Warp + Weft: The Black Crowes :: Amorica

The Black Crowes
American Recordings

If a band’s albums are to be judged against a yardstick that measures, somehow, how perfect an expression a given album is of what that band represents at their best, then Amorica is certainly not The Black Crowes’ best album. Taken at a glance, The Black Crowes, as a band, seem to embody a kind of modern rock extension of the tradition of The Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd. They are distinctly southern, but bluesy and rootsy. They seem enamored of the trappings of the rock lifestyle: the excess, the drunken romance of it, and most definitely the weed. If their debut record, Shake Your Moneymaker, came in wearing a leather jacket and strutting across the floor, the follow-up, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, shed that jacket to show off a ragged button-down and a string of beads around its neck. They toured with a lighting rig composed entirely of Christmas lights, Chris Robinson danced around barefoot on the Persian rugs the band toted to every venue, and the record’s sepia-tinted cover laid claim to a broader pallette than Southern Rock as envisioned by Skynyrd and the Allmans.

The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion distinctly echoes the cover of The Band’s self-titled debut album, and on it, The Black Crowes deepened their sound with gospel choirs, Hammond B-3 organs, and positioned themselves as more than simply “The Most Rock and Roll Rock and Roll Band in the World,” a title bestowed upon them by Melody Maker magazine. They were the heirs to the “Southern thing” as Drive-By Truckers would dub it some ten years later. If The Black Crowes, as a band, could be taken as a simulacrum that combined elements of Southern rock, blues, gospel, hippie idealism, and a kind of Faulknerian drama and grandness, then The Southern Harmony and Music Companion is that idea’s most perfect expression.

But Amorica's much more interesting, especially when placed into the arc of the Crowes' career. If their debut set the formula, and their sophomore release represented the ultimate realization of that formula, the rest of their career has more or less represented a fall from grace. After the increased experimentation and diminishing sales of Amorica and Three Snakes and One Charm, the band attempted to revisit their earlier success with stripped-down rock and roll on By Your Side, but with middling success. Their collaboration with Jimmy Page playing Led Zeppelin songs was more successful, but only served to point out how tired their own material had become. Lions was an unmitigated disaster—a terrible album. And there the story peters out. Their lineup has been terribly unstable since By Your Side, although most of the original lineup has reunited and apparently, they have a new album—entitled Warpaint—in the can and ready for release. The issue of whether they can recapture some of their former magic is really immaterial, because we already have Amorica.

Like the parties in The Hold Steady’s “How a Resurrection Really Feels,” the Crowes started out lovely, but then they got druggy. For a band that was always more about the appearance of lawlessness than its pursuit, the cover image—a close-up shot of a woman’s nether regions barely concealed beneath an American flag bikini bottom—seems like a calculated stab at controversy. The music contained within is nothing half so shocking as the cover, since the Crowes were always more diehard romantics than predators and singer Chris Robinson is forever falling for hard luck cases who wouldn’t be out of place in an Atmosphere song (cf. “Nonfiction” and “She Gave Good Sunflower” here and “Girl from a Pawnshop” on Three Snakes or “Sometimes Salvation” from Southern Harmony).

The music is not so much aggressive or hard as overripe and thick. Even taut, rhythm-driven numbers like “Gone” or “High Head Blues” are giant-sounding. On “Gone,” for instance, the song already sounds fully arrived by the time the bass slides in at the 1:10 mark, driving it even further into the groove. Both “Gone” and “High Head Blues” show a burgeoning interest in the influence that funk had on rock in the ’70s, like on War’s “Low Rider.” The band stretches in other ways as well. “P.25 London” is probably the heaviest track the band have ever recorded, and it features a truly stunning slide solo, plus some of Rich Robinson’s most inventive rhythm playing. If you listen closely on the left channel in the verses, you can hear him slice and dice the gaps in his part with obvious relish.

“Nonfiction” shows how modest they can go with a ballad, while “Descending” shows just how bombastic they can get with the same format. The latter’s beautifully baroque piano intro (if you listen on headphones you can hear the snare drum rattling in the background—a testament to the band’s live approach in the studio) is a truly majestic rock moment, and Chris Robinson actually manages a well-thought-out metaphor in the second verse: “But I will let it slide. / Slide, like mercury. / All silver and quick, baby / Poisonous and deadly.” “Descending” is proof of how far you can go with style over substance when you really believe in it.

