The Black Crowes – Three Snakes And One Charm

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Just like Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis, brothers Chris and Rich Robinson are also notorious for their infighting and on-off hatred of each other. Such familial bickering had reached its summit during the recording and subsequent tour in support of their third album Amorica. Several times it looked as though the band would break up, only to pick up where they left off, before going their separate ways again. Incredibly, the Robinson’s patched up their differences, and began work on Three Snakes and One Charm in earnest, deciding that this time they would record their next album in a house, which they subsequently titled Chateau de la Crowe, where everyone would live and work together, in the best tradition of The Band circa Big Pink. However unknown to all involved it would turn out to be the last album released with guitarist Marc Ford and bassist Johnny Colt (another album with this line up was recorded, but remained languishing in the vaults until 2006). And while Amorica had its fair share of soul searching moments, it was in essence a bit of a party album. In contrast Three Snakes… is the early morning hangover one has following a big night of excessive consumption. In that respect it is a far more sober product than its more ambitious predecessor (although I’m sure that each member was anything but sober throughout the recording process).

After a brief burst of keyboard, we’re off with the semi-psychedelic “Under A Mountain”, where the piano and slide guitar blend wondrously together in a stoned-out hard-rock Allman Brothers kind of way. In fact I almost feel stoned just listening to it. Unfortunately the song is marred by the chorus, which tends to drag it down somewhat, and is the only real Achilles heel in what is on the whole a fine opener and one which successfully sets the tone for everything else that follows.

“Good Friday” sees the band in slow, mournful blues mode, with some emotive slide guitar and heartfelt harmonica adding to the already sorrowful atmosphere. The lyrics are quite clearly concerned with a relationship gone sour, and Robinson’s vocals effectively evoke that sense of pain and loss we have all felt at one time or another.

The torpidly muscular and drug themed (I assume) “Nebakanezer” follows, and while there are certain virtues to be found, most notably within the instrumentation, the song itself just never quite manages to adequately coalesce as a composition. “One Mirror Too Many” ironically suffers from the virtual opposite to many of its companions, in that the chorus is actually one of the more memorable of the record; however it is what’s going on around it that prevents the song from rising above sea level.

“Blackberry” is a potentially great song in search of more intelligent wording, instead of the shallow muck we’re given here. I get that it’s only rock and roll, but with lines like “I need some L-O-V-E-N to make me happy/You got to be L-U-C-K-Y to get/With a girl like Blackberry” you have to wonder what Chris Robinson was smoking. Yet if we simply listen to the band and switch on our superficial lyric filter, then the song is actually a lot of fun. And the video is a real hoot too. Gotta love those mushrooms!

Things get all thoughtful again on the pensive “Girl from a Pawnshop”, which is another ‘relationship number’; though this time our narrator is merely an observer, watching, or perhaps imagining events as they unfold. It’s all very Bob Dylan, in the sense that you know what a voyeur he was when it came to writing lyrics.

The Sly and the Family Stone infused “(Only) Halfway to Everywhere” simply oozes funk-rock, and is guaranteed to get you out of your seat to turn up the volume. There’s some wonderful guitar interplay between Marc Ford and Rich Robinson, while The Dirty Dozen Brass Band bring some added texture, an element which The Crowes rarely featured in their music, or at least on their albums.

Now if there is one song which simply cries out for extension, it is “Bring On, Bring On”. And while they would certainly stretch out the instrumental sections during their live sets, a la The Allman Brothers Band, the version as it is presented on Three Snakes comes across as too restricted and confined. In other words, “Bring On…” is a quintessential jam number more than anything else, and that’s precisely the context in which it ought to have been presented here.

“How Much for Your Wings” is a pretty although at times disturbing ballad, with plenty of psychedelic undertones. There are moments however where not all the elements quite fit together, to the extent that some sections seem a little forced and awkward, as if the whole band was having a bad trip at the time it was being recording.

“Let Me Share the Ride” has the band cruising down that old blues-rock highway, with some tasteful harmonica, and is the kind of song the album would have greatly benefited from had there have been more like it.

The Black Crowes branch out on “Better When You’re Not Alone”, on what is essentially another one of those quintessential hippie-jam songs that were issued in abundance by the early 1970’s. Still, it has its moments, enough to qualify it as one of the more enjoyable tracks on the album.

LP closer “Evil Eye” is a thematic as well as appropriate way to draw the curtain down, on what is ultimately a sophisticated albeit confusing experience, at least for this listener.

A year after this album was released, Marc Ford was fired from the band, apparently due to sloppy playing brought on by a major drug habit, with Johnny Colt departing soon after (though voluntarily I might add), having become frustrated at the direction their music was heading. It would prove to be an unfortunate loss; because the line up with Ford (no offence to Colt) was the best they ever had (just think Mick Taylor and The Rolling Stones). In other words artistic matters would never be quite the same again.

When all is said and done, Three Snakes and One Charm is a frustrating listen. Although the musicianship cannot be faulted, the record itself remains less than completely satisfying. And if their last album was the equivalent to some dope-induced sunset, then Three Snakes… was the band’s more introspective sunrise.