Somewhere after my recent efforts upon this anniversary to see through The Black Crowes that now seem to have been about as well-fated as walking a lizard across Antarctica, I had a rather disconcerting thought: this might be the best American rock and roll band of all time .
Now, before you say I’m feeding you a load of crow, let’s just run down their competiton, and corresponding testimonies from both sides.
The prosecution: Ok, yeah, I love the Grateful Dead. The teddy bears, the long hair and beards, Bob Weir’s biker jean shorts… they’re pure California, through and through. Jerry Garcia is the best guitar SOLOIST of all time, which he’d better be, seeing as you could have an entire Bar Mitzvah during one of them. They’d play a lot of covers but also wrote “Ramble on Rose”; “Tennessee Jed”; “Jack Straw”; “Eyes of the World”; etc., etc., which they sort of blend in zeitgeist with their bevy of country standards such as “Me and My Uncle”; “Mama Tried”; “Queen Jane Approximately”; and the likes.
The defense: The Black Crowes undeniably have more muscle. Their cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” is a jagged, frenetic rocker of jittery boogie rhythm and irreverent howling. On “Struttin’ Blues” it’s almost like they defiantly threw out the window the concept of melody and just dared you to doubt their swagger and firepower. So to buoy the fairly equal comparison of classic songs with hooks and melodies, we’ll juxtapose The Black Crowes’ strutting, combustive firepower against what in the Grateful Dead we all enlightened know to be a plaguing tendency toward the meandering and noodley.
The prosection: Uh, Rolling Stone’s list of best albums, I guess. Nevermind typically tops the’ 90s LP’s lists or thunders its way into the top five at least, and In Utero and MTV Unplugged in New York typically crash the party somewhere, with the Crowes lucky to sneak their debut in to throw a half-hearted jab at the latter two. Along with the element of catchy, memorable songs you can listen to a thousand times and not get sick of, then, part of this critical acclaim is undeniably owed to originality — the way the band combined caterwauling grunge style with the concise, clear and procedural verse/chorus songwriting approach of the Beatles and the Pixies. Originality probably isn’t the Crowes’ main calling card although I do think that they brought something to pop the way Nirvana did — in this case instead of underground sludge rock the rockabilly, Hammond organ-worshipping style of T-Bone Burnett, Marshall Tucker Band and such.
The defense: Eh, I guess I gotta go the whole “The Crowes have more good albums and good songs” route here, which is certainly true. That’s not even taking into account Chris Robinson & the New Earth Mud, either, who made a decently approachable and grooving LP The Magnificent Distance in 2004. Also, not to be simplistic but God da**, they’re just less freakin’ maudlin. I mean let’s talk about some anthropomorphic draws of music. Black Crowes is music for putting on and chilling out to — feeling good, dancing and maybe even talking and getting on the level of another person. Maybe it was just me but when Nirvana was really fun for me it made me want to drink and break sh**, in light of which the band’s destructive and costly habit of smashing their instruments after every show just might be a bit indicative of the messages being sent and maybe some psychological Rhesus Monkey type of phenomenon at work.
The prosection: Wow, this is a great band. I’m humbled before the task of even handling them. They undeniably brought something to pop, which would be the swampy funk high jinks of Parliament, James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone, War and all that good stuff. Typically when they were at their best, too, as in “Burning down the House”; “Swamp” and “(Nothing but) Flowers”; they were even more danceable than The Black Crowes shaking their money maker (gasp!) Ok, that’s not that hard to believe. Also, “Once in a Lifetime” is a perfect classic rock song.
The defense: If we slot the Talking Heads as the best American rock and roll band of all time, an idea which I don’t mean to completely rule out, then we’re asserting that the best band came from the ’80s, which, at the risk of sounding age-ist, just doesn’t seem to add up. The ’80s were a time of kitsch: of the mass-produced culture of formulaic new wave, dance pop and the good-ol’-boy radio rock of Bruce Springsteen. So the Talking Heads did something great in channeling the black music of the ’70s and working it into top 40 radio but the ’80s just don’t have the FEEL of the ’90s and I know that sounds stupid but the reasons could be as simple as the element of having lived through Reaganomics and seen AIDS, crack usage and murder pervade society. The FEELING of The Black Crowes’ music takes you to a place that sublimates that malady, which the Talking Heads’ can’t do for simple anachronism, although the fact that they’ve never gotten back together since ’88 and David Byrne’s never made any meaningful music as a solo artist should perhaps indicate that the ’90s were a beast they couldn’t tackle.
