Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Album Review: Warpaint

The Black Crowes
Silver Arrow Records

It's funny what an "indefinite hiatus", a handful of solo albums, a subsequent reunion tour and a failed Hollywood marriage will do for the health of your band.

Seven years after the release of their last studio effort (2001s mostly forgettable Lions) The Black Crowes return with Warpaint, a more consistent and natural sounding record that plays to the band's strengths and shows a band still very much in its element 19 years into their career.

After regrouping in 2005, the core group of vocalist Chris Robinson, guitarist Rich Robinson, drummer Steve Gorman, bassist Sven Pipien, keyboardist Eddie Hawyrsch reunited with exiled axe slinger Marc Ford and proceeded to tour themselves silly for the next two years.

What began as a triumphant return of one of America's best live bands transformed into an endless tour that eventually saw Ford fax his resignation just days prior to the start of a Fall 2006 tour and keyboardist Hawyrsch given his walking papers for undisclosed reasons. Add the failed marriage of singer Robinson to actress Kate Hudson and fans where left wondering if these birds had any feathers left on their wings, much less the capacity to record another album.

While most bands would have folded long ago, brothers Chris and Rich Robinson drafted North Mississippi Allstar guitarist Luther Dickinson and keyboardist Adam McDougal, wrote a batch of tunes and entered a remote studio in Woodstock, New York, to create Warpaint, an album that takes the last 19 years of life and musical influences and distills them into 11 songs.

Album opener "Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution" is classic Crowes: a swinging backbeat, drifty guitar, dancing piano and Chris Robinson's distinctive preacher man vocals crooning lyrics like "Keep on running through the gates of the city/ to give up now would be such a pity / don't you want to see the ship go down with me?". If any song were to announce that the Black Crowes are back on the scene, it's this one.

Crunching rockers like the start, stop of "Walk Believer Walk" and the filthy slide guitar of "Wounded Bird" confirm the Crowes can write these uptempo blues stompers in their sleep. The psychedelic intro to "Movin' on Down the Line" transforms into a southern rock soul hootenanny and begs to be stretched out in a live setting, which is where the band has always shined the brightest.

The many years of living on the road has proved a blessing and a curse for the band, but if anything, the road has chiseled the Crowe's songwriting chops to a fine edge, and the slower numbers on Warpaint show a maturity that cannot be faked. The melancholy "Locust Street" has a Gram Parsons sadness accented by mandolin and acoustic guitars while "There's Gold in Them Hills" might be the closest anyone gets to hearing Chris Robinson's take on his former relationship with actress Kate Hudson.

Album closer "Whoa Mule" is a folky campfire song and album highlight, as is the cover of Reverend Charlie Jackson's "God's Got It" which is transformed into a porch stomping, guitar sliding gospel call and response that is sure to get a live crowd clapping along.

If there's anything that detracts on Warpaint, it's the spottiness of the lyrics. For every soul bearing moment that we get on a song like "There's Gold in Them Hills", there's the lazy, almost tossed off feeling to songs like "Evergreen" (example: "Evergreen, evergreen, prettiest thing I've ever seen") and "We Who See the Deep".

Lyrics aside, the recording and production job by producer Paul Stacey is something to cherish in this digital age of Pro Tools manipulation and massive compression. Warpaint sounds like an actual band album because it was recorded with the band playing together in a large room with a minimum of overdubs. We actually get to hear the "room" and the space between instruments and musical notes. Put on a pair of headphones and the musical nuances become even more pronounced.

Is Warpaint the Crowes' best? It's hard to top the trifecta of 1992s The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, 1994s Amorica and 1996s Three Snakes and One Charm, but it is a refreshing reintroduction into the public's consciousness by one of America's best pure rock 'n roll bands.

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