Review Summary: Their first misstep, the Black Crowes attempt to weave a more diverse sound that is low on direction and high on dissapointment.
Over their first three albums, all highly critically acclaimed and largely commercially successful, the Black Crowes cemented a strong legacy of hard hitting radio staples that often collided with successful experimentation. Each album had a unique sound, from the straight forward “Shake Your Moneymaker” to the gospel and soul infused “Southern Harmony and Musical Companion” to the more epic, soul searching “Amorica.” Although the musical and lyrical dynamics were monumentally diverse, they were also delivered with a highly concentrated dose of focus and depth. After an inarguably successful debut, the Crowes managed to avoid the quintessential second and third album slump, delivering the goods at a consistent and streamlined pace. This sustained high performance would change dramatically on their fourth effort, 1996’s “Three Snakes and One Charm.”
“Three Snakes” is a record bristling with ambition that had the potential to be a stellar effort. The music is diverse, and the musicianship is as tight as ever. As opposed to previous albums, the Crowes experiment in a vast array of different sounds on the same record, foregoing the past formula of shaping a new musical direction over an entire release. To say “Three Snakes” lacks stylistic focus would be an under-statement, and while this can often produce positive results, the finished product is directionless, and is largely devoid of the hooks and songwriting chops they fervently displayed in the past. While they portray a valiant effort at being grandiose, the lack of any consistent flow creates a series of wayward tunes that carry a great deal of promise before falling flat, and prescribe an aftertaste of pretentiousness in the place of strong songwriting.
Opener “Under a Mountain” is a microcosm of the record. Devoid of catchiness, it plods at a disjointed pace that gives off the feeling that something better is coming, only to fall flat on its face in the chorus. “Girl from a Pawnshop” is a six minute half acoustic entry that disappointingly portrays an epic feel, but ultimately fails to deliver. From the faltering spacey/zone rock of “One Mirror Too Many” the thrown together subpar jazz/gospel infusion of “Only Halfway to Everywhere” and “Let Me Share the Ride,” and the faux psychedelia of “Evil Eye,” the Crowes mail over half of the album in with disjointed and dispassionate attempts at diversity, complete with a third class stamp.
There are a few moments where the old skills are on display, although they are rarely seen throughout an entire song. “Good Friday” is an effective gospel rock entry, although it stands half as strong akin to anything off “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion.” Lead single “Blackberry” has the strongest groove and hook, but manages to never fully take off or be memorable. “Better When You’re Not Alone” is a highly promising ballad, but the well written acoustics are belied by uncharacteristic yet strikingly cheesy lyricism. “Bring On Bring On” and “How Much For Your Wings” share an almost identical, quasi anthemic chorus, and are arguably the two strongest songs on the album, but neither entry is consistent enough to cement any lasting playability.
On the whole, the lasting of impression of “Three Snakes and One Charm” is “what could have been.” From a musicianship standpoint, some see it as a valiant foray into true originality. While roughly half of the album is pleasing from a sonic standpoint, no single track is overtly effective or memorable from start to finish. It is not their worst effort, but with its lack of direction, focus, and overall song craft, it stands as the centerpiece of a 5 year period mired in mediocrity. Their first below average record, “Three Snakes” is more of a collection finisher than a recommended album.