Vintage Review – The Black Crowes – Southern Harmony & Musical Companion

This week marks the 50th Anniversary of one of the most iconic and influential albums ever released in popular music in Exile on Main St. by The Rolling Stones. Though not as interfacing and relevant to country music as the album’s predecessor, 1971’s Sticky Fingers, Exile is still critically important for defining the loose, gritty, sweaty sound that musicians would subsequently struggle and mostly fail to achieve in equal measures for the coming decades compared to Keith, Mick, and the boys.

But if there was one record that successfully rose to the challenge of emulating the same type of raucous, uninhibited abandon with an unprecedented sense of feeling and soul that puts you right in the studio surrounded by all the sounds and smells of under-the-influence musicians sowing audio magic beyond the 70s era, it might be the Southern rock masterpiece put out by The Black Crowes, released 30 years ago this week, and 20 years after Exile by The Stones.

For certain, when you broach the subject of The Black Crowes, 1990’s Shake Your Money Maker is the record that first comes to mind. It was the Atlanta, Georgia-based band’s big breakout that has since gone five times Platinum. Their version of Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle” was ubiquitous, as was the ballad “She Talks To Angels.” In the 90s, it was like hearing classic Southern rock, but from a modern band. It had all the roots that hair metal had forgotten, and much of grunge would forsake as well.

But those studious listeners to The Black Crowes and the greater Southern rock canon know that The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion was the superior project, at least from a creative standpoint. It actually launched five #1 singles as opposed to Money Maker‘s two. But only “Remedy” from the record really sticks out as a signature Crowes cut. Southern Harmony also sold a couple million less copies than Money Maker.

Nonetheless, it was the Black Crowes second record that would leave their most lasting imprint on American music. Recorded in only eight days, and straight to 24-track tape, it saw the exit of original member Jeff Cease at the lead guitar position, the addition of Eddie Harsch in a new permanent keyboard position, and most importantly, the drafting of Los Angeles-born lead guitar player Marc Ford, who would add that certain something to The Black Crowes sound that took it from great to spectacular.

Shake Your Money Maker felt sincere and rootsy when it was first released. But in the shadow of The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, that project came across as safe, ordered, and predictable. Recorded after significant time on the road opening for bands like ZZ Top and Aerosmith—and lead singer Chris Robinson famously mouthing off about bands selling out to corporate beer sponsors and wanting to headline shows themselves—it was the deadly combination of being pissed off, having something to prove, and being sinister tight from so many shows played that made Southern Harmony so propulsive as a musical work.

25 songs had been written before heading into the studio, but Marc Ford was still trying to gel with the Robinson brothers, who along with being super driven and having something to prove, were at each others throats constantly. It wasn’t unusual for a studio session to devolve into an outright fist fight between the two, but channeling much of that rage into the tracks themselves is what rendered them so sick.

Everything on the record is way too slow in the best of ways. What were supposed to be up-tempo rockers were brought into the mid tempo. What were supposed to be mid-tempo songs were slowed down to sludge. This plodding, achingly slow pace—along with songs with a chorus of backup singers being the ones singing mostly on time, with Chris Robinson sometimes just scatting on top of them—is what gave the album a measure of soulful virtuosity that was virtually unprecedented for its time, while Chris Robinson’s lyricism may have never been as seductive and involved.

Then of course you had Marc Ford doing his worst, with the most raging, inebriated, and ejaculating guitar solos that probably fit more appropriately in heavy metal than Southern rock. But it still somehow worked brilliantly, just from the imagination and epicness each solo achieved. The guitar parts are these ugly, snarling monsters, but exquisitely beautiful in their own way, possibly best illustrated by the madness that ensues in the pulverizing performance on the song “No Speak No Slave.”

But when you think of the sound of “Southern Rock,” you think of the savvy chord movements of “Hotel Illness,” or the soulful blues of the insanely slow “Bad Luck Blues Eyes,” or “Sometimes Salvation”—the latter also marked by an insane Marc Ford guitar solo full of abandon. “Remedy” and the acoustic “Thorn In My Pride” would be the big singles from the record, but most every selection from the work is a lesson in one way or another into the mastery of Southern rock music.

The 10 song set ends with a rather sloppy, and slightly forgettable rendition of Bob Marley’s “Time Will Tell,” recorded with a mic in the middle of the room, and little or no arrangement. It would foretell in some respects the band’s move into more jam-based music that would start to express itself in their 1996 release Three Snakes and One Charm. But that wasn’t what people tuned into The Back Crowes for. They wanted that greasy, Southern fried sound like was served up in big ladle fulls on Southern Harmony.

Drug problems would mean Marc Ford would only last for a couple more records with the band, and to be frank, his later stuff with The Black Crowes was never as potent as it was on Southern Harmony. Once sober though, he’d go on to other significant projects, and subsequently has become one of the best producers in the Southern rock/roots country rock, and Americana space. Taking that tasty feel he exhuberated on Southern Harmony and applying it to other people’s projects has been quite the successful chemistry.

These days, The Black Crowes are more of a nostalgia band than continuing to help set a creative pace. The Robinson brothers and their constant implosions and sibling rivalry made it hard sledding for the band over the years. But there’s not much better than piping up The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion on a Sunday afternoon, or during a long drive, and losing yourself in the waves of American music goodness that you really have to go back to the 60’s and 70’s to find comparable experiences from in the Southern rock sphere.

The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion was classic, and has proven itself to be timeless.

Two Guns Up!

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