By mid 1991 The Black Crowes were poised on the edge of huge international success, but by the release of this sophomore album in 1992 the rising tide of grunge was washing away any hope they had of being America’s Biggest Band. Listening to the soon to be released vinyl reissue of The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion over two decades later and you kind of wish that they’d managed to be able to get it on the shelves before Kurt Cobain became the kids latest pin up.
There’s a good argument for The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion being The Black Crowes’ best album. It’s certainly more sure footed and more substantial than their debut and there’s a definite feeling of the band trying to stretch their legs a little. “Sting Me” and “Remedy” make up one of the greatest two song opening gambits of any early 90s rock album. The band sounds more comfortable playing together, which provides an overall much rootsier and looser feel, while not losing any of the confident swagger that had by then become a Black Crowes trademark. The rootsiness is amplified by an album cover that scream out for comparison’s with The Band’s iconic self titled album.
If The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion does have a flaw, it’s that the band’s increased confidence with jamming caused the band to stretch some songs to be slightly lengthier than they needed to be. Only three songs here clock in at under four and a half minutes and several have the band getting stuck in the same groove for so long that the songs go on for six minutes plus, instead of being punchier and slightly more economical. That said, it’s missing the point of The Black Crowes a little. Given the band’s debt to early 1970s rock, and to Southern Rock especially, their reliance on the extended jam is to be expected, especially given their twin guitar line up of Rich Robinson and Marc Ford, and few other harder rocking acts were offering them up at the time.
For all its reliance on extended song structures, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion is a well balanced album, which manages to switch between heavy riffing blues rock such as “Hotel Illness”, and slower, moodier material such as “Thorn in My Pride”. Throughout the album Chris Robinson lays claim to being one of the finer bus rock vocalists of the 90s and the whole thing is tied together wonderfully by one of the finest rhythm sections of the era, Steve Gorman and Johnny Colt and the psychedelic organ work of Eddie Harsch. Kudos also to George Drakoulias, who once again managed the difficult job of applying just enough production polish to not disguise the band’s grit and grime sound.
The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion album closes with an acoustic cover of Bob Marley’s “Time Will Tell”, which although pleasant enough, struck me as being a strange choice for years, especially when you consider that The Black Crowes were capable of tearing through Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright” with joyous abandon on stage. Having said that, if they’d closed the album with a hip-shaking blues rock cover, it would have undone all the effort that had gone into demonstrating how far the band had evolved from their debut, whereas “Time Will Tell” indicated that it wasn’t just the obvious 70s rockers that the Robinson brothers adored.
About to be re-released on vinyl, and offering a gloriously richer and deeper sound than the early CD releases, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion is an album that continues to stand up on it’s own terms. While many rock hard rock acts had been swept aside by the tidal wave of grunge, this album serves as a reminder that The Black Crowes were anything but disposable stadium rock fodder.