THE BLACK CROWES: THREE SNAKES AND ONE CHARM (1996)
1) Under A Mountain; 2) Good Friday; 3) Nebakanezer; 4) One Mirror Too Many; 5) Blackberry; 6) Girl From A Pawnshop; 7) (Only) Halfway To Everywhere; 8) Bring On, Bring On; 9) How Much For Your Wings?; 10) Let Me Share The Ride; 11) Better When You're Not Alone; 12) Evil Eye.
Hey, hey, it is only natural that the first album on which The Black Crowes start showing the first signs of getting into a real focused groove and — horrors! — learning how to shape their chord-picking into vaguely memorable forms, should get the cold shoulder from fans and critics. A surprisingly large number of them seem to love the first two albums, be sympathetic or ecstatic towards Amorica, and treat Three Snakes And One Charm as «the beginning of the decline». Decline? Where? In order to «decline», you actually have to shift your position — I mean, it's not as if the Crowes went techno here, or doom metal, or drum and bass (much as I'd love to see them try out any of these things). Or you could start writing worse songs, but from that point of view, it doesn't get much worse than Amorica, really.
Honestly, the first song, ʽUnder A Mountainʼ, is such a traditional mess of power chords, slide guitars, and lumpy mid-tempo drum pummelling, that I was expecting the album to be a carbon copy of its predecessor. But lo and behold, there are some signs of life, beginning circa track three: ʽNebakanezerʼ (what is this, a specifically Southern realization of Nebuchadnezzar?) subjects itself to the implantation of a distinct, important riff (even though its authorship hardly belongs to the Crowes — it's a rather common chord sequence for roots-rockers), and, at the very least, becomes nicely fleshed out as a heavy country-rock song with a poppy chorus.
Maybe this is exactly what the fans are holding against the band — that it is trying to «sell out» by writing songs that one can, you know, whistle, as opposed to simply «dig that sound». Fortunately for the fans, the band is only succeeding at this task part-time: about half of the album consists of the usual drab mush. But ʽOne Mirror Too Manyʼ, ʽLet Me Share The Rideʼ, ʽEvil Eyeʼ, and particularly my favorite — ʽBlackberryʼ, these are songs that are, like... songs. Well, maybe not all of them. Maybe some. Maybe just one or two. Still, that's, like, progress.
They are even trying to be weird on occasion: ʽHalfway To Everywhereʼ, opening with a nice wah-wah lead, tries to bridge the gap between funk and boogie and has the Robinson brothers mess around with their vocals, making funny noises that I hope is not their take on scat singing, but is just a way of monkeying around to break up the pattern of endless boredom. It's not much, but it's much more than it ever used to be.
That said, my money is still riding on that silly cock rock anthem ʽBlackberryʼ (of course, these days it would rather be perceived as an anthem to a wireless handheld device, making the line "Hey Blackberry, look at my bumblebee" somewhat incomprehensible). It is short, tight, crunchy, safely pinned to a distinct riff, makes good use of stop-and-starts, employs the organ as a «tease» device, and does not begin to overload our ears until the proper climactic part, so it's even got some development to it. Formerly, some of the songs could have one or two of these elements, but not all of them at once.
All in all, I'd say that the somewhat cooler ratings and reviews for the album were triggered by the world's getting tired of the Crowes — the slight change in sound may have been used as a pretext, when in reality they were only trying to get away from the «vibe-based» approach to the «hook-based» approach, if only occasionally so. The usual problems all remain, including the bland vocals of brother Chris and the total lack of genuine inspiration on softer numbers (ʽGirl From A Pawnshopʼ is a Van Morrison-worthy title, but the song wouldn't have been saved even if they got Van to sing on it — it's simply one more big fat nothing). But the good news is that, regardless of whether they keep on loving their mush or not (and I guess they do), they are not content to stay soaking in it forever, and every attempt at modifying and diversifying the formula on the part of these guys is okay with me in advance.