Friday, July 18, 2014
Brotherhood in Arms: Chris Robinson gets psychedelic
When an artist enters the studio intent on "experimentation," the results will be unpredictable. With any luck, new sonic territory will be discovered. And yes, some old fans may feel betrayed if a rock star attempts to reinvent himself. In such cases, as the Chris Robinson Brotherhood has found, the success of the end product, "Phosphorescent Harvest," depends on your point of view.
If your point of view is listening through ear plugs while staring at your smart phone, the chances are a psychedelic boogie called "Humboldt Wind Chimes" is not your cup of tea. It may test your patience, as you keep looking for the jingle, sounding all pretty confusing to you as seasoned guitars crunch dirty chords and layered walls of keyboards twist in galactic clouds of warbling stars. If sensations of dysrhythmia persist, cease listening and call your doctor.
But if you are looking for something not quite so truncated, nor compact as a three-minute ditty suitable to be clipped for an Apple television commercial, and you have actually listened to music by the Grateful Dead from, say, "From the Mars Hotel," or, an even stranger trip, "Anthem of the Sun," then you might marvel at the dexterous musical complexities of the latest album by CRB, an event in vintage rock returned from retrograde and rendered anew.
As Robinson commented recently, the kaleidoscopic suites for the band's third album were never intended to sell cell phones.
More than 20 years ago, The Black Crowes hit the scene with their hard-rock sensibilities during the birth of an alternative rock era where Brit bands such as Depeche Mode and Seattle grunge were the rage. But the 1990 debut album "Shake Your Money Maker" proved that the old rock wasn't dead, and that audiences were hugely in favor of that classic-rock familiarity. "Shake Your Money Maker" went quintuple-platinum and generated the chart-topping cover of the Otis Redding song, "Hard to Handle," and the Crowes' own tune, "She Talks to Angels." The band went on to produce eight more studio albums (and four live albums) but as the years wore on, Chris Robinson was in the mood for something different.
Although The Black Crowes have had reunion tours in recent years, the band currently is on hiatus as Robinson has gotten more in line with the folk-rock revival. He calls the result of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood's "Phospherescent Harvest" experiment "hippie baroque."
And if space is your final frontier, "Phosphorescent Harvest" is the perfect fuel to get there, especially if you are not in any particular hurry. The songs are long by pop music standards. As CRB guitarist Neal Casal says, "We are amazed if we come in at five minutes."
Casal said the group went into the studio thinking it would take many of the road-tested tracks further than they had ever gone before, exploring brave new worlds of sound. There's a reinvented Deadhead-ness about it, but with a musical palette of turning knobs to create distorted layers of weirdness that ebb and flow, strange and murky as Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," but more naturalistic than hard-wired, all encasing Robinson's southern rock roots growl and mystical, post-giant-celebrity-rock-star storytelling songwriting style.
Controversial, perhaps, in its delivery, but after a few listens, the surreal musicality of it starts to reveal Robinson as no more alien, in terms of the tunecraft, than The Doobie Brothers on "The Captain and Me." His songwriting is still melodious, straight-ahead, except now (especially on the ballads) with more of a subtle tendency to purr than howl. Yes, Robinson's swagger is still there, especially on such tracks as "Shore Power" and "Jump the Turnstile," the latter of which goes over the horizon with an extended revelatory guitar jam. But the lead singer is only a part of the puzzle here. The Chris Robinson Brotherhood is a collaboration.
"The concept of the band is to be experimental, to not be heavy rock like The Black Crowes," Casal says. "We wanted to lighten it up with something Grateful Dead inspired, very pyschedelic, bluesy, with a Herbie Hancock sort of cosmic jazz. I am by no means a jazz player, but we were dipping into those areas. We wanted to expand the field and just go for it."
In going for it, the tight thump and grind of the old Black Crowes sound is road kill. Very little of what the Crowes recorded is played on this tour. Robinson, who Casal says is an "amazing musicologist," is more of a folk-rock crooner these days. However, the California rock intentions are perfect for a mature sharing of the bill with a band such as Bob Weir's post-Dead ensemble, Rat Dog, which is what Casal was preparing for as, during the interview, he refused to compare the Chris Robinson Brotherhood with his previous band, Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, only to say "They (Robinson and Adams) are two completely different kinds of people, different kinds of songwriters."
Of his Ryan Adams and the Cardinals years, 2007 to 2009, Casal said it was a great live band and amazing time of his life. "We were a dangerous group," he says. "But there is nowhere I'd rather be than where I am right now. With this band I've really grown as a musician, and it has really opened up my playing."
Casal was born in New Jersey and somehow became more of a Jerry Garcia fan than an aficionado of Bruce Springsteen, and he's all about California as a resident of Ventura now. Hence, the continuum of the Grateful Dead legacy remains unbroken.
"I was intrigued with his (Garcia's) voice," he says. "It's so complex, and somewhere along the line I became obsessed with the song 'Casey Jones,' and saw the Dead live many times."
He speaks of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood as a "hard-touring group" that after three albums takes a lot of joy in its teamwork. He credits ex-Crowes keyboardist Adam MacDougall for being extraordinarily adventurous with bright synth sounds and the deep, rich atmospherics of "Phosphorescent Harvest."
In terms of the sonic oddities on the record, MacDougall "was the one who really led the charge," Casal says. "He's incredibly knowledgeable to work with. There were times where we were in the studio and he was trying to come up with something and we would be like, 'Why is this taking so long?' But it was worth the wait. It's not just bullshit sound effects he came up with; they are creative, different, keeping to the melody lines with washes, layered sounds. That's what he's really good at."
The entire group -- Robinson (lead vocals, guitar); Casal (guitar, vocals); MacDougall (keys, vocals); George Sluppick (drums) and Mark Dutton (bass, vocals) -- is really starting to make the Crowes look pretty small in the rearview mirror. When the tour began, they had performed more than 230 shows. That's not too bad for a band Robinson created to jam with in Los Angeles, and then expanded to the rest of California.
"We are getting to the point where we can really back up our talk," Casal says. "It's not just a spoken concept, it's one where we are actually living it. When the band works hard as a unit, it does become a real point of pride."
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