Happiness Bastards

Happiness Bastards

“We made this record in two and a half weeks,” Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson tells Apple Music’s Zane Lowe. “People always go, ‘Whoa, you must've been really nervous, you haven't made a Black Crowes record in a hundred years.’ We're in here to get it. We've done everything that we've done because it feels good.” The Black Crowes never slunk from excess, from the kind of glorious hyperbole that fortified the popular arrival of their anachronistic Southern rock strut at the exact moment grunge dominated the mainstream. There was, of course, the famous and relentless feud between Chris and Rich Robinson, respectively flamboyant and pensive brothers who evoked opposite sides of the same acid sheet. All of that jibed with records of extravagant indulgence—hour-long major-label escapades that declared freaks and priests belonged in the same congregation whether it was Saturday night or Sunday morning. The Black Crowes didn’t just want to sound rock ’n’ roll; they wanted to live its dichotomies, vainglories, and sagas, too. But after a 15-year stalemate that included an eight-year break without speaking, the Robinsons reconciled and have returned with an efficient and charged 37-minute album, Happiness Bastards, that posits the two have moved beyond mere rapprochement. These 10 songs alternately ferry the pomp, grit, sneer, and swagger that made The Black Crowes interesting nearly 35 years ago, without the theatrics that always suggested they were actually trying twice as hard. Opener “Bedside Manners” finds Chris strutting around Rich’s sharp little riff like some lost ’70s rock god, dismissing a wanton lover one last time. With the help of stylistic descendant Lainey Wilson, they glide across and through the acoustic beauty of “Wilted Rose” like The Doobie Brothers dosed on both gospel and doom. And “Flesh Wound”—one of the sharpest and most surprising songs in their entire catalog, somewhere between Tom Petty sparkle and J. Geils Band verve—is the sort of song you want playing as you hit the road, leaving a love affair that only ever let you down. In the context of The Black Crowes’ contentious past, it’s tempting to hear that and the other kiss-offs on Happiness Bastards as potential relics of a more fraught moment in the Family Robinson. Or when Chris sings “Tomorrow owes nothing to the past” early in the swaying closer “Kindred Friend,” a mea culpa for lost time, it’s easy to hear a fraternal apology. The Black Crowes, though, resonated the first time around not just because they supplied unabashed retro chic in spades but because they implied that classic rock done well had something timeless to offer. Arguably the least fussy and most focused record this long-wayward band has ever made, Happiness Bastards reinforces that idea and The Black Crowes’ place within it.

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