More than any earlier release, this reveals the classic rock band lurking inside the Mule, a Deep Purple meal with a slice of Humble Pie. It's always been hard to fathom why commercial radio hasn't taken to Gov't Mule; they bang out ridiculously accessible songs in the tight-yet-loose way that Led Zeppelin once did, all heavy and slow and just what FM needs to continue the lineage begun in the '70s. One doesn't expect a major break with tradition with new Mule studio work and even with recent additions bassist Andy Hess and keyboardist Danny Louis this resonates on the same frequency as their first three albums (The Deep End series being a strange and frequently impressive aberration). The first cut, "Bad Man Walking," feels like a pastiche of past favorites, something to limber up with before they ease into the smoldering, salacious stuff they do better than just about any straight rock act going. By the third number, "Perfect Shelter," Louis makes his squiggly Worrell-esque presence felt, proving equally adept at Hammond organ and peculiar synth outbursts. Hess couldn't be more different from the departed Allen Woody, proving an organic, funkified force that brings more of the Sly Stone and Meters influences to the fore. Like all their earlier albums, this feels pregnant with potential, the real corridors and archetypal grooves only peeking out from the sanded edges.

Lyrically, it's meat-and-taters stuff; romantic and punchy, tales of faded ladies and highwaymen whose lives go deeper than most folks give 'em credit for. There's a Tennessee Williams vibe in "Wine & Blood" and "About To Rage," emotions held at bay maybe a little too long, now ready to spill out, messy and real. A few spots come off a bit obvious, notably "Mr. Man," "New World Blues," and "Silent Scream" which both feel like not-too-distant cousins to '80s hair metal. Warren Haynes can be an evocative street corner poet but these words seemed like easy choices where better ones might have been made. Still, musically "Silent Scream" could sidle up to early Gilmour-era Pink Floyd and not seem out of place, so it's welcome here nonetheless. "No Celebration," one predicts a future fan fave in the making, more than makes up for any shortcomings elsewhere. Tense and dreamy, it's the real meat of the Mule simmered to perfection, a "whiskey hour" rumination featuring one of Warren's finest vocals to date.

Behind it all rides, big and beautiful, Matt Abts drums, as much the signature on their sound as Warren Haynes' blue devil vocals and well-harnessed guitar sparks (perhaps the most skilled "rock" guitarist since Frank Zappa, both fully capable of free-jazz noise and randomness but drawn to inspired control and memorable licks most days). As anyone who's witnessed this band live knows, they wield tremendous power. What's still absent from their studio pieces is their ear for improvisation and experimentation. The processed vocals on "Slackjaw Jezebel" are a good start but Deja Voodoo (ATO Records) needs more unusual elements like that if it wants to really stand out from what's come before.

But maybe that's not the point. That they've survived at all may be what this album is about, a new start from where things left off on 2000's Life Before Insanity. This may also be their stab at a wider audience and experimentation doesn't jive well with that notion. It may be their moment to stop opening for bands like Dave Matthews and Steve Miller and finally get their name on top of the marquee. Haynes is now known to a much greater pool of potential fans through his very active presence in The Dead and the Allman Brothers. That could translate into the larger audience they've long deserved. In the meantime, they've put together a solid primer for the days ahead. The majority of cuts are new to Mule listeners, having never been performed live. What will be truly interesting is how this stuff develops, grows, groping around with their "Blind Man In The Dark" for their true face, the one waiting under theater lights that will sweat off the first few layers and show the new skin one suspects is lurking just below this first glimpse.

Dennis Cook
JamBase | Oakland
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[Published on: 9/8/04]

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