20 Years Ago: The Black Crowes Shock America With ‘Amorica’
The Black Crowes exploded onto the scene in 1990 with their smash debut, ‘Shake Your Money Maker,’ an album that featured five charting singles (two of which hit No. 1) and has since sold more than five million copies.
Two years later, they followed that up with ‘The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion,’ a seemingly perfect sophomore effort that hit the top spot on the Billboard 200 and had four huge singles, all claiming No. 1 -- which, at the time, set a new record for an LP to have four rock chart-topping hits.
As one might imagine, the pressure only grew and grew throughout the beginning of their young career. Propelled into the spotlight at such a young age -- Chris Robinson was 23 and brother Rich was just 20 when 'Money Maker' came out -- and working with an upstart producer, George Drakoulias (a protege of Def American’s Rick Rubin whose first-ever produced record was ‘Money Maker’), the Crowes could’ve easily fell apart. So, with two commercial and critical successes under the belt, the bar was set high with their third endeavor, ‘Amorica.’
Released on Nov. 1, 1994, ‘Amorica’ found the Crowes with a new producer, Jack Joseph Puig, and what would turn out to be one of their most cohesive and original sounds of their careers. While ‘Money Maker’ and ‘Southern Harmony’ highlighted their knack for making ‘60s and ‘70s classic rock in a decade soaked with pre-grunge and grunge rock, ‘Amorica’ pushed their talents even further.
“We want to give music as opposed to just make it, or just use it, you know? We want to give,” Chris says in a promo video for the record. “That’s sort of this weird concept where we want to go with music.”
“It’s just music ... it hits back to the same thing, it’s songwriting and it’s community,” he goes on. “These musicians together, we make a certain sound together, every individual piece. I love that sound. The sound, the ideal, the songs, the performances, they’re at the apex.”
Chris and company weren’t the only ones who thought they were at their apex either. “Their swagger intact and their musical inventiveness progressing, the Black Crowes are evolving like the great bands they respect,” Paul Evans wrote in his review of ‘Amorica’ in Rolling Stone magazine. “And that respect has nothing of the archivist’s reverence, no follow-the-leader submissiveness.”
And that’s exactly what 'Amorica' is all about, it’s as simple as that; the Crowes found their sound, they found their groove -- they weren’t replicating their inspirations, they were using the influences to form their own brand.
Each track on 'Amorica' puts that sentiment on display. There is no better album opener -- and segue from their first two LPs -- than ‘Gone.’ It showcases the Crowes’ appreciation for the greats, while introducing their fans to their new, maturer rock.
While the entire album sums up the band’s willingness to explore new ground, it seems like it’s on display, front and center, with ‘High Head Blues.’ It’s one of the most dynamic songs the Crowes wrote up until that point -- going from blues to hard rock (dare we say heavy?) at the snap of a finger.
“We really want to see how far we can push our expression,” Chris humbly admits in that promo video. That expression weaves in and out of each song and hits a climax at track No. 9 with ‘Wiser Time.’ “I think the Black Crowes have always been such a question mark for a lot of people ... are they ripping someone off, to what do they owe to their past, what does that mean to their generation, what’s the future,” the frontman pontificates. “This record is definitely more of an answer as opposed to another question.”
And if there has to be one solitary answer, it’s found in ‘Wiser Time.’
As powerful as 'Amorica' was (and is), it didn't find the same success as those that preceded it. The record pushed half-a-million copies, which is no small feat to be sure, though a drop in the bucket compared to the Crowes' success with their first two releases. Part of that might be due to the change in their music -- not so much a change in their sound, but rather their constantly evolving approach to their craft -- while a bigger (and much more superficial) reason may lie in the cover art.
A close-up of a woman in a thong, the Crowes used the cover of Hustler’s July 1976 issue to grace the front of 'Amorica.' Unfortunately, the details in the photo led to the record being banned from “family friendly” stores like Wal-Mart and K-Mart, while other stores featured a censored version that showed no skin or pubic hair.
In an AOL chat room in December 1994, when asked “What’s with the hair on the CD cover,” Chris’ response was simple and obviously annoyed: “It’s growing.”
Regardless of the reason, the lack of massive commercial success did not change the acclaim 'Amorica' received -- in addition to Rolling Stone's rave review, Guitar World magazine named it one of the '50 Iconic Albums That Defined 1994,' and while their review is a little confusing (they call Chris' vocals "emotive squeals"), Entertainment Weekly still graded the record with a B-.
Twenty years later, fans can put the sales numbers and the reviews to the side; 'Amorica' is a definitive album for the Crowes' career. Their catalog has rarely disappointed since 1990, but there have been few experiences quite like 'Amorica' -- the ebbing and flowing of flawless rock and roll with a consistency never-before-heard at the time, all wrapped up in a matter of 55 minutes.
If it's been sitting on your shelf or queued in your playlist, let the 20th anniversary of 'Amorica' serve as the perfect reason to revisit one of the greatest records released in the last two decades.