THE BLACK CROWES: LIONS (2001)
1) Midnight From The Inside Out; 2) Lickin'; 3) Come On; 4) No Use Lying; 5) Losing My Mind; 6) Ozone Mama; 7) Greasy Grass River; 8) Soul Singing; 9) Miracle To Me; 10) Young Man, Old Man; 11) Cosmic Friend; 12) Cypress Tree; 13) Lay It All On Me.
By Your Side was good enough to try out a sequel, but still not robust enough to inspire the Crowes for a sequel that would be just as good. It looks like they learned a few things — how to be more tight and snappy, how to give more care to hooklines, how to cultivate a macho image without being too disgusting — but it doesn't look like they had a particularly strong memory for any of them. If the album title is supposed to refer to the Robinsons themselves, well, this is a fairly sluggish pair of lions that we have here for observation.
Trouble begins almost immediately, as the major attractive force of ʽMidnight From The Inside Outʼ is concentrated in its guitar tone — fat, nasty, poisonously distorted — but little else. Slow, cumbersome, tied to a really irksome, meaningless blues-rock riff and not even remotely as «dangerous» as its production should lead you to believe, it is, well, everything that the previous album opener (ʽGo Fasterʼ) was not. And with a stylistically limited band like the Black Crowes, your initial impression of the first song usually colors your impression of everything else.
Granted, the second song and the album's first single, unscrupulously called ʽLickin'ʼ, is an improvement: a little faster, a little lower, a little sharper, with a guitar tone that almost borders on «industrial» this time — oh, if only brother Chris didn't sound like an ugly moron on the chorus! But he does, and he does it, exercising his capacity for free will (because he can sing normally — he just consciously wants to sound «nasty», like an authentic rock'n'roll hero). As a result, the song sounds gross, stupid, and unfunny. With some good riffage wasted.
Amazingly, as much as I thought I'd never have to say this, Lions is the first Crowes album where the ballads are better than the rockers. ʽMiracle To Meʼ, borrowing some of its acoustic chords from both ʽStairway To Heavenʼ (intro) and ʽWish You Were Hereʼ (main melody), gradually builds up to a sensitive, sentimental chorus whose "be my lover, be my friend, be a miracle to me" seems to work better on a gut level than any of their previous efforts, ʽShe Talks To Angelsʼ included. Even better is the album closer ʽLay It All On Meʼ, whose "come on down crooked man..." finally manages to approach the lazy, post-suffering, seen-it-all, friendly power of the Stones' ballads from 1971-72 — not that it'd seriously stand competition with ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, but perhaps it could stand a few rounds. Chris modulates his voice so that it really gives the impression of a comforting shoulder, and the piano/orchestral backing multiplies the impact and provides the necessary «epic» flavor.
The rockers, in comparison, all tend to lose face once again. Too slow, too generically written, and too fussy — perhaps some of the blame lies with producer Don Was, to whom they may have sucked up after he'd restored the Rolling Stones to their former glory with Voodoo Lounge and Bridges To Babylon. Apparently, though, what worked for the Stones did not work so well for their followers. On By Your Side, the guitar sound was more upfront and more raw; here, the guitars are usually too smooth, too polite, and too overshadowed by the band's unimpressive vocal harmonies and the band's equally unimpressive rhythm section. Only on ʽLickin'ʼ does brother Rich's guitar immediately assault your senses — elsewhere, it tends to limp and hobble rather than directly put the meat in your fridge, if you know what I mean.
I would not call the album «really bad», since the ballads work all right and the songwriting does show that a lot of work went into it (if it didn't, most of this review could be spent mentioning the titles of old blues-rock numbers that the brothers are ripping off, and it wasn't), but ultimately, Lions is unrewarding, and once again makes me forget why it is exactly that somebody could still be interested in hearing the Black Crowes play as late as the 21st century. Oh, and, for that matter, one thing I really hate — other than Chris' singing on the chorus of ʽLickin'ʼ — is the fly buzzing on ʽCosmic Friendʼ: not only is it really annoying (what else would you expect from a buzzing fly?), but it is also gratuitously unnecessary. Come to think of it, «gratuitously unnecessary» is as much of a pleonastic description as the Black Crowes are a pleonastic band.