The prosection: Ooh-hooh-hooh, The Doors. I got a doozy on my hands with this one. I love The Doors. No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn. This is a band with an indescribable flair about them. Everything they touch seems to invariably be something destined for pi**ing off your parents and making you see into a majestic tapestry of drug use and a hippie girl in a grass skirt twirling with a pouty facial expression at a music festival. But it’s pure LA — Dionysian music that crawls like a dirge along all the dark paths in life, shedding light into them and showing us how even our imperfections, our manias and the fluids we secrete, are beautiful.
The defense: It’s hard to pinpoint one song that defines them, whereas with The Black Crowes it’s undeniably “She Talks to Angels” and that unforgettable guitar intro combined with those gorgeous harmonics. “She Talks to Angels” is an aching, melancholic anthem that can also be uplifting in that it harbors a certain love and affection for this junkie chick that breaks your heart sort of like Hootie’s “Let Her Cry.” And I’m not saying Jim Morrison weren’t capable of this complex type of feeling but it doesn’t seem like something he ever conveyed manifest on wax: for how versatile, layered and humanistically geared he undeniably was as a lyricist, I don’t remember him ever playing with this sort of fire of being in love with a person who loves drugs more than you. And I think the authenticity of Chris Robinson’s sentiment within this song would be corroborated, in theory, by how catchy and gripping the song still is, musically, after all these years.
The Velvet Underground
The prosecution: I mean, it’s “velvet.” That’s all there is to it. It epitmizes songwriting perfection, from the house-of-cards fragility and carressing guitar tones of “Sunday Morning” to the expansive but brass-tacks assemblage of “What Goes on” and that tickling way Lou Reed has of writing words that don’t rhyme “Somebody’s cut their string in two”. There’s the way they brought in a German supermodel, Nico, and transformed her into a state-of-the-art vocalist with a haunting moan and who would go on to make some unsettling solo music of her own, in her own right.
The defense: They wrote “Who Loves the Sun.” There, that should about do it.
Yo La Tengo
The prosecution: Yo La Tengo is obviously a gem of a band with a punctilious knack for sound and, even more than that, in tandem with how they lay an adamant claim to title of America’s best indie rock band yet, an ardent, indefatigable love and zeal for music itself, which gets them constantly pushing the envelope of songwriting and coming up with stuff nobody else seems to be doing. Their signature songwriting blueprint is distinct and fervently infectious, with some highlights being “Something to Do”; “Upside-down” and the unbelievably narcotic and hazy “Swing for Life.” It’s music that blends the best elements of twee pop and gentle Velvet Underground-style rock and roll toward a continually gratifying fusion of melancholy and hope that should be at the heart of all great rock and roll.
The defense: They’re Velvet Underground-influenced and TVU have already been proven not to be the best American rock band either, so neither can YLT. Yuk, yuk, yuk. In all seriousness, though, this is one gripe I actually do have with the band: they took until 2010’s Popular Songs to write a classic album, with, arguably, two more classics being in their tow following said album in Fade (2013) and There’s a Riot Going on (2018). Honestly their debut Ride the Tiger is pretty solid all the way through but it doesn’t really have their best songs on it, which is frustrating from the scope of examining their entire discography in retrograde, and after that they undeniably took on the bewildering habit of juxtaposing great album tracks like “From a Motel 6” and “You Can Have it All” with just this unapproachable, unstructured slop. Actually, it’s almost like they were deliberately trying to avoid the sort of fame through success that killed Kurt Cobain — I see no other excuse for some of the tracks that muddle their patchily brilliant albums like Painful and May I Sing with Me?, on which can be found what’s definitely the best work of their career.
