I’m seeing things for the first time,” Chris Robinson sang on Shake Your Money Maker, the Black Crowes’ debut album. That was in 1990, when Robinson and his guitarist brother, Rich, were rounding twenty and still unknown, gawky string beans out of Atlanta. Since then, Money Maker has sold more than 5 million copies, and the Crowes have played 350 shows in nineteen months. After the triple intoxications of sudden fame, sudden wealth and life on the road, the Robinsons are no longer seeing anything for the first time. Instead, on their second album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, they seem to be waking up with headaches. Their rooms on the road “smell like hotel illness.” “Sleeping eyes” are crying, and the boys can’t seem to throw back the sheets by themselves. “You see I’m young,” Chris sings, “and don’t like getting older.” Evidently, that’s the worst thing they’ve experienced.
Still, the Crowes are a Southern band that plays rock, so there is a buried blues base to their music. Both album titles — as well as song titles like “Black Moon Creeping,” “Sting Me” and “No Speak No Slave” — bow in the direction of their musical roots. But the Crowes didn’t learn to play at the feet of Howlin’ Wolf; they learned by listening to records by Humble Pie, the Faces, midperiod Stones, Mott the Hoople and the rest of the second-wave British Invasion from twenty years ago. Those bands were consummate posers, and part of their pose reflected Southern blues. The Crowes are a reflection of that reflection. There’s nothing on either Money Maker or Southern Harmony to suggest that the problems the Crowes sing about are anything worse than what those British bands experienced: a hangover, road weariness, the occasional sexual rejection or — horrors! — all three in one day. The Crowes’ songs are a pose, just as singing about thirty days in the hole was a pose for Humble Pie. But it is a testament to the skill, intelligence and force behind the Crowes’ music to say that their posing doesn’t matter — or really, their posing is what matters most of all.
Everything on The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion works, including the oblique title, which Chris Robinson took from a hymnal. The rhythm section is propelled by Steve Gorman’s take-charge yet musical drumming. Johnny Colt remains on bass, but since Money Maker, Marc Ford has replaced rhythm guitarist Jeff Cease in the band and Ed Harsh has replaced Chuck Leavell in the studio on keyboards. These changes have only improved the rich tapestry of sound that backs Chris Robinson’s singing and his brother’s flamethrower lead guitar. George Drakoulia’s production is sharp enough to give every instrument its proper voice, yet the sound has the welcome looseness and texture of a concert recording.
All in all, this is no departure from Money Maker but an expansion and elaboration. There are nine new songs written by the Robinson brothers, filled with arresting chord changes, dynamic tempo shifts, snatches of feedback and other throwaway delights and just enough good lyrics to keep your ear tuned in. The best new song is “Hotel Illness,” which establishes a strong pulse from the first chords, catches fire with the opening lyric — “Oh, good heavens, baby, where is my medicine?/Well, I must have left it outside with my etiquette” — and then proceeds to blast away everything in its path. Just as the Crowes covered Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” on Money Maker, they cover Bob Marley’s “Time Will Tell” on this album, although cover is hardly the word. They turn the song completely to their own purposes, making it seem less derived from reggae than from a New Orleans street procession. The last song on the album, it is an effective if peculiar summation.
There is every reason to think that Southern Harmony will be just as popular as Money Maker. And why are the Crowes so successful? Because they instinctively recognize a musical pose that gives them everything from a way to dress and a way to act onstage to a whole vocabulary of riffs that exactly fit their talent and experience. They are not nostalgic. They don’t revive the music of the early Seventies or reproduce it or even, really, imitate it. The Crowes simply generate it, as if there were not twenty years between them and the source of their inspiration.
And, lucky for the Crowes, it turns out that there were a lot of things that Humble Pie didn’t need to sing about that the Crowes don’t have to either and that a lot of people are evidently glad not to hear about once in a while. “Hotel Illness,” for instance, is not about AIDS. Twenty years ago neither sex nor sexual tastes were politicized, and race relations had not descended to ugliness all around. The Crowes don’t have anything to say about any of that — and it’s a great relief. The essence of the Black Crowes’ appeal is that they appear to live in a world a lot of other people wish they could live in, too — a world in which the worst problems are getting up and getting older.