Good singing and good playing prevails.
Formed while its front man’s main group The Black Crowes was on hiatus, The Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s albums aren’t always perfect, but are endearing for their collective moving and grooving, growing and groaning in public. This time out, the cuts are leaner than on some past efforts, the sounds closer to the Grateful Dead’s Shakedown Street and Jackson Browne’s For Everyman than anything in the Crowes’ catalog. Though it’s often difficult to find anything memorable as one might hear on either Marc Ford or Rich Robinson’s recent efforts (or their collaboration Magpie Salute), one can still embrace the easy vibes and Chris Robinson’s seemingly ageless voice.
For a guy who built his early musical life on guitar-driven rock, six-strings take a back seat here. The star of the show (aside from the golden-throated one) is keyboardist Adam MacDougall, who pounds and tickles the keys with a charm rarely heard outside the fingers of Benmont Tench, Bruce Hornsby and, of course, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. MacDougall’s work on “Blond Light of Morning” elevates the otherwise middling tune, giving it a dreamy quality that few contemporary records can summon. His ability to weave between the delicate acoustic and electric guitar figures that filter in like a soothing wave of illicit smoke during “Dog Eat Sun” and his sensitivity to his master’s voice via “She Shares My Blanket” are textbook examples on how to be a star without demanding it. It’s refreshing to hear this emphasis on quieter passages and to witness this sensitivity to the spaces in between.
Good singing and good playing prevails, though the writing ain’t always a bag of dyn-o-mite reefer. Too often the songs become like one of Dylan’s early ‘70s efforts: Material that rises to a quality of good enough but never gets beyond, resulting in a record you can easily file away in the deep stacks within a month of purchasing it. You might return to it at some point, turn a younger cousin on to it, allowing him to embrace and learn the power of deeper cuts. If you’re lucky you might even find yourself asked to write a career retrospective of the artist and revisit the material in 10 years.
The Appalachian “High Is Not the Top” suggests new possibilities for the group, a Pure Prairie League/Old and In the Way-style album on the horizon or at the very least a series of stripped down and un-amped gigs. “If You Had a Heart to Break” is a fantastic deep-side country; “Glow,” meanwhile, makes up for the distance.
Neither those songs nor MacDougall’s playing constitute the whole album, resulting in a soggy, disaffected affair you wish were better yet can’t resist despite its flaws. Like the Dead and Phish (at times) the recorded Chris Robinson Brotherhood lays out a template for things that can come and go in waves and colors. A good place to pick up some licks if not the best platform to learn the craft of songwriting.