The Black Crowes

Shake Your Money Maker
The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion
Three Snakes And One Charm
By Your Side
Live At The Greek (with Jimmy Page)
Warpaint Live
Before The Frost...

Shake Your Money Maker (Def American ‘90) Rating: A-
With all the retro combos currently in fashion Counting Crows, Hootie and the Blowfish, etc.), it’s hard to recall what a breath of fresh air this debut album was when it came out in 1990. With radio and MTV dominated by the pretty boy hair bands (Nirvana would end that a year later), a band that played straight ahead, no compromises rock n’ roll was a rare thing indeed. That this album was so accomplished enabled it to become a smash hit anyway. Though their bluesy sound was obviously indebted to The Rolling Stones, The Faces, and Stax Records, the band nevertheless sounded so fresh it was as if they had made this stuff up all by themselves. “Twice As Hard” and “Jealous Again” immediately set the pace with their confident swagger and sing along choruses, while “Sister Luck” is slower and soulful and features another big chorus. The song's hard luck lyrics fit snugly beside the equally downcast (lyrically) “Could I’ve Been So Blind,” which has a much more upbeat melody. The band’s sincerity then shines through on the gospel-backed “Seeing Things,” whose intensity is akin to a highly charged date in church, before the band manages to make Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle” their own, quite a feat if you’ve ever heard Otis Redding. Unfortunately, sandwiched around the sublime ballad “She Talks To Angels” are several average rockers, but the band’s lively and energetic performances makes every song here worth hearing, in particular due to the exuberant singing of scarecrow look alike Chris Robinson, who just oozes sweat, sincerity, and a commitment to the cause. Of course, this cause had often been taken up before, but not for some time and rarely this well. The end result was a highly successful album, both commercially and artistically. Note: After this album guitarist Jeff Cease was fired and replaced by Marc Ford.

The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion (Def American ‘92) Rating: A
Though it was less hit-filled and less immediately accessible, this richly rewarding second album was even more assured and accomplished than Shake Your Money Maker. This album is aptly titled, since the influence of the great soul sounds coming out of Alabama and Memphis in the late ‘60s is even more pronounced here. The album begins with “Sting Me,” a greasy Southern rocker with a singable soul chorus, while “Remedy” (the album's hit single) was a great party song featuring ascending riffs, Robinson’s cocky “baby baby” lyrics, some great guitar, and a chorus that kicks you right in the ass. Things then get laid back on the long-ish but excellent “Thorn In My Pride” before some bluesy guitar kicks off the atmospheric, gospel-backed breakup song “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye,” an even longer 6+ minute epic. The superlative “Sometimes Salvation” is a heavy, outright explosive blues rock number on which Robinson absolutely shreds his vocal chords, while “Hotel Illness” settles into a strong harmonica-led groove, helped along by some hot guitar. As on their debut, the band has a little trouble keeping pace on the album’s second half, but “Black Moon Creeping” has some cool fuzzbox guitar and an interesting off-key chorus, and “No Speak No Slave” also rocks hard enough. Finally, “My Morning Song” is a good ol’ Southern sing along that's one of the album's best songs, while “Time Will Tell” is a light Bob Marley cover that, though it can’t hold a candle to “Hard To Handle,” nevertheless provides a nice low-key ending to this bluesy, soulful, and rocking album that I for one consider to be a minor classic.

