Although The Magpie Salute’s High Water I sometimes too clearly recalls the sound of the Black Crowes, it is nonetheless a superb rock and roll record on its own terms. After a debut consisting of all cover material except for a single tune, this first of two albums recorded simultaneously in Nashville, comprised of new originals, sounds more like a natural extension of the purity in the solo works of titular leader Rich Robinson (Flux, The Ceaseless Sight and Through The Crooked Sun) rather than any touch points in the discography of the aforementioned band he once led with his sibling Chris, like The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion.
That said, tracks like “For the Wind” and “Can You See” may prompt some discerning listeners, Crowes fans or not, to wonder if vocalist John Hogg is deliberately choosing to echo the sly vocal style mastered long ago by the elder Robinson, now leader of his own Brotherhood. Perhaps if the braggadocio of the former’s phrasing, especially on the latter track, wasn’t surrounded by the near-cacophony of electric guitar lines, the point(s) of comparison might not sound so clear. But a nagging familiarity also arises on the relatively subdued “You Found Me,” even as its doleful, country-tinged tune benefits from pedal steel accents courtesy Dan Wistrom.
Yet the streamlining of the Magpie Salute into a sextet from its original ten-piece alignment reinforces an elevated level of finesse at work within the reconfigured ensemble. Robinson and Ford share much history, equally in evidence whether they are playing acoustic or electric instruments and, like drummer Joe Magistro and keyboardist Matt Slocum, bassist Sven Pipien is also a long-time collaborator of Rich’s; his mobile playing adds as much distinction to the musicianship of the group as his vocal harmonies add to the lush quality of tracks like “You Found Me.” This is a more versatile unit than the initial evidence of its efforts might suggest, but Paul Kolderie’s astute mix of the tracks laid down at Dark Horse Studios suggests as much.
Even so, the extremely unforgiving musiclover may hear too much of this LP as all too similar to the Black Crowes, at least at first. “Mary The Gypsy” and “Take It All,” for instance, recall the most familiar entries in the Crowes’ repertoire (the very likes of which, perhaps not so coincidentally, populate the Magpie Salute’s live sets); with the material here composed in various combinations among the band members, principally Robinson and Ford plus Hogg, there may have been an unconscious tendency to emulate the other band’s well-established style. But the slightly ethereal “Walk On Water,” like the good-timey blues feel of “Hand in Hand,” is the work of a group exhibiting its own stylistic identity, a perception that ultimately prevails on High Water I.
With a sequel reportedly complete for release next year, both fans and skeptics alike should be able to tell, in fairly short order, whether the Magpie Salute will consistently maintain such a well defined persona and in turn the focus that so often eluded the Black Crowes as they (d)evolved.