Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Black Crowes: Warpaint Live

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

While distasteful and unethical, this lapse is somewhat understandable for two reasons. For one thing, I assume that the Maxim offices are filled with distractingly jigglesome fake boobs. (In my imagination they're not even attached to people -- they're just bouncing arbitrarily around the room, like that Star Trek episode with the tribbles.) And for another thing, the Black Crowes sound (as well as their clothes and hair) have been almost completely changeless since the group first appeared. 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’ thing: 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 to which they once pretended. Two and a half decades 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 Freebird 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 influence 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 Robert Plant rock star posturing feels a little tired, but the plaintive white-boy soul of Chris Robinson's voice is compelling and enveloping. Tracks like the lovely heartsick ballad “Locust Street,” which sounds for all the world like a great lost Gram Parsons song, makes you wonder why rock bands don’t still write songs this mournful, emotional, and yet restrained. Rich Robinson’s guitar sound is vocal and expressive in a way that’s unfashionable, anachronistic and still moving. The 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.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hoots and Hellmouth: The Holy Open Secret

Who needs a drum kit? The Philadelphia rock/alt-country/gospel outfit Hoots and Hellmouth generally eschew any percussion that can’t be easily transported to the front porch, choosing washboards, tambourines, spoons and footstomps over the usual snare, bass and high hat, yet their sound is no less raucous or irresistibly danceable for the substitution.

Their second album, The Holy Open Secret, is a worthy follow-up to their barn-burning first record. Producer Bill Moriarty has become something of a local Phil Spector, svengali-like in his ability to steer acclaimed homegrown acts to the cusp of national attention. His records with groups like Man Man and Dr. Dog elevated them from the house party and church basement circuit to appearances on network television and reviews in Rolling Stone. In the process he’s developed an idiosyncratic Philadelphia indie rock sound, characterized by constantly shifting instrumental textures, rich harmonies and dense arrangements that somehow still sound chaotic and wild – complex houses of cards, always on the verge of glorious collapse.

Moriarty’s arrangements are a perfect fit for Hoots and Hellmouth’s odd hodgepodge of influences. Despite the tossed off hootenanny atmosphere they cultivate, their songcraft is extremely ambitious, almost schizophrenic in its breadth and reach. “What Good Are Plowshares if We Use Them Like Swords” is a hard, razor-edged Motown single, chugging along on a viciously simple and ominous guitar riff, before segueing into the laughing Tom Waits kitchen sink stomp of “The Family Band.” “You and All of Us” is a wonderful mess: imprecise harmonies, an impossibly catchy, almost rag-time guitar line, and drunken, woozy hollering. The songs come at you from twelve directions at once, and your defenses are useless. They win you over.

The album wrings a lot from the tension between the band’s two songwriters and vocalists, Sean Hoots and Andrew "Hellmouth" Gray. Hoots’ songs are generally the better ones. His melodies move in more unexpected directions -- the soulful gospel vibe and bluegrass rhythms seem to be his contribution. In comparison, the Hellmouth tracks -- mostly contemplative singer-songwriter ballads -- seem very routine and predictable. Still, with Hoots throwing such a wide variety of sounds into a blender and coldly snarling his way through oblique lyrics, there's something warm and personal about Hellmouth's delivery, his broad chords and dusty melodies, the creakily expansive, oaken timbre of his voice. Amidst all of Hoots' tight arrangements, falsettos, bible quotes and whiplash key changes, a well sung, simply stated lyric like "in this kitchen all I see are a thousand dishes and me" isn’t just prosaic -- it's intimate, familiar, true.

Gray doesn't possess even half of Hoots' impressive talent, but his well-worn folk holds an important place on the record. Without it, Hoots' hyperactive musical imagination and surplus of ideas might grow wearying, even unpleasant.

Hoots is the kite. Hellmouth is the string. The Holy Open Secret tugs you skyward.