Amorica (American ‘94) Rating: A-
On Amorica, The Black Crowes admirably stretch out, at times adding a funky Latin groove to rocking songs such as "Gone" and “High Head Blues.” It is this scuttling percussive bent, along with Rich Robinson and Marc Ford’s best guitar playing yet (check out “She Gave Good Sunflower”), that makes Amorica their most instrumentally interesting album to date. Both guitarists are tasteful, soulful players who prove to be primary assets to a band whose instrumental skills have continually improved, largely due to the long concert jams that have endeared the band to a whole new H.O.R.D.E. of fans (pun intended). Granted, this comparatively laid back album is less immediately tuneful than their previous albums, but Amorica's rich sonic textures and exotic experimentation entice over time. True, even good songs such as "A Conspiracy" and “Ballad In Urgency” seem a little like retreads (of "Remedy" and "Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye,” respectively), and "P. 25 London" is an annoying washout. But the band gamely expands their parameters throughout (The Rolling Stones and The Faces are still in evidence, but Little Feat and Led Zeppelin also surface as major influences), and there’s lots of cool stuff going on behind the scenes. Sure, lines like “I am a cobweb in the corner of the room” make me think that maybe Chris Robinson has been smoking too much of his beloved weed, but he sings with his usual gusto, and songs such as “Cursed Diamond” (both a soulful ballad and an epic Zep-like heavy rocker) and “Wiser Time” (a wonderfully weary ballad that also has harder-hitting moments) are as good as anything they've ever done. Elsewhere, "Nonfiction" has rich guitars and sing songy harmonies, "Downtown Money Waster" has an enjoyably loose, off the cuff feel, and "Descending" provides a pretty, piano-filled finale, with more tasty slide guitars. In short, the alternately hard rocking and easy going Amorica is filled with songs whose subtle charms are well worth getting to know, as it was another extremely impressive release from this ever-evolving band. Alas, affer two smash hit albums this one was only a modest success, perhaps in part due to its pubic hair album cover controversy (I also think that “A Conspiracy” was a poor choice as the first single given its similarity to “Remedy”).

Three Snakes and One Charm (American ’96) Rating: B+
According to VH1’s Behind the Music, The Black Crowes almost broke up after some uninspired shows at NYC’s Beacon Theater (one of which I unfortunately attended; how could they not play "She Talks To Angels"?) amid terrible infighting between the Robinson brothers. But the spirit still moved them, and they subsequently regrouped by releasing the underrated Three Snakes and One Charm, another soulful batch of Southern rock n’ roll. And though the immediately gripping hooks that were so freely dispensed on their early albums are again lacking, the band’s gutsy delivery again (a la Amorica) ultimately delivers, if not quite as impressively. For The Black Crowes continue to exist in their own vacuum by releasing richly rewarding, straight up rock n’ roll that has little to do with anything else going on in the music world. As such, their honesty and integrity always shines through, which wouldn’t mean much if they didn’t have the talent to back it up. But they do, delivering 12 rock solid if sometimes generic (“Blackberry” being the biggest offender) and never quite great songs. They come close several times, though, as "Under A Mountain," “Nebakenezer,” and "(Only) Halfway To Everywhere" are riff-driven rockers with singable choruses, "One Mirror Too Many" is an impressive psychedelic rocker, and “Bring On, Bring On” is an inspired sing along with a back porch feel. Other highlights are “Girl From A Pawnshop,” on which both Robinson’s let loose with their bluesy best (in fact I take back my prior comment about this album having no great songs; this one certainly qualifies), the vigorously strummed “How Much For Your Wings?,” one of the band's better ballads, and “Better When You’re Not Alone,” which has a melodic mid-tempo groove and an agreeably laid back chorus. Granted, the band lost more commercial momentum here since the album lacked obvious hit singles and the gospel-tinged “Good Friday” (again probably not the best choice) didn’t do the trick. However, true fans of the band who patiently persevered (the album sneaks up on you only after repeat plays) were amply rewarded, and the band still packed houses on the road, fighting the good fight in the grand old Southern rock tradition of the Allman Brothers Band. Note: After this album, stellar guitarist Marc Ford and bassist Johnny Colt departed; they were ultimately replaced by Audley Freed and Sven Pipien, respectively.

