by Brian D. Holland
By A Thread, the latest studio release from Gov’t Mule, is a straightforward audio testimonial that classic hard rock is alive and well in the 21st century. And unique only to bands of this fine quality, Warren Haynes and gang prove once again that they’re able to adjust and evolve in a positive way with each CD. Barring the more than plentiful live material circulated over the years, the reggae infused “Mighty High” as well, the studio albums that come out every two to three years or more are what it’s really all about, and they get better all the time.
Though Mule has released a ton of great music since the tragic death of Allen Woody in 2000, the bottom notes never again reached his level of intensity. Nevertheless, new bassist Jorgen Carlsson fills the gap flawlessly here, as his bass lines are powerful and funky. His incredibly fat yet effervescent and liquid-like tone sticks out significantly. No disrespect intended toward former bassist Andy Hess either, as his style suited the music of the time perfectly, most notably in “High & Mighty”, one of their best albums to date. Hess is the bassist of note on the last two tracks here as well. And even though Danny Louis’ contributions on keyboards and rhythm guitar are essential to the rich and full arrangements, the prominent bass timbre aids immensely in beckoning the power trio sound that they exerted in the old days (think “Thorazine Shuffle”). It’s nice to hear a rock band sound like a power trio sometimes, even if they’re not a trio. And as usual, longtime drummer Matt Abts pumps out hardcore rhythms and unique changes throughout, with a contemporary and stylish technique that boldly flaunts a John Bonham rawness at times.
Opening with Carlsson’s hard thumping bass notes, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons adds incredible licks in conjunction with Warren’s to the funk infested “Broke Down On The Brazos”. Warren’s guttural and emotional vocal sets the mood immediately. This continues in “Steppin’ Lightly”, a hard driving rocker highlighting his creamy Gibson tone and soaring lead work.
Warren has often been clever at entertaining fans with wonderful covers of past songs, at summoning up gems from the depths of musical obscurity as well. In this case it’s a powerful rendition of “Railroad Boy”, the haunting folk song once performed by Joan Baez. He utilizes his familiar Gibson 12-string here, starting with the bluesy riff at the beginning (reminiscent of the earlier “So Weak, So Strong”). It gets surprisingly potent in the chorus, and continues in that mode throughout. “Gordon James” possesses a similar earthy and folky ambiance up front. The Haynes original then segues into a harder Zeppelin-like power chorus. This rock-solid essence matches the solemn lyrical content. “Forevermore” is in this vein as well.
Talking about the album’s bass guitar aspect can surely get redundant, but it’s certainly relevant in “Monday Morning Meltdown”. The enormous sound sets the deep and reflective atmosphere at the get go, and the bottom muscle is prevalent throughout the 8-minute song. Its spacey and elusive melody contains a variety of instrumental tones, time signatures, and changes, and although it takes a while to sink in, it eventually becomes a choice track after enough listens. “Any Open Window” is fast paced and infectious. The rhythm section stays tight and concise while Warren injects interesting lead and riff work into the Hendrix inspired rocker. The welcomed slide guitar and vibrant organ in “Frozen Fear” provide it with a robust Allman Brothers flavor. It’s highly melodic and percussive in that direction as well.
“Inside Outside Woman Blues #3″ is the quintessential Mule slow blues. In the vein of Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” (the cover Warren once did with Little Milton), it also mirrors that Zeppelin potency. Utilizing incredible lead runs enhanced with a buttery wah-wah effect, Warren’s at home and at his best in this potent slow blues number, in which he stylistically lays reference to Page, Hendrix, and even Albert King in places.
Although these funk infested hard rock tracks will undoubtedly be ideal in the live setting, as the deep tangents that many of them depart on explore progressive blues, jazz, and psychedelic regions, the best thing about this batch of songs are the level of power and emotion exerted by all of the musicians involved, Haynes in particular. His vocal aptitude is as signature to the music as his guitar style and tone.
By A Thread is a powerful CD, one that promotes the songwriting capacity and guitar hero status of Warren Haynes even further. Much like the good stuff that came out in the early 70s, aspects of originality and excitement exist in the music. Gov’t Mule is unquestionably one of those great rock bands whose fans look forward to the next studio album with expectation and anticipation. By A Thread, once again, represents and lives up to that reputation.
Warren Haynes – Guitar, Vocals, Producer
Matt Abts – Drums, Percussion
Danny Louis – Keyboards, Rhythm Guitar
Jorgen Carlsson – Bass
Andy Hess – Bass
Billy Gibbons – Guitar
Gordie “Grady” Johnson – Producer, Background Vocals
Label: Evil Teen
Release Date: Oct. 26, 2009
Links: By A Thread on Amazon