Where to start and what to ditch if you’re fixing to dive into the Atlanta band’s catalogue
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Shake Your Money Maker, the debut LP from Atlanta, Georgia’s The Black Crowes, reuniting after a near 10-year hiatus.
Brothers Chris and Rich Robinson celebrate their biggest selling record with an all new line up, to perform the LP in its entirety, plus hits. Selling over 30 million records worldwide, The Black Crowes’ legend and place are secure not only within the now digital hubs of the record industry, the but most assuredly- and most importantly- in the hearts and souls of those hypnotized and mesmerized by the sheer power the music itself conveys.
The Black Crowes in 1990 represented–for many serious mainstream rock fans–a style and place seemingly dead and buried beneath the dross of synth pop and hair metal, college rock and hip-hop, urban r&b and trendy trash, schmutz and schmaltz. Guns N’ Roses’ monster success two years prior kicked open the door for something more raw and organic to steal away from the teased hair tarts and boy band basics. And The Black Crowes qualified in ways concurrent progenitors of a similar fashion, style and sound–The London Quireboys, The Georgia Satellites, Dogs D’Amour and The Broken Homes to name a few–seemingly could not.
The Black Crowes quickly secured THEE spot as America’s premiere classic FM rock darlings of their era, having continued as such through eight studio albums over a 19 year stretch (1990-2009). And presently they are exploiting that legacy to reintroduce themselves, their music and a new lineup, to those still looking for the gritty, bar room bounce of roadhouse blues rock that has become as much it’s own musical genre as anything.
Ahead of such a reunion (the Shake Your Money Maker full band tour is slated to start in June 2020, give it take the state of the world), the interest has been raised in revisiting The Black Crowes recorded musical output.
If you are looking to get into their music for the first time, use this guide as a handy reference to guide your path into Crowe Country.
Shake Your Money Maker (1990)
The much ballyhooed and vaunted debut. The thing starts strong with “Twice as Hard”- fantastic hook, great vocal, some wonderfully memorable guitar figures. A grand opener. “Sister Luck” comes next -a pedestrian tune that takes a lot of CCR and Allman Brothers tropes that feel right if you love the references yet does little to keep me engaged, quickly redeemed by first single “Jealous Again,” a spry, Faces sculpted rocker with panache and purpose. “Could I’ve Been So Blind” nicely references more interesting things, and sort of just sits there in a mid-tempo, bar band stupor, underlining its banality, if not for Chris Robinson’s voice- simply a pleasure to listen to. It’s soulful, rich quality pretty much makes this band- especially on the next tune, a mawkish ballad called “Seeing Things” – one that never gets off the ground for me, (at least until they start the chorus refrain).
The innocuous cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” has the band sounding particularly limp, the rhythm section uninteresting and unfunky. Next tune “Thick N’ Thin” – passive boogie filler everyone from The Fabulous Thuderbirds to Stevie Ray Vaughn to the Blasters to every other roots rock band seemingly has to have, and it’s never the best tune; I’ll forget this one as soon as the next one- the mega hit “She Talks To Angels”- is over. This tune- when it was released as a single- had one of my friends question me about that “new John Cougar song” he heard on the radio. It was this simple ballad. It’s an astute observation I feel. I’m neutral about the song- it feels good to sing out and enjoy, but it’s also kind of dumb. Or I’m just more cynical and scathing than anyone should be for this type of band. The rest of this record- “Struttin’ Blues” and “Stare It Cold” play out as more filler, I can barely recall them as they just ended. One of the tunes is five minutes long. Neither do anything interesting enough to merit the time spent realizing this. And way too much guitar wankery. The final track “Live Too Fast Blues/Mercy, Sweet Moan”- a ‘hidden track’- should have stayed as such.
The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1992)
Two years later, with a new second guitarist and keyboardist in tow, The Black Crowes returned to the top of the charts as a much greasier, muddier, bigger, more fully realized rock n roll entity- fueling the mainstream rock audience’s continued need for a flashback band with modern appeal. The guitar playing here more muscular and fluid than the debut, the band more cohesive and present, the songs tougher and more soulful. With this second LP The Black Crowes build on the shoulders of their first, yet- with no decidedly commercial single such as “Jealous Again” or “She Talks To Angels” – they score their only Number One album with a collection of elongated, swampy blues jams and boogie rips that sound familiar without too much blatant derivation, tunes like “Sting Me,” “Thorn In My Pride,” “Remedy,” “Bad Luck Blue Eyes” “My Morning Song” and “No Speak No Slave” living so comfortably in their chosen style, the band accomplishes absorbing their own space, entirely. Many of these songs, however, last 1 to 2 minutes longer than needed, the lyrics never seem absorbing, the rhythm section sound unremarkable, and some of the backup vocals soppy fluff (“Remedy”), while others sharp and soulful (“Thorn In My Pride”). This LP widely regarded as THEE fan favorite.
