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Published: 2004/09/30
by Mike Greenhaus

Deja Voodoo – Gov’t Mule

ATO Records

In many ways, Deja Voodoo is Gov’t Mule’s definitive album. Four years since the untimely passing of bassist Allen Woody, and a full year since Warren Haynes refashioned his bluesy power trio into a soulful rock quartet, Gov’t Mule has finally solidified its sound. As expected, the group’s style is still deeply rooted in classic rock radio and swampy blues ballads, tried and true vehicles for Haynes’ throaty vocals and verbose guitar style. Yet, in a dramatic departure from their energetic Cream-style jams, Gov’t Mule has emerged from years of flux harder, darker, and with a more pessimistic message.

Oddly enough, since Woody's death, Haynes has blossomed into a symbol of jam-nation's everyman work ethic, pulling quadruple duty as axe-man for the Allman Brothers, The Dead and Gov't Mule, in addition to his solo spots. Flirting with his first real, mainstream media exposure, Haynes has also endured his first underground backlash, frustrating fans who find the guitarist's sound repetitive and omnipresence annoying. So, when it came time to define Gov't Mule's modern image, Haynes decided to mold his group's ruff-and-tough blues into an outlet for his, apparently, suppressed aggression. And, while it's a bit jarring to confront this teddy bear-man's dark side, Deja Voodoo proves to be a delicious listen.

A conscious response to the guest-laden tribute series, The Deep End, Deja Voodoo pulls a 180, focusing solely on Warren Haynes and his four man band. While never quite as successful as The Deep End, which featured both tight jams and memorable melodies, Deja Voodoo is a true Gov’t Mule disc. Haynes has amplified his gritty, hungry message, revisiting the polished blues-rock of Life Before Insanity. Yet, as a songwriter, he has also learned from The Deep End sessions, a pair of discs which blend a startling variety of styles. Relying on drummer Matt Abts’ flexible hands, Deja Voodoo offers a smorgasbord of styles, while still coming off as cohesive and rebellious. "Perfect Shelter" opens with a lo-fi sounding introducton, while "Lola Leave Your Light On" might be a lost Mountain track, a guitarist virtuoso’s delight. And, both are stylistic extremes from the haunting tempo of "Separate Reality." Yet, Abts ties each track into a neat, tight package, once again proving his ambidextrous abilities.

Haynes' songwriting has also strengthened while wading through The Deep End. Cutting his chops as a for-sale songwriter in Nashville’s music factory, Haynes’ early material often sounded soulful, without truly stemming from the guitarists’ soul. Yet, now, Gov’t Mule has weathered enough real-life tragedy to play the blues with true understanding. While not as raw and hungry as "Mule" or "Thorazine Shuffle," tracks like "Banks of the Deep End" and "Beautifully Broken" grew into authentic eulogies, as Gov’t Mule mourned Woody’s passing. Similar introspections dot Deja Voodoo, whether it’s Haynes’ most personal confession on "Bad Man Walking" ("Let me tell you a story about a bad man looking for glory/he kindly let his fame, seep into his brain") or his most pessimistic message to date during "Little Toy Brain" ("Look at the shape you’re in/fools never compromise, they go out in flames/What goes on in that little toy brain").

Though clearly subordinates, new group members Andy Hess and Daniel Louis help transform Gov't Mule into a more fluid act. Hess, in particular, is apt at applying his Black Crowes bass plucks to Gov't Mule's new, rougher sound, shining brightest on "Slackjaw Jezebel." After years as a stage-left sideman, Louis also helps touch up tracks like "About to Rage," loosening the group's songs into fully realized jam vehicles. "Bad Man Walking" also nods to Abts' flair for funk, interjecting groovy jams between weighty vocal passages.

Largely recorded while the Allman Brothers ran through their annual Beacon Theater residency last March, Deja Voodoo could feel rushed. Yet, instead, the 12-song collection simply feels like a true studio document, comprised of carefully composed songs with clear beginnings, middles, and ends. Making a conscious effort to bake Deja Voodoo in studio, Haynes also avoided playing this material live, helping to layer Hess’s prominent basslines carefully between his domineering guitar and Abts’ air-tight drumming. What results is effectively the dark side of the Mule.

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