As bold and ramshackle, heartfelt and personal as rock & roll itself, Amorica finds the Black Crowes finding themselves. Still defiant in their untrendy insistence that the guitar bravado and rebel pose of classic rock furnishes an inspiration as authentic as that of blues and country, the Atlanta sextet now spin off from their heavy ’60s and ’70s influences so fluidly that they shake freer than ever before from the retrorock tag that has dogged the band. The Crowes haven’t ceased their cocky pillaging of the universal jukebox — echoes of the Stones and Led Zep resound — but in jolting the mix with offbeat kicks (Latino rhythms, wah-wah guitar, strange vocal treatments), they sound remarkably fresh.
A knockout debut, Shake Your Money Maker (1990), presented brothers Chris and Rich Robinson, a fab rhythm section and guest godfather Chuck Leavell (keyboardist for the Allmans and Stones) reeling off Faces-meets-Skynyrd riffs more toughly than anyone since their homeboys the Georgia Satellites. At a time when most young players seemed hardly to have heard of Otis Redding, the Crowes’ crunching cover of “Hard to Handle” was a reminder, and with “She Talks to Angels” (still their finest tune), they showed a gift for unsentimental balladry. Southerners rekindling the Keith Richards motifs Keith had copped from earlier Southern R&B was a cool payback; Chris’ gruff vocals suggested a pre-sell-out Rod Stewart or an unwearied Paul Rodgers; and with grunge yet to explode, the sound was enough to feed guitar-hungry hordes. With its stronger material (“Thorn in My Pride,” “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye”) allowed to meander, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1992) disappointed — even if Chris’ delivery had matured and the band’s rock power remained unchecked.
Amorica boosts and expands on that power. A wham-bam number, “Gone,” with drummer Steve Gorman dealing vicious syncopation of the sort John Bonham patented, starts things off, and the Crowes pounce lean and brutal. “Gone” is prime Chris Robinson, all wry phrasing and desperado attitude. Pissed, nervy, stubborn, Chris writes best about the inchoate urge for deliverance (“Want you to burn me, baby…. Cover your eyes with my ashes/C’mon, why don’t you pray for me/Sit back, and watch my divine spark flash”). It’s less his gypsy scarves and Between the Buttons drag that make him a true rocker than his unquenched restlessness. “A Conspiracy” hits equally hard, but “High Head Blues” shows new range: Eric Bobo’s percussion lends a low-riding strut, a relaxed assurance the song shares with the countryish “Wiser Time,” its pedal steel provided by American Music Club’s Bruce Kaphan.
“Cursed Diamond” updates the rhythm & blues testifying the Crowes first assayed on Money Maker‘s “Jealous Again.” It’s another Chris Robinson confessional (“I hate myself/Doesn’t everybody hate themselves”), as is “NonFiction” — the latter, however, brightens its cartoon gloom (“Some like their water shallow/And I like mine deep/Tied to the bottom/With a noose around my feet”) with humor (“While you pull your hair out/I buy the drinks at the bar”) and Eddie Harsch’s delicate keyboard work.
Electric piano and the chugging guitar interplay of Rich Robinson and Marc Ford move “She Gave Good Sunflower” closest to the Rod Stewart/Ron Wood stomp the Crowes’ have flashed before. It leads into the only real clunker, “P. 25 London,” a rocker ruined by an inane Alice Cooper-like chorus (“Empty bottles saviors they crawl…. There’s a hornet’s nest in my head”). The epic “Ballad of Urgency,” however, redeems Amorica, and the album ends with gems: the acoustic bottleneck-powered “Downtown Money Waster” and Chris Robinson’s most soulful performance yet, “Descending.”
Their swagger intact and their musical inventiveness progressing, the Black Crowes are evolving like the great bands they respect. And that respect has nothing of the archivist’s reverence, no follow-the-leader submissiveness. Ultimately, the Crowes are classic rockers simply in their unholy worship of the groove.