Album Review: Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Phosphorescent Harvest (2014)

Editor’s Note: In the grand tradition of the Black Crowes Album Project we’ll be offering you two reviews of the new CRB album – one from me and one from my long-time partner-in-crowes Don Lane. In honor of the freaky nature of the CRB I’ll be writing the review from a metaphysical perspective and Don will be writing from a musical perspective, but then again, isn’t it all just one review with different words?

IMG_0543Mitch’s Review:

Precedence

Phosphorescent Harvest is the third studio album from the CRB coming on the heels of 2012’s Big Moon Ritual (review) and The Magic Door (review). The line-up is unchanged: Chris sings lead and plays guitar. Neal plays lead guitar and sings back-up. Adam plays keys and sings harmony. Muddy plays bass and sings harmony. George plays drums. Alan does the art.

I previously described Big Moon Ritual as a Jerry Garcia Band-esque album of jammed out blues-rock and ballads. The Magic Door tightened things up a bit and sounded like a psychedelic take on ‘50s rock and roll. The distinguishing characteristics were great songs, Chris’s soulful vocals, Neal’s tasteful solos, Adam’s trippy keys and beautiful harmonies.

Phosphorescent Harvest differs in 3 significant ways: 1) the songs were mostly co-written by Chris & Neal (as opposed to just Chris); 2) the songs were built in the studio over time, as opposed to being recorded live-in-studio; and 3) the sound is more spacey than trippy.

Ascendance

I realize that trying to distinguish between “spacey” and “trippy” may seem ridiculous, but to me there’s a notable difference that dates back to the heyday of psychedelic rock of the late 60s. The short-lived psychedelic rock era was reflective of two major developments. Primarily, it was an artistic manifestation of the youth society’s desire to reject establishment culture. This was accomplished by experimenting with the established structural form of songs. Secondly, it was representative of the technological advances in recording, specifically multi-track workstations. This turned the recording studio into an instrument in and of itself, taking it 2,000 light years away from merely capturing performances and into being an innovative creative tool (in the right hands).

As a Byrds-freak I credit America’s greatest band with popularizing psychedelic rock with the release of Eight Miles High in 1966. Now Eight Miles High is a trippy song, the trippiness coming from McGuinn’s playing an insane jazz guitar solo (inspired by Coltrane) alongside Hillman’s driving bassline. The trippiness is a product of the length and complexity of the tune as well as the unexpected jazz elements in a rock song.

By 1968 the Byrds had taken their psychedelic experiments to the next level with the release of The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Now that LP is more spacey than trippy. While the majority of songs are pretty straightforward at their core (including two Goffin/King compositions), the use of the Moog synthesizer and layered sound effects gives the album an unearthly feel. To listen to the The Notorious Byrd Brothers is to enter another dimension (a fifth dimension?) entirely. The experience is all encompassing, there’s a sense of place that pervades the entire album, an ethereal through-line that connects the songs. You don’t just listen to the album, you get lost in it.

That’s the difference between trippy and spacey. Trippy music surprises you with the unexpected. Spacey music transports you to another dimension. And that’s a long way of saying that Phosphorescent Harvest is a spacey album. Let’s call it the Notorious Byrds Brotherhood.

Dominance

Speaking of synthesizers, as McGuinn’s Moog dominates the sound of NBB, McDougall’s keyboards dominate PH. For me, I love the sound and I honestly think that there is no CRB without that crucial element. Then again, I love Ozzie Ahlers’ playing with Garcia in 1980 and I know that he was quite polarizing. My working theory is that fans from the blues-rock side of town have trouble accepting songs that aren’t driven by guitars. Sure, a roadhouse piano or a Hammond organ is nice, but those are used for texture. Adam’s keys are all over the place, the sound can be very weird, and either you dig it or you hate it. There’s very little middle ground when it comes to the keyboards on PH, you’re either going to get your freak on or freak out.

Influence

Let’s speculate on the influence of Neal Casal on the songwriting. Now, I’m no rookie when it comes to Neal as I’ve listened to his solo stuff for years and loved his stint in the Cardinals. And perhaps I’m reading too much into his Yes tee shirt, but the major change I hear in the arrangements is the addition of some serious prog-rock elements. I actually don’t hear much Yes in the songs (Yes to me is tight classicism) but I’m getting a dash of Traffic (more organic) and a smidge of Floyd, which is weird because I don’t get that from his solo stuff. But it’s definitely there on PH, the complexity of the song structures, the frequent changes, the unexpected turns. So, knowing that Neal co-wrote the songs, hearing the addition of progressive elements and seeing the Yes tee shirt is enough evidence for me to convict.

Of course I mean “convict” in the most positive sense, because prog-rock was a big part of my early music education and I adored Genesis and Yes (thankfully I never got into King Crimson or ELP and was eventually allowed to marry and procreate).

The beautiful thing about prog-rock is that the structure of songs into parts and suites gives you the sensation of listening to one song and a hundred songs at the same time. Then again, we know that all music is one song expressed in different ways.

Confluence

You can believe in whatever philosophy or religion you like, but the only truth is that everything in the material world is a part of the same energy and it is only our false perception that creates a sense of individuality and separateness. 99% of our lives are spent inside our own minds, confusing our idiotic thoughts for reality. Even when we know this intellectually we still struggle with it experientially. That is our gift and our curse as humans. We embrace suffering as a cost of happiness, truly only knowing contentment when we stop thinking and start experiencing the present moment on it’s own terms.

