When the Chris Robinson Brotherhood headed into the studio to begin recording their new album, Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel, no one knew just what to expect. These would be the band's first recordings with new drummer Tony Leone (Ollabelle, Levon Helm), their first since the departure of founding bassist Mark "Muddy" Dutton, and their first time producing themselves. But as anybody who's been following the CRB can attest, this is a band that thrives on the unexpected.
If you need proof, just go back to 2012, when they first emerged on the national stage by releasing not one, but two acclaimed full-length albums within a few months of each other. Critics hailed their sprawling debut, Big Moon Ritual, as a revelation, with Uncut calling it a "tenderly-executed piece of work…[that's] both earthy and transcendent," while The Independent raved that Robinson had "finally found the ideal vehicle to indulge his taste for 'Cosmic California Music.'" The reviews were similarly ecstatic for its immediate follow-up, The Magic Door, which was praised by Relix as "classic rock in the finest sense." The band's relentless tour schedule brought their shimmering acid-Americana around the world for a staggering 118-date tour, firmly establishing the CRB as the new standard-bearers of the psychedelic roots torch.
In 2014, they returned to the studio for Phosphorescent Harvest, a masterful collection that showcased the blossoming songwriting partnership between Robinson and CRB lead guitarist Neal Casal. Rolling Stone raved that the album was "electrifying…boast[ing] a vintage rock vibe that’s at once quirky, trippy, soulful and downright magnetic," and Guitar World called it "a treasure trove of soul that advances the band's bluesy, kaleidoscopic sound."
On each of those albums, the songs and arrangements had been locked in prior to the sessions, but heading back into the studio for Anyway You Love…, Robinson purposely left as much open-ended as possible, embracing the lineup changes and leaning into the virtuosic improvisational chemistry that's always made their live shows such enthralling spectacles.
"Instead of seeing these things as challenges, we started to see them as something exciting," explains Robinson. "It was an opportunity to see where our expression could take us. Some people get really uptight when they're making records, but for us, the looser it gets the better. It's all about taking our intuition and following it to where our ideas can really manifest themselves. This turned out to be the most spontaneous record I've ever been a part of."
Not coincidentally, Robinson also cites it as perhaps the best recording experience of his life. The band relocated to northern California for the sessions, recording on the side of a mountain overlooking the foggy Pacific Ocean and channeling the natural majesty and melancholic weather of their surroundings into the album's eight, epic, immersive tracks.
The album kicks off with “Narcissus Soaking Wet," a psychedelic toe-tapper that marks Robinson's first co-write with keyboardist Adam MacDougall and touches on everything from Dylan and Parliament Funkadelic to psych rock and Chicago rhythm & blues.
"For me, its the centerpiece of the record," says Robinson. "It's got all our CRB things we love, especially the groove, and it's the first time I ever played harmonica on one of our songs. The lyrics are about control and egotism and false idolatry, about what happens when you're a musician who puts yourself above the natural flow of harmony and music. It becomes the same mythic mistake that all the tragic heroes made."
Ego takes a backseat to community in the CRB, where collaboration carries the day. Rather than coming into the studio with a collection of finished songs for this album as he had in the past, Robinson would present the group with sketches—a verse and melody here, a chorus and chord progression there—and let the band follow its collective muse to bring the music to life, a process he likens to putting an engine into the chassis of an old race car. Robinson had been sitting on "Leave My Guitar Alone," for instance, for nearly 15 years, but only once he presented it to the rest of the band did it roar to life in a way that had eluded him for more than a decade.
"It's a group effort," says Robinson. "All it takes is one good, small idea, and then if everyone's focused and in the moment, a few hours later, you can have something that you realize you'll be playing for as long as you're making music. I think when everyone's aware that that’s the sort of magic that we're looking for, then it happens naturally. More than any other session that I've ever been a part of, that's how all of these songs were done."
"Ain't It Hard But Fair" calls to mind the soulful Americana of The Band, while "Oak Apple Day" is a mediation on life in the CRB, and "Forever As The Moon" came together in a stream of consciousness between Casal and Robinson.
"The album's title comes from that song, and it was the first thing that came to my mind while we were playing it," remembers Robinson. "I didn't even have a pen and paper out. We'd just finished a hectic year on the road, and I was looking around at the world and all the anxiety and the chaos. The phrase felt like this universal statement, to me, that it doesn't matter who or how or where or why, no matter what you 're going through, as long as you have love, everyone can relate to that."
Some of Robinson's finest writing to date arrives in the album's final minutes, with the soulful, southern, gospel-tinged closer "California Hymn," which finds him singing "Glory glory hallelujah / It's time to spread the news / Though my good words may sound profane to some."
"That whole chorus is about being a part of our community, our little CRB culture," explains Robinson. "These are our services when we play our music. And when it's at its best, we feel like the music makes a connection with people that's on a level that has nothing to do with commerce or nostalgia. There's some other gravity that keeps us all together in those moments, and I think this song is representative of that kind of magic spell."
Indeed, the whole album is something of a magic spell, and now that it's been cast, it's time for services to resume in the psychedelic church of the CRB. That means they'll be hitting your local rock and roll temple in their ongoing mission to make the holy profane and the profane holy, so pour a little wine, light up an offering, and get ready for the unexpected. Amen.