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Published: 2010/08/23
by Alex Davis

Black Crowes

For the past 20 years, the Black Crowes have played straight ahead rock n’ roll, labeled by Melody Maker as the most rock n’ roll band – blah blah blah.

So goes the now-cliché description of the Crowes that every news or music outlet staples onto the first paragraph of any related feature. True, the brothers Robinson, along with faithful Steve and their amorphous backing personnel, still haven’t shaken the Stones and Faces comparison, but long-time fans have taken comfort in the subtle division between the couple who came to hear She Talks To Angels, and those who, well, didn’t. The Crowes are much more than the mass appeal of their immediately identifiable hits; one of live music’s best-kept secrets is the band’s phenomenal back catalogue of unrecorded material—-so the payoff for the fanbase can be huge.

That said, to get the fanboy-elephant-in-the-room aside, Croweology (promised as an acoustic collection of “favorites and rarities spanning 20 years”) offers only one of the songs in that unrecorded back catalogue. At first blush this is a tremendous disappointment, given that this is probably one of the last Crowes records we’ll get in a long time. But upon listening, the two discs stand as a firm reminder of what the Black Crowes are all about and why we started giving attention to these two winey brothers in the first place.

The first disk begins with a slightly generic acoustic version of “Jealous Again”—the first of only a few cuts (“Remedy,” a slightly slower “Soul Singing,” “Sister Luck”) where the acoustic element works more as a novelty than anything else. You’ll know what I mean once you hear “Share the Ride,” a foot-stomping new arrangement with an at-first-odd-sounding drum machine/hand clap backbone. “Ride” is carried by Rich Robinson’s slide; his presence on the record is more apparent than it has ever been, a more “lead-rhythm” style not usually heard on many of the band’s earlier albums.

After a standard “Remedy,” “Non-Fiction” becomes the album’s first standout. The initial melodic and almost dream-like chorus from 1994’s Amorica slips into a hunting passage that clocks the track at nearly ten minutes. The jam has been a long staple of their live performances (usually including an ambiguous “sermon” from Chris) and including it on Croweology is a glorious addition. “Hotel Illness” has a new back porch feel reminiscent of the Stone’s “Country Honk” with fiddle by guest Donnie Herron (who performs in Dylan’s backing band.)

Following “Soul Singing” is, in my opinion, the quintessential Black Crowes song (or songs, technically) “Ballad” > “Wiser Time.” The ensuing jam between the two has been the euphoric peak of many of my experiences with the band, and the Croweology version delivers. Love or hate the “Wiser” arrangement from the last couple of tours, some will be happy to hear this version is more traditional; plus the “Ballad in Urgency” jam reminds us that if there is anyone anywhere near qualified to replace Marc Ford, its Luther Dickinson. Closing the first disc, “Cold Boy Smile,” the single previously unreleased song on the record, fits nicely within the acoustic format. “Under A Mountain” is treated to a beautiful arrangement much less intense than the original Three Snakes version.

The second disk suffers from the early placement of the energetic new “Morning Song.” Easily the best track on the album and easily the first time I’ve been especially impressed by new guy Adam MacDougall’s keys, the song moves like a hybrid of the Crowe’s pre- and post-Marc Ford styles beginning with a bluesy tune-up count off and then into the song’s hard blues riff-driven structure. Instead of the usual breakdown in the middle, however, the band erupts into a hand-clapping, psychedelic gospel throw-down complete with call-and-response lyrics with the backup singers before sliding back into the chorus as Chris’s aged honey-dripping voice commands. The addition is surprising and executed well, and should be interesting to see live.

The rest of the album is fairly the same, with the acoustic standard set from the previous disc. None of the tracks are rearranged as extensively as “Morning Song” or “Share The Ride,” save for a studio version of the harmonica-jam center of “Thorn in My Pride,” a longtime live staple. The acoustic “Girl from a Pawnshop” is absolutely beautiful, with a coda that gave me goose bumps for the first time since I heard it on “Three Snakes,” and the addition of Gram Parson’s “She” is nice, though the bonus track “Willin’” from the iTunes release and the vinyl promotion would have been better for the slot.

Al l in all, the Crowes have gotten older, and as we all attempt to age as gracefully as possible, it’s reassuring to see the boys are trying to do the same. No matter how long the hiatus lasts, Croweology stands as a worthy reminder of how much the ride was worth sharing.

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