By Your Side (American ’99) Rating: B+
As previously noted, music trends come and go but The Black Crowes stay the same as a reliable road institution of pure rock n’ roll energy and swagger. Though the band’s playing is more impressive than their writing, the boys still bring forth an admirable brew of Stones and Zeppelin, for starters (and who better to emulate?). So what if these guys will never win points for originality; they’re still a first rate rock n’ roll outfit just the same. Still, they seem to be dumbing down a bit here, delivering plenty of shit kickin’ rock n’ roll, but (possibly due to their elusive search for a hit single after striking out on their prior two studio albums?) toning down the subtle sonic details that highlighted the band’s recent albums. On the bright side, this hard rocking album offers plenty of simple pleasures, though the hard charging “Kickin’ My Heart Around” and the generic (if still modestly enjoyable) “Only A Fool” again failed to move the masses as the album’s selected singles. Elsewhere, the exciting opener “Go Faster” does just that, while “Heavy,” “Welcome To The Good Times,” and “Then She Said My Name,” though all quite different, are similar in that they all feature catchy chants come chorus time. The title track is an impressive pledge of devotion, "HorseHead" is heavy and intense, and “Diamond Ring” is another lighthearted, upbeat love song that will likely have you singing along. Other tracks like “Go Tell The Congregation” are less successful, but “Virtue and Vice” provides a fine, hard rocking, feel good finale, and overall the hits to misses ratio is still quite high here, and as always the band wins points for their earnest energy and obvious sincerity. So, even though their vision seems to have narrowed here as the band returns to the relative simplicity of Shake Your Money Maker, that’s not necessarily a bad thing as many appreciated the album’s direct, less meandering nature (which may have resulted from having only one guitarist here; Rich Robinson handled all the guitar parts). The bottom line is that The Black Crowes are still pumping out a fun brand of unpretentious rock n’ roll, and come the weekend you can do a lot worse than to have these guys right by your side.

Live At The Greek (TVT Records ’00) Rating: A-
Joining forces with Jimmy Page to recycle the Led Zeppelin songbook, this was a true partnership that boosted the stock of all involved, resulting in the best live album of the year that’s a must have for fans of both bands. Although Page is the 6-string (and then some) star, Rich Robinson and Audley Freed efficiently lend added guitar muscle to these loose guitar workouts, while Steve Gorman shows his mettle with an impressive John Bonham impersonation. Chris Robinson can’t hit those legendary Plant high notes, but neither can Plant anymore, and Robinson brings his own charismatic presence to the proceedings. The guys do a good job of selecting not so obvious nuggets (“What Is And What Should Never Be,” “Custard Pie,” “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” “Hey Hey What Can I Do”) from the Zeppelin songbook, and some of these renditions (“Ten Years Gone,” “You’re Time Is Gonna Come”) even hold their own against the transcendent originals. The guys predictably focus on the bluesy side (“Sick Again,” “In My Time Of Dying,” “The Lemon Song,” “You Shook Me”) of Zep’s repertoire, perhaps too much so at times, but the real reason those of you who already own these songs should buy this album is because of several excellent blues covers from the likes of B.B. King, Jimmie Rogers, Willie Dixon, and Elmore James. The guys also revamp The Yardbirds/Jeff Beck Group classic “Shapes Of Things To Come,” while the ghost of Duane Allman seemingly possesses Page on “Sloppy Drunk” and “Mellow Down Easy.” Their version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well” is equally scorching, and this deeply satisfying collection is all the more impressive when you consider that it was captured after the guys had only played a few gigs together. Note: No songs by The Black Crowes appear here due to contractual reasons, though it’s cute that they cover Elmore James’ “Shake Your Money Maker.” Note #2: This album was notable for its pioneering use of the Internet, as it was originally only available via that avenue. You can now pick it up anywhere - which you should.

Lions (V2 ’01) Rating: B
After last year’s much ballyhooed tour with legendary Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, captured on the excellent Live at the Greek album, the band seems poised for a commercial comeback. It may or may not happen (there’s no obvious hit single here), but as with their last few endeavors Lions rewards repeat plays and should please the majority of the band’s fans who have stuck around for six high quality albums. On Lions the Black Crowes again prove that you can be heavy without being heavy metal, and that skinny white Southern boys can play rock n’ roll with soul. Granted, the forced funk of “Lickin’” and “Young Man, Old Man,” not to mention Chris Robinson’s lame rap on “Ozone Mama,” are regrettable lapses in taste, and the album is a little less inspired than prior releases, but by and large the band are typically classy and creative throughout. Continuing a band trademark, “Midnight From The Inside Out” begins the proceedings with a great straight ahead rocker, and when Robinson urges “let’s get this thing started” on “Come On,” this energetic party tune does just that. Other highlights include the rocking psychedelic pop of “Greasy Grass River” and “Soul Singing,” an upbeat soul sing along. Sure, the songwriting is a little less steady than usual, and Don Was' slick production hurts more than it helps, but (as usual) the band generally overcomes their generic tendencies by virtue of their excellent ensemble playing and Robinson’s charismatic vocals, which are mixed well to the fore (perhaps too much so). The fact that there’s no down time between songs is also refreshing in this era of bloated albums filled with silly segues, making Lions another welcome addition to an impressive back catalogue.

