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Friday, September 5, 2014

The Black Crowes: Amorica

THE BLACK CROWES: AMORICA (1994)

1) Gone; 2) A Conspiracy; 3) High Head Blues; 4) Cursed Diamond; 5) Nonfiction; 6) She Gave Good Sunflower; 7) P. 25 London; 8) Ballad In Urgency; 9) Wiser Time; 10) Downtown Money Waster; 11) Descending.

The front sleeve photo, taken from a 1976 issue of Hustler, would honestly have been a better fit for one of those late-period Aerosmith albums, or some particularly sleazy hair metal band — The Black Crowes probably have nothing against pussy or patriotism, but their music pretends to be much more about «soul» than about «flesh»: the only exception here is ʽShe Gave Good Sun­flowerʼ, brimming with lyrics like "I feel warm in your blizzard / And your flood I crave", but even those are delivered in a ballad-like context. The Robinson brothers are chivalrous Southern gentlemen, see, and they would rather sing and play their hearts out to the ladies than grope for those panties straight away.

If only they knew how to sing and play their hearts out in the context of a well-written song, though, Amorica could have been one hell of an album, because the band has accumulated con­fidence, experience, and is now expanding its stylistic horizons by learning how to be funky and add some life-loving swing to their day. All it'd take would be one gentle push in the proper direc­tion of making these grooves more interesting — but, unfortunately, their new producer, Jack Joseph Puig, whose credentials have since then also included No Doubt, Vanessa Carlton, John Mayer, and The Pussycat Dolls (that should give you some idea) was not the right guy to administer that push.

Again, let us just take a couple of songs and try and see what's so wrong about them. ʽGoneʼ, opening with some cowbells and Latin percussion in the style of Steely Dan's ʽDo It Againʼ, quickly develops a decent groove in the style of The James Gang's ʽFunk #49ʼ. But «decent» does not mean «breathtaking»: really, almost anybody can master those scratch guitar patterns, and what is really needed here is development — which is thoroughly lacking, as the band just jams around a single chord, getting some lumpy volume up for the chorus and leaving it at that. For five minutes, their funky jet attempts to get off the ground, but never manages to do much except waste fuel. The sound is thick and dense, with several low-pitched guitar parts drowning each other out, and the drummer really tries to bash his drum kit into the ground, meticulously and monotonously, but that might just be where the root of the problem lies — they are trying to be very funky and quite heavy at the same time, like a... lead zeppelin? Well, unlike the first one, which somehow managed the trick, these ones are definitely going down.

A song like ʽP. 25 Londonʼ, with its blues-rock chords neatly arranged in a pop hook, faintly hints that the Crowes could be proper hookmeisters had they really put their hearts to it, but in general, each new song steadfastly demonstrates, over and over again, that they are perfectly happy to stick to their usual guns as long as the public is content to love them for their style. The biggest hit from the album was ʽA Conspiracyʼ, a song whose verse melody is one of the lamest exercises in syncopation I've ever heard and whose chorus melody is practically non-existent — so how the heck did it ever manage to slide up the charts without a half-inch of grease? ʽWiser Timeʼ, the other single, sounds like contemporary Lynyrd Skynyrd — meandering slide-based country-rock with faux dramatics — and only ʽHigh Head Bluesʼ, the third single, features any­thing resembling a memorable riff, but, as usual, wastes it in a sea of sludge.

Once again, reading all the positive reviews and fan paeans for this album, I have to shake my head and ask myself — what exactly about this record am I not getting, when I so sincerely like most of its influences, even the Southern rock ones, everything from the Allmans to early classic Skynyrd? Why does it all seem so much like a lifeless, electrocuted corpse of genuine rock'n'roll music, which so many people are so eagerly ready to accept for a living body? Is it just because these guys emerged in the early 1990s, rather than in the 1970s, and this automatically makes me prejudiced? No, I don't really believe that. More likely, a record like Amorica will appeal to a «genrist» person — such as a blues-rock aficionado, content to admire anything as long as it com­petently satisfies the basic rules of the genre — or to somebody who caught the Crowes bug while in his teens, without prior exposure to the musical fathers of Americana. Either that, or I am really not getting something about this seemingly bland, turgid vibe.

Come to think of it, judging by a reader comment on Mark Prindle's site about how "P. 25 Lon­don is universally regarded as the suckiest song on this album" (I personally find it at least the most memorable song here, which might as well mean «best»), me and the world really wouldn't see eye to eye on these guys. I give Amorica a thumbs down just like its predecessor, and, with a sigh of temporary relief, unlock this tedious ball and chain from my leg for a while — that is, till the next album.

3 comments:

  1. Didn't you answer these "why" questions on your old site, in the introduction of Rory Gallagher?

    "What is your personal contribution (to blues) and your own unique ways to interpret it? What's your special gimmickry? Why should we listen to you and not (Rolling Stones and Aerosmith) instead?"
    Like I wrote in a previous comment I think the answer is that The Black Crows lack identity. I have watched some live footage. Even their stage presence is copied from the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith (the casual cigarette in the corner of a mouth, the snake wiggling).

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  2. Don't do it to yourself, George.

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  3. For me, the Black Crowes work very well as a Stones/Free/Humble Pie tribute, and an agreeable alternative to Aerosmith, whom I never could stand.

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