the final two incorporate electric instruments more than the first three do. This more meditative side of the band’s playing makes for an excellent addition to the album. There’s a lot to be said for each of these five cuts, but “Thorns” and “Jackson Mississippi” will likely have the strongest appeal for casual listeners, though the others will have their fans as well. The Cold Stares’ fifth full length album solidifies their standing as one of the most authentic and talented purveyors of this musical style still standing today and the songs are ready made for live audiences.