The Warren Haynes fronted quartet’s first studio album in four years and its Blue Note label debut is a typically gritty eleven song set of gutsy Southern blues rock. Those familiar with the group will be thrilled to know that this is another strong entry into a nine album catalog that quietly began in 1995. Despite the untimely death of original bassist Allen Woody, Mule hasn’t had many disappointing musical moments even as it has morphed into a foursome over the years.
As a songwriter, Haynes has a knack for rugged, quickly memorable riffs that propel tunes such as the opening “World Boss” and Zeppelin-ish “Done Got Wise.” He also can shift into a cool soulful groove on “When the World Gets Small” and the muggy Memphis R&B of “Forsaken Savior,” both closer to the style of 2011’s solo album than the typically harder attack of Gov’t Mule. Through his work with the Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead and many others, Haynes is a survivor, a fact he highlights in the closing, mid-tempo eleven minute “Bring on the Music.” Still, the track would be more incisive if its extended guitar solo was half as long.
Anyone who has seen the Mule live understands their songs are often skeletons to support extended jams. That improvisational spirit is alive and well here where most of the pieces exceed five minutes with three over eight. It pushes the disc to nearly 75 minutes, good value for the money but at the expense of not reigning in some of the band’s less interesting side roads that can wander off course. Haynes’ whisky-scarred bark of a voice acquits itself well for this music but is also limited in its range. As if to acknowledge that, a second CD has the same songs played by Gov’t Mule utilizing eleven different singers.
It’s a cool, unique, occasionally revelatory idea that clicks about half the time. The concept is particularly effective on a sleazy run through of the accusatory “Stoop So Low” with Dr. John at his growling best and when Vintage Trouble’s riveting frontman Ty Taylor wrings out the soul from “Bring on the Music.” Steve Winwood, Ben Harper, Elvis Costello, Jim James and others also contribute their distinctive vocal talents with varying degrees of success. It shows Gov’t Mule experimenting with new ways to expand their reach beyond the occasionally restrictive musical borders they work within.