By Eleni P. Austin

The first time I heard the song “Jealous Again,” in early 1990, I thought it must be a new Rolling Stones single, or maybe Keith Richards had recorded with a new vocalist. The song exhibited a swagger and sangfroid that recalled ‘70s era Stones, with just a soupcon of Rod Stewart’s Faces. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a new band called The Black Crowes.

It felt as though the Black Crowes came out of nowhere, bursting on the scene with their self-assured debut, Shake Your Money Maker. But the Marietta, Georgia band had been incubating since the mid ‘80s. They nearly signed a deal with A&M Records before finding a home at Rick Rubin’s Def American label. Their sound was a potent combo-platter of Stonesy swagger and Southern comfort Boogie, bridging the gap between alt-rock, Grunge and Jam bands.

The band centered around brothers Chris (lead vocals) and Rich Robinson (guitar). Over the years, the Crowes’ line-up went through what Buddy Miles might characterize as “them changes”. But throughout the ‘90s, their albums consistently landed in the upper echelons of the Billboard charts. Inter-band dynamics were even messier during their second decade, as band members came and went, and both brothers veered off with solo projects. But the music remained, for the most part, consistent. All told, the Crowes released eight studio albums, five live efforts (including one with Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page that featured a clutch of Led Zep and Yardbirds covers), as well as three hits compilations.


It all ground to a halt in 2015, when the brothers suffered what seemed like an irrevocable split. Rich went on the record saying that Chris tried to force him and original drummer Steve Gorman to cede ownership rights to the Black Crowes’ name, and agree to become salaried employees. Chris was quoted as saying “It’s way more complicated than Rich’s outburst,” but declined to elaborate. The brothers, had always had a famously fractured relationship. Following in the footsteps of The Everly Brothers, John and Tom Fogerty from Creedence Clearwater Revisited, as well as Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks. At that point, The Black Crowes had officially called it quits. Chris went back to side projects like Chris Robinson Brotherhood and As The Crow Flies, full-time. Meanwhile, Rich formed Magpie Salute with ex-Crowes like Sven Pipien, Marc Ford as well as vocalist John Hogg.

Fast-forward to 2019, and, just ahead of the 30th anniversary of Shake Your Money Maker, the brothers had mended fences and were reactivating The Black Crowes. But aside from Chris and Rich, none of the other band members were invited to participate. They hit the toad in 2020, took a lengthy pause for the pandemic and then headed back out on tour. Reactions from critics and longtime fans were mixed. At some point, bassist Sven Pipien returned to the fold, but the rest of the players on stage were cannibalized from Chris’ various side projects. Now, Chris and Rich (along with Sven, Erik Deutschon keys, Nico Bereciaua on guitars and Brian Griffin on drums), have returned with the first Black Crowes studio album in 15 years, Happiness Bastards.

I wish I could say it was good. The first couple tracks, “Bedside Manners” and “Rats And Clowns” are meant to be barn-burners, but it feels like they’re just going through the motions. The former opens with hard-charging guitars, salting some Honky-Tonk piano in the mix, but a muddy sound, buried lead vocals and overpowering back-up vocals on the chorus renders it dull and frenetic.

The latter begins promisingly with revved-up guitars, woozy keys and a see-saw beat. But a recurring riff cribs liberally from The Beatles’ “Get Back.” The lyrics on both tracks seem to tackle the sybaritic excess of life on the road, but it’s hard to tell if they’re for it, or agin it.

And so it goes, each song seems to fall back on a series of trademark tics and gestures in a connect-the-dots fashion. “Dirty Cold Sun” is a Stones pastiche, but the bare-knuckle, bone-shaker guitar riffs are quickly overshadowed by a feverish arrangement and an army of backing vocals. While “Dirty…” echoes the Stones’ Sticky Fingers era, the next cut, “Bleed It Dry,” drafts off the more shambolic Exile On Main St. album. The blowzy harmonica and rollicking piano share some musical DNA with that record’s “Sweet Virginia.” But the rest feels sloppy and half-assed.

Yet, there are glimmers of hope. The opening notes of “Cross Your Fingers” are a blend of sun-dappled acoustic arpeggios and gritty bottleneck guitar, which accompanies the first verse. The quiescent beginning is quickly supplanted by buzzy, cross-cut licks, tensile bass, noodling keys and a sludge-y beat. But it all unspools on the icky, shout-it-out football chant chorus, which, once again, piles on the additional vocals.

There’s a Punky energy that drives “Flesh Wound.” It’s all hopscotching guitars, roiling bass and a piledriving beat. The action slows for a willowy piano solo on the break, but once again, vocals by committee, buried just below the instrumentation, manages to pull focus, and not in a good way.

There are some genuine moments here. The slow-cooked “Wilted Rose,” is stripped-down, anchored by honeyed acoustic guitars. For the first time, Chris’ rangy vocals are loud and clear, unincumbered by rogue’s gallery of back-up singers. Lyrics, which have heretofore been unintelligible, are plain-spoken and articulate. Country singer Lainey Wilson joins him on the chorus. But by the break, the less-is-more approach is forsaken (they just can’t help themselves). As the instrumentation builds toward a turgid crescendo, the two of them yowl along with a squally guitar solo. It all powers down for the last verse, but it’s hard to forget what came before.

With the final two songs, the brothers seem to rekindle the spark that first ignited The Black Crowes sound nearly 35 years ago. “Follow The Moon” weds a cluster of muscular chords, splayed bottleneck riffs, snarled bass lines and brittle keys to a chunky beat. Lyrics like “Holy rollers, yeah, black-paint girls, wild-eyed servants, wine-stained pearls, nothing synthetic, only pure, Doctor, that’s doctor’s orders, got you dying from the cure…the miracle of madness, sweet undertow, at one with sadness, yeah, as the story goes, and it goes and it goes,” reiterate that Rock & Roll and hedonism go hand-in-hand. It’s a shop-worn sentiment, but at least the listener isn’t required to strain their hearing to understand.

On “Kindred Friend,” which closes the 10-song set, homesick harmonica partners with jangly acoustic guitars, searing electric guitars, pliant bass, rippling piano and a steady beat. Chris employs his tenderest croon to embrace lyrics that seem to address the Robinson brothers’ tenuous rapprochement: “What we have left, let’s make it last, got so far to go, tomorrow owes nothing to the past, today is an open road, let’s stop pretending and write our own ending.” Shivery strings on the break add a touch of gravitas, and the last verse offers a ray of hope: “Oh kindred friend, where have you been, I guess it’s been a while, through thick and thin, many times again, always makes me smile.”

Sad to say, but maybe this record would benefit from a bit of fraternal friction. Perhaps Chris and Rich need to be at each other’s throats in order to fuel their creativity. I hoped Happiness Bastards would signal The Black Crowes’ triumphant return. In reality, this record feels rushed, haphazard and halfhearted. On “Cross Your Fingers,” Chris sings “I’ve been made to suffer your indignities, and I’ve forsaken kindness.” Well, I know how you feel, brother.