One of the Impound’s All-Time Favorite Albums turned 21 this week, and we felt it was only right to buy it a drink and reflect on The Black Crowes’ astounding sophomore joint.
The Black Crowes have never been fashionable, a fact resoundingly obvious in 1992 as the band unveiled its second album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, on May 12. Surrounded on a still fairly vibrant FM-radio and an increasingly dominant MTV by Nirvana, Def Leppard, Stone Temple Pilots, and Damn Yankees, the Crowes fit in with no other popular contemporaries, and looking at the album’s sepia-toned cover, one gets the sense they knew they walked alone. This is a gang captured in some clapboard trash heap shithole, dark-eyed and staring down all comers with a look that says, “You wanna go? Try us and see how that turns out.” These were probably the first guys to tell a father they shouldn’t let their daughter go out with them, and then, immediately following that admission, drive around to the back of the house to pick up the teen dream with a man-hungry grin crawling out of the bathroom window. The vintage-y clothes on most of the band suggest another time, perhaps a missed local sensation from the late 60s, but drummer Steve Gorman throws a monkey wrench into that theory with his short cropped hair and Reservoir Dogs suit, a succinct reminder that this is a modern band.
It’s a fine small move in the face of the endless nostalgia act labels thrown at the band since the second their 1990 debut Shake Your Money Maker dropped out of the sky to kick up the ghost of Otis Redding and throw a lifeline back to the days when folks knew that rockin’ ‘n’ rollin’ was inextricably tied to bumpin’ naughty bits and raising hell. All the endless Stones, Faces, etc. comparisons were never on the money since the Crowes were torchbearers not imitators; a young, ambitious group that lit their flame with Jerry Lee’s great flaming balls, guys nakedly and wildly in love with the idea of rock and its ability to enrich lives, starting with their own. Despite the dismissal of self-anointed “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau and other music press, Shake Your Money Maker went on to sell a million copies its first year and another two million over time. Critics be damned, the sticky, visceral and appealingly misbehaved vibe of the Crowes connected with the people, who the band met in droves during near-constant touring the next two years.
But beyond being a really good time with some killer tunes about girl trouble (and troubled girls) with some of the best singing and riff work rock had seen in a spell, the initial phase of the Crowes didn’t prepare one for the sense of righteous cause that emanates from Southern Harmony. Perhaps sick of the comparisons and false assumptions, the band positively pulverizes their debut in record time, crackling to life like some massive, unruly machine as the guitars sizzle in the opening moments of “Sting Me” and then moving headlong through tunes alternately harder and more tender, and all of them sharper and denser than anything on Money Maker. The album raises a freak flag, inviting one into the valley of discovery, the roads strewn with the rotten fruit of quick fame and all the vermin it draws close. Nothing less than salvation was at stake, and the Crowes already knew that money can’t buy that.
No rock act prior to Southern Harmony sounds quite like this band, and it’s such a massively impactful presence that many since have used it as a template in their own attempts to find a band identity. The mixture of tough, fat free musical settings and juggernaut vocal attack is intoxicating, a force that envelops and leaves one in a heap, sweaty and slightly dazed, taken and tosseled by sure hands. As the album’s title suggests, this is a hedonistic house of worship, not quite pagan because God is in the mix but way more profane than sacred in any traditional sense. This feels holy, at least to anyone that worships at rock’s wide, welcoming altar, and one hardly wants for a better high priest than Chris Robinson.
While the whole band was fun and fascinating to watch, the sheer physicality and underlying attitude of the music reflected in their archetypically perfect rock bodies and faces, there is no denying that the lightning rod in this bunch is Chris. Even before the album hit, there was the bare bones here’s-some-fucking-rock-n-roll-take-it-or-leave-it video for “Remedy”. Fuck Austin Powers, women instantly wanted to be with this guy and men just as swiftly wished they had the mojo Robinson was swinging ‘round. If you’re not drawn to Chris watching this video then you’re probably not that into rock because there it is twirling, thrusting and sliding in a way that’d raise wood from a long dead Elvis Presley. And for anyone in 1992 that felt like they’d missed out on rock’s heyday, for anyone not ready to enthusiastically suckle Nirvana’s nihilism, for anyone hungry for music that made them feel alive and awake, well, it was apparent the flock was being called up to the mountain.
The boldness and unabashed majesty of many pieces on Southern Harmony implies the band were fully aware they were offering something bigger than another record. It would have been much easier to cover another 60s hit and actively play to the sensibilities of PR stooges and label suits. And it’s always risky business starting a church, even one as pro-pot and free love hailing as the Crowes’ version. One makes themselves a target when they don’t fall in line and play to the standards of the day. But, across Southern Harmony’s ten tracks there can be no doubting the faith The Black Crowes have in rock’s headier potential, in its capacity to engender soul and provide sustenance, and their conviction possessed – and still possesses to this day – the power to make believers of the open-hearted and free-wheeling.
What amazes me is how the potency of this Musical Companion has never diminished for me – and I’m surely not alone based on the small army of Amoricans that swear by this album the way many do the Good Book. Despite the hundreds and hundreds of spins I’ve given Southern Harmony it still thrills me multiple times each rollicking trek I make from “Sting Me” to the Babylon blasting coda of their cover of Bob Marley’s “Time Will Tell.” I spin and dance and shake my fists, fired up by “No Speak No Slave” or suddenly contemplative visiting the dregs of old loves during “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye.” Every tick and turnaround has the feel of muscle memory, as if I had made this music, the sense of personal ownership and importance much more profound for me with this album than almost any other. This is the way of it with things we hold sacred – a far more subjective thing than organized religion might suggest.
I know that “if my rhythm ever falls out of time” that this song cycle will set me right. I know when heaven, peace and understanding seem distant or downright impossible that I’ll find understanding and real fucking streetwise wisdom inside these grooves – not the platitudes of ancient prophets but something visceral I feel in the pit of me. At a point in my life where I’d rejected my Catholic upbringing and was being pressured into a disastrous first marriage, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion found me and gave me hope and fuel for a rocky road, one of those beautiful surprises that has helped sustain me even as it entertained me to a hellacious degree.
It is a work that endures, continuing to provide the unbreakable spine of the Crowes’ live shows and inform countless lives despite being more than two decades old. A factoid sometimes trotted out about Southern Harmony is its release occurred 20 years to the day after the Rolling Stones’ long-canonized Exile On Main Street, as if the two are spiritual twins or something of the sort. Frankly, I’d say that the Crowes put out the better record and one far bolder than the Stones’ offering, which arrived when they were already a well-established, world famous brand with virtually nothing to lose by rediscovering and slightly reinventing the blues. Oh, I surely love Exile but it took the Stones awhile to reach that raw, live wire place and the Crowes did it on their second album AND in a well oiled recording industry climate that leaned on them hard not to go so thoroughly their own way. The album was indeed a commercial success but it marks the real beginning of the band’s journey into what can only be called “Black Crowes Music,” a sound sincere, strong and utterly unconcerned about what the flavor of the day, month or year might be. It is the rock upon which a house of faith was built, and the sturdiness and wisdom of the decision shows in the continued authenticity, originality and potency of The Black Crowes today.