Rootsy guitar rock is largely finished as a commercial force. The charts today are dominated by a mix of post-disco R&B, electronica, hip-hop and the occasional timeless schmaltz ballad from the likes of Adele. Classic rock has gone the way of its predecessor, blues; it’s a once-mainstream genre that has become a niche fandom.
It makes sense, then, that arguably the best guitar rock album of the year is by Samantha Fish, a performer who’s mostly been labeled as a blues performer. Fish has always skulked menacingly around the blurry line between nostalgic blues purist and nostalgic classic rock purist. “Down in the Swamp,” the first track on her 2011 debut Runaway, is as much Hendrix as Buddy Guy, and 2017’s Belle of the West includes country and roots influences that would make the Stones, the Band or Lynyrd Skynyrd groove along approvingly.
Nonetheless, Fish’s latest album Faster is a surprisingly decisive left turn from blues rock and roots rock towards the trashy flash of the 1980s. The cover, on which she wears a purple glam outfit with a plunging neckline and licks the neck of her guitar, could easily be hair metal album art from decades ago, and the opening title track slithers into the same chrome and glitter snakeskin pants as many a Slash and Def Leppard before her. The production is all echo and polish as Fish delivers the lyrics in a sneering yodel. “I want to ooooh ooooh ooooh ooooh! That’s how I make your heart beat faster, faster!” The guitar riff drives home the single entendre in case you somehow missed it.
The rest of the album follows through on that lewd thrust. “All Ice No Whiskey,” about an inadequate lover, has that big overdriven 1980s drum-machine sound, an anthemic background chorus, and synths providing a bedrock of funky cheese for the guitar grunge. “So-Called Lover” cranks on up to Motorhead speeds as Fish declares “You wanna kiss my scars” and lets loose with a guitar solo that starts Stevie Ray Vaughn and hammers on and pulls off into Van Halen. “Loud” is an honest-to-Axl power ballad, with Fish starting out with a soul vocal over piano accompaniment before bringing down the hammer of the gods and the Robert Plant wailing.
“Loud” is also the track that makes the clearest nod to the current century; it includes a verse by charting (albeit not chart-topping) rapper Tech N9ne. Like Fish, Tech N9ne is from Kansas City, but his inclusion makes stylistic as well as regional sense; his rapid-fire chopping style is a decent hip-hop approximation of ax-hero pyrotechnics. “Screamin' up into the heavens, I don't need a crowd/At my highest decibel level, tryna beat it now” fits into the aesthetic of “You Shook Me All Night Long,” especially with Fish’s blues lick punctuating it like a lightning blast of raunch.
Tech N9ne underlines that this album is a crossover effort; Fish is moving from a niche that hasn’t had mainstream commercial clout for a long time to one that was commercial until more recently. But the strut from blues to rock to hip-hop is also a middle-finger to genre borders.
High-decibel erotically-charged virtuoso musicianship found an audience when Muddy Waters declared “Now I’m ready for you, I hope you’re ready for me,” as readily as when Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion responded, “Hop on top, I want a ride.” Faster is keeping the faith in blues and in rock by reasserting that “I want to ooooh ooooh ooooh ooooh” is always relevant if you drive it home hard enough.