Review Summary: Sacrificing commercialism for greater depth, Chris Robinson lays his soul bare.
After releasing two commercially successful and critically acclaimed albums in the early 90’s, the Black Crowes were riding a seemingly unstoppable wave of momentum. Both 1990’s “Shake Your Moneymaker” and 1992’s “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion” were bursting with hit singles and were backed by a retro yet fresh sounding wallop of power blues and soul infused hard rock. The former was a straight ahead hard rocking kick to the teeth, while the latter was lauded for its ability to maintain hard driving hooks while adding gigantic layers of gospel, bluegrass, and soul.
After an uncanny debut and an uncommonly successful sophomore effort, many wondered if the Crowes would be able to sustain their commercial steam while maintaining the hard fought credibility earned in elite music circles. On 1994’s “Amorica,” they failed in the first aspect and succeeded rather mightily in the latter. Devoid of the obvious straight to radio singles of the past, but backed up with improved lyrics, tight instrumentation, and a heightened sense of introspection, “Amorica” is considered by some to be the Crowes’ best effort, and stands today as their last great album.
“Amorica” showcases yet another evolution of the band’s sound. The take-no-prisoners straight ahead rock attack of their debut has been scaled back and the sweeping gospel influences of their second album have all been abandoned. “Amorica” is positively dripping with soul, but its presence is generated more from the yearning balladry and soul searching performance of Chris Robinson than it was from the obvious inclusion of gospel background singers that drenched “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion.” Hard Rock bombast is strategically placed in sparse moments and is utilized enough to ensure the record isn’t devoid of fun, but the overall scope of this album is rooted in somewhat tortured, “what does it all mean” balladry. This isn’t Bon Iver locking himself into a remote cabin in Wisconsin kind of pain, but nonetheless on repeated listens it becomes obvious that Chris Robinson went through a ringer of sorts, and his scarred soul is plastered all over “Amorica.”
The album opens in misleading fashion. The hard hitting “Gone” is backed by a huge scratchy blues riff and backed by a dirty groove supplanted with Latino rhythms. The flow is a striking change of methodology to the Southern Baptist feel scattered throughout their previous album. “A Conspiracy” follows, and is the most formulaic rock track present, backed with a palm muted riff and jangly melodic chorus. “High Head Blues” is a slow dragging output that is reminiscent of their later work, although it maintains a more cohesive flow than the often disjointed and directionless jams found on more recent albums. “She Gave Good Sunflower” was a near single with a tongue in cheek attitude loaded with innuendo. Finally, Robinson does his best Coltrane impression on the delta blues mess “Downtown Money Waster.” Aside from the throwaway track “P.25 London,” only half of “Amorica” generates an up-tempo feel, and while devoid of the enormous hooks and catchy choruses of the past, the faster numbers are effective enough to cement the requisite “rock” component of the album.
While there is enough ramshackle rock to hold the Crowes in their current genre, the meat, scope, and overall theme of the album is made abundantly clear in the five ballads scattered throughout. Stemming from a deep sense of introspection, soul searching, and self loathing, Robinson lays his soul bare across a slow burning soundscape of piano and acoustics. The wrenching “Cursed Diamond” finds Robinson hating himself and trying to make up for it in a bi-polar fashion: “I lose myself/I forget myself/sometimes I fault myself/yes I might fight myself/Then I make amends/I freeze myself/don’t believe myself.” On the downtrodden “Ballad of Urgency,” Robinson is found pleading for forgiveness for obvious wrongdoings. “Nonfiction” is a breezy country-ish display of back porch balladry, but the dreamy optimistic sound is belied with dreary lines like “Said you wished I was dead.”
Fortunately, it’s not all Cobain-esque tortured posturing. The two best songs on the album and their overall catalog find Robinson shedding his self loathing and charging ahead with a redeemed sense of pride, coupled with a fervent search for optimism and redemption. “Wiser Time,” a soaring and soulful clinic of rock balladry, is the ultimate winner. While Robinson was dragging himself through the depths of despair on earlier tracks, he is positively bursting with hope here: “No time left now for shame/ Horizon behind me, no more pain/ Windswept stars blink and smile/ Another song, another mile.” From “Wiser Time,” the album ultimately closes with arguably Robinson’s most heartfelt vocal performance on “Descending.” Driven almost strictly by a gorgeous piano lick and spacey harmonica, “Descending” changes the pace as Robinson laments a newfound sense of self worth stemming from being wronged, likening his involvement with a woman as a “feast for fools.” The track closes with a ramped up piano solo, a fitting and almost perfect ending to the album.
Although it was one of the Crowes’ least commercially successful albums, the album works well as a whole, or better said, is greater as the sum of its parts rather than individual pieces. Devoid of obvious commercial appeal, the musicianship is sharp and guided, and the album maintains a strong flow without having to rely strictly on hooks and choruses. The Crowes would attempt to repeat this formula on following albums, and would fail mightily in certain cases. This is surely their most introspective album from a lyrical standpoint, and carries a greater deal of depth than they would ever achieve again. Their last great effort, it stands today as a highly recommended 90’s rock album.