I guess it was a long time coming. Then again, it seemed it would never actually officially happen, and instead there would be a hiatus every 2 years to make sure things really didn’t fall apart.
But it did and now The Black Crowes are officially no more (at least for now, though it doesn’t look too good for the future).
Based on a statement made by Crowes guitarist and founding member, Rich Robinson, it seems he and his brother, lead singer Chris Robinson, have finally gotten to the point where they can actually no longer with each other. The brothers Robinson were notorious for their contentious relationship throughout the history of the band (think The Kinks’ Davies brothers or Oasis’s Gallagher brothers). Yet, every time things would come to a head, the brothers would reconcile and the band moved on.
Of course the band had a ton of personnel changes throughout it’s almost 25 year career (28 if you count the Mr. Crowe’s Garden years), with the only constants being the Robinson brothers and drummer Steve Gorman (who actually was officially not in the band for their first few 2005 reunion concerts). It was their band, and they had creative control. So when Chris Robinson allegedly demanded full control over the group, it’s understandable that Rich would shut the whole thing down.
The timing of the whole thing is seemingly odd, since the group had no plans of recording new material and the three main group members all have (semi-) successful solo/side projects that are currently going. And even though, according to Gorman, the group was contemplating a 25th anniversary tour in 2015, nothing was set in stone. So why now? What is the reasoning? I honestly have no idea and I’m not going to speculate in this blog.
Instead, I’m going to rank and discuss the studio records by The Black Crowes. I mean, if there’s ever a time to do it, now it’s a great time.
10. Croweology (2010)
This album is a double-disc of mostly previously released material done acoustically (which is why it is ranked at the bottom of the list), and sounding like they recorded it live in the studio. The track list is filled with some of the Crowes’ best songs, and the songs are done with live arrangements in mind (several songs have jams and extended solo sections). The only two tracks that were not already recorded by the group are “Cold Boy Smile” (a song that was penned and played live during the 2005-2006 reunion run) and Gram Parsons’ “She.” While it is a definitely a cool concept (think MTV Unplugged), and is an overall great sounding album, it still is a bunch of re-recorded songs, even if they arranged differently. Yet, if you love the Crowes, and haven’t heard this one, you should.
9. Before the Frost…Until the Freeze (2009)
The last studio album of new material put out by the group, this is another double album that really shows the style of music the group was going for in their last iteration (well their last major iteration, which included Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars), which is to say, 1970s Americana rock (I don’t even know if that’s a genre). Recorded live in front of an audience at Levon Helm’s barn studio in Woodstock, NY, this double album is really two albums (and was initially sold as such, kind of). The first half, Before the Frost, is filled with some great songs that rock (“Good Morning Captain”, “Been A Long Time”, “Kept My Soul”), and some pretty ballads (“Appaloosa”, “Last Place That Love Lies”), with a few solid inbetweeners. The second half, Until the Freeze, is much more laid back, filled with acoustic songs. It definitely comes across as an attempt to create an album in the vein of Gram Parsons, whether it is The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, or his solo work. And while, this second half is not terrible by any means, it is also nothing amazing. It doesn’t sound like a Black Crowes record, while the first half does, though not totally either. So unless you’re a fan of 70s folk-rock/Americana music, or a huge Crowes fan, I would think you could skip this one. I have a tendency to do so.
8. Lions (2001)
This album was one of the first I ever wrote a review for (in my high school’s newspaper) and I remember loving it. I talked about how it had a very Led Zeppelin feel to it (which still makes sense since the group had just came off of a tour with Jimmy Page), and lauded how much it rocked. Would present-day me agree with these sentiments? Probably not so much about the Led Zeppelin statement, since there is more funk and soul than any Led Zeppelin album, but there is no question that this is a heavy, rocking album. Of all the albums the group recorded before their first hiatus in 2002, this was definitely the weakest, but it is by no means a weak album. It is just that the lows (“Miracle to Me”, “No Use Lying”, “Losing My Mind”) are pretty low, in terms of the Crowes. The highlights however (“Soul Singing”, “Cypress Tree”, “Midnight From The Inside Out”, “Greasy Grass River”, “Come On“), are pretty fantastic. I still feel that “Soul Singing” is a top 10, maybe top 5, Crowes song. This one is definitely worth a listen, even if you skip around a bit.
