Review: The Black Crowes – Vinyl Re-Releases

Christmas has indeed come early for rock fans, as well as vinyl junkies, as December 18th see’s the long awaited vinyl re-release of the first four albums from legendary American bluesy rockers, The Black Crowes. Unavailable on vinyl for a great length of time, and with the exception of the debut album, all are available as double vinyl. These gems will appear on the highly respected ‘Back To Black’ series as the holy grail for vinyl aficionados – 180 gram vinyl.

Formed in 1989 by brothers Chris and Rich Robinson, the band released their debut album ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ in 1990 to great critical acclaim, with their hard-hitting take on blues rock finding a gap in a market saturated with ‘hair metal’. The album spawned some monster hit singles in both ‘Hard To Handle’ and ‘Jealous Again’. At the time, you couldn’t turn on MTV without seeing the video for the semi-acoustic ballad classic ‘She Talks To Angels’. The Black Crowes were everywhere. The album would eventually go multi-platinum, and the band would end 1990 voted ‘Best New American Band’ by readers of Rolling Stone magazine.

Twenty-five years later, as the needle drops on the record and ‘Twice As Hard’ comes blaring out of the speakers, it’s clear that the album still sounds as fresh today as it did all those years ago. Retro rock or 70’s inspired rock is very hip today, with both Rival Sons and The Temperance Movement breaking into the national album charts, but back in the early nineties it was all spandex, eye-liner and big fucking hair. For those of us who ridiculed the likes of Poison, The Black Crowes represented something more honest and earthy, heavily influenced by the British invasion led by The Rolling Stones, The Faces, Frankie Miller, and Humble Pie. ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ was the perfect antidote to ‘Unskinny Bop’. It’s not just the big hitters on the album that still impress, tracks such as ‘Sister Luck’, ‘Could I’ve Been So Blind’, ‘Stare It Cold’ and the immense ‘Seeing Things’ help the album flow and develop into one of the greatest debut albums… period.

By the time that the band hit the studio for the second album ‘The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion’, guitarist Jeff Cease had been replaced by Marc Ford, and keyboards (as well as some gorgeous Gospel-tinged vocals) had been added to the melting pot. The album debuted in the Billboard charts at No.1 before going multi-platinum, with lead off single ‘Remedy’ spending 11 weeks at No.1 on the Album Rock Tracks Chart.

With more of a rootsy, Southern feel to it, this is one of the great rock albums, perhaps the greatest ever ‘difficult second album’ (after ‘Rainbow Rising’, naturally) and one of my top 5 albums of all time. Simply put, yes it is that good. Named as one of the top 100 guitar albums of all time by Guitar World, this is a classic from the opening bars of ‘Sting Me’ right through to the closing strains of the Bob Marley cover ‘Time Will Tell’, with each track being greeted like a long-lost friend.

The average running time of the tracks increased since the debut album, with the band loosening their belts and musically spreading out, ‘Thorn In My Pride’, ‘Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye’ and my favourite ever Black Crowes track, ‘My Morning Song’, all nudge the 6 minute mark without over-indulging. The addition of female backing vocals was a master stroke that serves to enhance the album, whilst some of the guitar work is truly phenomenal, the album is best enjoyed straight through start to finish, and now that it is spread over double vinyl for the first time you have no excuses. In the days of instant streaming, put the phone away and enjoy the album the way that the band intended you to.

With such a strong early output, it would be easy, but churlish, to ignore the next two albums that the band produced. Whilst neither scaled the heady heights of their predecessors, both are very worthy of their place in the history and evolution of The Black Crowes. ‘Amorica’ was released in 1994 after the band scrapped the infamous ‘Tall’ album sessions, perhaps using a shot from Hustler magazine of a bikini, complete with overflowing pubes, wasn’t such a good idea, as many retail outlets in America refused to stock the album. Then again, the Robinson brothers could be described as anything but conformists.

Featuring some classic tracks in ‘Gone’, ‘A Conspiracy’, ‘Wiser Time’, and ‘Cursed Diamond’, this is perhaps The Black Crowes at their most soulful. A great mix of belting rock tunes with some real quality low key moments like ‘She Gave Good Sunflower’ and ‘Ballad In Urgency’ that help the listener gain something new from the album with each listen. Marc Ford played a major part in this, as his guitar playing is sublime throughout, and along with the recently added Eddie Harsch on keyboards, the ‘new boys’ helped create one of the most atmospheric albums in the bands turbulent career. By the time the final bars of ‘Descending’ fade out you’ll be totally chilled and ready to stick LP 1 back on and start all over again. A criminally overlooked album.

‘Three Snakes And One Charm’ was originally released on vinyl in a stunning box set of 7″ singles, complete with a custom made adaptor in the shape of the album’s cover to play them on. Instead of hitting a studio to record their fourth album, the band opted to rent a house and move everyone in together to create a more organic environment. Given the fractious nature between the Robinson brothers, this was a gamble that thankfully paid off with another fine slice of classic Black Crowes. Maybe not as loud and raucous as the previous three albums, but this is the result of a band constantly evolving and refusing to rest on their laurels.’Under A Mountain’ was written on the spot and is a delicious album opener, whilst ‘Good Friday’ is classic Crowes. The addition of some horns on ‘(Only) Halfway To Everywhere’, and ‘Let Me Share The Ride’, provide an almost Sly Stone-Bobby Womack style funky as hell thang and ‘Bring On,Bring On’ tips its hat to The Beatles. This is perhaps the album that Rich Robinson came out of the shadows most and changed up his rhythm playing for more lead guitar work and himself and Marc Ford really play well off each other.

After a hiatus, then reunion, then hiatus, then another reunion, it seems that The Black Crowes have finally called it quits for good this time, which is a crying shame, as the live dates in 2013 proved that the band are still a genuine live force to be reckoned with, but being brothers as well as bandmates is a volatile cocktail just waiting to explode.

These four albums are an incredible testament to one of America’s most revered and endearing rock bands, and any self-respecting rock fan would jump for joy if they found these under their tree come Christmas morning…

All four albums are due for release on December 18th, pre-orders are available here.

Review: Dave Stott

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