Review Summary: Hard Rock meets Gospel. The creative zentih of a powerful band.
After bursting onto the scene in 1990 with their debut “Shake Your Moneymaker,” selling 5 million albums in two years, and playing over 350 live shows in 19 months, it would have been expected and even slightly forgivable if The Black Crowes faltered somewhat on their Sophomore release. Carried by a brilliantly constructed bare bones retro hard rock/power blues sound, “Shake Your Moneymaker” was simply put, a force. By 1992, the legendary infighting between Chris and Rich Robinson had begun, the trappings of sudden wealth and fame was starting to formulate massive egos, two band members were jettisoned, and grunge was ruling the world. The stage was set for a band playing straight ahead Southern rock to stumble a bit, right?
Wrong. The second album from the Black Crowes, 1992’s “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion,” is a tour de force that finds the band staying true to its catchy power blues roots while adding layers of musical expansion, notably including heavy influences of gospel, bluegrass, and soul. While “Shake Your Moneymaker” was brilliant with its no frills straight ahead rock attack, “TSHMC” relishes the previous sonic elements and incorporates a greater sense of depth and elaboration to create a sound that the band never again captured. While in later years they would morph into a quasi bluegrass jam band, this album is when the Crowes reached its zenith in terms of incorporating experimentation while maintaining their catchy hard rock sensibilities. “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion” is one of the more successful and by far the most critically lauded release in the band’s discography and one listen will provide a pretty clear answer as to why.
The first six tracks on “TSHAMC” are almost perfect. The opener, “Sting Me,” begins like anything on “Shake Your Moneymaker.” Carried by an impossibly good guitar groove supplied by the improved Rich Robinson and new addition Marc Ford, a vastly superior player than previous second guitarist Jeff Cease, “Sting Me” has the sound of instant charting success. The experimentation doesn’t take long to show itself however, as female gospel singers come out of nowhere to supply lead and background vocals, a new facet that will be included on virtually every song. “Remedy” follows, and the album’s most recognizable song features a power groove saturated riff trade-off that melds into a ramshackle boogie in the chorus. The next three tracks, the beautifully constructed acoustic gem “Thorn in My Pride,” the wrenching and somber “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye,” and the positively pleading “Sometimes Salvation” are all ballads that construct an effective running piece of the album. “Thorn in My Pride,” with its yearning vocals, gentle acoustic instrumentation, and soulful finish, is the best song on the album and one of the top 5 songs in their discography. Finally, “Hotel Illness” is an enormously catchy boogie stomp that borrows heavily from “Let it Bleed” era Rolling Stones.
The final four tracks are solid but not as catchy or quite as effective. The four-piece is where the band branches away almost completely from traditional hard rock and showcases signs of their next direction. From the bluegrass laced “Black Moon Creeping” to the soulful and almost epic “My Morning Song,” the final quarter of the album is rooted much more in traditional old school Southern music elements than Southern Hard Rock. “No Speak No Slave” is an effective shuffle track, but lacks the certain hooks that are plastered throughout the first part of the album. The piece is finished off by a cover of Bob Marley’s “Time Will Tell,” with a bluegrass feel replacing the original reggae laced theme. Overall, an effective branch of experimentation that ultimately lacks the consistent flow of the first part of the album and that was seen throughout “Shake Your Moneymaker.”
While not as consistent or formulaic as their debut, “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion” is from a creative standpoint arguably the band’s strongest work. Many consider it the Crowes’ finest hour, and the effect of establishing their legacy while managing to chart four #1 singles despite incorporating a different sound speaks volumes about the album’s staying power. The instrumentation is tight, the lyrics are at once tongue-in-cheek and soulful, and the overall feel of the album is as close to epic as a genre of music that never intended to be grandiose can be.
The Black Crowes successfully pulled off the feat of adding layers of depth and experimentation without losing the hooks and hard rock sensibilities that made them in the first place, a task that they failed at over the coming years and eventually gave up trying on. At a time when grunge ruled, the Crowes defied both the dreaded sophomore slump and the state of the music scene in general to craft a powerful and almost timeless album. If not for a few minutes of filler, this would have to be considered for classic status, and remains an essential record.
Thorn in My Pride
Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye
My Morning Song