There are many paths to contentment. You can reach it through meditation or exercise or drugs or sound or whatever allows you to exert control over the swirl of the mind stuff.

Music has the power to provoke many reactions. Some are overt, like the desire to shake one’s hips due to the presence of a strong beat. And some are subtle, rooted in the transference of energy from performer to listener. As we all know, energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can merely evolve and take on different forms.

When people ask me what kind of music I like I usually just say hippie rock or country-rock because the truth would be too off-putting. The truth is that I love head music.

Head music is music that is designed to take one out of their head – to provoke a cessation of the swirling of the mind stuff. Obviously this type of music is closely associated with the Grateful Dead, but it is not solely the province of the Dead or jambands. Actually, the reason I don’t listen to many jambands is because I think it’s the opposite of head music. They’ve taken the jamming part of the Dead and emphasized the mechanical aspect of the performance while losing the energetic transference part of the equation. Even the Dead had trouble sustaining this beyond the heady peak of Anthem of the Sun & Live/Dead. For example, I’d much rather listen to Jonathan Wilson than Phish. I can appreciate Phish on an intellectual level but I can connect with Jonathan Wilson on a much deeper, energetic level.

Obviously the CRB is head music, and good head music at that.

Impermanence

Over the many years that I’ve written about music I’ve felt compelled to rate and review the songs, as if I was providing some valuable service to the world and placing a numerical value on songs was part and parcel of music criticism.

The problem is that I’ve long stopped thinking of myself as a critic of music. I don’t like writing negative things. I write about stuff that I’m passionate about. The act of writing is really another way for me to connect with the art on a more personal level. It’s a way for me to process my own thoughts about the work.

And yet, I have an obsessive personality and feel a compulsion to keep on truckin’. So here are my song-by-song ratings:

Shore Power 3
About a Stranger 4
Meanwhile in the Gods… 3
Badlands Here We Come 3
Clear Blue Sky 4
Beggar’s Moon 4
Wanderer’s Lament 4
Tornado 4
Jump the Turnstyles 3
Burn Slow 4
Humboldt Windchimes 4
Star Crossed Lonely Sailor 4

Phosophorescent Harvest 3.6 (out of 4)

Don’s Review:

The Chris Robinson Brotherhood hatched in 2011 and immediately road-tested material that became the sister records Big Moon Ritual and The Magic Door, released months apart in 2012. In retrospect, each feels incomplete unless played together, which may be as Robinson intended. Combined, they are a two-set odyssey reflective of the band’s live shows, featuring throwback covers like Hank Ballard’s “Let’s Go! Let’s Go! Let’s Go!” mixed in with a few re-arranged Black Crowes songs and a surprisingly prolific range of originals. This was a band attempting something simultaneously familiar and original. Could it go backwards and forwards at the same time?

Phosphorescent Harvest is an emphatic “yes” – a fully realized manifestation of the CRB’s three-year trip. A proper album with lyrics exploring timeless themes of love and resilience floating over a kaleidoscopic, deeply layered soundscape. Like the band itself, the recording is carefree, confident and, at times unabashedly weird.

Robinson and his work have always been a conundrum, simultaneously brash and big voiced yet sensitive and reflective. “Harvest’s” songs run the gamut, from the opening “Shore Power,” a psychedelic sock hop jumpstarted by spacey keyboards, to the utterly gorgeous bonus b-side, “Star Crossed Lonely Sailor.” In between, as each track unfolds, the Brotherhood mine early rock and roll influences with a spin so fresh it’s as if they are making it up as they are going along.

But make no mistake, these are carefully crafted songs played by a band with chemistry that can only come from sharing a van for nearly 200 gigs during their first two years together. All but two were co-written by Robinson and guitarist Neal Casal.

The Brotherhood is a B.A.N.D. with distinctive, irreplaceable players. The quintet’s rhythm section (Mark Dutton, bass, and George Sluppick, drums) hold things down with a backbeat shuffle or more purposeful gait, always just what the Good Doctor ordered. Keyboardist Adam MacDougall’s creativity is mind-blowing, equal measures shocking, funny and beautiful. Casal’s guitar playing has risen to MacDougall’s challenge with more bite than on the band’s earlier studio output.

But it’s Chris Robinson who has matured the most, almost surprisingly so considering he has the least to prove. His range never disappoints, changing character depending on the song, from the Dylan-esque sass of the first “Badlands Here We Come” verse to the rock and roll bridge in the middle of “Meanwhile In The Gods.” His voice is at its apex on “Wanderer’s Lament,” as beautiful and haunting as a harvest moon.

Black Crowes fans should be worried, because Robinson may never look back. As he strums his acoustic guitar to begin the coda to the album closer “Burn Slow,” it feels like he’s finally found not only what he needs, but what he wants.
Shore Power – 3
About A Stranger – 4
Meanwhile In The Gods – 3
Badlands Here We Come – 4
Clear Blue Sky & The Good Doctor – 4
Beggar’s Moon – 4
Wanderer’s Lament – 4
Tornado – 4
Jump The Turnstiles – 3
Burn Slow – 3
(Bonus “45 A-Side) Humboldt Windchimes – 3
(Bonus “45 B-Side) Star Crossed Lonely Sailor – 4

AVG = 3.58 (out of 4)

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Read lots more about the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, the Black Crowes and music in general here.

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