A Vivoscene Featured Article by By Greg Pratt
“The way we’re going about things and what we want to do, we feel it has to be a really pure essence of music. That’s where you get the most out of it.” – Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes
Back in the early ’90s, in the heyday of music-video hysteria and major labels throwing money around like it was no big thing whatsoever and the whole industry wasn’t going to collapse in a couple decades time, there were a couple songs by a couple bands that everyone knew. People got them mixed up; the names sounded similar and the tunes sounded similar. It was straight-up rock, and the bands were The Black Crowes and Counting Crows. I’m here to say, once and for all, that these are two of the best rock bands of our time. And they both just got better as the years went on, despite fading off of mainstream culture’s radar.
The fact that these two bands are so immeasurably good and contain deep in their discographies such unlimited amount of rock and roll joy is filled with coincidences and happy accidents. And I’ll defend every single one of them to my dying breath.
First off, you remember the hits, right? When The Black Crowes dropped their debut, Shake Your Money Maker, in 1990, the band hit pay dirt with tunes like “Twice as Hard,” Otis Redding cover “Hard to Handle” and almost-classic ballad “She Talks to Angels.” Three years later (funny; seems like this happened simultaneously in hindsight), Counting Crows released their debut, August and Everything After. You know the one: “Mr. Jones” and “Round Here.” Powerful rock music here, and some timeless songs, but here’s the clincher: these two albums may have spawned the songs most remember these bands for, but it’s later in their careers that these bands really became confident and comfortable in their own skin (although August does have a certain swagger and relaxation to it that makes it wildly comforting to listen to).
Watch: The original video for “She Talks To Angels”
Really, listening back to both bands’ debuts, you hear stiffness, the sounds of bands a bit unsure, but also totally sure that they’re on to something. But it’s on their landmark second albums that both bands created their masterpieces, albums that make me wonder why to this day I need to “admit” that I like both bands with a bit of a sheepish smile.
In 1992, The Black Crowes released The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. Rock music changed. Well, shit, there we go: it didn’t. It should have. It really should have. The album is loose and relaxed, confident and full of swagger, filled with rock royalty and balladeering majesty. It flows, it has purpose, it begins and ends exactly as it should. It’s like a great Stones album. It’s quite possibly the best rock album that will be created and released during my lifetime.
pictured above, Counting Crows
For their second album, Counting Crows also embraced a warmer production, a flowing feel, and a greater grip on songwriting. Recovering the Satellites was released in 1996 and remains the band’s crowning achievement. It’s an absolute pleasure to listen to, something that, given the right circumstances (headphones, a cold winter evening, a cup of coffee) can absolutely and completely take you places. I don’t think any rock album has taken me places as far away as this one has since it was released in ’96.
Watch: “Good Time”
At this point in their careers, both bands decided to simplify a bit, constrain a bit, write some simpler tunes. Damn it if it didn’t work for both of them, creating albums that are good but not great, are patchier than either of the bands’ sophomore efforts but rock simpler and harder and, in way, more fun. The Black Crowes released Amorica in 1994 and Counting Crows put out This Desert Life in 1999. Both have a handful of great songs but a frustrating amount of forgettable tunes, even if they did see hints of both bands embracing a jam-band approach that would come to define both… and fully alienate them from the mainstream crowd who had at this point already moved on to other things.
(As an aside, Counting Crows released a double-disc live album before Desert—yes, after just two studio albums—which stands the test of time as one of the great live albums of our era. Across a Wire: Live in New York City is definitely worth spending some serious time with.)
Then, the mid-era for both bands, when they embraced many different rock, soul, and R&B roots and sounds—Three Snakes and One Charm was The Black Crowes’ 1996 disc and it found them becoming more thorny, less hit singly, and more difficult to warm up to, with larger, richer, and rewarding rock results long-term. For their fourth disc, Counting Crows released Hard Candy in 2002 and it sounded like a band twelve albums in to their career. Looking back, it’s hard to believe this is a band’s fourth album. It’s sprawling but also contains mainly short, concise rock songs; it hints at even deeper ’70 rock sounds than their previous output, and contains several deep cuts that still get played regularly around these parts (Three Snakes, on the other hand, I couldn’t name one song from it right now; it’s perhaps a bit too wise for its own good).
In 1999, The Black Crowes released By Your Side and in 2008 Counting Crows released Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings. Apart from the gap between albums getting disproportionately larger, the fifth album from both bands showed a kind of confidence that rock bands SHOULD have, a kind of devil-may-care attitude that probably drove their record labels nuts, and a love of rock that must have made for some great live gigs around this time, especially in the case of The Black Crowes, who turned into one of the great live rock bands of our era, jamming, stretching things out, having a blast, always. By Your Side is a soul-, gospel-, and R&B-tinged blast of a good time, an underrated gem of an album (that can be found in thrift stores nationwide) by a band who just doesn’t care. Saturday Nights is equally as relaxed, comfortable, and steeped in rock music history. It’s not their best or most immediate work, but, like The Black Crowes at this point in their career, it’s an absolute treat to listen to, not even for the songs themselves, but for the atmosphere, the feeling, the image of them sitting around the studio cranking these songs out.
That’s the last studio album Counting Crows have put out; The Black Crowes have a confusing discography from this point on, but the main studio albums are the incredibly underrated Lions from 2001 (groovy, sparkling, playful), Warpaint from 2008 after a hiatus (antagonistic, prickly, lush melodies hiding beneath the knives), the double-disc Before the Frost… Until the Freeze in 2009, recorded live at a member of The Band’s studio for crying out loud (and featuring an amazing disco song, furthering the band’s “we really, really don’t care” attitude), and Croweology from 2010 (acoustic reworkings of older tunes, and a way to say goodbye as they head off on their latest indefinite hiatus).
“Sometimes the world seems like a big hole. You spend all your life shouting down it and all you hear are echoes of some idiot yelling nonsense down a hole” - Adam Duritz of Counting Crows
So where does this leave us? A reminder that these two bird-related bands may have had some great hit singles but if you dig deeper, you’ll find albums that are nothing if not a complete tip of the hat to rock music history, live shows that go on and on, jamming that actually works for once. You’ll find bands that started off on the radar and gleefully dropped off it, only to mature and develop their music further as the years went on, a wonderful rarity indeed. And I, for one, will no longer be embarrassed to admit I like these once-upon-a-time hit wonders, because their time wasn’t then: it’s now.