The career trajectories of Charles Bukowski and the Black Crowes are pretty damn similar. Here's how: Bukowski was already famous when he finally learned how to write, how not to lift from chroniclers of losers like David Goodis; by 1982's Ham on Rye and the next year's Hot Water Music, crusty Buk was downright engaging, a writerly force. It's like that with the Crowes — the band had already sold millions of records before it evolved beyond the obviousness of its influences (Free, the Faces, the Band, etc.), and by 1994's Amorica and 1996's dense and stunning Three Snakes and One Charm the band had found its voice.
(What's weird is how the Crowes — well, brothers Chris and Rich Robinson — were anomalously allowed to evolve and exist in an increasingly disposable world, which says much about the band and its fans.)
By 1999, the group had slipped into self-parody (By Your Side) but emerged in tattered fringes on 2001's underrated Lions, which nearly saw the Crowes relegated to the scrap heap forever. A band split and Robinson solo albums ensued before the band regrouped, altered its lineup again (Detroiter Eddie Harsch is gone; welcome aboard keyboardist Adam McDougall and guitarist Luther Dickinson) and was saved by big tour business born of an unyielding fanbase.
Cut to March 2008: Who'd have guessed the Black Crowes — this band that's so hastily accused of such atrocities as record collection romanticism (gosh!) — would cough up Warpaint, a "comeback" of grand proportions?
The album starts with what has to be the rock 'n' roll song of the year. "Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution" is a call-to-arms ("Hallelujah, come join the jubilee") whose pop-delicious key-change lifts into a sing-along refrain; we follow singer Chris Robinson's pied-piper shimmy across a culture that's splitting at the seams; its loopy optimism says freedom's just a tear-it-all-down-and-rebuild away — it's a theme that repeats throughout the album.
"Oh, Josephine" sees some kind of blue-eyed opiate angel in black appear as, perhaps, a metaphor of temporary salvation. The song's a hushed lament with a hopefulness that's mirrored in the ending musical coda, which rises and rises, over and over, in a wink to Pink Floyd's "Fearless." Robinson's a lyricist who leans to the feminine; he knows it's a fertile, female universe and he's splayed out between rebirths and weeping willows, rose petals and crying sunrises — the flipside to his days of being "strung out beyond his means." His voice's still ingrained with that Otis Redding trill, but there's wisdom, and the man sounds older and better.
Elsewhere, the lost-love mourn in "There's Gold in Them Hills" could be the singer's confessional to the film star he first immortalized on Lion's "Soul Singin'." The mandolin, slide and acoustic guitar-led "Locust Street" is as beautiful a song as any in recent memory, and "Wounded Bird" sees a chorus carried away on a Beatle-y melody and the line "Set your mind to fly." The weird sadness and repetition in "Whoa Mule" could raise the ghost of Lowell George, particularly the all-encompassing line "We're dirty but we're dreamin'."
Guitarist Rich Robinson's open-tuned Delta blues-meets-Nick Drake beauty is everywhere, soaring here and restraining there, upholding melancholy, upholding joy.
Sound like the Crowes? Sure, lots of guitars, organs and pianos, but this is American music born in the South and, after a Hollywood detour, is now home again. There's even the best white cover of a Reverend Charlie Jackson song ("God's Got It") you'll likely ever hear.
In a culture where faster is confused with better, the Black Crowes made a stinker-free live-sounding album that requires — no, demands — attention from a listener. The imagination chugs and rises — the songs and band sound intuitive, it sounds alive, in the same way the Stones did on Beggar's Banquet. Besides, you've got to love a band whose musical knowledge runs far, far deeper than what they were listening to in high school. There's history lessons in those chord changes. Even Bukowski had Camus.
Brian Smith is the features editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].