Saturday 16 March 2024

The Black Crowes - Happiness Bastards (2024)

Country: USA
Style: Southern Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2024
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I remember the Black Crowes as quite the tour de force back in the day. Shake Your Money Maker was a peach of a debut album and The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion was a deep and mature follow up. Southern rock was undergoing a revival around that time, with Lynyrd Skynyrd resurgent and the Georgia Satellites setting the stage for the Black Crowes. I heard more of their albums in the nineties, but don't remember much about those, except the famous censorship of the cover art for Amorica.

I guess I thought they'd split up and moved on, which it turns out that they had, in 2002, after half a dozen albums. However, they got back together in 2005 for a decade and knocked out two more albums before giving up the ghost again, rather acrimoniously, it seems. However, now they are back for a third time, with this their first studio effort from their 2019 reformation and their first album of new material since Before the Frost... Until the Freeze no fewer than fifteen years ago.

They kick it off hard too, with Bedside Manners a stomp of a song driven by a thumping beat from someone I can't identify because none of the three credited members play drums. Of course, the core of the band remains brothers Chris and Rich Robinson, delivering lead vocals and lead guitar respectively, among other things. However, the third member is Sven Pipien on bass, so I'm having to guess at the rest of the performers here being the touring line-up. If that's the case, then that drummer would be Cully Symington, with Nico Bereciartua a second guitarist and Erik Deutsch on keyboards. If it isn't, then who knows? I don't.

What I do know is that this is very much the expected sort of sound for the Black Crowes. They had a hybrid style back in the day and it's still the same here, mixing up good old fashioned blues and gospel influenced rock 'n' roll with the country elements of southern rock. Bedside Manners isn't the only stomper, Rats and Clowns right after following suit. Wilted Rose is a country rock ballad with guest singer Lainey Wilson playing a strong female harmony to Chris Robinson's delightfully broken voice. Wanting and Waiting is right out of the Rolling Stones songbook. And so it goes.

The truest Black Crowes songs arrive later. While Dirty Cold Sun and a good chunk of Bleed It Dry have very deliberate vocals that are spat out like Bob Dylan might, they work from quintessential Crowes melodies and the vocal lines in the latter take us right back to the big hits from the debut album, just not as cleanly as some of those stripped down classics because the genre traditionally functions on grit rather than purity. Follow the Moon feels familiar too, not because any of it is at all borrowed but because it's so true to the band's core sound, especially when it hits the chorus.

The point, I guess, is that there's not much that's new here, just a fresh look at an existing sound by a freshly reformed band who have the urge to work together once more to see what comes out of it. Then again, I doubt anyone's picking up a Black Crowes album in 2024 and hoping to hear the band veer off in a new direction. They want to hear new songs but done in the old style and that's exactly what they get, except perhaps Flesh Wound, which ends up in an unlikely place, taking its bouncy pop punk-infused rock 'n' roll into what's almost a field recording of a religious assembly at school. I have no idea what the words are at that point.

And so I think how you enjoy this will depend on what you want to hear. To me, it sounds precisely like the Black Crowes released a new album and, if that's all you need to know, then you won't be disappointed. The most important thing is that it feels like they care about the band again which helps make these songs work. It's not so fresh that we might buy into them bursting into a studio with unbridled enthusiasm, but it's far from a cash grab. These are good songs played by folk who are enjoying playing them. However, if you know their back catalogue and want to see them move forward, whether into some sort of new territory or to evolve a little, you might be disappointed, at least a bit. But hey, probably not much, because you're already a fan and it sounds great.

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