By James Calemine
Warpaint represents Atlanta, Georgia’s, The Black Crowes’ seventh studio album. Seven years have elapsed since the Crowes recorded a album of new songs. A quick historical overview will prove essential to the provenance of the Crowes’ Warpaint. In late 2001—after touring behind the Crowes’ sixth studio release Lions–Chris Robinson decided he no longer wanted to work with the other Crowes in musical projects and struck off on his own to make his first solo CD New Earth Mud. Chris stayed on the road with his New Earth Mud band for the next several years. Later, he recorded another solo album This Magnificent Distance, while brother Rich Robinson also put a couple of bands together and recorded his debut solo album, Paper.
In 2005, the dust of rumor circulated the Crowes were reconciling. It came to pass that guitarist Marc Ford would rejoin the Crowes after his acrimonious 1997 departure. With Ford in the fold again, Crowes fans understood this version of the band would return to its glory days from late 1991-1997. That line-up of the band shared the stage with Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, The Allman Brothers Band, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, P-Funk and later Jimmy Page as well as other legends while playing their own cosmic blend of rock and roll.
Various key members of the band departed and returned to the Black Crowes. Sven Pipien now plays bass (he replaced Johnny Colt in 1998 but was fired and replaced by current Gov’t Mule bassist Andy Hess around 2000) again for the latest 2005 reunion. Inner turmoil remained a serious distraction within the band. After a few 2005 road shows, original drummer Steve Gorman returned to the Crowes as that year marked some of the Crowes’ strongest performances of their career. Later, the band released two albums they never released from 1993 and 1997 in a package titled The Lost Crowes.
Dark clouds soon hovered over the band again. The talented space-captain Ed Harsch was relieved of his keyboard duties due to dangerous habits. Then two days before the band was to go begin a 2006 fall tour, Marc Ford sent a fax to the band stating he quit for fear of his sobriety. The Black Crowes’ friend/producer/guitarist Paul Stacey filled in as touring guitarist, but the band entered into another strange phase. The group made their recent live shows for available purchase, but the band had yet to make plans for recording any new Crowes songs.
These dramatic circumstances served as the back-story to the everlasting three week recording session last fall that became Warpaint. With Paul Stacey serving as engineer and producer, these songs were recorded in the remote hills of New York at Allaire Studios. The Crowes hired their friend Luther Dickinson for these interesting sessions and soon asked him to join the band, which he accepted. The Crowes asked Adam MacDougall to play the keyboards in the group since they ditched Harsch’s original replacement Rob Clores.
So, many Crowes fans anticipate Warpaint with fear and hope…fear the album might not live up to their high expectations and hope it may exceed the Crowes’ incandescent first four albums—Shake Your Money Maker, The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion, Amorica and Three Snakes & One Charm. Fans won’t be disappointed…
Warpaint’s opener “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution” ranks as a classic Crowes song. Rich Robinson’s sidewinder sound meshes well with Luther Dickinson’s prolific slide playing. “Don’t you want to see the ship go down with me?” Chris Robinson sings as if he already knows the answer to this musical question.
The next track, “Walk Believer Walk”, contends as the album’s strongest song. A mean-hearted blues romp that Rich and Luther operate with a venomous, weaving riff that assures the listener there are few bands that capture such a menacing sound. “Can you feel the devils coming? Can you hear the devil sing?” The singer asks in some wicked struggle between light and dark, which the Crowes flirted with throughout their career.
However, on their darkest albums–Amorica and Three Snakes And One Charm–the Crowes leaned on the sinister side; as in the days when Chris Robinson sang “Jesus can’t save you/Though it’s nice to know he tried” in his song “Evil Eye”. Now, in Warpaint’s “Walk Believer Walk”, he tells the story of a “mainline Jesus troubadour” walking through the valley of death with only faith on his side…”Walk believer walk straight into the sun/Walk believer walk your work ain’t never done…”
“O Josephine” a slow, incandescent song reminds of something from Dylan’s The Basement Tapes. Robinson sings about “dealing in tears and powders/For a spell I was strung out beyond my means” in this sad ballad. Rich Robinson lurks a little low in the mix, as if he intentionally holds back and only focuses on the song’s emotive hooks, which strengthens his playing. There’s no doubt these songs will transfer well to a live audience. Pound for pound, these first three songs from Warpaint contend with the first three songs of any previous Crowes album.
A murky rocker “Evergreen” contains a timeless sound that may have been written in any of the past four decades. The energy of Warpaint slows down at this point…but the Crowes intentionally capture a sonic tapestry to evoke a mood during certain points in an album’s song sequence. “Evergreen”, even at it’s most rocking, still contains an organic feel.Luther Dickinson’s solo offers a real hope for all the rock and rollers out there lost amid a sea of fake pop, great pretenders and passing musical trends that gritty rock-n-roll still endures and inspires.
“Locust Street”, a piano, acoustic-driven composition carries this song as Robinson’s vivid lyrical narrative evokes photograph images punctuated by subtle masterful guitar licks. “It’s easy pickins on locust street/There’s no place to hide/If you can’t find love on Locust Street/You can hear the sunrise crying/Black cat blues/Blacked-out windows…”
Warpaint operates with a musical diversity, and with every album, the Crowes change their sound just a little. “Movin’ On Down The Line” appears out of the mist in a slow, soulful, steady musical climb…where gradually each instrument can be heard in this vast landscape of sound. “The wheel within the wheel/Water from the well,” Robinson sings as testimony to how the Crowes always manage to blend blues/rock/country/R&B/psychedelica into one sound better than almost any band. In the last third of the song Chris Robinson blows the harmonica and between his brother’s emotive slide and Dickinson’s amazing blues chops as they evoke a powerful mojo.
On “Wounded Bird” Robinson sings close-to-the bone-lyrics that one might deduce his experience with tabloid exposure inspired as he rails against an eerie darkness surrounding poetic circumstance. Yet, this song acts on the listener like some delayed truth serum which reveals itself with each listen.
Now, back to the Crowes’ flirtations with darkness and light–the mercurial blues cover of Reverend Charlie Jackson’s “God’s Got It” may prove the Crowes’ gospel testimony of moving towards the golden light. As a live band, the Crowes are notorious for covering a plethora of other artists’ songs, but “God’s Got It” serves as only their third cover on seven albums (Otis Redding and Bob Marley on their first two). This country-blues rave up indicates why Luther Dickinson’s musical presence helps the Crowes on their mission to continue the legacy one of America’s oldest traditions–and still make people dance, wonder and celebrate.
“There’s Gold In Them Hills” indicates The Crowes are returning to a more earthy-old-time sound. Robinson sings his Topanga Canyon cowboy lyrics in this saloon-piano, homespun ballad. Warpaint’s final song, “Whoa Mule”, recorded outdoors—upon Steve Gorman’s djembe beat—summons a dobro-harmonica raga that transcends any pigeonholing since its hypnotic sound resembles some old Alan Lomax Library of Congress field recording. The Black Crowes remain a vital asset to the preservation of a close-to-the-soil musical ethos lacking in today’s industry.
Warpaint marks the Crowes’ defiant musical war path straight to the heart of America’s oldest music.
Read interviews with Chris Robinson, Rich Robinson, Marc Ford and Luther Dickinson in Insured Beyond The Grave Vol. 2…