So within this discourse I have slotted The Black Crowes as the greatest American rock and roll band of all time, at least up until this point, and I realize almost nobody will agree with me and even I myself probably don’t want to stand by this claim too staunchly. But what I’ve been trying to do, partly with stupid arguments, admittedly, is at least open up the door of debate and get people thinking in this way. Actually, I think it will help to digest their music if we treat it like the powerful vial that it is and not as some small-fry act. It will open up doors for an increased level of enlightenment and understanding not only of their music but of rock and roll as a whole genre. Another thing I think the Crowes’ brought to the table is, strangely, a level of influence, which goes part and parcel with how I mention that they adopt the rockabilly style of T-Bone Burnett, which would be all the bands HE HIMSELF produced in the ’90s, like The Wallflowers and Counting Crows, taking on that high and lonesome sound of the Hammond organ and gentle, clear guitars, which surely, in both cases, served to flank some songwriting that was in no way undeserving of such purposeful, punctilious texture.
So the original running of Shake Your Money Maker culminates with “Stare it Cold,” which is significant in a couple of rights. One, it represents a revisitation of theme somewhat like Modest Mouse’s “Out of Gas,” which follows “Heart Cooks Brain” with an identical chord progression and tempo. The same phenomenon is happening here, the band writing a song that’s ALMOST the exact same as another tune on the LP but still defies you to call it mimicry with a key chord progression format and undulation in the chorus and again just that ENERGY that likens Chris Robinson to some backyard Rottweiler you can hear from a block away, full of longing, complication and most of all, the blues. Also, the meter shift into giddyup at the end should reiterate that this band doesn’t sluff off on details — they crafted a full-bodied LP in Shake Your Money Maker that walks a bold line at the pace of the lives we live, soundtracking it and siphoning up our rage and alienation with some unforgettable rock and roll that’s both structural and volatile at the same time.
As disc two of 30th Anniversary goes, “Charming Mess” and “30 Days in the Hole” sound and act like SYMM b-sides, in every sense of the term, cavorting in roughly the same style of the album and with a shade less purpose and distinction. “Don’t Wake Me” brings us more satisfactory material and what probably most closely approximates “punk” of anything this band’s ever done, like a fuller sounding project by The Modern Lovers with lyrics that are more theatrical and less satiric. The John Lennon cover “Jealous Guy” is so cloaked in signature Crowes urgency and desperation that I actually didn’t even recognize it at first and thought it was an original. This stands in refreshing contrast, of course, to the gaggle of unimaginative twits who just drool out the song they’re covering with all the same rhythms and inflections as the person who originally sang it. The “Jealous Again” acoustic is doable but I didn’t attempt to listen to “She Talks to Angels” twice in a row for fear of getting dangerously close to wrist-slitting territory. Lastly, banjo graces “Front Porch Sermon” to gratifying results.
Disc three brings us a live recording of a December 1990 concert in Atlanta, in the band’s home state, which would have been 10 months after the release of their album and probably the culmination of their first major tour. Actually I could not find the venue ANYWHERE I looked, even on the band’s website. According to setlist.fm, too, the band played both Center Stage AND The Omni — I’d hazard a bet that this is the Omni show we’re hearing, although that would mean they’re showcasing a concert that took place on Christmas Eve, which would be a big off, maybe. Nonetheless, it’s pretty par for the course — there’s high-energy rock and some good-ol’-boy banter from Chris Robinson, nothing too political or tense. At the time, a great sound man, Brendan O’Brien, who would go on to produce Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Rage against the Machine, Incubus and tons more (and do the best-sounding albums by all them, for that matter), was actually IN The Black Crowes, playing I believe Hammond Organ, piano and such. With this being the case, it should hardly be surprising that this live disc sounds great, as did The Crowes’ outing with Jimmy Page Live at the Greek.
Credit the band too with only having one albums’ worth of songs in their catalogue at this point in their career but still not letting any of this stuff get tired or stale. And I guess if other than that the live material doesn’t make that much impression it’s because we’re just already used to hearing this stuff within such a healthy, effervescent mode of production, which you might say, “helped kill off the ’80s” the way The Stooges “helped kill off the ’60s.”
 And yeah not to crap in your oatmeal but Chuck Berry’s not a band and the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, The Who, Pink Floyd, Procol Harum, Jethro Tull, Yes, Led Zeppelin, Blur, Radiohead and The Verve are all British and light a blowtorch under The Crowes.