Nashville’s Great Affairs have released some really enjoyable material over the years. Just as importantly, with the help of line-up changes bringing different talents to the table, they’ve also grown as a band. Their second album ‘Ricky Took The Wheels’ paraded the band as fairly obsessed with The Black Crowes; ‘Happy Endings’ appeared to have a bigger interest in Americana; later works – largely due to second vocalist/drummer Kenny Wright’s arrival – introduced more grit, adding a Stones-ish/Faces colourant to the band’s musical palate. No matter what the musical mood, though, a Great Affairs release has guaranteed a selection of great songs. Even ‘Everybody Moves, Nobody Gets Hurt’ – an album released during a very troubled 2020, and capturing the band on autopilot in some ways – had its own charm.
Perhaps due to being created and released in a more stable environment, 2023’s ‘Sleepwalker’ captures some of the band’s earlier mojo, and at its best, serves up a potent mix of retro pop and rock that immediately feels good. ‘Fever Breaks’, a tune presenting the band’s poppier side, provides an immediate standout. By opening with a barrage of stabbed pianos, it grabs the listener’s attention in about a second, and from there, a semi-rootsy vocal melody blooms and the band cranks a riff that calls back to the late 90s. That energy driven, post-Soul Asylum and 3 Doors Down feel never gets old, but with Denny Smith applying an even more Americana fuelled vocal – occasionally reminiscent of Billy Falcon with a couple of vocal filters – there’s a strong call back to the earliest Great Affairs material. Those elements would create a superb number, but the addition of a couple of acoustic guitars to thicken up the rhythm, pop-ish handclaps and a short but upfront lead guitar break ensures this becomes a brilliant pop-rock number that stands up as one of the band’s very best.
Following a slow start where a sedate vocal croons above a set of solid piano chords, ‘Over The Moon’ explores The Great Affairs love of power pop. A slightly twangy lead guitar and heavy strums show off their Nashville origins, but there’s a lot within the stately 4/4 rhythm, filtered vocals and late Beatles inflections that proudly shares a love of ‘Eldorado’ era ELO, too. It mightn’t be especially original, but Smith sells a great melody throughout, and the layered melodies soon sound like a familiar friend, whilst the much rockier ‘When Love Is The Drug’ shows off the band’s musical charms at the other end of the scale. Since it applies semi-distorted vocals to a chunky groove where Wright’s drums are pushed to the fore, it’s hard to ignore the devotion to Cheap Trick here – the influence from Zander and Nielsen comes through in massive waves – but that just makes it greater. It’s one of those numbers that hits the listener from the start, but once even more pointed guitar solo calls back to some of the earlier Great Affairs bar-room rockers, this becomes one of the band’s best uptempo numbers. It’s always great to hear the band rocking out unashamedly, and thanks to a harmony drenched chorus in a rootsy power pop mood, the balance between melody and grit is just perfect here.
Another top notch rocker, ‘Gettin’ Outta Site’ taps into the Faces/hard rock sounds first heard on the ‘4’ release. With Wright taking the lead vocal role, the track automatically presents a harder edge, and his scratchy vocals are the perfect compliment to an intermittently grubby riff and slide guitar combo. The dominant guitars are joined by a wash of retro organ, and by the time the track finds its feet, its infectious party rock spirit is hard to resist. The are moments when the number almost sounds like The Great Affairs have absorbed a few Tesla numbers, but a very bluesy harmonica keeps a strong 70s vibe, and a massive key change during the climax might remind some listeners of top notch Black Crowes fare…suggesting that, no matter how many years pass, the fledgling Great Affairs are still there in spirit. Although just as energy driven, ‘Run’ has a much less retro sound. By blending ringing guitars and muted notes to create a strong pop-rock verse, and by loading up the harmonies, there are glimmers of radio friendly rock, but musically it’s almost unrecognisable as being The Great Affairs at all. In some ways, this is a good thing; it shows the band aren’t in a rut, and are still absorbing new influences. By the time a huge lead guitar hits, their love of old style rock rises a little more, and there’s still Smith’s slightly reedy, very natural voice to provide a familiar musical anchor, so it feels like a cool blend of old and new. Despite sounding like the work of almost an entirely different band that shared ‘Over The Moon’ and ‘Gettin’ Outta Sight’, the musicianship is great, and the importance of hooks is just as prevalent. In time, this could become a favourite with the more open minded fan.
Taking a left turn, the slow ‘Embers’ drops into a very uncharacteristic mood when Smith helms a very slow piano ballad. The mix of stately chords and his breathy voice creates a semi-theatrical sound, taking the Great Affairs further towards an AOR ballad than their usual roots rock. Maybe a couple of influences from his Larimores side band have crept in here, but thanks to a thoughtful arrangement where the piano eventually grows something grand melody and the presence of another vocal that leans upon a late 90s/early 00s radio friendly mood, something that could’ve felt schmaltzy becomes a natural fit for the band, sounding even more mature than ever before. The huge 70s guitars make a return for ‘Way Past Sundown’ at the tail end of an already great album, and between a chunky groove and rootsy feel, The Great Affairs lose themselves in a tune that sounds like it was culled from the Black Crowes ‘Amorica’ sessions. Despite being more concerned with homage than any new spark, the playing is superb throughout. Smith locks into a great dual guitar sound with his running mate Cory “Rizzo” Rozzoni – making his debut on a Great Affairs LP – whilst long time bassist Matt Anderson adds a thundering bottom end. Although this album shares more mature songwriting and arrangements elsewhere, this high octane closer shows how much of a thrill can still be had from hearing the band unleash their inner early Aerosmith/Black Crowes, and for lovers of the style, it’s bound to fondly received.
If you’ve been following The Great Affairs’ musical endeavours over the years, ‘Sleepwalker’ offers few musical surprises, but it’s ten tracks make up an arguably much better record than ‘Everybody Moves’, and its best tunes convey the mood of a band that clearly loves working together. This isn’t about making a fat load of cash – Denny Smith’s DIY approach means the band won’t break far enough past their grass roots following for that to happen; it’s about a love of making music, and during ‘Sleepwalker’s more inspired moments, that love comes through in massive waves. Those who own at least two of the earlier Affairs discs will already know they want this…and for the less familiar, it’ll still offer plenty to enjoy.