When guitarist Marc Ford and bassist Johnny Colt departed from The Black Crowes in 1997, it would seem that the band had finally run its natural course. Though still a popular live act, the group’s commercial appeal had been in decline for some time. 1994’s Amorica and its follow-up Three Snakes and One Charm, issued in 1996, had failed to replicate the same level of sales as their first two albums, and not only that, what was to be their next LP was rejected by the record company, which is interesting considering that they were signed to the relatively independent Def American (or American Recordings) label, run by Rick Rubin, someone whom The Crowes absolutely detested by the way.
Despite this setback, the Robinson brothers decided that the show must go on, and recruited Audley Freed and Sven Pipien, on guitar and bass respectively, to fill in the gaps, and soon began work on their next record, 1999’s By Your Side.
When this album hit the shelves there was no shortage of disapprobation directed toward the group by many long-time fans, who felt that The Crowes were selling out to their corporate masters. One observation made at the time was Chris Robinson’s visual transformation in particular, where seemingly overnight he went from unwashed hirsute hippie to Vidal Sassoon rocker. As if the man himself had experienced some kind of revelation; “And The Lord saideth unto Robinson, take Thee to a hair salon, and get thyself a conversion, and thus wilt Thou appeal to a great many masses, as Aerosmith before.” Though let’s be honest, such transformations are nothing new in the music business. How many rock bands from the 1960’s and 70’s still had long hair in the 80’s? Not that many I can tell you (Robert Plant thankfully kept his mane, but not even he was immune to that decade’s fashion).
I should also mention the cover, which immediately gives an indication to the listener all they need to know about the band’s new direction. Gone are the beards and flared trousers. Instead what we see are five heavily groomed men in white outfits surrounded by a lush and starry landscape. It’s all very stylish and manicured, and was obviously designed with the intention of not confusing or offending anyone.
“Go Faster” is a high-energy, fuel-injected opener, where The Crowes are not only determined to overtake you but run you off the road entirely, as the chorus attests, “You can’t stop/Or I might pass ya/If you slow down/I will outlast ya”. The song itself is fun while it lasts, if a little on the superficial side, just the way rock and roll ought to be sometimes. Hot on its heels is “Kickin’ My Heart Around”, another super-charged rocker with some scorching slide guitar by Rich Robinson (he plays all the guitars on this album). Once again, the song is mainly all posture and no substance, but who cares. The boys are obviously having a blast pretending that their 18 again, and I’m certainly not complaining that they are.
I’m in two minds as to the title track, which is basically a rewrite of The Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice”, except with different lyrics. Now while I’m sure the similarity was by no means intentional, I am surprised that Messrs Jagger and Richards didn’t get in touch with their lawyers knowing how protective they are of their trade.
The wah-wah infused “Horse Head” is the heaviest track on the album, and also one of the best. Sure the song has Led Zeppelin tattooed all over it, but that doesn’t matter an inch to me when one is listening to something as blistering and thunderous as this. The Crowes get all sentimental on “Only A Fool”, an obvious attempt at getting airplay if there was ever one. “Heavy” is enjoyable while it lasts, but is filler nonetheless, even if it is finely crafted. “Welcome to the Goodtimes” is a blend of late ‘60’s Beatles and early ‘70s Humble Pie, glorious to be sure but nothing especially memorable all the same the moment the last note has floated from out your speakers. “Go Tell the Congregation” has the group attempting to recapture the magic they managed to bottle on their second LP The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. The only problem is they no longer had Marc Ford to dirty things up and muddy the waters.
“Diamond Ring” would be a classic in the arms of Steve Marriot, but unfortunately here the band sound as though they’re simply going through the motions, regardless of how well-played and sung it might be. Likewise “Then She Said My Name”, which is essentially your early ‘70’s slice of generic rock, albeit in this case executed in an utterly convincing fashion. The only problem is, we’ve heard it a thousand times before.
But before you write the album off completely, they manage to finish with an absolute pearler, in the form of “Virtue and Vice”. And while the lyrics aren’t exactly William Blake, they do the job all the same, where Eddie Harsch’s jazzy piano and Rich’s soaring guitar work take the song to the mountain tops and beyond. This is arguably the moment of the album, a thematic piece that is inspired as it is uplifting, in that “Yeah, life can be shit, but when I hear this song I don’t feel so bad” kind of way. In other words, “Virtue and Vice” serves its purpose and then some.
All in all, By Your Side is hardly as horrible, nor as dreadful as many fans have made it out to be. If it had have been recorded by the likes of Aerosmith, or Bon Jovi, it would easily be regarded as a masterpiece, and a high benchmark many other bands could never hope to reach. Yes, it has serious commercial undertones, and yes, the lyrics can be clichéd and corny, but at the end of the day, isn’t that what rock and roll is all about?