So, the Black Crowes broke up. Again, that is, sort of. Since the band broke through with their 1990 debut, Shake Your Money Maker, it’s been a twisting and tumultuous path through a few hiatuses and constant lineup changes with members coming and going and returning, the kind of narrative most of us probably don’t have the time or interest to know inside and out. As much as the Black Crowes had recently come to sound like aged rock ‘n’ roll survivors, theirs was an existence that seemed on the precipice of collapsing at any given point. There were storm clouds on the horizon last fall. And then Rich Robinson’s announcement last week that it was over, seemingly rooted in a power/money struggle. Given, this is a band whose Wikipedia page has a maybe-not-totally-accurate but still telling header “Second hiatus, return, hiatus, and third breakup: 2010-present.” What a five-year run.
This is all to say: News of the Black Crowes’ demise is not particularly surprising, and it’s also the kind of thing that is probably, in the long term, temporary. Pretty much everyone reunites these days, and the Black Crowes were doing the on-again/off-again thing before that was in vogue and/or a good business strategy. Still, it seems like a good time to take a look back at the band’s legacy, dig into some of the best of their songs. Because this is a band that’s rarely garnered much respect. Out of the crop of major ’90s rock bands with big successful singles, Black Crowes were never hip. It’s not like Pearl Jam or Soundgarden or Dave Grohl in Nirvana then Foo Fighters, bands that would start out being exciting and new and capturing the youth but would age out into basically classic rock bands that plugged along with fervently devoted fanbases. The Black Crowes were a classic rock band when they were kids. Sure, you could point to all the classic rock influences on the ’90s grunge bands, etc., but Alt Nation represented a new, distinct guitar-based sound entering the mainstream. In comparison, most of the Black Crowes’ songs could’ve existed in the ’70s seamlessly.
This was the ’90s, this was the grunge era. Authenticity mattered, you know? The Black Crowes were critically dismissed as derivative from the start. It’s tough because you could really sum them up in a few bands, too: Led Zeppelin, the Faces, the Rolling Stones, and if you were going to be more uncharitable, Aerosmith. (Depending on how you felt about Aerosmith, I guess.) Later on, throw some Allman Brothers in. Of course there were others in the mix, but it is really easy to reduce them to those elements. I’ll make some comparisons to those bands below, too; it’s kind of inevitable when talking about the Black Crowes. But, hey, I wouldn’t mind if there were a few more bands out there that ripped off the Stones as well as the Black Crowes did.
Even the patterns of the band’s existence seemed to move in accordance with some outdated notion of rock stardom. The chronic lineup changes (seriously, there’s like twenty members listed on their Wikipedia page). The on-and-off drama and those hiatuses. The tumultuous relationship between the brothers Chris and Rich Robinson, always at the core of the band and always the power struggle. Like the Gallaghers in Oasis, there’s something just about that narrative itself that feels like a rock star throwback, an obvious antecedent being the Kinks, but any intense pairing of mythologized rockstars anchoring a group would be a valid comparison. (Oasis and the Crowes went on the road together for the the Tour Of Brotherly Love in 2001, as it happens. Must’ve been fun times for all.) A lot of the Black Crowes’ contemporaries had causes, or were writing about the dark realities of drug addiction. A lot of rock bands in the ’00s could no longer afford to be all dramatic rock star cliches. These guys were over here like one long Behind The Music special, some deluxe super-long Spinal Tap edition, or something.
It’s a bit weird that, in the last ten or fifteen years, a band being too retro or indebted to their influences could still be such a damning thing. You know, considering there is always a revival of some style or another going on these days. The thing about the Black Crowes, maybe, is that they were traditionalist in a different sense — championing a very established rock band archetype and style. It’s more OK to be retro if your particular brand of retro isn’t the kind of thing that is always, always unhip, and the sort of thing that would ingratiate you to those possessing the rockist mentality.
But it’s kind of a shame that the group didn’t get more of its due in their latter days. Against odds and any normal expectations you’d place on a band that got so famous, so quick, so young, and played the kind of music they did, the Black Crowes wound up entering a really interesting and rewarding middle age. There’s still a bunch of good material from their heyday, but personally I’d grown to like the Black Crowes of Warpaint and Before The Frost… more than any other form of the band. They had become journeymen, and everything’s a free-for-all in the music world now anyway, so notions like “Let’s spend a bunch of time with Levon Helm and record an album in his barn” seemed less bizarrely out-of-time than it might have in 1994. It was hard to care much when the first Crowes hiatus came along in the early ’00s, at their lowest point creatively. Now, surprisingly, maybe — I’m actually kind of disappointed that they’re broken up, at least for the moment. They had become the band that would always be welcome on the road and at festivals, a formidable live force that could put out some great bleary-eyed roots rock albums.
