Warpaint is the first studio album from the Black Crowes in seven years — not that you can really tell. The Crowes still bangout that old-school boogie that might be three or four decades old if itwasn’t brand-new. All the obvious ingredients that fueled their 1990debut, Shake Your Money Maker, are still in place, from singer Chris Robinson’s Jagger swagger to the band’s Faces-style barroom juking. Even Robinson’s battles with his brother/guitar player Rich, apparently dormant for now, have always come straight from the Kinks’ playbook. If the Crowes are derivative, they wear that tag with pride; it’s exactly what their fans love about them.
At their best, though — when they look back beyond their classic-rock forebears and draw from the same well of American roots music that inspired all those Brits in the Sixties — the Crowes aren’t so easy to pigeonhole. Given their Southern heritage, the Robinsons and Co. have a more organic affinity for some of the styles — country, gospel — that a band likethe Stones always dressed up with a touch of irony. On Warpaint, thedriving force is the blues. The loose-limbed jangle of defining Crowes hits like “Jealous Again” shows up in the first single, “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution,” but not too often after that. These elevensongs largely come from a place that’s darker and more hard-fought. Themood runs through the fire-and-brimstone of “Walk Believer Walk” and the dead-end setting of “Locust Street.”
Throughout the album, Robinson tells tales of loss and regret. “For a while, I was dealing in tears and powders/For a spell, I was strung out beyond my means,” he sings in “Oh Josephine,” while in the spacey, East-meets-South closer, “Whoa Mule,”he adds, “It won’t take long to sing you my song/Full of trouble and despair.” (These may not be diary entries, but his split from KateHudson clearly took a toll on the dude.) Yet Robinson counters each lament with a reminder that his life was saved by rock & roll — and he’s not afraid to use the language of the pulpit. Most literal is a jackhammer stomp through the Rev. Charlie Jackson’s “God’s Got It,” but elsewhere he sings of “redemption” and “grace,” and calls out to “jointhe jubilee.” It’s a faith that’s more familiar coming from younger musicians, but as the Crowes close in on the twenty-year mark, they now act like survivors, battle-scarred believers.
It’s pretty ambitious stuff for a crew often dismissed as a bunch of throwback stoners; if only the writing met the challenge more consistently. Warpaint starts off strong — the first third of the album reveals some of the best range and craft of the band’s career — but songs like “We Who Seethe Deep” are just too unfocused to be memorable. “Evergreen” is a sweetly propulsive love song, but can’t Robinson do better than “Come make love in the sunshine/Come let’s share our pain”?
Most of the rough patches, though, are forgivable, because the band sounds damn good. The Crowes may have gone through so many lineup changes that their Wikipedia page has a color-coded chronological chart, but they wound up with awinning hand. The key addition is Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, whose slashing slide work contributes tension and intricacy all over the album. Together with new keyboard player Adam MacDougall, Dickinson and Rich Robinson give some of the songs a feelclose to those of the Allman Brothers or Derek and the Dominos. Though most of Warpaint is fairly concise — only one song exceeds the six-minute mark — the most exciting moments come when these musicians take to the hills on the extended codas of “Oh Josephine” or”Movin’ on Down the Line.”
The Black Crowes have fallen out, broken upand been written off as washed-up. Hell, these guys did their Behind the Music almost ten years ago, and Rich Robinson isn’t even forty yet.They’ve now been around as long as some of their own idols were when the Robinsons first started. But with Warpaint, for the first time in a longtime, the Black Crowes seem like a band with a future.