Led by the brothers Robinson, Atlanta’s pot-loving Black Crowes (previously a jangly R.E.M. clone band) lit up the dawn of the ’90s with a then-surprising nod to the hard-driving arena sounds of the ’70s. Arriving in a brief pre-grunge window of time when rock was still dominated by the dying gasps of hair metal and the bloated excess of the once-promising Guns n’ Roses, these neo-hippie vagabonds’ pure bluesy rock sounded positively divine. Though at first savaged by critics bemoaning their indebtedness to the Faces, Humble Pie and Rolling Stones, the quintet nonetheless made a lot of people realize that “classic rock” didn’t have to remain moribund (or hamstrung by cheesy Van Halen-derived technique). Given a hot young band with real songwriting ability and energy and passion to burn — plus a sympathetic producer, George Drakoulias — history could sound damn fine again.
Those retro influences may have been obvious on Shake Your Money Maker — Faces, Free, Allmans, Otis Redding, early Aerosmith and especially Mick-Taylor-era Stones — but the overall effect is actually refreshing. Swaggering rockers dominated by Rich Robinson’s chunky rhythm guitar (“Jealous Again,” the saucy slide showcase “Twice as Hard,” a rollicking hit version of Redding’s “Hard to Handle”) alternate with organ-tinged, “Wild Horses”-style ballads like “Seeing Things,” “Sister Luck” and the sublime “She Talks to Angels.” There are a few weak spots near the end (the generic “Struttin’ Blues,” to name one), but Shake Your Money Maker started the Crowes ball rolling.
The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, again produced with rootsy vigor by Drakoulias, features a much fuller Southern-fried sound and a bit of internal shuffling that replaced flighty lead guitarist Jeff Cease with the more accomplished Marc Ford and a full-time keyboardist, Ed Hawrysch. The Crowes had clearly grown up, moving beyond simple blues raveups into more soulful material; Chris Robinson’s singing is more expansive and detailed, his lyrics tend toward the spiritual. The sophisticated arrangements and textures suggest Traffic; gospelly female backing vocals are key (resplendent on the juicy rocker “Remedy”). “Sometimes Salvation” and “My Morning Song” are bruisingly emotional, as Chris rips his throat to lovely shreds the way Rod Stewart no longer has the fire in his belly to do. “No Speak No Slave” grinds out an ascending riff reminiscent of early Zep or Beck (Jeff, that is); “Black Moon Creeping” walls its thick grooves with harmonica and talk-box. In “Thorn in My Pride,” Ford’s lovely solos imbue the pensive blend of acoustic guitar and muted organ with a haunting inner light. Closing the masterfully sequenced record, the Crowes show off their range and arranging ability with an excellent recasting of Bob Marley’s “Time Will Tell.” All in all, a great rock’n’roll album that does not suffer in comparison to Sticky Fingers or Eat a Peach.
Co-produced by Jellyfish producer Jack Joseph Puig (with that band’s Andy Sturmer guesting), Amorica is a leaner, grittier, more up-tempo beast, as evidenced by the tough opener “Gone” and “She Gave Good Sunflower.” Bruce (American Music Club) Kaphan’s pedal steel adds a country flavor to the subtle “Wiser Time,” while “Downtown Money Waster” invokes the simmering slide aura of Robert Johnson. The Latin percussion augmenting several tracks is a great addition; as a result, “High Head Blues” cooks up a zesty congafied War flavor. While not as consistently rewarding a creation as the lush Southern Harmony, Amorica gets down and dirty with an invigorating sense of heightened sonic libido.