The Black Crowes may not be one of the most original of groups to have ever rocked the earth, but then again neither is Pearl Jam. After nearly a decade of music dominated by style over substance, this young band from Atlanta, Georgia, wanted to remind the world that there was more to popular music than MTV and bands with big shiny hairdos.
Led by Chris Robinson, whose ruggedly soulful, bluesy vocals brought instant comparisons with Steve Marriott, and his brother Rich, a sort of cadet Keith Richards, albeit with the riffs and brilliance to match, their style was more in tune with late ‘60’s early ‘70’s blues-rock, a la Humble Pie, Faces, Stones etc, not at all in synch with the current times (Nirvana was yet to embark on world domination). That is until their retro yet inspired cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” hit the airwaves. And unlike grunge, a more hard-edged movement, which saw sensitive young men screaming out their existential problems, The Crowes wore their vintage influences on their op-shop sleeves, and were not ashamed to pay homage to their rock and roll forefathers in the process.
Amorica, the band’s third album, marks the point where they managed to break free from their Stonesy shackles, and deliver a declaration as deliberate as it was authentic. Nearly all of these songs date back to the aborted “Tall” sessions, whose fabled fruits were eventually released on The Lost Crowes anthology many years later, and which makes for an interesting comparison between the two for all those salivating Croweologists out there.
First track “Gone” has an acid-latin feel to it, with backwards guitar, and a heavy, pounding rhythm. Robinson attacks the vocals in an aggressive albeit non threatening way: “Want you to burn me, burn me baby/Cover your eyes with my ashes” he sings. “Conspiracy”, which follows, thunders in like an avalanche, all wah wah guitars and mountainous drums. The delivery is clean and visceral at the same time.
We have more Latin rhythms with “High Head Blues”, and is one of the most buoyant tracks on the album, and just the sort of thing to get the listener into a party vibe. But then we get down with “Cursed Diamond”, where Robinson is in confessional mode, with lines such as “I lose myself/I forget myself/Sometimes I fault myself/I might fight myself/But then I make amends”. The song never really moves beyond a heavy, sluggish crawl, but still has some soaring moments all the same.
I’m not sure how to describe, much less define “Nonfiction”, a love song of sorts which kind of drifts along in a haze of marijuana smoke while going no place in particular. It’s an attractive tune, with some elegant piano by Eddie Harsch, though for all its prettiness, Robinson’s lyrics hint at something darker lurking underneath, especially in the chorus: “The clouds conspire/Above my head/I overheard them/Say I wish he were dead”.
“She Gave Good Sunflower” starts off with some funky slightly fuzzy keyboards, in the best tradition of the 1970’s, before the whole band jump into the groove proper, where the highlight for me is toward the end where Marc Ford lets loose with a superb wah wah flavoured guitar solo.
The only real misfire is “P-25 London”, which is a sort of bluesy, almost psychedelic number with a chorus that not only manages to give me the shits, but almost everyone else it seems who has reviewed the record.
The exquisite “Ballad in Urgency” is next, and is dominated by tranquil yet emotive guitar playing, along with more of those solemn vocals by Robinson. The track eventually slows down and liquefies into an extended piano interval before segueing into “Wiser Time”, a reflective country-rock number, in the vein of early Allman Brothers, with lovely pedal steel guitar and electric piano played in a Chuck Leavell style, adding plenty of nuance and texture throughout.
Things take a bluesy detour through New Orleans with the sleazy “Downtown Money Waster”. Robinson sings in his best Mississippi Delta style, while some dirty slide guitar and ragtime piano give it an authentic barroom atmosphere.
The album signs off with the majestic “Descending”, a ballad where Robinson seems to be wearing his soul on his sleeve as he sings the opening lines “Have mercy baby/I’m descending again/Open your eyes/This time it’s sink or it’s swim”. A sobbing slide guitar only accentuates the singer’s state of mind, before a sombre piano solo draws the song to a thoughtful and fragile finish.
The remastered version comes with two bonus tracks, the S&M themed “Song of the Flesh”, and the instrumental “Sunday Night Buttermilk Waltz”, which finds Marc Ford and Rich Robinson duelling it out on acoustic guitars. Interestingly both tracks can also be heard, in remixed form, on 2006’s The Lost Crowes compilation.
Now what about the album cover (or “Uncle Samantha” as it was once called)? The image itself originates from a 1976 issue of Hustler magazine, and apparently it was a bit of a sore point at the time to ask the Robinson Brothers what it actually meant. But then isn’t that the purpose behind album covers, to stimulate conversation, controversy even?
Amorica may have failed to duplicate the level of commercial success enjoyed by the band’s previous two LPs, but that’s not to say it was, or remains in any way, unsuccessful artistically. After this, The Crowes would further retreat from the sort of popularity they once enjoyed in the early ‘90s, something which probably had little to do with them and more to do with the fickleness of the music industry in general. And while it may not be a perfect album, neither is On the Beach or Sticky Fingers. Amorica is a restless record, whose contents are as ambitious as they are earnest. Never again would they manage to make such a bold and enduring statement.