PopOff! Retro Review: Black Crowes – The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion

20 years on, I am reviewing an album that in 1992 sounded 20 years on. So yeah, the 1992 album The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion sounded VERY 1972 (i.e. Grand Funk Railroad, Steppenwolf, Kansas, Lynard Skynard…) At the time it was not alone in it’s sounds. Tom Petty was on his A-game. Clapton had returned to more stripped down sounds. Bonnie Raitt was at her all time high. And there were folks like John Haitt and others doing more straight ahead classicist American breed Rock ‘n’ Roll. Even as grunge was was quickly descending like a mudslide onto the rock realm and Glam Metal was raising one last fist.

Now however, this album sounds like NOTHING else on mainstream or even alternative radio. Speaking of alternative, this album dominated the alternative charts in all of 1992. Landing three songs in the final top ten alt/rock tracks of the year: Remedy, Thron In My Pride, and Hotel Illness. And when I did a countdown of the top 10 songs from 1992 on my live stream it was that chart feat that made me go to back to listen to the whole piece at high volume. There has to be some album cuts just as good as the singles, right?

This is one of those albums that if not on regular rotation in your music space you forget how bloody solid it is. Also it is slightly overshadowed by The Black Crowes cover of Hard To Handle and She Talks To Angelsfrom their previous album. Every track here is tasteful even when it’s gets loud and in your face. It rides straight and in one lane with a nice sunset coming down on the horizon. To which, this a great road trip record maintaining a steady cruising speed for those long stretches between gas stations.

Now while the album has lots of meat to it, there is not too much fat until the second half, so it doesn’t get really greasy like AC/DC or ZZ Top or somebody like Buddy Guy. It doesn’t work you up into that kind of hot mess mood. This mood is more for meeting in the bar for some beers or a neat glass of whiskey. Not going straight for the hotel room. An album that is more friend than lover. And upon my revisit not really an album to fly solo too.

While I enjoyed it the entire time I was listening it felt like this is not something meant to be heard alone. It definitely would sound better with other companions around. “Companion” is in the title after all. And with stories of drugs and bad love and bad luck yeah you don’t want to be alone. You want to share your stories with people who get it and get you. So with that kind of tone you’re not going to be doing any full throttle sing-a-longs but you might definitely sway and raise your glass in solidarity with a “been there done that” smile on your face.

The album opens with Sting Me. This is where all the trouble starts metaphorically, be it a needle or love or something else. Once we are stung it’s a long road to who knows where until you get there. And until we get there we are searching for some relief detailed on the second track Remedy. And the story rolls and stumbles on it’s course with an ease that is very deceptive. Everything sounds OK even though according to lyrics like “My angels, my devils, a thorn in my pride”, it isn’t.

Smack center of the record is 3/4 time with, Sometimes Salvation. And it is about that time that beer/whiskey is fixin’ it’s design on you as spin (and sway) along. Also 3/4 four time is perfect for the slow spiral out on control and the cycle in and out of recovery or co-dependency. But here it lacks any of the real rhythmic pulse and beauty we expect from a waltz. It’s as if the waltz it played in a half haze and heard in a half haze. You know what it is but it’s just not all there through the fog of rock bottom.

Now while I can certainly waltz, I think the most “danceable” moment comes on following track Hotel Illness. Quite frankly a perfect segue to instill that second wind for the records second half. Black Moon Creeping gets nice and swampy and maybe JUST a tad too much so compared to the rest of the albums tone. It is also the one song ,if any, to start that grease fire. The lead guitar tenderizes the steak before the solo throws it on the grill. It is as if if the band members finally had enough of the carousel struggle and just lashed out, finally fed up with rock bottom.

It should also be pointed out, again, and again… VOCAL HARMONIES damn it! That kind of thing cannot be quantized in a way that doesn’t feel deep fake. And aside from the audio pleasure they bring they also adds a layer to the whole people connecting through shared stories. Backups singers literally backing you upthrough shared experience. The specifics might vary but the journey is the same.

In 1998 the album was released with extra tracks added on the end. Bah! Don’t bother. 10 tracks is just right for the journey here ending as it does with, Time Will Tell… The song is a very stripped down Bob Marley cover. Reggae turned Southern Gospel Raga. And a perfectly predictable way to close out the album as you close out that bar tab or close the door on recovery as you get clean.

The album is so good at what it does that it almost becomes a negative because you are left with no one or two big hooks to latch onto and carry with you through your day. It is so straight and smooth in it’s rock design that it is more music score than singles (despite the hits). I guess that goes back to my sentiment it is a great road trip record. You need to take the whole journey for the experience to really take hold. And as I said before, bring some companions nobody likes taking a road trip alone.

Thorn In My Pride
Sometimes Salvation
Black Moon Creeping
Hotel Illness

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