With the follow-up to their blockbuster 1990 debut, The Black Crowes took a more rootsy and soulful approach with The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion. That debut, Shake Your Money Maker, sold over 5 million copies in its first two years and sent the band on a near-constant tour playing over 350 shows in a year and a half. The new record by the band featured Marc Ford on lead guitar, who replaced Jeff Cease after his departure the year before. This, along with the addition of a full-time keyboardist in Eddie Harsch and a strong presence of female backing vocals gave the Black Crowes room to explore, improvise, and jam with the new material.
The album borrowed its title from a popular book of hymns from the nineteenth century and was suggested by lead singer Chris Robinson. First published by William Walker in 1835, the original The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion was often the sole source of musical literacy for many rural Americans.
The core of the Black Crowes is their rhythm section, lead by Chris’s brother Rich Robinson on guitar who forges the cool, fresh-sounding grooves that anchor the band’s sound. Johnny Colt lays down the solid bass while Steve Gorman provides a very effective, assertive, and melodic form of drumming. The album was produced by George Drakoulia, who gave every instrument a sharp and clear voice, while embracing the looseness of the compositions.
The album contains nine new songs written by the Robinson brothers, along with a Bob Marley cover “Time Will Tell”, which closes the album. Just as the band made a signature song out of the Otis Redding cover “Hard To Handle” on the previous album, they make the Marley song their own by rearranging the reggae into a more New Orleans sound. Unfortunately it does not work nearly as well as the previous cover.
The essence of the Black Crowes’ sound is their revival of the solid roots rock of the 1970s along with just enough chord changes, tempo shifts, and the decor of feedback and other effects including catchy lyrics. This is evident early in the album, starting with “Sting Me”. This album opener became a hit for the group, reaching number one on the Billboard Album Rock Tracks chart, while the next track “Remedy” had even greater success. This second track has a good hook in the beginning and evolves as the song goes on, never getting stuck in the same rut as some of the other songs.
“Thorn in My Pride” is one of the finest songs on the album and also sets the template for the type of approach the band took on many tracks here – a laid back, slow, and melodic build which introduces the instruments seperately above the picked out acoustic notes gradually building into an extended, 6-minute hymn which showcases all that the band is capable of doing. “Hotel Illness” is another strong track with a Stones-like riff and bluesy elements throughout.
While Southern Harmony contains a strong collection of songs, which bridge the metamorphasis between the concise pop/rock of Shake Your Money Maker and the more jam-oriented tracks of their future records, the album at times seems too even, with not enough peaks and valleys to make it an interesting adventure for the listener. This is true for the album as a whole as well as for many individual tracks. It would have been a respectable debut had it come first, but it really didn’t raise the bar for musical excellence.