One of the difficulties when reviewing new releases by established artists is that there’s a natural tendency to compare their new work to their old work. In many ways it’s hard not to. As listeners we’ve created relationships with artists. We have expectations for what they will say, how they will sound and how their art will make us feel.
Obsessive music fans frequently fall into the trap of thinking first about an artist’s legacy and then determining how the new release fits into an established narrative. Is the new record a return to form or is it an experimental departure? Do the new songs enhance the artist’s reputation or does it call into question their entire oeuvre?
The challenge is to judge new music in isolation and let it stand on its own merits, rather than being viewed within the context of what came before. In television terms it’s the equivalent of focusing on individual episodes rather than whole series. Of course, this approach isn’t easy when an artist consciously decides to revisit the past, as is the case with The Magic Door, the second studio release from The Chris Robinson Brotherhood.
The Magic Door hits our turntables a mere three months after the band’s debut album Big Moon Ritual (review here) and is quite clearly a companion album. Many of the observations made about that album also apply to The Magic Door, which makes perfect sense, as both albums were recorded during the same sessions (it’s been reported that 27 songs were cut at the sessions, with 14 released between the two records and 3 more as bonus tracks, leaving 10 more in the vault.)
The band remains: Chris Robinson on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Neal Casal on lead guitar and backing vocals, Adam MacDougall on keys and backing vocals, Mark “Muddy” Dutton on bass and backing vocals and George Sluppick on drums. The band remains: tight in execution while loose in vibe, incredibly talented and consummate craftsmen.
Further complicating matters is not only the fact that this is the second album released by the band in just 3 months, but the album also contains one cover tune (Hank Ballard’s “Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go”), two late-era Black Crowes tunes (“Appaloosa” and “Little Lizzie Mae”) and one Brothers of a Feather tune (“Someday Past the Sunset”) leaving only three CRB originals (“Vibration & Light Suite”, “Sorrow of a Blue Eyed Liar” and “Wheel Don’t Roll”).
I have no secret insight into Mr. Robinson’s thought process so I can only comment based upon the aural evidence presented to us over the 18 month existence of the Brotherhood. My theory is that Chris is chasing a specific sound that blends early rock and roll with psychedelia. He’s swimming further backwards into the protozoan swamp of rock and roll to the place that provided much of the inspiration to the musicians of 1967. He’s now playing with the country, blues and rockabilly of the Everly Brothers and Jimmy Reed and Carl Perkins.
For many years Chris appeared to be consciously following in the footsteps of Gram Parsons, he of the cosmic country R&B. And while Gram is still obviously a big influence, it appears as if Chris is going back to the source in an attempt to forge his own path – a path that clearly shares some ground with Gram, but more accurately reflects Chris’s gifts. For while both Chris and Gram could write heartbreaking ballads, Chris is a much stronger singer, with his confident croon replacing Gram’s tender fragility.
So what about the relationship between Big Moon Ritual and The Magic Door? Well, to put it in Grateful Deadian terms, The Magic Door is a first-set (rock) album as opposed to the second-set (jam) feel of Big Moon Ritual. In other words, like the construction of a classic Grateful Dead setlist, the first set features shorter and more upbeat songs as opposed to the languorous jams of the second set (with a few exceptions).
“Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go” is a strong opener that really establishes the band’s psychedelic rock and roll credentials. It features Chris’s big voice, Adam’s throwback keys, harmony vocals and Neal’s tasteful solos.
“Someday Past the Sunset” is a bouncy 8-bar blues that definitely benefits from the full-band treatment (as opposed to the acoustic BOAF arrangement) and has some nice slide work from Casal.
“Appaloosa” has a less rustic feel than the Crowes’ version and is dominated by Adam’s keyboard lines. Neal has a short, tasty solo as well. In all honesty, it’s an unnecessary reprise of a strong song.
“Vibration & Light Suite” is a monster tune – a signature song for this band – epically delivering a strong melody within the frame of a long-ass jam. It works spectacularly well, finding the band stepping into virtual prog-rock territory. (It’s no surprise that Neal has sported a Yes tee shirt on stage before).
“Little Lizzie Mae” is rescued from the obscurity of the Crowes’ “Cabin Fever” DVD credits roll. And this time I’m glad that the CRB brought it back. It’s one of the stronger rockers in the catalog, with an appealing, organic vibe. It’s also the original that most sounds like it could have been sung by Buddy Holly.
“Sorrow of a Blue Eyed Liar” possesses an intro that could pass for a Billy Joel song. And while that would normally be an insult, it presages a beautiful ballad that is both spacey and tender.
“Wheel Don’t Roll” closes out the disc on solid ground – a confident ballad driven by vocals and keys and punctuated by harmonies and restrained solos.
As proven by The Magic Door (and their previous studio and stage work) the CRB are clearly the best band in the world within their genre. Of course, their genre of music can only be vaguely defined as “cosmic rock and roll”. If you’re a student of rock and roll with a particular fondness for psychedelic and folk-country-rock then you’re going to dig this band, and this album, a lot.
Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go: 4
Someday Past the Sunset: 3
Vibration & Light Suite: 4
Little Lizzie Mae: 4
Sorrow of a Blue Eyed Liar: 4
Wheel Don’t Roll: 3
The Magic Door: 3.6 (out of 4)
4 = great (exceptional composition/performance)
3 = good (a song you’ll always listen to)
2 = okay (has some redeeming qualities)
1 = poor (has no redeeming qualities)