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Black Crowes, The - Warpaint Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 April 2008
ImageThere aren’t many true chameleons in popular music. I point this out in response to the recent Maxim magazine non-review of the new Black Crowes release, Warpaint, and the faulty logic behind reviewing music you haven’t bothered to listen to. Beyond the dishonesty, and lunacy, of attempting pull such a thing off I sincerely believe that the writer, like most of us, was spoiled by the Beatles ability to reinvent themselves with each release and in doing so change the face and course of music.

Sure, Dylan did it too. Think about how he went from folkie to rocker to countrified songster. And maybe we can throw in Prince during that ‘80s period where he morphed from naughty funkster to Hendrix rocker to acid-pop king. And Neil Young always. But the truth is that, beyond a very small handful, even the most successful artists (and here we’re speaking of purely creative matters) reinvent themselves in small increments.

If you take for example Bruce Springsteen, arguably one of the most important artists in popular music over the past 30 years, it’s very simple to chart his growth and the changes he’s going through. Electric or acoustic, rock or folk, highly produced or recorded live in a church, E Street Band or solo, Bruce is Bruce. He’s not fitting his music into a myriad of wild styles and trendy concepts. He tests his boundaries and expresses himself in the way that is best to convey his songs. He’s not looking for change, he’s looking for growth. Whereas the Beatles moved across the musical landscape to satisfy their creative energy, Bruce only needs to be Bruce to satisfy his needs. What I’m saying is it’s not the attempt to comment on music you haven’t heard that is most ridiculous, but the ludicrous conceit of “reviewing” a Black Crowes record and not expecting it to sound like the Black Crowes. And in the end no matter who makes the music, or what genre people like me stuff it into, what it really comes down to are the songs. The music. The lyrics. The production. The performance. And you can’t comment on those things if you haven’t heard them.
So … if you’re interested in the Black Crowes and have decided to lay off Warpaint because some dork wrote a best-guess review, you have a right to be angry. Because this album is really good. It’s high quality in all four of the areas listed above and, seeing as I can speak as someone who has actually listened to the entire thing a good 10 or 12 times, I can go so far as to say I believe it’s their best since The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. And I can do it without consulting a crystal ball.

The Crowes sound as if they’ve spent the seven years since Lions (their last release of new material) listening to Exile on Main Street and The Band while working on toning down some of their musical excesses. Chris Robinson’s singing has more nuance to it, the music doesn’t sound as if his brother Rich is trying to crush listeners into submission with a huge guitar sound placed front and center, and it seems like the production has found a happy medium between the gloss of By Your Side and the freewheeling production on Lions.

It’s hard to say whether Warpaint will win the Crowes any converts, although I believe it should, even though it puts on display all the best of their talents and what they have to offer in this era of cut and paste music. It’s an album painted with their southern rock brush, using psychedelic colors, and is an extension of where they’ve been and an indicator of where they’re headed. If you weren’t captivated in the past, chances are you won’t be captivated now. But if you’re a fan, or even a fence sitter, you’ll be won over. Warpaint rocks on “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution,” digs deep into the band’s love of blues on Rev. Charlie Jackson’s “God’s Got It,” and comes up emotionally solid with the poignant drug ballad “Oh Josephine.” And just these three cuts alone are enough for you to rush out and add Warpaint to your collection.

The connection to Exile on Main Street was almost instantaneous for me.  On “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution” it was the syrupy Mick Taylor-ish slide guitar and the “Don’t you want to see the ship go down with me” chorus that hooked me and has me looking forward to singing along to it live. The stomp and growl of “God’s Got It” is their equivalent of Exile’s “Hip Shake” with a little less mud in the mix but with an American authenticity mired in it. “Oh Josephine” and its sad tale of addiction destroying love has all of the pathos of Exile’s endless stream of one night stands but with the deeper emotional core of a Levon Helm protagonist who’s looking for redemption. “For a while I was kneeling in tears and powder,” Robinson sings sounding sad and edgy, “for as well I was strung out beyond my means/Well I lost that love while climbing down the ladder/just looking for the song to set me free.” If the words themselves give the song an air of sad regret, the tone in his voice gives it a believability that is devastating.

