The Black Crowes were contentious from the moment they burst out of Atlanta, Georgia, in the early 1990s. The band’s blues-rock aesthetic won them legions of fans among people tired of 1980s hair metal and synthesized pop. Conversely, the Crowes’ rockified blues riffs – a blend of Exile-era Rolling Stones, Humble Pie, and Leon Russell – garnered suspicion (if not outright contempt) from folks sick of classic rock blasting from half the world’s car windows.
The Black Crowes were not the first rock revivalists to cause a sensation – not even the first from Atlanta. In 1986, the Georgia Satellites scored a No. 2 hit with “Keep Your Hands to Yourself”, a winking pastiche of Chuck Berry guitar riffs, downhome boogie, and southern charm. The Georgia Satellites were not without substance (their 1989 album In the Land of Salvation and Sin is a lost minor classic), but the goodtime party image burned into their videos branded them unfairly as a novelty act.
The Black Crowes came across as younger, hungrier, and deadly serious on their debut album, 1990’s Shake Your Money Maker. Songs like “Jealous Again” and “She Talks to Angels” thrilled those for whom the 1980s had been one long, bad date with Phil Collins. A hit cover of Otis Redding‘s “Hard to Handle” helped propel Shake Your Money Maker up the Billboard 200 as videos showcased the shaggy charisma of vocalist Chris Robinson – a new Rod Stewart for anyone unfamiliar with Steve Marriott or Terry Reid.
Chris and his guitarist brother, Rich Robinson, sparred like an upstart Mick Jagger-Keith Richards or less toxified Steve Tyler-Joe Perry. While they lacked the swing of the Stones or boozy swagger of early Aerosmith, the Black Crowes knew what they were doing. Even the musical tastemakers at Spin Magazine (ordinarily averse to anything “retro”) called the Crowes “refreshing… in this synthesized, lip-syncing era” (Spin, May 1991).
By the time the Black Crowes’ second album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, appeared in May 1992, 1982-style synths and Milli Vanilli vocals had been bulldozed away by alternative rock. Nirvana‘s Nevermind, Pearl Jam‘s Ten, and other blockbuster albums had made guitar-driven fury and live-sounding production viable once again.
Although they lacked the irony and irreverence of bands from Seattle, the Crowes staked their own claim to unpretentious hard rock. In 1992, it was quite normal to like Nirvana and the Black Crowes. As the 1990s wore on, the Black Crowes’ albums sounded ever more generic, but in 2000, they rekindled the fire on Live at the Greek, backing Jimmy Page on a set of Led Zeppelin classics.
The newly remastered edition of The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion is solid evidence why the Black Crowes lasted as they did. Sounding as fresh as it did in 1992, the album epitomizes the kind of rock that sounds best over a few beers or behind the wheel on a long drive (preferably not at the same time).
George Drakoulias’s production captured the Black Crowes’ intensity through timeworn methods (guitars plugged straight into tube amps, live drums captured in a room, etc.). The remastered set was sourced from the original quarter-inch analogue tapes, maintaining the integrity of the original mix while upgrading the sound on CD and LP.
The reissue comes in various formats for different levels of commitment. The Super Deluxe edition contains either three CDs or four LPs on 180-gram vinyl. Both sets include the original album, B-sides from single releases of the same period, and 14 previously unreleased live and studio tracks. The boxes contain four lithographs, sheet music to the songs, and a “hymn book” of reflections written by Chris and Rich Robinson.
Budget-minded or more casual listeners might prefer the double CD edition, which has the remastered album on one disc and nine bonus tracks on the other. There is also a single vinyl LP containing just the album in a single sleeve with a paper liner – plenty of mojo for non-completists.
The album kicks off with “Sting Me” and “Remedy”, two riveting tracks epitomizing different facets of the Crowes’ sound as Marc Ford and Rich Robinson’s guitars shift from Stonesy swagger to Humble Pie stomp. Lyrically, the songs are pro-forma takes on carpe diem, but Chris Robinson sings with conviction as Taj Artis and Barbara Mitchell’s gospely harmonies add a touch of soul.
The tempo recedes for the rest of Side One, as “Thorn in My Pride”, “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye”, and “Sometimes Salvation” explore different flavors of cathartic southern rock. The spirit of Leon Russell inhabits the lovelorn “Thorn in My Pride”, while “Bad Luck Blue Eyes” contains a touch of Muscle Shoals R&B. Eddie Harsch’s keyboards evoke the work of Nicky Hopkins and Ian McLagan as drummer Steve Gorman keeps the grooves tight.
The second half of Southern Harmony is a ramshackle stew in which each song gains power by association with the others. “Hotel Illness” is a barroom banger with blues harmonica, “Black Moon Creeping” is a nocturnal midtempo romp, “No Speak No Slave” is a metal-adjacent riff riot, and “My Morning Song” breaks out the slide guitars. A blasé acoustic cover of “Time Will Tell” concludes the album, doing little to enhance Bob Marley’s legacy or suggest the Black Crowes have any feel for reggae.
The bonus material on the double CD and Super Deluxe sets has several highlights. An inspired version of Don Bryant’s “99 Pounds” sounds good enough to have been on the main album. “Darling of the Underground Press” reaffirms the band’s blues orientation. Other tracks feel superfluous, including “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, an outtake devoid of the woozy bluster of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde original.
The live tracks in the Super Deluxe edition, recorded at a 1993 show in Houston, Texas, mainly adhere to the arrangements of the studio versions. The party atmosphere of the set illustrates the Crowes’ ability to deliver on stage, although hearing the same songs a second or third time in close succession can get a bit mind-numbing.
Such redundancies do nothing to diminish the power of The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion In its original (and now remastered) form. Its 30-year legacy persists in the strength of its songs, played with all the furious energy that makes for captivating rock music. While other bands would ultimately take more credit for reviving guitar-driven rock in the early 1990s, the Black Crowes did their bit for the cause on an album still worth owing in whichever form one chooses.