Live (V2 ’01) Rating: B+
With years of energetic live shows under their belts and their tour with Jimmy Page forever proving their mettle as a live band, The Black Crowes have nothing left to prove. But they sound like they do throughout most of Live, which documents several shows from the band’s tour in support of their Lions album. The band plays well enough throughout this double album that it’s easy to see why guitarist Rich Robinson (who produced) felt compelled to compile it. Smartly sequenced to flow like a single live performance, most of these songs don’t differ too much from their studio versions, and as such this album will appeal primarily to hardcore fans. There are some differences from the studio versions, though. For one, the arrangements are looser and the ballads are a little more leisurely, allowing this seasoned “jam band” to stretch out a bit. Then again, given their reputation I'm surprised that they didn't improvise even more, and their decision not to further show off this side of them likely disappointed some fans. Still, those of you who think the band’s studio albums are too slickly produced will surely appreciate the album’s righteously ragged sound quality. Of course, this can also be a negative, since sometimes the vocals, particularly the backing vocals on songs such as “Sting Me,” fight to be heard above the loud, rocking music. Still, the band cherry picks most of the best songs from their impressive back catalogue, and aside from some curious song omissions (“Jealous Again,” nothing from By Your Side) and inclusions (“Thick n' Thin,” “Lickin’”) the results are hard to argue against too strongly. Actually, with 2 cds containing only 104 minutes of music I’d argue that the inclusion of a few more choice cuts could’ve made this album much better, but the inclusion of a fine new song (“Title Song,” a slow, bluesy 8-minute epic) helps ease my misgivings. Basically, with this album the band has delivered a career encompassing greatest hits package of live material that digs deeper than their previous greatest hits album from a couple of years ago (Greatest Hits 1990-1999: A Tribute To A Work In Progress). Personally, I’d be surprised if anyone that listened to “Midnight From The Inside Out,” “Sometimes Salvation,” “Cursed Diamond,” “Wiser Time,” and “High Head Blues” (to cite several highlights) came away with the impression that The Black Crowes are anything less than an excellent (and long underrated) rock n’ roll band. With singer Chris Robinson (note: fast-forward his embarrassing song intros whenever possible) taking a hiatus to record a solo album, the future of The Black Crowes remains very much in doubt at this point in time. As such, this largely enjoyable live showcase of the band’s abilities may prove to be the swan song from a band once respectfully called “the most rock n’ roll band in rock n’ roll.”

