Smile Politely

Album Review: The Black Crowes, Warpaint

A long-time Crowes fan through the missteps that were the years 1998 through 2006, save a couple of damn decent solo records from frontman Chris Robinson and the 2000 collaboration/tour LP with Jimmy Page, Live at the Greek, it was easy to be skeptical about the first Black Crowes studio record in seven years. Many of these years were spent releasing misses of records and self-indulgently releasing as many B-sides and live shows as possible. It all felt money-grubbing, considering the band was on hiatus for at least half of that time. Frankly, though the Crowes are a great rock band, and in this reviewer’s estimation a great rock band is always relevant, it was difficult to tell—through all of the sibling rivalry and Hollywood press—whether or not brothers Chris and Rich Robinson could get it together long enough to recognize this relevance. Needless to say, here we are in 2008: The Black Crowes are no longer on hiatus, and Warpaint is, surprisingly, a solid record.

First things first, Warpaint couldn’t possibly live up to the expectations of the band’s most critical fans. True, a lot is missing from the traditional Crowes sound, especially in consistency. In some ways, Warpaint is all over the board. The band doesn’t sound like it’s trying to re-make Exile on Main Street, and a lot of the bite that came along with that tendency is missing. Further, it’s replaced with extremely listenable production value that sounds fantastic but, some will argue, doesn’t fit with The Black Crowes. To those who hold this band to such a high standard I ask this: it’s been nearly twenty years since Shake Your Money Maker came out. How can you not expect this band to grow up?

Further complicating Warpaint is new member Luther Dickinson (you might know him as the smokin’ guitar whiz from North Mississippi All-Stars), who plants his roots all over Warpaint to good measure. Dickinson’s slide guitar is big and nasty, showing a side of the Crowes that—despite the band’s fine guitar work in the past—isn’t typically there. Instead of sounding like noted influences The Faces or early Stones, Warpaint finds the Crowes rowdy and charged-up, heavily influenced by The Allman Brothers Band by way of the Delta blues (again, courtesy of Dickinson). Warpaint is piano-heavy, and the interchange between Dickinson and Rich Robinson is sweet and lonesome, at times, and aggressive at others. Largely speaking, the blues and country influences on Warpaint—influences that have always been there—release a freewheeling reinvention of the band that shows not only a slow-mining of new territory but also a shift in dynamic, presumably in hopes of avoiding the ego problems that broke up the band in the first place.

Warpaint is not a classic album, one for the ages that will last on long beyond the life of the band itself. But it neither has to be, nor does it try to be. What The Black Crowes achieve on Warpaint is all they needed to: a good record that reinstates the band in the cannon of popular relevance. In other words, it’s a comeback record that hearkens to the band’s history while remaining accessible for the new fans the band needs to sell tickets to its summer tour. A good rock album from a business-conscious band? Love it or hate it, that sounds a lot like The Black Crowes to me.

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