Review Summary: A return to form that mostly works, "By Your Side" is the last true Hard Rock Black Crowes album.
If the Black Crowes’ Chris and Rich Robinson were to sit on the proverbial psychiatry couch, the laundry list of Freudian diagnoses and psychological issues heaped upon them would unequivocally include anger management, megalomania, and most notably, an extreme case of identity crisis. After bursting on to the music scene in the early 90’s championing a blend of unrelenting Southern Hard Rock fused with string tugging soul, the Black Crowes embarked on a five year journey of wayward misdirection. Aside from the mass departure of backing band members, blood thirsty infighting, legal disputes, and record company quagmires, the brothers Robinson also forgot how to play rock n roll, forgoing the cocksure hard rocking swagger of their roots for misplaced, quasi psychedelic haze infused jamming.
If 1994’s “Amorica” and 1996’s “Three Snakes and One Charm” taught us anything, it showcased how the once labeled “most rock n roll band in rock n roll” couldn’t decide if they wanted to ape Widespread Panic at various hippie festivals or if their true calling was to transcend themselves as the second coming of the Grateful Dead. One thing was certain; as Chris Robinson was forgoing shoes and a straight razor, their album sales and fan base were plummeting like Chad Kroeger in a critical thinking class. Perhaps realizing this growing trend, the Black Crowes entered the studio in 1999 leaner and somewhat meaner, driven by the goal to bring the raunch of their early days back to life.
The resulting album, “By Your Side,” is without question an intended “return to form” record and stands today as the last true hard rock Crowes album. Driven by a renewed vigor, “By Your Side” is a cross of their first two albums, mixing the straight chugging hard rock of “Shake Your Moneymaker” with the gospel and soul influence of “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion.” While the result is nowhere in the galaxy of those two releases, “By Your Side” was their most lean and radio friendly release in over seven years, forgoing directionless jamming in favor of stripped down, slick hard rock bombast.
“By Your Side’s” first two tracks showcase the concise and energetic “Rolling Stones on ‘roids” influence that brought them to prominence in the first place. Both opener “Go Faster” and lead single “Kickin My Heart Around” are swaggering ripcord rockers that charge forward with little regard for restraint, nodding more towards southern Hard Rock abandon. The two strongest songs on the record, the openers find Chris regaining his braying sho nuff attitude strut, and guitarist Rich laying down blasting riffs at a pace not seen since their debut.
This energy and overall straight ahead, return to form focus is felt throughout, but is only captured with perfect efficiency on the album’s first half. The low hanging, Zeppelin-esque groove of “Horsehead” and the sassy gospel stomp of the title track add strong compliments to the album, while the campy yet effective doo-whap influence of single “Only a Fool” could force 70’s era Rod Stewart into convulsions, wondering if he forgot about writing a song or two during his “who cares if I’m tunneling miles of coke, I’m Rod Stewart” phase. Closing track “Virtue and Vice” is an optimistic piano driven anthem that should have been given more attention as a single. On the whole, about half of the album has guided force, passion and energy that rivaled their early work.
Sadly, the other half is comprised of a five pack of filler that would have wound up on the cutting room floor in their earlier days. Despite trying really damn hard to ape their own former youthful assertiveness, the upbeat attitudes of “Heavy,” “Welcome to the Goodtimes,””Go Tell the Congregration,” “Diamond Ring,” and “Then She Said My Name,” cannot be saved from mediocrity. While better than most of “Three Snakes and One Charm,” the album’s latter half, save “Virtue and Vice,” is a glaring let down in comparison to its first half.
The lasting impression of “By Your Side” is simply an above average Hard Rock record. Typical in its genre format of showcasing a strong opening and finishing with a muddled closing, the Black Crowes mostly achieved their goal of becoming a great rock n roll band again. While “By Your Side” had moments of mediocrity, there are enough thick cut slabs of Hard Rock meat done correctly to consider it one of their better albums. Their identity crisis was temporarily solved on their last true rock record, and while their future would foresee plenty of outdoor cannabis festival headlining gigs, “By Your Side” proved one last time that the Black Crowes had the potential to be one of the best pure rock acts on the planet.
Kickin My Heart Around
Virtue and Vice
By Your Side
Only a Fool