Returning to Three Snakes and One Charm almost twenty years after it’s initial release is an interesting exercise, not least because of my own personal history with this album.
Back in 1996 I was a slightly impoverished student, so no small amount of consideration went into selecting what CDs I purchased. With Britpop reaching something of a crescendo at the time, I was wanting to purchase something a step away from what most of my fellow students were listening to at the time. Having discovered The Black Crowes a couple of years previously, and been mightily impressed with their first pair of albums, I opted to part with my cash in exchange for their latest release, Three Snakes and One Charm.
Although it has happened many times since, Three Snakes and One Charm was the first album I purchased that I was significantly disappointed by. Quite why I was disappointed was not something I could adequately explain at the time, but the fact that they had made efforts to step away from the traditional bluesy rock sound of Shake Your Money Maker and The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion certainly didn’t help. Little of the album, beyond the riff to “Nebakanezer” stuck with me, and I felt the simultaneous frustration of a great band I had affection for going in a direction I wasn’t entirely convinced by, and my own personal limitations in the fact that I wasn’t prepared to travel far out of comfort zone in order to follow where there muse had led them.
Nearly twenty years later, and Three Snakes and One Charm is reissued on vinyl, and I am reunited with what, in its own way, was one of the landmark albums of my youth. The question is, have the subsequent two decades meant we’re a little more compatible?
On initial listen, I have to wonder what my teenage self felt so bereft of. Sure, it doesn’t have the gloriously rich tune count of The Black Crowes first two albums, but taking Amorica into account (their third, which I didn’t hear until four or five years after I had dismissed this album) it puts their fourth long player into a lot more context and it makes a whole lot more sense. It’s now much easier for me to hear Three Snakes and One Charm as a continuation of the experimentation with the band’s formula that I was so fond of in my teenage years.
To some Black Crowes fans, Three Snakes and One Charm is their favourite album by some distance, simply because it’s the one on which they took the most risks and ventured furthest away from their classic bluesy hard southern rock sound. On the flip side, there’s those that it doesn’t find favour with for exactly the same reasons. That said, it’s still recognisably a Black Crowes album and, because of the Robinson brothers’ willingness to expand their sound, one of their most unique.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s now much easier to appreciate the part that Three Snakes and One Charm played in The Black Crowes career. It is the the culmination of a diversion that started with Amorica and took them as far away from their tried and tested sound as they would ever stray. Following this album, they lost two key band members in guitar player Marc Ford and bass player Johnny Colt, regrouped, recorded an album’s worth of material that would be shelved, before they returned to a more streamlined and dynamic sound that found them recapturing much of the magic of their early work. Three Snakes and One Charm was the moment just before The Black Crowes hit the reset button, and is therefore the moment at which they were at their least Black Crowesy.
Three Snakes and One Charm is an album that divided opinion, and to a certain extent, still does today, but without it in your collection, your understanding of one of America’s greatest rock and roll bands is incomplete.