The rest of Warpaint is filled with songs both grounded in the traditions of guitar-oriented rock, such as “Evergreen,” and draped in the trappings of the head culture. Listen to the beginning of “Movin’ on Down the Line” and try to imagine exactly what their state of mind was when this came floating out. Imagine where yours will be at when you’re standing in the middle of a large general admission crowd and they drift into the cut.

There’s only one song on Warpaint where I thought, “they should have left that off.”  “Wee Who See the Deep” sounds like the riff from “25 or 6 to 4” married to the main figure from “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” and doesn’t make much sense to me. I put it on repeat and listened to it five times in a row and still didn’t quite get it. It almost sounds as if they had about four or five (or six or four) riffs and decided to mash them into a song. It’s also the only example of Chris overreaching and ends up in that small range of Crowes songs that would have been better off never being recorded.

Luckily, Warpaint has plenty of other highlights to make up for one bad cut, from the acoustic country of “Locust Street” through the honky-tonk piano ballad “There’s Gold in Them Hills,” to my favorite, “Whoa Mule.” I can’t really articulate why I absolutely adore “Mule” but its simple dobro-driven music and down home chorus, including the line “We’re dirty but we’re dreaming,” must stick a finger into the heart of my hillbilly heritage because it makes me smile and recall the days when I did manual labor and dreamt of a better tomorrow.

So to restate, I’ve listened to the entire Black Crowes release, Warpaint, multiple times and it’s really good. Those of you who appreciate their music will be happy to discover that although they’ve matured they’re still creating music for the heart and head. And there’s no requirement that a musician be a chameleon in order to make music that’s creative, emotional, and rocks as well. There is a requirement that says someone has to be on the other end listening … and not to some imaginary CD spinning in their head.

The only thing a musical artist ever owes a listener is the idea that their creation needed to be brought into existence. The only thing the public owes the artist is a fair, open and honest listen. And I’m happy to say, that’s what this has been.       

I downloaded Warpaint from iTunes as an AAC @ 128 kbps/44.1 kHz. There isn’t an iTunes Plus version as of this writing, but it doesn’t seem to matter because it’s a wonderful sounding release and I can’t really hear any deficiencies on any of my platforms.

The production is crisp, clean and very articulate. Steve Gorman’s percussion is perfectly recorded and shows why he’s actually the most important member of the band. As I tell my friends, “no Steve, no Crowes.”

Warpaint gets loud, dirty and distorted when necessary and the acoustic guitars chime like bells when they’re supposed to, meaning it’s a well-engineered release. I was kind of shocked to see it’s a Pro Tools-manipulated recording, but that just shows my prejudice against most of today’s highly manipulated music. It’s mighty hard to make a track swing when the drum pattern never varies.

My wife took it with her on the road to New Mexico and called to say it’s a perfect road album, and to make sure I told you how awesome it is. I really dug turning it up loud and I couldn’t really tell that anything on the high end was missing. One of my friends used to call releases like Warpaint a “don’t spill the bong water” album, so that’s how I’ll describe what it sounds like when listening through headphones.

Extra Features
It is I who refer to this special download version of Warpaint as the “13 Edition,” for the obvious reason that it includes two extra songs, “Here Comes Daylight” and “Hole in Your Soul,” which brings the total number to, you guessed it, 13. What did you think?

If you go out on iTunes you can still get “Here Comes Daylight” as a bonus download but “Hole in Your Soul” was only for those of us who pre-ordered (and those buying the vinyl version). Both of the songs are excellent and it’s a shame they’re not included on the CD proper.
My download came with a nifty digital booklet that’s mostly artwork, including the cover art which I think is, as they used to say, “bitchin’,” and I’m going to print one up glossy and put it up in my office next to my picture of George Harrison.

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