A few quick words about the selections on this list. The Black Crowes have a deceptively deep and varied catalog, considering the large chunks of time they’ve taken off. So not every record is represented here. Three Snakes And One Charm, to me, was always kind of a weak link between the heights of the first three records and the lows of the following two. Which leads me to the other exclusion: By Your Side was primarily a middle-of-the-road rehash of ideas that had been explored better in the band’s earliest days. While Lions is their worst album, By Your Side’s probably their most forgettable. The songs that did make it were the ones I thought both represented some of their best material and the spectrum of what happened between Shake Your Money Maker and Before The Frost… If the Black Crowes breaking up gets any young music fans curious, these are ten songs I’d recommend as starting points to explore the band.
10. “Good Morning Captain” (From 2009’s Before The Frost…Until The Freeze)
Even without having been overly invested in the Black Crowes in recent years, the thing that does disappoint me about their recent breakup is that I really loved where they’d started to go as they aged. More country and bluegrass being woven in, more weathered and whiskey-soaked guitars and vocals, more of the Band than Zeppelin. All of which is an appropriate direction for a band that had turned into ragged survivors approaching fifty. Before The Frost…Until The Freeze, the album that for the moment is their last, and the album they recorded live in front of an audience in Levon Helm’s barn, is really the sort of thing that works as a whole; it’s way harder to pick out songs that stick out here relative to, say, the heavy hitters on the first two albums, during the band’s comparative pop era. Not because the material’s weaker — again, I’ve grown to prefer latter-day Crowes to any other phase of their career — but simply because they weren’t writing that way anymore. Before The Freeze… is a warm, lived-in kind of sound where all the material sits together. All that being said, my personal favorite from it has always been “Good Morning Captain,” a ruggedly chilled-out opener that shows just how good these guys sounded toward the end. Whatever lineup they’d arrived at (I, like you probably did 20 years ago, stopped trying to keep up with the band’s personnel changes) has just the right vibe for the road-worn, sun-burnt sounds of “Good Morning Captain.” It’s the paradox of that corner of classic rock artists where you can tell these guys are a great unit and play incredibly tight together, but that skill is put toward crafting a sound that’s natural and shambling, so that every time Chris Robinson gets around to belting out that chorus, it sounds like he’s in swamp bar out of a Southern myth.
09. “Soul Singing” (From 2001’s Lions)
Honestly, I’d rather have more Before The Frost… or Warpaint represented here than Lions. The former options sum up that awesomely worn sound of latter-day Black Crowes, and Lions is the last ugly gasp of the worst chunk of their career. There are some good songs there, and there are some ridiculously awkward and awful ones, but they’re unified in being lost in some greasy sludge of a production sound. There’s no denying that bright spot of “Soul Singing” hidden in the middle, though. One thing about the Black Crowes is they can do gospel more convincingly than a lot of blues-rock bands. Piping in the gospel chorus is one of my least favorite classic rock tropes, but there’s a lot of movement in “Soul Singing” that earns it. Those drums and guitars in the verses tumble forward relentlessly, in wanderlust, until it all peals out into the chorus that feels like the moment where you’re driving in some new place and reaching the crest of the hill, totally unaware what you might find on the other side. “Soul Singing” was a mainstay in the Black Crowes’ later tour setlists, and for good reason: It’s an unquestionable highlight in an era of the band otherwise defined by diminishing returns.
08. “A Conspiracy” (From 1994’s Amorica)
You can’t go wrong with anything off of Amorica. (Well, maybe aside from “P. 25 London.”) Having always had a soft spot for the weird “Lowrider”-isms of “High Head Blues” or the unnerving angles of “Gone,” both vied for the spot of the “rock song from Amorica” on this list. But what I like about “A Conspiracy” is, in a song, it kind of sums up the general knottiness of the Black Crowes’ third record, the one that was, more or less, experimental by their standards. The big flare-out intro of “A Conspiracy” and its heavy, wah-assisted riff collectively represent one of the rare moments in the Crowes early discography where they sounded, yes, still classicist but also like they actually lived in the ’90s. And then after it rides this rigidly dirty and funky groove for a bit, it opens up into a pretty, introspective chorus. There’s all these weird little sounds and structural decisions in the songs on Amorica, lending it an expansiveness that long made it my favorite Crowes record but also gives it this drugged-up sprawl that can be hard to connect with compared to Southern Harmony or Shake Your Money Maker. “A Conspiracy” works well as a kind of skeleton key to the album.
