So I thought I’d say goodbye to the Black Crowes this week.
I get derisive snorts and chuckles whenever I say this, but there’s no doubt in my mind that for the past decade, there hasn’t been a better rock ‘n’ roll band in the world than the Crowes. Most every other band that claimed rock roots tempered those with some “new” sound, some culturally relevant depression or some studio trip-hoppery to keep the kids happy. While an argument can certainly be made for music’s need to progress, there was always something refreshing about the fact that none of the Crowes seem aware that the ’80s and ’90s have happened.
The band, led by brothers Chris and Rich Robinson, made six loud, sloppy albums of varying quality, but not one of them could be considered anything but rock ‘n’ roll. Occasionally they gave in to their psychedelic tendencies, most notably on Three Snakes and One Charm, but there was always enough gut-powered rock to successfully defend the title the Rolling Stones have been abusing for 30-some years: Best Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in the World. Bar fucking none.
I’m not up on the circumstances surrounding the band’s split, mostly because that sort of thing depresses me greatly. Whenever personal differences supersede artistic brotherhood, literally in this case, it reminds me that all art, no matter how divine in origin, has to be filtered through flimsy, fallible, petty, pathetic flesh and blood before it can be realized. The best artists make me forget that the dilution process is occurring at all.
But from what I can gather, it was an inevitably bad one. The brothers Robinson have never really gotten along, even though any idiot could hear that their chemistry and fire fueled the spitting attitude of their music. Nevertheless, critical mass was reached sometime shortly after the release of their swan song, the muddy, imperfectly perfect Lions. And while a reconciliation – or even a sellout reunion tour sponsored by a beer company – is never out of the question, the coffin has been nailed shut for now with the release of Chris Robinson’s solo debut, New Earth Mud.
I know that the Crowes followed the ’70s rock handbook pretty closely, and I never had a problem with that. I just wish that Robinson hadn’t adhered to the cliche quite so completely by first marrying a beautiful actress (Kate Hudson) and then releasing a goopy, sappy soft-rock solo album all about her. New Earth Mud is almost entirely acoustic, and dripping with true love and commitment and puppies and flowers and all the stuff you would expect never to find on a Crowes album.
Okay, it’s not that bad, but the complete lack of anything resembling, you know, rock ‘n’ roll is somewhat depressing. The singing Robinson was obviously the driving force behind the band’s quieter moments, but his brother usually added a necessary edge that’s completely missing here. Any album that opens with a song called “Safe in the Arms of Love” should send a red flag, for starters, and that song is one of two that raises the tempo past first gear.
None of which is inherently bad, of course. Robinson still has that distinctive, growl-and-whine voice, proof that he’s a born rock star. He sings his little ass off here, no doubt, and even his voice is so 1970s that if you didn’t know better, you’d swear New Earth Mud was vintage. Everything that made ’70s soft southern rock what it was is here, for better or worse. Songs like “Barefoot By the Cherry Tree” and “Could You Really Love Me?” are exactly as you imagine they are. And yes, there is a song called “Katie Dear,” and it’s at least as sappy as you expect. (He rhymes “Katie dear” with “don’t fear,” to give you some indication.)
In fact, you have to wait for track 10, “Ride,” to hear something that couldn’t be described as drowsy. The song is a funkified romp that, unfortunately, sets most of the rest of the album into sharp relief. Robinson has surprisingly squirreled his strongest material away at the end of the album. Closing tracks “Better Than the Sun” and “She’s On Her Way,” while still slower than molasses running uphill, are engaging songs, unlike much of New Earth Mud. It’s not all bad, but when the album is over, you’ll likely think to yourself that it was pretty and nice, and I never thought I’d be able to describe a Robinson project in those terms.
The contrast wouldn’t be so great if the other Robinson hadn’t recently produced a massive, sloppy slab of live Crowes with which you can contrast Chris’ effort. Typically titled The Black Crowes Live, this two-disc affair (recorded on their final tour and released in August) confirms that even right up until the end, these guys were the real deal. Just listen to the Robinsons play off of each other on “Sometimes Salvation,” Chris rubbing his vocal chords raw just to outdo the punch of Rich’s guitar. The whole band cranks here, and it’s interesting to hear the older material played with the same fuzzy, buzzing noise that covers the Lions tracks.
The strongest moments, of course, come when the band locks onto a powerhouse rock ‘n’ roll groove, and the best of those appear at the beginning and end of the album. They open with “Midnight From the Inside Out,” move through “Sting Me” and on to rarity “Thick ‘n’ Thin.” That’s a one-two-three punch that’s only surpassed by the album’s closing stretch of rockin’ goodness. Just try to find any modern band that can slam through a set-closing selection like “Twice As Hard,” “Lickin’,” “Soul Singing,” “Hard to Handle” and “Remedy” with this much stunning power.
It may be true that you can’t kill rock ‘n’ roll, but the loss of the Black Crowes is like giving it a sucking chest wound. For 10 years, they captured the spirit of rock better than any other band on the planet. It’s a shame to see such a thing come to an end, and doubly shameful to hear where Chris Robinson has decided to go, but at least we can pull out our old Crowes CDs and pretend we know how our parents feel when they dig out their old LPs.
One last toast, then, to the Best Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in the World.
* * * * *
Next week, Tori. In keeping with tradition, the single is a boring piece of radio-ready fluff. Hopefully, tradition holds and the album is much better than the song. We shall see. Still working on those promised submissions, but it’s starting to look like I may not get to them before the end of the year.
See you in line Tuesday morning.