Warpaint (Silver Arrow ’08) Rating: B+
The boys stayed busy during their hiatus, with Chris Robinson (that's ex-Mr. Kate Hudson to the tabloids) releasing two solo albums (New Earth Mud, 2002; This Magnificent Distance, 2004) and Rich Robinson releasing one (Paper, 2004). The band officially regrouped in 2005, with several members coming and going as the band toured over the next couple of years, including Ford again; the band's ultimate lineup for this album included the Robinson's along with old hands Gorman and Pipien, while long-term keyboardist Eddie Harsch was replaced by Adam MacDougall and the second guitarist slot was occupied by Luther Dickinson, an excellent player who’s also the leader of the North Mississippi Allstars. In 2006, to tidy over impatient fans the band released the live album Freak 'n' Roll into the Fog and an archive release of unreleased tracks called The Lost Crowes (both double cds that I've yet to hear) before Warpaint finally arrived and immediately caused controversy when the band took umbrage with Maxim magazine, who unfavorably reviewed the album without actually having heard it! The album, like so many today smartly released on their own independent record label, debuted with their best chart placing since Southern Harmony, or since radio stopped paying attention to them, but no mind, the band's fans know that these guys will always deliver the goods, radio airplay or not. And sure enough, the first song, "Goodbye Daughters Of The Revolution" has a good little groove, a nice chorus, and man I love those slide guitars (Dickinson's specialty); this is simply classic Crowes - welcome back, boys. There are other choice tracks as well, as this band has always been nothing if not consistent, and they exhibit a knack for ending several songs with exciting guitar climaxes, including "Wee Who See The Deep," "Movin' On Down The Line," and "Wounded Bird." Although I wasn’t a fan of it at first, “Evergreen” is another good guitar track (Dickinson again shining), and as per usual the band also delivers a pair of stellar ballads in "Oh Josephine," with its heartfelt vocals and soulful slide guitars and keyboards, and "Locust Street," which is enhanced by the pretty, delicate plucking of a mandolin. Also as per usual with these guys, some of these songs I could live without, such as the obnoxious blues plodder "Walk Believer Walk," their cover of Charlie Jackson's "God's Got It," which rides a raw groove but doesn't do a heck of a lot, and "There's Gold In Them Hills," a slow, sparse, somber ballad that's evocative enough (helped by some nice low-key harmonies) but is also a bit boring. Still, the band's songwriting has always been a bit hit and miss, it's their trippy, groove-based sound that's always been so appealing, and on Warpaint the band's sound retains a depth and a freshness that most other "roots rock" bands can only aspire to. Never mind that Chris' lyrics (sample: "it's all right sisters and brothers") sometimes make him seem perpetually stuck at Woodstock, and I'm not totally sold on the band's ever-increasing "roots" influence in favor of simply rocking out hard, which seems to happen with less and less frequency. But you just gotta accept the flaws with this band, because the plusses still far outweigh the minuses when all is said and done, and listening to the fun, lighthearted finale "Whoa Mule" makes clear that the band still makes rich traditional (or is it tradition-rich?) rock n' roll music. Note: In 2009 the band released Warpaint Live, which is the Warpaint album live from start to finish, often in superior versions, plus a stellar short second disc (about 33 minutes) of them doing Stones, Delaney and Bonnie, Eric Clapton, and Moby Grape covers. These tunes are right in their wheelhouse and they knock them out of the park.

Warpaint Live (Eagle ’09) Rating: A-
In 2009 the band released Warpaint Live, which is the Warpaint album live from start to finish, often in superior versions, plus a stellar short second disc (about 33 minutes) of them doing Stones (“Torn and Frayed”), Delaney and Bonnie ("Poor Elijah – Tribute To Robert Johnson”), Eric Clapton (“Don’t Know Why”), and Moby Grape (“Hey Grandma”) covers plus a couple of their own songs (the previously unreleased “Darling Of The Underground Press” and “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye”). These tunes are right in their wheelhouse and they knock them out of the park.

