The Black Lillies are a killer live band. They specialize in roadhouse country and soulful ballads. "Hard To Please" successfully conveys the passion and depth of their stage shows in a way, which pleases and is hard to ignore.
The Black Lillies are, foremost, Cruz Contreras' band. He fronts The Black Lillies, writes most of the material, playing guitar and keyboard with abandon and providing stout lead vocals. Contreras is a musical force to be reckoned with.
On "Hard To Please," the band sounds like it could be dropped into The Broken Spoke in South Austin on a boozy Friday night and take on all comers. The title cut certainly fits this mold, with crushing guitar riffs and a nasty backbeat from drummer Bowman Townsend. "That's The Way It Goes Down" takes up the energy of "Hard To Please," smoothes it out and lands with power and grace. There's no lack of energy throughout the album. This is smart songwriting with licks to back it up.
Singer Trisha Gene Brady could be, but is not, overshadowed by Contreras. Brady takes center stage on several numbers and her vocals are both strong and true. 'Mercy," nominally a duet with Contreras, is Brady's song start to finish. So, too, is the soulful, throaty rendition of "The First Time." The Black Lillies follow a similar pattern with the peaceful, rolling "Bound To Roam" and the lively, pedal steel infused "Dancin'": Contreras sets the vocal table for Brady to clear.
The Black Lillies went through a couple of personnel changes right about the time the recording of "Hard To Please," but the band doesn't misstep. Producer Ryan Hewitt, who has Johnny Cash and Avett Brothers production credits, ably assisted the recording in Nashville. Townsend is a clever and steady percussive force; he and Brady are key members of the band and never more so than on "Hard To Please" Without them, the band would have considerably less texture and soul.
"Hard To Please" improves with listening. The Black Lillies have been in the musical trenches for a few years now, but their chops and maturity are real assets. This is where roadhouse country music should be.