THE BLACK CROWES: SHAKE YOUR MONEY MAKER (1990)
1) Twice As Hard; 2) Jealous Again; 3) Sister Luck; 4) Could I've Been So Blind; 5) Seeing Things; 6) Hard To Handle; 7) Thick 'n' Thin; 8) She Talks To Angels; 9) Struttin' Blues; 10) Stare It Cold; 11*) Don't Wake Me; 12*) She Talks To Angels (acoustic); 13) Mercy, Sweet Moan.
I am pretty sure that in a matter of several decades the world will have forgotten about The Black Crowes entirely, because, let's face it: the only reason that Shake Your Money Maker turned them into an American sensation almost overnight was a world of hungry teenagers who needed their own Led Zeppelin / Aerosmith combo, and maybe a smaller world of conservative old dietitians operating on the principle «if it ain't rockin' like it used to, it ain't worth shit».
The best thing about the Georgia-born Robinson brothers (singer Chris and guitar player Rich) is that they had always been perfectly honest with themselves. What they wanted to play was none of that overproduced pop-metal crap — just yer old, time-honored, in-yer-face rock'n'roll, preferably with a bit of a rustic flavor and, of course, soul a-plenty. Never mind that the old time-honored rock'n'roll was out of fashion (then again, deep down in Georgia it probably never was), or, even worse, that zillions of 1970s bands had seemingly mined its resources down to the last speck of gold dust. The important thing is that we had a problem: «rock and roll» on the charts around 1989 consisted of Poison, Warrant, and Bon Jovi, and someone had to put an end to that.
Of course, in the grand scheme of things the band was not very successful, but both the LP and some of its singles did chart highly, and, most importantly, Shake Your Money Maker was really a blessing for those who wanted something fresh, raw, ballsy, and not «over-glammed» or too overtly hedonistic or too utterly stupid, like so many of those hair metal hits. From a certain point of view, the album was an instant remedy for those who'd written off the new-look Aerosmith after Permanent Vacation and Pump — these Robinson guys clearly took their lesson from Rocks and Draw The Line instead, with songs like ʽJealous Againʼ and ʽDon't Wake Meʼ (the latter is only included as a bonus track on a later CD edition) sounding like carbon copies of the 'Smiths in their prime.
The bad news is that The Black Crowes were a (literally) family-oriented band, and what the brothers had in terms of conviction and raw energy, they never had in any other terms — like songwriting, or performing distinctiveness. Chris Robinson is a strong, competent vocalist, and his brother is a knowledgeable rhythm player, and their early pal Jeff Cease is a reliable supplier of wailing blues-rock solos — and that's about it: collectively or individually, all of their assets are firmly «middle of the road». Nothing awful, but nothing really above winning first prize on the National Rock'n'Roll Competition every once in a while, where you are judged objectively based on how much you have practiced, not on how much talent God, or your genes, gave you and how much of it you have been able to exploit the right way.
All of these ten pieces — blues-rock, boogie-rock, and balladry alike — are passable and enjoyable if you care at all for that specific sound. Swampy slide guitars, huge booming drums (but naturally booming, with none of those electronic enhancements), honky tonk piano blasting from under the guitar layers, and a rough, but friendly guy who's obviously got nothing to hide wailing on top of it all about the simple highs and lows of healthy country life. What's not to like, unless you take pride in being all stuck up and shit? Nothing. It's when you try to rewind these songs in the back of your mind, once the record is over, that the trouble starts — none of the melodies are memorable, which is only natural, since I have trouble identifying one single melody that was actually, you know, «written» specifically for this album. Maybe a few of the choruses that Chris sings across the guitar lines are technically «new», but the accompanying music is so thoroughly devoid of invention that this never really remedies the situation.
The not-so-subtle reference to Elmore James in the LP title may be understood both as an allegorical way of commercial stimulation or, more likely, as an allegorical way of saying «we make blues-rock with slide guitars and we don't give a damn about being original» — further confirmed by the fact that the band's breakout single was a cover of Otis Redding's ʽHard To Handleʼ, a song previously very much associated with the Grateful Dead but getting a new lease on life here as the Black Crowes, essentially, play it as if it were Aerosmith's ʽWalk This Wayʼ: dirtier, gruffier, scruffier — as badboyishly as they can, which is still not badboyish enough when compared with classic Aerosmith, though.
Other hits from the album included: ʽShe Talks To Angelsʼ, a sprawling country-rock ballad that seems to try to emulate the Stones circa Exile On Main Street — and fails, because the guitar work is just meandering, and the vocals lack Jagger's classic ability to strike fire out of thin air like he did on, say, ʽLoving Cupʼ; ʽJealous Againʼ, which is just barroom bravado, too politely inoffensive to be gloriously offensive; and the opening track, ʽTwice As Hardʼ, which is very loud indeed, but still seems like somebody imitating drunken fervor than actually being drunk.
All in all, I should probably hate the album and the band, but somehow the Crows manage to be smart enough to avoid any major irritants — such as direct melodic rip-offs of classics (usually imitating general style rather than particular bits of substance) or getting all pompous and ceremonial about what they do («sacrificing to the great spirit of rock'n'roll» and all that). And since, unlike quite a few people, I do not at all think that Shake Your Money Maker has to be that particular benchmark according to which the band should be judged once and for all, we could probably let them off the hook by sticking the «formative» label on top. They would never get too different — their creative, or, rather, anti-creative ego was established here from the start — but they would get a little more challenging and «hard to handle» later on.