07. “Goodbye Daughters Of The Revolution” (From 2008’s Warpaint)
The Crowes’ first hiatus ended in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2008 that Warpaint, their first record since 2001’s Lions, would see the light of day. Given the lackluster nature of Lions and its predecessor By Your Side, and the general nature of a band coming back after a prolonged break, Warpaint is way better than it has any business being, than anyone would’ve likely expected. These days, it’s probably my personal favorite of their albums. The Crowes wound up aging really, really well, arriving at an earthier classic rock vibe that suited them well and would’ve continued to suit them well. There are all sorts of moments from Warpaint that came to my mind for this list: the heavy bass thrum in the chorus of “Walk Believer Walk,” the beautiful lament of “Locust Street,” the Beatlesque psychedelia in the chorus of “Wounded Bird,” or the blues-raga refrains of closer “Whoa Mule.” Ultimately, I had to settle on “Goodbye Daughters Of The Revolution.” It has all the trademark characteristics of that late Crowes music — again, more Band than Zeppelin — but with a melodic punch comparable to the more amped-up singles of their past. It might not hit you over the head the same way the chorus of “Twice As Hard” did back in the day, but it’s the most infectious song on Warpaint without sacrificing that album’s earned grit and character. Chris Robinson’s voice, in particular, had aged so well after some of the unfortunate squawking on Lions: grainier, seen-some-more-things, like you can hear the fact he was now sporting a big old shaman beard. On setlists, the song sat perfectly alongside the classics from the earliest albums.
06. “Thorn In My Pride” (From 1992’s The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion)
The thing about a big rock band like the Black Crowes is that it’s the anthemic guitar jams that are usually the most iconic of their iconic songs, obviously the ones that get a big reaction when they’re played live, etc., etc. And while I’d probably lean toward wanting to hear a bunch of rockers in a concert setting, I’ve often found that the secret power of the Black Crowes is rooted in their ballads. They can range from meditative stuff to material more like “Thorn In My Pride,” the kind of stuff that swells and swells to the reward of its cathartic outro. Out of the early examples of mellower Crowes material, I’ll take “Thorn In My Pride” over “She Talks To Angels” any day; part of that is it feels a little less over-exposed with over two decades’ distance, but that’s also because I love the build and fuller instrumentation here. Even more so than Amorica, you can’t go wrong with anything off of Southern Harmony. It’s the band’s masterpiece. You could argue “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye” into this spot, and it’d make sense to me, because that song also has a stunning and satisfying conclusion. Back when I used to listen to Southern Harmony all the time, though, it was always “Thorn In My Pride” that left me most leveled.
05. “Twice As Hard” (From 1990’s Shake Your Money Maker)
It’s hard for me to separate “Twice As Hard” and “Jealous Again” in my head. They’re the powerful one-two at the beginning of the band’s debut, and though they might not have been as big as “Hard To Handle” or “She Talks To Angels,” they haven’t lost their charm in the same way as those songs have for me, to some extent. (“Hard To Handle” just kind of sounds like the Spin Doctors now.) And if you’re in the business of reducing the Black Crowes to the sum of their influences, this was them dressing up really well as two of the primary ones. “Twice As Hard” is their Zeppelin-indebted one, with the way Rich Robinson unspools this heavy, sliding, Jimmy Page-esque riff over a heavily stomping drumbeat. Influences aside, the point here is that “Twice As Hard” is remarkably adept at what it’s doing considering they were such a young band. Meaning: now that we’re well past those early days and the context of the ’90s and notions of derivativeness holding as much weight, what we’re left with is “Twice As Hard,” which is simply an awesome rock song that could tussle with all the ’70s music the Black Crowes loved so much.
04. “Jealous Again” (From 1990’s Shake Your Money Maker)
So if “Twice As Hard” was the Zeppelin-ized opening salvo of Shake Your Money Maker, “Jealous Again” was Stones-y barroom track that immediately followed. (You could make a fair argument it’s where the Faces influence strongly rears its head.) And because I like the Stones more than I like Zeppelin, “Jealous Again” places ahead of “Twice As Hard,” even as, like I said above, the songs function as a unit when I think about them in my head. It turns out that the songs achieve more or less similar ends in the grand scheme of the Crowes’ catalog as well: These are two of the best, catchiest, most anthemic of the band’s material that falls under their “’70s hard rock classicism” phase, before we got to the more “roots rock classicism” they’d eventually favor. “Jealous Again” was also one of the earliest songs that made the most sense when brought out at those ’00s Crowes shows. It doesn’t take too much to make this comfortably ragged enough to sit alongside the material from Warpaint or Before The Frost… One other odd thing about “Jealous Again”: The Robinson brothers were apparently influenced by R.E.M. in the earliest days of their musical partnership and, well, that’s obviously an influence that died down. But you can hear just a bit of it in the bluesier-jangle of “Jealous Again,” especially in Rich Robinson’s guitar part when all the other instruments drop out around 2:40.