Before The Frost… (Sliver Arrow ’09) Rating: A-
The Black Crowes’ prolific and productive comeback continued a year later with the release of the excellent Before The Frost…, which was actually part of a 2-for-1 release with the download-only …Until The Freeze (they’re now available together as a double album on CD). Recorded live before a small audience at Levon Helm’s recording studio, The Barn (no it wasn’t actually recorded in a barn), the album features a nice mix of rockers and ballads, with plenty of room for Dickinson’s stellar slide guitar soloing, most notably on “Been A Long Time (Waiting On Love),” which features a closing extended jam the likes of which the band has rarely attempted on their studio records. Fittingly given where it was recorded, there’s an earthy, weathered quality to many of these songs, meaning they’re as apt to be Band-like as Stones-y (their use of instruments like mandolins, banjos, fiddles, and pedal steel guitars has something to do with it). The lively, concise rocker “Good Morning Captain” gets the album off to a strong start, with a big catchy chorus, prime piano and slide guitars, and a touch of bluegrass at times too. After the aforementioned “Been A Long Time (Waiting On Love)” comes “Appaloosa,” a pretty, melancholic, country-tinged ballad, but the solid rock returns on “A Train Makes A Lonely Sound,” one of several evocative song titles (others: “Houston Don’t Dream About Me,” “The Last Place That Love Lives”) and which features an emotional lead vocal that’s among my favorite Chris Robinson performances. “I Ain’t Hiding” is definitely different, being a throbbing bass-led groover that nods to funk and disco (it works better than it sounds, in fact it works very well and rocks quite hard too), and I like the clever lyrical conceit of “Kept My Soul,” another solid if not particularly memorable rocker. But though the rockers are generally good and sometimes very good, by and large it’s the ballads that anchor the album and provide its high points, including the next two tracks, “What Is Home?” a laid back winner with a real down home charm (and Rich not Chris on lead vocals), and “Houston Don’t Dream About Me,” which is all about its enticingly mellow vibe. I really like the next two rock numbers as well, as “More Glad” has a catchy harmonized chorus and another nice Luther solo, and the fun “And The Band Played On” is meant to be played on a jukebox at a bar where the drinks are freely flowing. Finally, “The Last Place That Love Lives” ends the album with a spare acoustic ballad that’s a bit boring at first but which gets good when the violins come in and the sound gets fuller (it sounds somewhat like an Irish folk song). Anyway, I’ve always appreciated this band’s consistency, but even as a long time fan I was pleasantly surprised by how good this album is. Simply put, this is a fully mature band who have found the latter day sound that best suits them. Note: Though it too has its moments, I’m considerably less fond of …Until The Freeze, on which the boys are far more apt to go all out hillbilly. I tend to consider it as a worthwhile but inessential bonus disc. Note #2: To quote Wikipedia; “The Black Crowes also released a film on DVD documenting the recording of the album, entitled Cabin Fever, which included several songs not featured on the album.” One of them is a cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Oh Sweet Nuthin’” (with Rich again on lead vocals and Luther spectacular on lead guitar) that’s simply incredible.

Croweology (Silver Arrow ’10) Rating: A-
When I first heard about this album I wasn’t all that interested in hearing it, seeing as how, with a few exceptions, I was never all that into the whole MTV Unplugged phenomenon. This isn’t an official MTV Unplugged concert, they don’t do those anymore, after all, and besides this is technically a studio album, though these songs definitely have a live in the studio feel. This is an acoustic-based album, however, and after actually hearing it I can say with certainty that it’s among my favorite Black Crowes albums, maybe my favorite one after the first three in fact. Of course, this album imaginatively reworks quite a few songs from those three albums, 12 out of the 20 here in fact, and by and large they do a great job with the song selection, a few favorite omissions aside plus let’s face it there are certain songs (“Remedy” comes to mind) that are meant to be played loud and electrified. The album does have some electric guitars (so they essentially cheat a la Nirvana), but acoustics are generally the focus, and these songs are generally mellower and rootsier in their presentations than they were previously. There are several strong selections from later albums (“Soul Singing,” “Good Friday,” “Girl From A Pawnshop,” and “Welcome To The Good Times,” for example) as well as choice rarities (“Share The Ride,” “Cold Boy Smile”) and a cover (Gram Parson’s “She”), and the band especially excels on the ballads (more of which appear on disc two), on which Chris’ weathered voice has aged like a fine wine. Naturally, old band mainstays like brother Rich and drummer Steve Gorman shine as well, as does keyboardist Adam MacDougall, bassist Sven Pipien, and the female gospel backing singers. But the real star is Luther Dickinson, a virtuoso guitarist (he also plays mandolin and banjo) who adds a whole different element to the band, not unlike what Mick Taylor gave The Rolling Stones I guess but in a different way. This version of The Black Crowes were absolutely meant to play these songs in this way, and my only quibbles about Croweology might be the occasional mismatched style and a lack of variety given the album’s abundant 2-hour duration. Still, if this turns out to be the last Black Crowes studio album, and as of January 2015 it sure looks like it might, this is a fine way to bow out.

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