7. Warpaint (2008)
This is the first album of the post-hiatus Crowes, and the group had just gone through a massive turnover in personnel. Okay, not massive since the group replaced two members, but for Crowes fans it was pretty massive. The biggest change was that Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars had joined the group, and though the guy is a guitar wizard, his style is just a little earthier than the previous Crowes guitarists (mainly Marc Ford). Interestingly, his style fit perfectly with where the band was heading (the aforementioned 70s Americana). This album sounds nothing like any of the Crowes albums that came before, but it’s a pretty great album. It is solid and consistent, in both style and quality of songs. There really isn’t a bad song on the album, and the first four songs on the album (“Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution”, “Walk Believer Walk”, “Oh Josephine”, and “Evergreen”) are some of my favorite Crowes songs. This is an album that I highly recommend checking out.
6. Three Snakes and One Charm (1996)
Okay, now we’re getting into the meat of the Crowes’ catalog. Three Snakes was the second Crowes album I ever owned (having only gotten into the band the previous year, I only owned Shake Your Money Maker) and it took me about 10 years to really appreciate this album. I attest this to the fact that I needed to really mature to understand how many of these songs are just absolutely stunning and/or beautiful. Case in point: “Girl From A Pawnshop”. 13 year old me was not too into this song because it had slow parts and had a twang in it (I cannot truthfully say this is absolute fact, but let’s go with it), while 23 year old me realized how absolutely beautiful this song is, with it’s musical and emotional dynamics. And the build up with the refrain of “P.S. –All my love” at the end…holy crap, is that powerful or what?!? As I stated, this album is definitely one that you need to listen to several times before appreciating, because there are a lot of layers to it. It’s definitely the most psychedelic of all of the Crowes albums (though not even that psychedelic), and definitely the most complex sonically. This is another album that has no weak songs on it, though there are very few super strong songs beyond the aforementioned “ Girl From A Pawnshop,” “Under a Mountain,” “(Only) Halfway to Everywhere,” and “Evil Eye”. It’s really just a solid, consistent sounding album that blends a bunch of different styles and genres under the auspices of a rock album. It’s great.
5. By Your Side (1999)
The slickest of any of the Crowes’ albums, By Your Side seems to have one purpose, and that is to kick ass and take names. Yet, there is a lot of historical baggage that comes with this album. This was the first album after the departure of bassist Johnny Colt (replaced by Sven Pipien), and more importantly, long-time lead guitarist Marc Ford (who was replaced by Audley Freed after the album was released). On top of this, the Crowes had already made a record (which I will discuss soon) a year earlier, but was scrapped by Columbia Records, who wanted something more commercial. So for hardcore fans, this album is a bit tainted. With that being said, there is no denying the fact that this album has some straight up rockers that can blow the walls down. The one-two punch of “Go Faster” and “Kickin’ My Heart Around” to open the record is a statement telling the world that, yes, this band can still rock, and rock hard. The next four songs do not let up, even when the band slows it down a bit. I mean, these songs aren’t examples of songwriting genius, but they are great blues-based rock songs. Think a mix of the Faces and Humble Pie, if they were recording in 1999. The album’s closer, “Virtue and Vice”, is one of my favorite Crowes songs, because not only does it rock, but it has depth, thanks in part to Eddie Harsch’s piano playing, particularly on the outro. In reality, this is a great album, and one that could easily get people who love to listen to some straight ahead, kick-ass rock n’ roll to become fans of The Black Crowes.
4. The Lost Crowes (2006)
Okay so this double album is technically not a studio album by the Crowes. It is, in reality, a compilation of unreleased (yet highly bootlegged) material that had been played live for many years. The first disc contains recordings from the 1993 sessions for the scrapped album Tall. A lot of the material from these sessions would be rerecorded to make up the bulk of Amorica. The second disc contains what would have been the album 1997 album Band, but was scrapped leading to the creation of By Your Side. So why is this on this list, and why so high? Simply put, the songs are fantastic. The Tall sessions represent the band’s most prolific (and some feel the best) songwriting period of the band’s career. The bootleg of these sessions, entitled Taller Than All, has a total of 29 tracks, with only a few redundancies. That’s a lot of songs. So while some fans were upset that all of the tracks weren’t remastered and released, almost all were ecstatic that Tall finally got its due. I mean, it’s still mind boggling that songs like “Tied Up & Swallowed”, “Feathers”, and “Thunderstorm 6:54” never got put on any album, or that a song like “Title Song” didn’t even make this compilation (though it did get released on the 2002 Live album). Yet, even as good as the Tall disc is, the Band disc is even better. In my opinion, if Band were released, it would potentially be considered the group’s second-best album. This album (and yes I will refer to it as an album) showcases a band that has found its sound and is locked in. Compared to its would-be predecessor, Three Snakes and One Charm, this album is more stripped down, and possesses songs that hint at what the group would end up being in its post-hiatus days. That is, there is more of a folk-rock in this album than anything that had put out up to that point. So it’s easy to see why Columbia Records would want to scrap this album: it didn’t sound like “vintage” Crowes. But there are some amazing songs on this album, with rockers like “Paint an 8”, “Another Roadside Tragedy”, and “Never Forget This Song”, ballads like “Wyoming and Me” and “My Heart’s Killing Me”, and the wonderful closing track “Peace Anyway”. A few tracks from the sessions did get reworked for By Your Side; “If It Ever Stops Raining” (which became “By Your Side”) and “Only A Fool” (which can be found on the bootlegged version of this album). Still, one can wonder what would have happened to the band if they were allowed to continue the course they were on, instead of being forced to make a creative U-turn. So in conclusion, this double-album compilation is one that every fan of The Black Crowes should own, no matter how hardcore you are.
