THE BLACK CROWES: BY YOUR SIDE (1999)
1) Go Faster; 2) Kicking My Heart Around; 3) By Your Side; 4) Horsehead; 5) Only A Fool; 6) Heavy; 7) Welcome To The Goodtimes; 8) Go Tell The Congregation; 9) Diamond Ring; 10) Then She Said My Name; 11) Virtue And Vice.
This is the first ever Black Crowes album that I can enjoy through and through. One of the critical viewpoints has somehow managed to brand it as a «return to roots», successfully recapturing the vibe of the band's first two records after the temporary slump of Three Snakes — an opinion much dissipated through the critical community, but one that could have only come by traditional rock'n'roll analogy. I mean, every band has got to have something like an early peak, a mid-term slump, a «comeback», and all sorts of dynamics that create the illusion of an adventurous and intriguing career. And no shit: prior to recording By Your Side, the band actually fired their second guitarist, Marc Ford, and for what? Heroin addiction! It's like the mid-Seventies all over again. Juicy stuff for rock tabloids and all.
As far as my own, fairly insignificant in comparison, opinion is concerned, most of those differences are fairly cosmetic anyway. A small extra brass part in here, a bit of extra production gloss in there — really, any sort of «progress» or «development» from one Crowes album to another is negligible even in comparison to classic Aerosmith, let alone someone bigger. But while the overall style is always comparable, the substance and energy level may vary enough to make some of the songs kick ass where others simply scratch balls. So who knows, maybe those lineup changes, with a new second guitarist and a new bass player (Sven Pipien), had their beneficial effect after all? Even if the new guitarist did not play a single note on the album?..
Whatever be the case, By Your Side somewhat reduces the band's usual obsession with mega-over-dubbing and sonic messiness. Instead, what we have is the Crowes' most barroom-rock-oriented collection of songs to-date — with Stones, Aerosmith, and Faces/Rod Stewart influence all over the place, but strengthened up with some really thick, sticky, crunchy guitar tones; if you throw a wah-wah effect on top (ʽHorseheadʼ), the macho aura of the song becomes strong enough to melt down windows and pulverize doors. Silly, but lovable. The overall emphasis is on crunch, crunch, crunch, with repetitive chorus lines to generate some catchiness and brother Chris wailing so loud that he even manages to overcome the usual blandness of his vocal tone: still no match for Steven Tyler, but at least now he actually sounds authentically drunk, which is already something — prior to this, the Crowes almost always sounded like they were faking it, and there is nothing worse than pretending to be drunk when you've barely touched the stuff at all.
One of the band's main mottos now is stated right in the title of the first song — ʽGo Fasterʼ — and this is what they do on several other songs as well: ʽKicking My Heart Aroundʼ propels that anthemic slide riff forward at a respectable tempo, instead of spreading it all over the timeline, while ʽGo Tell The Congregationʼ adds moderate speed to a funky foundation, and suddenly the band's usual lumpiness fades away and out pops a really tight, but fluent outfit that allows the music to fly — not just sink into the ground. But even when they remain strictly mid-tempo, the vibe is good. The title track begins like a variational tribute to the Stones' ʽTumbling Diceʼ, but then quickly moves into Faces territory instead and does the right thing: the extra crudeness and the sheer force with which they punch, pummel, and tear at the instruments compensates for the lack of anything instantaneously memorable in melodic terms.
In other words, it ain't so much the songwriting (although there are a couple more riffs around the place worth collecting) as the focus that has improved. I may be wrong, but I think that a song like ʽHeavyʼ would have been unthinkable on any of the earlier records — its leaden swing would have been coated with slide guitars and keyboards, dissipated and wasted. Here, though, as unspectacular as the melodies might be, the songs are allowed to capitalize on their potential strength; and, for the record, it also helps that balladry is kept to a minimum — in fact, there are no ballads whatsoever in the conventional sense, just a couple of these soulful R&B numbers that all gravitate towards pop-rock anyway, like ʽOnly A Foolʼ and ʽDiamond Ringʼ.
The wah-wah ruckus on ʽHorseheadʼ might sound like they're grossly overloading it, but that is just the point — this band only begins to make sense when they go for overload, because they sure as hell can't get break through with subtlety. This is why ʽHorseheadʼ is my favorite song off the album, a massive headbanger, tongue hanging out and saliva dripping all over the place, the musical equivalent of the thickest, most calory-choked burger on Earth — and there are other songs here that go in the same direction, too, the more, the better. To put it bluntly, the Black Crowes almost manage to be as sleazy as they are usually advertised on this record, and for this reason and no other, I give it a big greasy thumbs up, and take the liberty of saying that the band never ever got any better — or sicker, or filthier, etc. — than this. Never.