What does a band do when in its first half dozen albums it has established itself as a populist band of rural boys who alternate between a musical love for metal and roots music, and a lyrical bent which features songs about sex, metaphysics, and
Arkansas ways? Change, grow, and flourish, of course!
"Ain't Life Grand" shows a Black Oak Arkansas with a more polished sound than any of their previous albums, and yet a sound which can satisfy both the band's "rocker" fans and the fans of the band's quirky, populist absurdities.
Although Black Oak Arkansas was a band from the south who sang about regional themes, rock historians tend to place Black Oak Arkansas in a different basket from the other "southern" bands such as the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker Band or Charlie Daniels Band. Black Oak Arkansas went their own way, as self-taught music populists who combined a love for regional settings and metaphysics with a love for both heavy metal and bluegrass conventions. Although Black Oak Arkansas' early studio albums might be comparable to the softer sound of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, the band live (and on their live album) rocked with a three guitar attack as if metal were going out of style. During their early days, musicianship (excepting Tommmy Aldridge) was not considered their strong point--instead, in the pre-punk era, this was a band of kids who picked up guitars to escape rural poverty.
"Ain't Life Grand", however, shows that the band was not entirely immune to the influence of "southern rock", nor to the earlier influences of the sixties artists. Moreover, "Ain't Life Grand" shows that even the most resolutely populist band can acquire a bit of polish after spending a decade on the road 300 nights a year. The result is an entirely pleasing album.
The album opens with a surprising cover of George Harrison's "Taxman". BOA had a love for backing harmonies, which work very well here. In "Fancy Nancy", the band tackles one of their usual lyrical exercises in somehow retro-sensibility erotic longing, over a solid, very appealing bass-driven melody. In "Keep On", the band deftly handles an upbeat country-pop song, and in particular Jim Dandy's vocals have a sweetness to them which belies the usual "mouth full of crackers" image attributed to his work. The songs "Good Stuff" and "Rebel" fit more or less in the traditional "southern rock" mode, while "Back Door Man" features good production values over the band's trademark "nasty" lyrical themes. "Love Can Be Found" is a jaunty, poppy number celebrating the variety of human expression, while "Diggin' for Gold" is a workable but unmemorable tune. The album closes, though, with two of the most fun Black Oak Arkansas tunes. In "Crying' Shame", a redeeming, ringing guitar-glissandi rocker is accompanied by a winning lyric about the disadvantages of urban living, while "Let Life Be Good to You" is a peppy anthem-like upbeat celebration, the kind of unrestrained common-man bit of fun that Black Oak Arkansas could do so well.
This album is a recognizably Black Oak album, but it shows an Allman Brothers influence not often in evidence for BOA. The productive values are extremely good here, giving the band a richer sound without making them sound over-produced. In past albums, the studio albums seemed to present a somewhat more rockin' Ozark Mountain Daredevils, while the live album had shown a metal party band. This album shows both sides of the band, to good effect.
They say that the road exhausts and drains a band, but this album, the culmination of years on the road, shows that it can mature, define and polish a band, too.
"Ain't Life Grand" is a fascinating album, of a curiously interesting band.