3. Shake Your Money Maker (1990)
In the late 1980s, hair metal was taking up the airwaves of rock radio, and MTV for that matter. There were, of course, bands like R.E.M. and Red Hot Chili Peppers who were still getting played on radio, but for the most part rock music was being saturated with hair metal bands, mainly from L.A. So when the Crowes released their debut, Shake Your Money Maker, I can only imagine that for rock purists seemed like a breath of fresh air. But it is not the only reason that this album spawned 5 singles (2 which went to #1 on the modern rock charts) and sold over 5 million copies. The fact of the matter is that this album is fantastic. It’s raw, it rocks, it has soul, and it has great songs. Let’s list some: “Twice As Hard”, “Jealous Again”, “Sister Luck”, “Seeing Things”, “Thick N’ Thin”, “She Talks To Angels”. Oh and let’s not forget the song that really made The Black Crowes a well known band, their cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle”. Now one may think, “Their biggest song was a cover? Come on now!” But let’s be real. What mainstream rock band in the late 1980s was covering Otis Redding? I bet half of the hair metal bands had no idea who Otis Redding even was! (I might lose that bet, but whatever.) The fact of the matter is that they took a great song, made it their own, and killed it (in a good way). I mean this is on top of the songs I previously listed, all written by the Robinson brothers, who were in their late teens/early 20s when they wrote them. They understood what good music was, and were able to make their own great songs using that knowledge. And these songs still hold up, even if the production is very late 80s/early 90s. Throw on “Jealous Again” and try not to rock out. Listen to “She Talks to Angels” and try to not feel any emotions. This is a great album, and if you haven’t listened to it, stop what you’re doing and go listen. Seriously. Go do it now (and then come back and finish reading this entry.)
2. Amorica (1994)
So you may be thinking how Shake Your Money Maker was only #3 on this list with all of the praise I just gave it. Well as great as that album is, the two albums that followed are better. One of them is Amorica, the album that came out of the failed, yet prolific sessions for the never released album Tall. As I mentioned earlier, the Crowes were writing and recording songs in 1993 for the album that was to be called Tall. Yet while the band was writing a lot of songs, the group was going through some huge turmoil, mainly between the Robinson brothers. At this point Chris was heavily involved in drugs (as were some of the other band members), while Rich continued to be clean. The two were already fighting a lot, but during the recording sessions, the two brothers would work at different hours, erasing the each other’s work from the previous session. It’s a wonder that anything got recorded. Thankfully, the two brothers worked things out, and though Tall was scrapped, the group still had a plethora of great songs to work with, enabling to them to create Amorica. Now, let me be straight with you: Every single song on this album is good, if not great. This is the album where the group decided to branch out from just playing rock music, and started to dabble in some of the styles and genres that influenced the group. “She Gave Good Sunflower” sounds like a Faces song, while there is some country flare with “Wiser Time” and “Downtown Money Waster”, some Latin influences in “High Head Blues” and the intro of “Gone”. There is also a ballad that doesn’t include any heavy guitar work, “Nonfiction”. But if you want heavy guitar work, don’t worry because there is a ton. The first two tracks, “Gone” and “A Conspiracy” have plenty of that, with the latter being one of the heaviest of the Crowes songs ever, as is “P. 25 London”. Then there are songs like “Cursed Diamond” and “Ballad In Urgency” that showcase the band’s ability to write songs that have musical and emotional dynamics. But in my mind, the piece de resistance of the album is its finale, “Descending”. This is by far the most beautiful song the group ever wrote. The guitar playing is gorgeous and Chris Robinson’s voice is elegant and emotional. Yet it is Eddie Harsch’s piano playing that makes this song. The outro always gives me chills. It’s a perfect way to end a fantastic album.
