For those fans who were disappointed with By Your Side, must have been spitting blood when this album came out. The recording sessions for Lions took place at the Montana Rehearsal Studios in New York City, and were mixed at the famed The Record Plant and Electric Lady studios by none other than Don Was, who was also the producer. Pretty good so far, or at least on paper. Except that Lions would prove to be yet another example of The Crowes chasing that ever elusive commercial dragon, while dragging their own artistic integrity down with it. Well, maybe not entirely. Take opener “Midnight from the Inside Out” for instance. The song starts off strongly, with a riff borrowed straight out of the Hendrix songbook, before spilling out then rapidly coalescing into a fully formed psychedelic-rock song. It certainly has its moments, I must say, but maybe not enough to convince this listener.
“Lickin’” has some powerful playing, and reminds me of early Humble Pie on steroids, with a crap chorus thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately “Come On” is not much better, despite all its fine intentions. Since when did The Black Crowes try and imitate Primal Scream? I thought at this point in their career it would have been the other way around. “No Use Lying” begins promisingly before sinking faster than a cowboy in quicksand every time the chorus comes in.
“Losing My Mind” reminds me of Tesla, or one of those many other bands who think they have a talent for writing epic love songs. Rich Robinson’s vocals are awkwardly out of tune, just to add to your listening pleasure, while the majestic string arrangement is obviously designed to pick the listener up and sweep him (or her) away in a state of universal ecstasy. Chris Robinson was at this point with Kate Hudson which probably explains the banality of lyrical expression. A far cry from his days of “Sometimes Salvation”.
Things improve with the lightweight “Ozone Mama”, but not much. I’m sure that to hear this song live would be a blast, but here it just sounds like your everyday white man’s flaccid funk. Better is “Greasy Grass River”, a rock-blues workout which The Crowes do best, and like the days of old. It’s just a pity that Marc Ford wasn’t still with the band to add his own bit of magic.
“Soul Singing” is Nick Drake meets Gospel, thanks to Rich Robinson’s guitar picking and his brother’s Steve Marriot-like vocals. This track is by far the best out of a pretty ordinary bunch. We bog down again with the obviously heartfelt yet no less supermarket variety of “Be A Miracle to Me”. The sort of song you’ll find in the frozen section next to late era Aerosmith. On “Young Man, Old Man” the band flex a bit of funk-rock muscle, while on the Beatle-esque “Cosmic Friend” the band get all experimental (for their level), before launching into a riff Jimmy Page himself would be proud of.
“Cypress Tree” sees the band attempting to recapture their past glories by retreading familiar ground. In other words, it enjoyable while it lasts, but doesn’t linger once it’s over. Not so the final song “Lay it All On Me”, which is maybe the most honest and truly earnest statement of the entire album. At least Chris Robinson isn’t singing as though he has a song sheet in front of him, letting it all pour out, in sincerest fashion.
And that’s the issue I have with this record; too much affectation and not enough soul. Blame it on Pro Tools or Kate Hudson if you will, but obviously the band were simply trying too hard and believing in the wrong things, regardless of Chris Robinson’s statement at the time that this was their best album. How often have we heard that from artists when talking about their latest exhibition? Lions is to The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion what Emotional Rescue is to Exile on Main Street. In other words The Black Crowes had become a pale comparison to their former selves. And despite the obvious hard work and massive input by all involved, my musical barometer indicates that this LP is more bore than roar. And the barometer never lies.