South Jersey’s Rat Rod have completed their second full-length album, Light ’Em Up, a collection of high energy tracks sure to fuel the fire of an impassioned rock and roll spirit. It will be available for purchase at their shows, and through their website ratrodrocks.com, beginning June 1.
But before I dive in, I need to push an Aussie elephant out of the room right off the bat. Yes, Rat Rod will make you think of AC/DC. You’ll picture Bon Scott while listening to vocalist Mike Smith’s voice at times, and you’ll hear the sounds of the brothers Young in Mark McCarty’s riffs, especially at the beginning of the title track. Please know that they know (try as they might, they ain’t deaf), and are appreciative of the comparisons to them, and the many other influences they embrace. If this band were merely an AC/DC copycat, I could assure you, I wouldn’t bother writing this review. This band captures the vibe and exhibits a feel for this style of music, and it comes through loud and clear on these songs.
Overall Light ’Em Up is a continuation of the Rat Rod sound first heard on their 2017 album Do You Remember Rock And Roll. However, they’ve added some new ingredients making this release stronger than its predecessor. First, you’ll hear a broader range of singer Mike Smith’s voice which provides a nice balance throughout. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, is that this album is a full band effort, whereas the previous was created before the group being formed and only had McCarty and Smith as the primary players. The steady and driving rhythm that bassist LJ, guitarist Matt Flanigan and drummer Elliott Howard deliver is a welcomed new feature to the growing Rat Rod arsenal.
To love this album, look no further than the opener “Lightning Strikes” which invites the listener in by busting the door open and introducing you to the singer’s “Step right in” tone of voice. The song builds on a slow and steady rhythm leading to an infectious chorus that makes singing along an involuntary action. It’s here that Rat Rod shows a marked difference from any comparison that they might get labeled with. And that is that THEY ARE FUN! The singing in the chorus adds a dash of good-humored flavor, leaving no doubt that they are into what they’re doing. It doesn’t tell you to have fun, it MAKES you do it. A similar feeling is heard at the beginning of the second song, “American Rock n Roll.” The playful call-and-response guitars get the listener into it, the way the chorus vocals do in “Lightning Strikes.”
You’ll also get something you wouldn’t point to AC/DC for, and that’s a ballad (ok, even if it is just a word in the title). “Peacemaker (The Ballad Of Tombstone),” inspired by one of Smith’s favorite films, shows another side of the band, sonically, compared to their debut album. It's also indicative of a theme that runs through the album’s lyrics — a man who, although made cynical by the world around him, holds hope, and is ready for a clean break and new connections. In “Hell And Back,” (by the way, the guitar solo on this song, F-U-N, FUN!) the singer has circled his wagons and set up for defense while in “Lone Wolf Rider” he’s “Free as the breeze, free to ride on!” Philly area listeners will also appreciate The Dead End Kids reference in the song. A pretty good indication that Smith’s lyrics come from a personal place.
Enough can’t be said about the guitar playing on this album. Mark McCarty’s solos are on (last AC/DC reference I swear) FIRE! They alone give reason for the album’s title. The rhythm section provides the heart to the band’s sound, and the lead guitar is the high blood pressure coursing through it. Listen to “Memphis Belle” as proof of this point. And one more note on the added dashes of fun, pay attention to the first part of the solo on this one and notice that Mark shares it with rhythm guitarist Matt Flanigan. “Memphis Belle,” along with track six, “Sleep With The Saints,” clearly demonstrate what to expect when you see this band perform live. To reiterate, this band is high energy and, as LJ summed up in a recent interview with Bay Ragni, “Three chords and a cloud of dust.”
Safe to say that dust is all you’ll be left with if you don’t get on board with Rat Rod and Light ’Em Up.
Mike Smith: Vocals
Mark McCarty: Lead Guitar
Matt Flanigan: Rhythm Guitar
Elliott Howard: Drums