When in 2005 guitarist Marc Ford was convinced to rejoin his old band mates for a reunion tour it was certainly cause for celebration, because at last, the finest line-up of The Black Crowes was back finally, fully prepared to blow everyone away like they did in their glory days. Though after nearly two years on the road, and one superb live album later, Ford unexpectedly quit, followed by keyboardist Eddie Harsch soon after (the latter most likely due to drug problems), forcing the band to bring in a couple of last minute replacements before eventually settling on Adam MacDougall and Luther Dickenson, on piano and guitar respectively. Which is a shame really, since Warpaint, their first studio album since 2001, would have benefited enormously had of Ford and Harsch stuck around long enough to contribute to what was already a quite considerable chemistry.
Things get off to a decent start with the intelligently titled “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution”, which is little more than a quality, albeit generic slice of country-rock the Crowes did far better on their earlier albums. The bluesy, slide heavy “Walk Believer Walk” doesn’t so much as walk but ineffectually crawl from out your speakers and across the living room floor, like some dying carnivore waiting to be put out of its misery. Blame it on middle age, but I’d say that the Robinson brothers’ decision making skills had sharply deteriorated, at least when it came to what to record and include on this album anyway. “Oh Josephine” might be country-rock by numbers, in the vein of The Band, mind you there is a sincerity that draws the listener to it, due mainly to Chris Robinson’s mournful vocal delivery and lyrics which may or may not be concerned with his divorce from actress Kate Hudson.
They attempt to re-create their youth on “Evergreen”, and manage a pretty close facsimile until the uninspired chorus kicks in, which is a pity, as the guitar playing is anything but, especially Dickenson, who plucks and plies his instrument like some demented demon intent on possessing the listener’s soul before dragging it down into Hades. The Stonesy “Wee Who See the Deep” suffers from the same problem, namely great playing mired by a lousy chorus. More successful is the plaintively picturesque “Locust Street”, a quietly depressing narrative that deserves to be re-heard.
If any elements of Exile On Main Street could be heard (or seen) through a psychedelic telescope it would probably sound something like “Movin’ On Down the Line”, a song which adds virtually nothing to Rock’s already significant encyclopaedia, however I’m not complaining, because the Crowes were always at their best when imitating their elders. The band goes through the motions on the psych-rock-blues of “Wounded Bird”; get all down and filthy with the mums and dads blues-gospel “God’s Got It” (written by Reverend Charlie Jackson, someone I’ve never heard of, but ought to apparently if one is to call themselves a music critic), then go all quasi-hillbilly on the dull to distraction “There’s Gold in Them Hills”. Now don’t put away your straw hat and overalls just yet, because closing the album is “Whoa Mule”, another American folk number which has me rummaging through the draw for those Mylanta tablets I always put aside for moments such as these.
Anyone expecting another Southern Harmony, or even Amorica must have no doubt raised an eyebrow or two. Although I guess it depends on who you talk to. My own opinion rests upon a point I made earlier, in that had Marc Ford and Eddie Harsch made their own contributions I’m sure that Warpaint might have proved to be far more superior to what is presented here. That bands often run out of ideas and struggle to reassert themselves artistically after the first few albums is nothing new, nor unsurprising. And while a fire had indeed been reignited, it nevertheless paled in comparison to the one they previously held. At least The Rolling Stones could still churn out a “Beast of Burden” or “Start Me Up” so late in their career. Sadly one won’t find anything anywhere near as enthralling on this release I’m afraid to say. A telling sign if there was ever one.