When the Black Crowes first swooped down in 1990 with their debut album, Shake Your Money Maker, it looked as if they’d never get through the cornfield. Here was a young Southern hard-rock band with neither a milligram of metal nor a BTU of boogie, a band so unabashedly retro that it openly knelt at the altar of such demythologized ’70s rock & soul deities as Humble Pie and Free, a band so utterly un-pumped-up for the ’90s that its rubber-legged lead singer, Chris Robinson, looked as though he would disappear if he turned sideways. Could such a band really expect to make it in the cold, cruel world of Guns N’ Roses and Skid Row? Suffice it to say that of such stuff are made, if not legends, at least trend-bucking, multiplatinum albums. Proving once again that when it comes to the nods and winks of the strut-and-preen school of rock (of which the Rolling Stones are the tenured professors), you shouldn’t look a supposedly dead horse in the mouth; it might bite your head off.
Still, in this era of one-megahit wonders, once bitten, twice shy. So it was hard not to anticipate the group’s follow-up, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, without a certain dubiousness. Given their as-humongous-as-it-was-unexpected, ego-inflating success, were the brothers Robinson — Chris and guitarist Rich — and the rest of the Crowes capable of maintaining their wide- and wild-eyed stance? The answer, bless their blunted little heads, is a skull-numbing yes.
There’s nothing particularly Southern about Companion. Just as the band’s hit version of Otis Redding’s ”Hard to Handle” had its real roots in Humble Pie’s grungy reworking of Ray Charles’ ”I Don’t Need No Doctor,” Chris Robinson’s take on Southern music as a whole stems from the influence of such blues-and soul-inspired British singers as the Pie’s Steve Marriott and Free’s Paul Rodgers. Such form-over-substance influences also bolster Robinson’s ultra-sincere delivery of such mawkish lyrics as ”Sometimes a memory only sees what it wants to believe,” from the Rod Stewartish ”Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye.” You keep thinking, He really wants to write songs like this? Good for him!
There’s nothing particularly harmonious on the album, either. Rich Robinson and crew are at their chaotic best where they’re attempting to fit round 1972 Stones spare parts into square 1971 Faces holes. The result, on tracks like the short-circuiting ”Sting Me,” the fatback-beated ”Remedy,” and the churning ”Hotel Illness,” is so artlessly noisy it’s disarming and enjoyable. You keep thinking, They really want to sound this messed up? Good for them!
I’ll be blunt: The Black Crowes don’t have anything new to tell us, nor do they have a new way to tell it. What they do have is a frisky, straight-ahead rock & roll positivism that runs so contrary to nearly everything else in the present singer-guitars-drums category that you can’t help but like them. What’s wrong with following in the proud tradition of some of big-time rock’s cheeriest overachievers? After all, they could have wanted to be Foghat. B+