There was a time not so very long ago when more than a few bands would classify their music using a variation of: “Oh, we don’t sound like anyone. Our sound is totally original.” Some of that is pure hype, but some of it is reflected in the genre tags some bands use on Soundcloud. It got pretty ridiculous after a while and naturally begged the question: how many genres and subgenres of rock can there be?
L.A. rockers Dirty Honey don’t have that problem. Their debut from April 2021 is about wearing your influences on your sleeve. If you don’t hear Guns N’ Roses, Aerosmith, The Black Crowes, or even UFO, you’ve either a.) Never listened to any music by these bands. Or, b.) You know the bands mentioned above but never listened to a Dirty Honey record before. Just play “California Dreamin’” and you’ll hear Slash and Joe Perry’s guitar voice coming through your speakers in a bold, rhythmic, and hard-rockin’ way. Add to that, the white guy bluesy vocals of singer Marc LaBelle who has that Axl Rose-ish wail down pat. His raspy highish tenor really slices through the riff-heavy guitar that John Notto is laying down on track after track. The foundation of the band is anchored by Justin Smolian on bass and Corey Coverstone on drums — who bring their own spice and busy bass work into the mix. It all works gloriously — especially for those who feel like melodic hard rock was on the ropes. It’s not that this kind of rock has gone out of favor when it comes to legacy acts. It’s just that it’s been a while since a band like Dirty Honey has broken through.
There’s also this: hard, melodic rock like what Dirty Honey specializes in is most effective when it’s performed by younger men and women. That’s not to say that older bands like The Rolling Stones, Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, or even The Black Crowes can’t and don’t bring it when performing before live audiences. It’s just that the sexiness of watching younger folks strut their stuff on stage while making audacious musical statements is more appealing than a bunch of olds trying to replicate what they were doing 30 to 50 years ago.
Am I being ageist here? Well, I suppose so. But it’s coming from someone who is on the older side of middle-age. For rock music to have that kind of rebellious, youthful spirit, it needs to be performed by those who fit the profile. The problem has been that for well over a decade, rock music has gradually gone from a place of rebellion to Dad Rock. Pete Townshend fretted about this very thing in 1978 when in “New Song” he wrote about playing essentially the same song for crowds who expected things to never change — even though Townshend’s hairline wasn’t exactly “superstar.” Yes, being an eternal rock star is now possible in the age of avatars, but for real bands with real people, time is not exactly a friend. Trading out new lamps for old ones during a generational churn often makes the older folk nervous as their place in the pop-cultural world wanes while the new lamps take center stage. Every legacy act now likely ponders if this is the last tour before calling it a career. Perhaps there is a feeling of irrelevance that creeps into the head of every guitar hero or swaggering lead singer wondering if history will remember what they once wrought. Well, if Dirty Honey, Greta Van Fleet, and others of their ilk are any indication, the kids are alright — and they remember and honor the past.
One of the ways Dirty Honey’s songs harken back to the ‘70s and ‘80s is by mirroring a verse-pre-chorus-chorus framework most music listeners have been conditioned to know and like. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this structure. It’s comforting as it is predictable. And in an era where our attention spans have shrunk to the point that even some TikTok videos can evoke the musical version of TL;DR, it is absolutely refreshing to hear Dirty Honey’s meat and potatoes rock being played by a younger generation — and get the kind of enthusiastic reaction from the public.
The eight songs that comprise the band’s debut LP (they released an EP and a single earlier) clocks in at slightly less than 30 minutes — and that’s part of what makes this record incredibly good. It doesn’t overstay its welcome by filling the rest of the CD with bloat. The songs are tight, the tempo is mostly upbeat and energetic, and the lyrical content is never murky. Just take the lead track, “California Dreamin’” with its less-than-savory look at The Golden State with references to paranoia that’s enveloped the hearts and minds of its residents. The song could also be a less-than-subtle look at a difficult personal relationship. Either way, there’s not an ounce of sunny optimism in this tune — just at there was none in “Welcome To The Jungle” by Dirty Honey’s heroes, Guns N’ Roses.
“The Wire” is also catchy as hell, but underneath the solid music are lyrics that tell a story of love, manipulation, and the inability to let go because, well, L.A. kisses can still blow the narrator’s mind. That’s some hot lips right there! As I noted earlier, the lyrical content of these songs is not murky. There’s no need to really parse the lyrics for deeper meanings. Dirty Honey gives it to us straight with no chaser. Songs like “Tied Up” with its kind of “Life In The Fast Lane” riffing, or “Take My Hand” with more than a little nod to Led Zeppelin give listeners of my age (and older) the kind of pleasing guitar work in the key of classic rock. The songs continue with an intensity that’s wonderfully relentless, until the album closer. “Another Last Time” is a midtempo number that would usually be slotted a few tracks in an album to give the listener a bit of break before rockin’ again. But Dirty Honey put it as the final song — and, to me, it works well to close things out.
There’s very little to dislike or find lacking with this record. The production shuns studio trickery that can bury the instruments and vocals in some unnecessary sonic sludge. Credit producer (and band manager) Nick DiDia for keeping this four-piece band sounding like a band on this record. Dirty Honey has been out on the road for years playing to live audiences (well, until the pandemic shut that down for a while) and finding their voice — and it clearly shows on the songs that comprise this compact, but powerful album. Singer Marc LaBelle confirmed the road-tested nature of their songs when he told Rolling Stone magazine in June 2020: “There’s a respect that’s earned there, starting from zero“ [playing the club circut]. “A lot of the problems with [singers] on American Idol or The Voice is they haven’t done the clubs. They may have this booming, unbelievable voice, but they have no presence and no connection to the songs they’re singing.”
When I hear LaBelle sing and the band play, it’s clear that Dirty Honey’s connection to the songs is there in an authentic, melodic, and hard-rocking way that, hopefully, will continue for years (if not decades) to come.