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THE BLACK CROWES: ‘Happiness Bastards’

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March 15

Silver Arrow Records

It’s been 15 long years since the world has heard new music from rock machine The Black Crowes, but all of that is about to come crashing down this Friday, March 15, when the band drops their new album Happiness Bastards.

There are so many questions you could ask after an extended break of a decade and a half, but I have a feeling every answer will be revealed in the music, so let’s press on!

Opener Bedside Manners fires up with a typically bluesy guitar riff from Rich Robinson that is given life courtesy of a rapid stroke of the keyboards from Erik Deutsch which in turn ushers Chris Robinson up to the microphone, and you would swear that not a moment has lapsed since Before The Frost…Until The Freeze reverberated through our ear canals back in 2009.

This is vintage rock, dirty and full of swagger, and oh so sweet for it.

It’s a fair call to say The Black Crowes would have thought long and hard about the opening song on Happiness Bastards, especially given their time away and the fragile nature of people’s attention spans in the modern age.

Not that it feels like The Black Crowes have anything to prove – more to the contrary. These guys have produced some of the finest blues-rock music of the last forty years with songs like Jealous Again, Hard to Handle, Remedy and She Talks To Angels merely a sample of the many talents residing within the Robinson brothers and their bandmates.

Just after the two-minute mark, The Black Crowes pull their first swinging dick move with a subtle harmonica and guitar-led breakdown dragging the pace back a bit briefly before the uniting of musical forces combine to quicken the tempo as Bedside Manners almost jams its way to a victorious conclusion.

Rats And Clowns breathes life courtesy of a dirty guitar riff before turning into a shuffle of sorts with a solid underbelly of bass and drums. Chris is in fine form already, his raspy yet smooth voice covering the entire sonic palate with a film of edginess that is kept in check by a groovy and infectious tempo that almost dares you not to move some part of your body.

The Black Crowes can write songs in their sleep and with 15 years to perfect things, it’s no wonder this album is so good already.

Rich delivers a scintillating and commanding guitar solo, pulling back before overstaying his welcome and shifting the focus of the track. Coz this song is here for one reason only, and that is to get us out of our comfort zone and away from any misconceptions that even The Black Crowes have a use-by date.

Cross Your Fingers eases out of the blocks, awash with acoustic guitar and what sounds like a bit of slide added to the mix. It’s a subtle and enchanting intro that is quickly cast aside as the guitar screams as electricity surges through it and Chris is coaxed into action with a swampy, blues backdrop offset by groovy as fuck stomping music.

If the Fonz was listening to this track, he would already have both thumbs up, muttering something like “ehhhh” beneath his breath as Richie Cunningham repeatedly pops quarters into the jukebox to keep the enchanted bliss of blues-fueled rock churning.

The music retreats a little, but only enough to clear room for Rich to venture off down a solo tunnel of fading light that subsides gradually as vocal harmonies take centre stage amid the steady rock beat simmering purposefully in the background.

Another, more urgent guitar solo elevates things yet again before coming to an abrupt halt to introduce the next track, Wanting and Waiting. It’s another blues-led foray into boogie town, complete with harmonica and keys. After 40 years it’s pretty much a given that any band would have mastered the art of their chosen sonic output, but The Black Crowes have not merely mastered the art of songwriting, more so written a completely new volume.

It sounds like Rich is starting to get a little bored with meat and potatoes rock as he veers off into solo territory on more frequent outings, but when a man can play this well, who would even think of reigning him in?

And more to the point, why would you want to?

The album’s only collaboration, Wilted Rose, featuring Lainey Wilson, is up next and starts in a soulful blues tone beautifully led by Chris’ warm and engaging vocals. The instruments toil manfully in the background but lay respectfully back, allowing Chris to fully explore his vocal capabilities in an enchanting and irresistible display of clarity atop restrained backups that serve as a buffer between the vocalist and his rhythm section.

The drums gather rapidly with renewed intent as the guitars take over the sonic journey without sacrificing the essence of the track. It’s a beautiful and poignant moment of complete musical harmony that very few bands in the world are capable of pulling off.

Dirty Cold Sun begins with more purpose, a tasty guitar run introducing yet another groove-filled slab of rock excellence that purrs in all the right places.

The harmonies – which have steadily been there the whole album – really stand out on this track, displaying yet another string to The Black Crowes overflowing musical arsenal. There’s a hook to this tune big enough to land a marlin, and I found myself humming along despite having not heard the song before.

Which isn’t to say it’s predictable. Far from it.

Guitar shuffles overlap high hat snaps, which are both enveloped by the smooth and sultry backing vocals that are a highlight unto themselves.

And before I can get too wrapped up in the number it draws to a close and welcomes Bleed It Dry, which arrives on the back of a harmonic intro and casual strut of almost contemptuous leanings. You could hear flashes of harmonica sprinkled through most of the previous tracks, but on this one the little metallic mouth organ finds its voice and leads the rest of the song around at will, barking sweet stings of harmonics at welcome junctures that add a subliminal hint of jazz to proceedings.

This is a well-crafted and tempered number that lives solely on the wizardry of who I just found out is actually Chris Robinson, who is not content with merely being the vocal light of The Black Crowes, but also dabbles in the harp and acoustic guitar as well.

Flesh Wound sounds sinister but begins more like Jive Bunny with a shuffling of drums and an upbeat nature that screams good times ahead.

This track showcases a different side of the rock spectrum inhabited by The Black Crowes with more of a straight-ahead party vibe rather than the mournful strains of blues at its core. It is an unexpected and welcome deviation from the landscape frequented for the most part, effectively acting as a toe-tapping hoe-down interlude until the soft sounds of keys drift over proceedings towards the end and the song turns almost into a Christmas carol before righting the ship and trekking back into party rock and swing. Very Buddy Holly type of song but also very, very cool.

Follow The Moon is straight back into typical Black Crowes territory, with a blues-soaked guitar riff swirling effortlessly in the breeze that soon leads Chris back into familiar vocal force.

This is classic Black Crowes, no more needs to be said. My standout track if I’m allowed to play favourites, but there’s also every likelihood I will displace this number with one of the many other pearlers on the next listen.

And now we arrive at the last song, Kindred Friend, which by the sounds of it is going to be the token album ballad.

The cries of regret via the harp fill the air, as drums and guitar sit quietly below the surface. When Chris comes in it sounds as though someone has run over his pet goanna, such is the sorrow in his voice. It’s actually quite a beautiful track, but I have never been a fan of the ballad, especially as a parting shot from an otherwise near-perfect 9 holes of blues and rock.

The Black Crowes are most certainly back ladies and metalheads. But seriously, was there ever any doubt?

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