Jam Band Jim Jams are what they seemed to be playing at on this third release, initially controversial for cover art depicting female pubic hair. The riffing and posture still riding the crest of Stonesy, Allman-esque hard rock muscle- yet now more than ever the Humble Pie/Led Zeppelin wing of groove and slam have moved in, pushing the band to stretch and expand themselves into areas that quickly drain the listener into an experience much like when one would visit their weed dealer- it’s cool, but you just wanna get the fuck out. The whole affair seemingly lacks ambition, as the band offer little new to the proceedings that would allow anyone outside the core Crowe conventioneers much reason to return. I do feel, however, the rhythm section found a groove here that frames and contextualizes their playing nicely, and the rest of the band do sound wonderfully full and together- trudging through 54 minutes of Jamalamapalooza effortlessly, even if it’s not a trip I’ll be on again anytime soon.
Three Snakes & One Charm (1996)
Melodically expansive and more pointed than Amorica, The Black Crowes’ fourth release ultimately remains more disappointing. An overall mellowness punctuates all that is here. Even the rockers don’t sound as dirty or raunchy as you’d wish, with Chris Robinson’s vocal shred dialed down. There are some interesting things here, namely “Bring On, Bring On” and “One Mirror Too Many.” It’s possible if they would have sequenced this thing better it would work better, maybe traded a track or two out, they would have had something more potent. As it stands, minus the happiness encountered while observing the more economic length of these tracks, the experience in total a bit lackluster.
By Your Side (1999)
A more streamlined, direct, compact version of The Black Crowes jumped back from the more blues busting jam band they’d become the previous 5 years- an exciting prospect, a return to that initial thing mainstream rock fans never stop coveting. Here the band is present and pushing, as all things connect- production, playing, performance, writing- immediate, loose, engaging, no unneeded excesses. And though the record does contain a more polished, glitzy version of that hard rock- it’s succinctness, brevity, and rollicking mood make for one this band’s best, most effortless recordings. “Stop Kicking My Heart Around” is as brilliant a full throttle rocker in much the same vein as Primal Scream’s “Rocks” -and should be respected as such! “Horsehead” sounds like Billy Squier! You really notice the drummer! All in, possibly their most satisfying record.
Seemingly, as if the experience of making a more economic, sleek record–much like their debut–prompted them to get all heavy and greasy again, akin to Southern Harmony. Is it possible By Your Side was a rebirth of sorts? The band sound hard and heavy and nasty here, the production far more dense than previous releases, and once again drummer Steve Gorman holds his own among the brothers. The results don’t always provide content as compelling as the build up suggests, and you meander with in this thing- though gems exist, as Billy Squier’s Zep-feel show up on both “Midnight From the Inside Out” and “Cypress Tree,” the band really lock down hard in “Come On,” and “Cosmic Friend” is one of the more interesting musical moves this band has made. “Ozone Mama,” however, may be unforgivable. Ooof!
After a breakup and another round of line up changes, The Black Crowes bound back after 7 years with an instantly likeable and recognizable distillation of everything the band had available in their musical canon- heavy blues, country rock, Stones swagger, bar band banging, Faces fascinations, et al. Much of it is pleasant and rewarding, most assuredly for the acolytes. It was also one of their highest charting records, and their shortest as well at a lean 48 minutes.
Before the Frost……Until the Freeze (2009)
To record enough A grade material for a single LP seems tough enough for most artists to maneuver. A double LP, tougher yet. The Black Crowes strike me as not conceptually sophisticated, nor musically engaging enough to pull off such a feat, as this double LP bares out. They prove here a natural facility to make music of great comfort and warmth in familiar constructs- professionals who can finely craft their aesthetic down to a place of sellable grace, never losing sense of self or point of view, yet not offering much fresh or newly engaging in way of song or execution. we are subjected to 20 songs of pleasant, ambling middle of the road variations on barn yard country, mellow rock, wispy folk, and stabs at epic acoustic expressions and poetic champions compose- a band clearly reaching for something bigger. Yet so much of it plays out as lots of runway, little take off. Since no track seems divorced from its relationship with the other, no individual tracks tend to lunge towards me, and I find myself mostly listening to the fiddle playing. The version here of the Manassas tune “So Many Times” is solid, and fairly effective.
The Black Crowes have also released five live albums (namely Live At the Greek from 2000, a collaboration with Jimmy Page) and four collections (including the 2006 release The Lost Crowes- which many fans consider a gem in the catalog).
AUDIO: The Black Crowes Band (1997)