Guitarist Rich Robinson’s self-produced solo debut makes a strong case for him as the most essential member of the Black Crowes. Not to take anything away from brother Chris Robinson’s skills as a lyricist, frontman and vocalist, but—listening to Paper—the songwriting, music and vocal melodies (albeit not the vocals themselves) are strikingly richer than on Chris’s recent solo efforts. Paper is, without a doubt, the best work from any member of the Black Crowes since 1996’s dark, psychedelic-tinged and generally underappreciated Three Snakes and One Charm. Filled with fresh-sounding rockers up front, and delicate ballads with varied instrumentation toward the end, Paper is a well-balanced affair that returns, stylistically, to territory near the Crowes’ defining masterpiece, Amorica (1994).
The Crowes—who with their 1990 debut, Shake Your Money Maker, re-introduced grit and soul into the glitz- and glam-obsessed rock mainstream—have had a rough go over the past six years. First they lost guitarist Marc Ford to a drug problem and, soon after Ford was fired, bassist Johnny Colt split the band. The Robinson brothers and drummer Steve Gorman regrouped but seemed to go backwards with 1999’s dumbed-down By Your Side, an album billed as a return to the band’s straight-ahead-rock roots. More lineup changes followed, as did a tour with Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page that ended with Page pulling out due to a back injury and the Crowes suing him (the band released a solid but mostly forgettable live album as a document of the collaboration). The slightly better, but still disappointing Lions followed, and at times it felt like a bad Zeppelin knockoff. By 2002, Gorman parted ways with the Crowes, and a band that had shown so much promise in the mid ’90s had fallen off the map into that mysterious netherworld of rock known as “the indefinite hiatus.”
Critics have often either slammed or praised the Robinson brothers for being derivative. While this was true in the beginning (and at the end), their band began developing its own distinct style during sessions for The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1992) and, by Amorica, had transcended easy dismissal as a Stones/Faces copy band. Now, after the ensuing years of slip-ups, Rich Robinson brings back not only roots-rock accessibility, but the complexity and originality that transformed the Black Crowes into a band that mattered.
Paper is filled with beautiful melodies and harmonies, creative guitar work, fitting instrumentation and, most of all, excellent songwriting. Always-tasteful Crowes keyboardist Eddie Harsch lends his talents, as does BR549’s Donnie Herron, who adds subtle touches of fiddle and pedal steel. Still, the album could be better.
Listening to Chris Robinson’s two solo albums and then Rich’s in succession, there’s something missing. The music on Rich’s is far superior, and while he writes great melodies, he’s a much better backup singer than lead vocalist. And he could use some help from his big brother with the lyrics. Chris, on the other hand, is one of the best singers around, with a soulful holler that’s equal parts Otis Redding/young Rod Stewart, but his songwriting is lackluster, and the music behind him lacks depth and subtlety.
Together, however, the Robinson brothers form a Zen-like circle of rock ’n’ roll; their complementing talents an asset that shouldn’t be squandered. It’s true most artists get the itch to explore music on their own from time to time and, if nothing else, it can be personally rewarding. Hopefully though, the Crowes are ready to get back together, combine Rich’s inventive musical direction with Chris’ at-times beautifully tortured, at-times-serene, poetry and start exploring recording and songwriting the way they once did in the band’s heyday.