When The Black Crowes went on what the band itself described as an “indefinite hiatus” in 2001, it was lead singer Chris Robinson who was first off the mark the following year with his solo debut New Earth Mud, an album consisting of mainly thoughtful, laidback rockers and endearing love ballads, dedicated to his then wife Kate Hudson. His brother Rich was also hard at work on his own solo project, Hookah Brown, even recording and completing several songs, three of which were released as a promotional EP. However when all that fell through (apparently due to arguments over finances), it was not until 2004 that Rich would complete his own solo record proper, the self-produced Paper.
One of the interesting aspects to solo albums is that they tend to highlight the different qualities each member gave to their former group, and Paper is in this respect no exception. One thing’s for sure, this is an LP for lovers of blues-rock guitar and one that ought to be heard through headphones in order to fully appreciate all the subtle overdubs and intricate playing. Unsurprisingly Robinson plays all the guitars, along with bass, not to mention a few other instruments, while old band mate Eddie Harsch contributes keyboards, plus Joe Magistro (drums), and even Rich’s son Taylor makes an appearance on percussion.
The album opens with the southern rock of “Yesterday I Saw You”, a song that would not be out of place on a Crowes record, circa their Amorica period. “Enemy” is another top shelf tune, with plenty of big beefy riffs to keep many a guitar head entertained. The almost stoner-rock of “Leave It Alone” is followed by the catchy “Know Me” where Robinson steps on the accelerator and rocks on down the blues highway. On the melodic and country-flavoured “Forgiven Song”, no doubt written for his wife, Rich’s vocals are expressive, however not quite strong enough to carry it as convincingly had his brother of sung it (not that I would ever say that to Rich’s face). Mind you, the instrumentation is superb throughout.
“Veil” has some fairly decent guitar playing, yet suffers somewhat from the same problem as the previous track, namely Robinson’s voice. The predominately acoustic “When You Will” is exquisite in its semi-eastern loveliness, though Robinson’s singing fails to raise the song above that of demo standard. “Places” is a slow paced bluesy rocker and one which has to be heard loud in order to get the full effect of Robinson’s monster riffage. Next is “Begin”, a song that ought to have been on the next Crowes record. The only real flaw is that the chorus appears to be a rehash of the one on The Crowes’ “Peace Away”.
“Falling Away” is a blend of early Stones country-rock with just a pinch of Led Zeppelin, and proves that Robinson was a damn fine slide guitarist. “Baby” reminds me of something off Primal Scream’s Give Out But Don’t Give Up. It’s a lovely tune, but sorry Rich, the chorus sucks. The playful, Beatles influenced “Oh No” is the most ambitious track here, full of backwards guitar and psychedelic arrangements. In as much as the chorus might be a bit derivative, he still manages to pull it off, but only just mind you.
Now I’d say that based on the string arrangement, Robinson was aiming for a Nick Drake feel with “Answers”, however that’s where all comparisons end, as this is actually nothing like Drake (he never played an electric guitar for a start). Indeed the song has an almost epic folk-rock feel to it, and would have served as a suitable way to finish the album. Instead that honour goes to “It’s Over”, a song which personally I think the LP could have done without, even if Rich’s solo at the end is superb.
Rich has stated that he wrote much of the material with the intention of recording it with Chris on the next Black Crowes album. Therefore one cannot help but wonder what might have been if they had. Still, Paper is a collection of mostly very good to excellent songs, though which of the brothers Robinson’s debuts are better would be a difficult call; Chris is by far the superior vocalist and lyricist, while Rich is the ultimate riff-weaver, not unlike what Keith Richards is to The Rolling Stones. Paper may not be perfect, but there are certainly enough moments to justify its inclusion on any Crowes fan’s shelf. Plus if you can pick it up for a fiver, then even better.