03. “Wiser Time” (From 1994’s Amorica)
Speaking of the strength of the Black Crowes’ ballads, there’s “Wiser Time,” one of the most beautiful songs in the band’s catalog. Similar to how “Twice As Hard” and “Jealous Again” are locked together when I think about Shake Your Money Maker, “Wiser Time” is forever linked to the song that precedes it, “Ballad Of Urgency.” After some of the scorched rock songs that begin Amorica, “Ballad Of Urgency” and “Wiser Time” form a little gorgeous unit that holds down the album’s mellower second half. But as much as I like “Ballad Of Urgency,” it’s when the last strains of guitar and last dwindling flashes of cymbals flow seamlessly into the beat for “Wiser Time” that I feel like we’ve arrived where we wanted to go. On the more overtly Southern rock end of the Black Crowes spectrum, this is their “Midnight Rider,” a song that seems born from and built for aimless drives down desolate American highways, probably alone and, yeah, probably at night. Out of any of the traditions in classic rock or American music, the searching and wandering song that sounds good in a car while summer air flows in through an open window is something I’ve always felt an affinity for, and “Wiser Time” holds a special place amongst the Crowes’ work because of it.
02. “Remedy” (From 1992’s The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion)
In the years since I was listening to the Black Crowes on a frequent basis, my musical attention has gone in a lot of directions. For large swaths of that time, I was almost totally turned off by blues or classic rock in most forms. I didn’t want guitar solos, I wanted guitars drenched in strange effects and pushed to the outer limits of what the instrument could sound like. Even now, with a general predilection for Americana, it’s still the stranger and dreamier songs where I find myself spending the most time. The reason I’m putting this out there is that no matter what, over the years: Whenever I heard “Remedy,” it was the kind of song I turned up loud right away. It’s the best, most memorable, most interesting of all the band’s big rock songs. It’s also another small instance where you can hear a subtle, effective marriage of the ’70s and the decade the band actually existed in: that intro, that descending guitar part, they almost sound like an early Pearl Jam song to me. And to me, that’s a good thing. It lets “Remedy” stand out not just as a famous and great song by a band that happened to exist in the early ’90s, but as one of the absolute classic songs from the decade.
A quick side story. Back in December, I went to this Vice event where they had all these musicians and celebrities cover various songs. Jarvis Cocker played Celine Dion, Meredith Graves played the Strokes. I had the setlist ahead of time, and noticed “Remedy” next to Stephen Malkmus’ name. “There is no way in hell the guy from Pavement is playing the Black Crowes, it must be a different ‘Remedy,'” I thought. And then the guy from Pavement did play the Black Crowes, and it was so, so cool, one of the highlights of the night. Even weirder than seeing Scarlett Johansson sing New Order.
01. “My Morning Song” (From 1992’s The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion)
If someone had only heard some of the Black Crowes’ hits or the second-tier rock songs of theirs that most sound like those hits, and if that person wasn’t feeling it and I had some investment in converting them, I would point them toward that latter-day version of the band I like so much, and I would point them here, to “My Morning Song.” This is a titan of a song. It just immediately crashes in with that loopy yet visceral slide-guitar lead, and the strange form of that guitar line just keeps wrapping itself around you, pulling you further into this song’s weird, strong current. “My Morning Song” is straight-up relentless for the first three minutes of its running time, and then it quiets down for two minutes, but not in the sort of way where you, for any moment, develop the illusion that this song is going to have a long, slow final chapter. Those two minutes push and push upwards, all the while letting you know you’re really just in a calm moment of the storm before everything comes crashing in once more, that much more overwhelming on the second round. Six minutes and sixteen seconds isn’t really that long of a song at all, but, man, the ride here feels epic. I used to think it was insane that this didn’t close Southern Harmony, but at some point I realized the way this towering, overwhelming thing cascades down into the revery of “Time Will Tell” is actually a perfect way to end an album. I’ve been talking a bit about pairs of songs in this particular list, and the relationship between “My Morning Song” and “Time Will Tell” is the strongest on any Black Crowes album. Even if it was a far different version of the band that produced this song than the one that just broke up, I’ll miss the Black Crowes because losing a band that can produce this sort of energy is never a good thing. This is music as tumultuous sea, and that’s a powerful thing.
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