1. The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1992)
To those of you who are fans of The Black Crowes, this should be no surprise. For those of you who have never heard this album, let me explain. The Black Crowes were known for being a true rock n’ roll group. I’m talking blues-based, riff-heavy, distorted guitar, soulful rock music. This album is the prime example of that. This album does not stopping rocking (until the last song). There are 10 tracks on this record, the first 9 of which are some of the most rocking songs I’ve ever heard. That’s 47 minutes straight of non-stop guitar-led rock n’ roll. And when I mean rock n’ roll, I mean ROCK N’ ROLL. These songs aren’t just headbangers, these are songs that make you want to move. Yes there are some moments where the band brings the mood down a bit, but there is always a nasty guitar solo to get the energy back up. The only moment where this album let’s up is on the last song, a Bob Marley cover called “Time Will Tell”, but it doesn’t take away from this album in the slightest. The way this album is constructed, it comes off like a concert (and I highly doubt that any Crowes fan would be upset with a show with these songs, in this order). There are emotional highs and lows, but every song is perfectly placed. “Sting Me” opens with Rich Robinson playing a riff by himself, before Steve Gorman’s drums, Johnny Colt’s bass, and Eddie Harsch’s piano all join him in a heavy down beat pattern, leading to the main riff of the song as the band really gets rockin’. I mean, how is that not a great opening to a show? This is followed by the hit single, “Remedy”, which may be the best Crowes song ever. This song is rock n’ roll. And the breakdown with the background singers is so, so killer. Ugh. Love this song. “Thorn in My Pride” follows, and it is one powerful song. It’s a wonderfully crafted song with peaks and valleys, and a killer guitar solo by Marc Ford. And as good as the breakdown in “Remedy” was, this one is even better. Led by the gospel-inspired piano playing of Harsch, Chris Robinson sings “Lover, cover me; Let your love light shine, let it shine,” over and over, as the group builds to an emotional climax, before going into the denouement. The group slows it down with the next two tracks “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye” and “Sometimes Salvation”, but the energy and emotions are still riding high, thanks to Chris Robinson’s voice and the guitars of Rich Robinson and Marc Ford. The band then delves into their Southern rock roots with “Hotel Illness” and “Black Moon Creeping”, the latter of which has another amazing solo from Ford. “No Speak, No Slave” is next, and it is the heaviest song on the album. There’s the Zeppelin-esque opening riff, the harmonizing guitar riffs (and they are sick), the wah-wah fused guitar solo, and the frenzied, high-energy ending which features Chris Robinson yelling out “Ows” and “Oohs” along with the hits. Then comes the “set closer,” “My Morning Song.” This song has the emotional diversity (and gospel-esque breakdown) of “Thorn in My Pride” but with the energy and guitar sounds of the preceding track, “No Speak, No Slave”. I really can’t put into words how fun this song is to listen. It’s an experience, and a freakin’ great song. The album closes with “Time Will Tell”, which would be an interesting yet fun encored song to close the show. Sounding like a commune singing and jamming over a campfire, the song is a drastic contrast to the rest of the album, but after the high-energy of the first 9 songs, it’s almost cathartic to hear. This is an album every rock music lover should own. I’m being totally serious. You will enjoy it (unless you do not like rock music).
So there you have it: A complete ranking and breakdown of all of The Black Crowes studio albums (+1) by a big fan of the group (they are one of my 5 favorites of all time). Of course, the group did have several live albums [Live (2002), Freak n’ Roll…Into the Fog (2006) (also a DVD), Warpaint Live (2009), and Wiser for the Time (2013)], along with the live double-album with Jimmy Page (Live at the Greek) and the Robinson Brothers’ acoustic live album (Brothers of a Feather – Live at the Roxy), but I really don’t have the energy or the desire to go through those, especially since I have a review of one of their live shows from 2013. This (uber-long) blog entry was just a way to show my love and appreciation for a band that has given the world (and myself) some great rock n’ roll music. If you haven’t listened to them yet, I would seriously recommend that you do (unless rock music is not your bag).
Thanks for the music TBC. My life would not be the same without it.