It's "Harder Than It Looks," growls Southside Johnny Lyon on the opening track to his first album of original material with his ever-changing Jukes band since 2002's Going to Jukesville. And even though the double-entendre lyrics refer to the sexual side of aging ("Got to keep it up, keep it up, keep it up/It's harder than it looks"), they could just as well apply to maintaining a band and a career since 1974, as Lyon winds into the final quarter of his life. Longtime cohorts guitarist Bobby Bandiera and keyboardist/songwriter/co-producer Jeff Kazee return to bring some consistency for an outfit that Lyon figures has seen nearly 100 different musicians pass through its ranks over the decades. But aside from Johnny's deteriorating voice losing some of its range as he hovers in his mid-sixties, this is an older, wiser, and somewhat more bluesy collection of rock and soul. In comparison, the ageless Gary "U.S." Bonds assists on the second-line New Orleans-influenced "Umbrella in My Drink," a swinging party tune that makes a perfect duet. But Johnny and the band break out the bluesy rockers in the appropriately titled "One More Night to Rock" (with some rugged harp work demonstrating Lyons' perpetually underrated harmonica skills) and the Chuck Berry/Big Bopper-styled "Keep on Moving." R&B-fueled, horn-propelled tunes such as the driving "Cross That Line" and "Heartbreak City" could have been included on any of the Jukes' previous albums over the past 35 years. The songwriting is top-notch throughout, with singalong choruses and rough-and-tumble melodies worthy of the act's deep history and catalog in similarly styled rock and soul. The steamy, swampy "Strange Strange Feeling" coolly changes pace and the closing ballad "Thank You" is a touching remembrance of a lost love that finds Johnny milking the last drop of emotion from the heartfelt lyrics and stripped-down arrangement. Recording on his own Leroy label frees the singer to release this style of non-commercial music without interference from major-label suits. In Pills and Ammo he hits the sweet spot, producing a solid contemporary Jukes album that makes no compromises and should satisfy longtime fans, even if it might not create new ones.
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