Robinson’s lyrics are, essentially, not about anything at all. He mostly relies on stock imagery and his brother Rich’s ability to drive the band forward so dizzyingly that you barely notice how little sense he makes. Take, for instance, this gem from “A Conspiracy”: “So now you got a question about your answer, yeah, yeah, yeah / Say try your Adam’s Apple / Oh, you talk it try it like it right / Say, do you want to fight? / Well all right, say, let’s step outside.” In the context of the song, though, it sounds right: cocky, brash, confrontational, perhaps a little drunk. Recently, the band re-issued the long lost album, Tall, that was supposed to follow Southern Harmony but was scrapped before Amorica was recorded. The same string of lyrics on the version of “A Conspiracy” from Tall is much the worse because they simply don’t fall right. It sounds like Robinson can’t quite believe in them there, and attitude makes all the difference when it comes to The Black Crowes.

Listening to Tall is instructive in other ways as well. It shares seven tracks with Amorica, and the ones that it does not share are almost all not only weaker than the songs that would make up Amorica, they’re weaker in a very specific way. They all show symptoms of what would eventually turn the Crowes back towards their roots: dissolution and lack of focus. Throughout their career, The Black Crowes have fought against battling impulses to, on the one hand, play good old fashioned rock and roll and, on the other, to strive for something grander and more majestic. On their debut, the split was roughly 8/2 in favor of straight-ahead rock; on Southern Harmony it’s more like 2/8 the other way around; on Amorica it’s 1/9 (throwaway track “Downtown Money Waster” being the exception). Three Snakes and One Charm begins to tilt the other way with a 3/9 ratio, and then By Your Side tips the balance firmly back in favor of straight-ahead rock at around 8/3.

Obviously, this isn’t a simple math equation, though, because one of the odd things that starts happening with Three Snakes is that the stuff that pushes the band further out begins to push them almost too far out. “Bring On, Bring On” and “How Much for Your Wings” reach mighty far out in terms of structure and instrumentation and, while not total failures, don’t manage to live up to the grandeur of earlier efforts like “Descending” and “Cursed Diamond” from Amorica. At the same time, their straight-ahead rockers begin to feel much more like placeholders, like just marking time. “Let Me Share the Ride” from Three Snakes is a prime example; it’s a chugging road tune that’s been beefed up with some horns, but nothing more.

Following Amorica, they basically became victims of their own success. They had pushed their abilities to the limit on Southern Harmony and then pushed them even a bit further on Amorica, but by then they’d gone too far to really come back to the bare bones approach of Shake Your Money Maker. They’re hardly alone in this problem. Both Weezer and Smashing Pumpkins experienced similar problems when they reached a kind of idealized version of their band’s own image. Weezer peaked in their Platonic ideal with The Blue Album, although artistically with Pinkerton, and Smashing Pumpkins peaked with Siamese Dream, although time has made Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness look like a much better follow-up than it initially appeared. In each case, the band in question seemed to be an expression of a kind of idea: Weezer was the ultimate combination of hook-centric pop, frustrated teenage desire, and buzzsaw guitars while Smashing Pumpkins held forth the promise of marrying the gigantic sound of ’70s arena- and prog-rock to that same kind of teen angst.

In fact, bands are ideas to the people who listen to them. How a band deals with this can become more and more problematic with success and time. It’s this phenomenon that leads to the “sophomore slump.” If a band has one album, the arithmetic is pretty simple: that record is who that band is. But when a band goes to record its second record, it’s already a far different group from the one that created a successful debut. In The Black Crowes’ case, they somehow managed to become even more the band that they seemed to be on their first record with their second record. “She Talks to Angels” might still be their enduring hit, but Southern Harmony is their ultimate statement.

Amorica is where they begin to lose their grip on that idea of who they are, but we’re ever so lucky they made an album while it was happening. Sprawling, decadent, overreaching, but tremendously self-assured, it’s an album that any band should be proud to have created. The general public, though, didn’t so much feel that way, and, faced with diminishing sales, the band attempted to strike a balance on Three Snakes and One Charm. That record’s failure found them trying to return to their initial success with By Your Side, but that record had the lowest sales of their career.

To put it simply, they lost the thread. But who can blame them? Belief is hard to hold on to, and as a band they were at their best when they were teetering on the edge of losing that sense of who they were. With every record since Amorica, there have been a round of interviews where Chris Robinson has said, essentially, this is the real Black Crowes. Before the release of Lions, he told Billboard Magazine, “For the first time since we started this whole thing, there are people looking ahead, as opposed to looking at what we’ve done.” The thing is, it’s hard enough to know yourself, and much harder to know exactly how a group of people create something so much bigger than themselves. Sometimes, the best things about a band are unknowable to the band itself, and when that’s the case, it’s usually wise to look neither back nor forward, but simply to go, and go as big, broad, and wild as you can.