The first 14 seconds of Rich Robinson's solo debut present as distinctive a guitar voice as rock 'n' roll may have ever known. In a quarter of a minute the listener is awash in memories of the supreme riffage that's spilled from his strings. It is but one of many elements on this terrific set that reveals both Robinson's underrated genius in The Black Crowes and his newfound voice as a bird flying free for the first time in more than a decade.

There's a lyrical sparseness, a lingering openness that's strikingly different from sibling Chris' densely packed poetry. Here, there's room to move, settle in slowly, boil a little in these bubbling waters. We're invited to "smell the song and hear the air" in a variety of thick, beautifully shifting settings. Robinson renews our faith in hard rock, harkening back to albums like Led Zeppelin's Presence and Thin Lizzy's Johnny The Fox, colorful open countries that mine all the good stuff of rock's past--the folk and the blues and the high towered amps--to reaffirm rock's vibrancy today. There's nothing retro about Paper except its purity and track-by-track goodness.

Opener "Yesterday" grabs your hand and whispers come along. What you'll find if you take the invitation is a dozen more gems that only shine brighter with time. I pity the person who inspired "Veil" and "Places" (and folks may have their theories...), each a thorny truth teller, reality spooned out in dark, quietly fierce bites. "When You Will" is a dulcimer-sprinkled love song, the warm undercurrent of a good day with our partner. "Baby" and "Oh No" feature moving piano accents from Eddie Hawrsch, the only Crowe to appear with Rich here. Hearing Robinson's array of electric slide and delicately picked acoustics glide with Eddie's keyboards proves a pleasant reminder of their work together on "Thorn In My Pride" and "Descending," and confirms there's creative fires still burning in the Crowes family. Unlike his recent live record, only one cut ("Answers") features a string quartet, so there's less of the lovely Nick Drake vibe here but perhaps there'll be room for that on his sophomore album. The only letdown is "Know Me" which is a little too FM-radio friendly, a place Robinson is really just too talented for in many respects.

The major surprise, even for those already on board about Rich's songwriting talents and guitar powers, will be his singing. Hear tell he's been taking lessons and clearly they've paid off. With a touch of echo here and some silvery reverb there, Robinson affirms this writer's long held belief that the Black Crowes actually had two lead singers but never took advantage of it. He's got a clean, sweet voice, powerful in a way that never needs to shout. Singing his own songs, he introduces us to himself fully, perhaps for the first time. And it's hard not to be impressed with his smooth phrasing and building emotion.

Paper is sultry and intense in a non-showy way. Its birth has obviously come at considerable personal cost and many a long, sleepless night. The hope hiding amongst the honesty is genuine, a sturdy rope to pull you from the quicksand of doubt and fear. Taken together, it's the best work Rich Robinson has given us since 1997's Three Snakes And One Charm. The integrity and rock wisdom he's shown over the years in The Black Crowes resonates loudly here. For Rich, it sounds like a new day is dawning and we should be happy to greet that sunrise with him if it sounds like this.

Dennis Cook
JamBase | Oakland
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[Published on: 9/26/04]

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