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The Black Crowes

Warpaint Live

(Eagle Rock Entertainment; US: 28 Apr 2009; UK: 27 Apr 2009)

The Black Crowes were the unwitting victims in a minor scandal last year, when Maxim magazine, in a humbling display of true journalistic integrity, somehow managed to review Warpaint, an album that the Crowes hadn’t yet finished recording. When the band accused Maxim of fraudulent reporting, they offered the ridiculous defense that their review was an “educated guess”.


While distasteful and unethical, this lapse is somewhat understandable for one good reason: the Black Crowes’ sound (as well as their clothes and hair) have been almost completely changeless since they first appeared at the beginning of the ‘90s. Hilariously, Maxim‘s uninformed and dishonest review happens to be a fairly accurate assessment of Warpaint.


And now it falls to me to write a review of an album that I really COULD discuss without ever listening to it: Warpaint Live. As the title indicates, it sounds just like Warpaint, except live (and dressed up with a few covers and back-catalogue tunes).  Whether you’ll like it depends on whether you like the Black Crowes’ vibe: it’s forever 1974. The last 30 years of pop music never happened. The sky is thick with incense, and hippified country-rock rules the airwaves.


I will say, though, that advancing age and a diminishing fan base suit these guys.  They began their career affecting the pose of the grizzled, drunken road warriors of rock, and have gradually earned the reputation that they once pretended to possess. Two and a half decades (yes, they formed in 1984) and a dozen albums deep into their workmanlike careers, they’re as good as they ever were—maybe even a little better.


When they get their hands on a good melody, as in “Josephine”, they play the living hell out of it, all earnest, unembarrassed rock-star passion. A warm and pleading vocal is welded to a powerfully simply guitar line, and they speed the whole thing up into a wild “Free Bird” jam at the end. Sure, you’ve heard it before; it sounded good then, and it sounds good now.


Two discs of this stuff, though, starts to feel a little repetitive and formulaic. Verse! Chorus! Pseudo-Page guitar solo! There are a lot of great moments along the way, but the Crowes would do better to follow their myriad influences a little farther down the highways and byways of Aquarian pop. They steal a lot of terrific stuff from the Byrds, the Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, but they blend it all into their familiar Allman/Zep/Skynyrd axis of searing guitar rock. They’ve worked hard to perfect the Black Crowes sound, but perfection and complacency are two sides of the same coin.


They’re at their best when they lean harder on the Allman side of the equation. The rock star posturing feels a little tired, but the plaintive white-boy soul of Chris Robinson’s voice is compelling and enveloping on tracks like the lovely heartsick ballad “Locust Street”, which sounds for all the world like a great lost Gram Parsons track. Their guitar sound is vocal and expressive in a way that’s unfashionable, anachronistic, and still moving. Their lack of froofy artistry and self-conscious innovation is refreshing—they’re more craftsmen than auteurs. And yet, their arena rock never feels calculated or impersonal; despite their adherence to formula, nothing feels rote or tossed off. After all these years they still play it like they mean it, and that’s saying something.

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