The Black Crowes Album Project:
By Your Side (1999)
Chris Robinson, vocals, harp
Rich Robinson, guitar
Steve Gorman, drums
Sven Pipien, bass
Eddie Harsch, keys
The Dirty Dozen, horns
Zoe Thrall, flute
Curtis King, Cindy Mizelle, Tawatha Agee, Brenda White King, Vanees Thomas, background vocals
Where to begin?
Contrary to popular belief, The Black Crowes’ 5th official album, By Your Side, is not a terrible album. Unfortunately it’s not a very good album either. Of the 11 tracks, 5 of them fall into the ‘shitty’ category and only 3 or 4 can be considered to be truly worthy of the canon.
So what went wrong? The obvious answer would seem to be the absence of lead guitarist Marc Ford and bassist Johnny Colt. The Crowes are a five piece on BYS with Rich Robinson handling both lead and rhythm guitar and Sven Pipien debuting on bass. Listening to the album, however, one quickly realizes that Sven is a great bassist and Rich acquits himself quite well as a lead player. It’s really the songs and the production that are lacking.
The Black Crowes are not provided with a producer credit on BYS. That “honor” goes exclusively to Kevin Shirley, producer of late-period pop Aerosmith, who unfortunately succeeds in giving the Crowes an overly-slick, overly-calculated sound, just like late-period pop Aerosmith.
It would make more sense if BYS was a sophomore effort from a young band that used up most of their best material on their debut and allowed themselves to be subsumed by the Borg-like pop music factory. The songs on BYS are slick, accessible and well-played. They are also mostly boring and emotionless. Everyone’s going through the motions here.
Ironically, many casual Crowes fans actually love BYS precisely because it’s commercial pop-rock music that fits neatly on FM radio. After finding Amorica too dark and Three Snakes too trippy, the casual fan thought that BYS was a return to form, a reclamation of the SYMM glory days.
But the difference between SYMM and BYS is massive. Where SYMM is endearingly sloppy, BYS is too slick. Where SYMM is bursting with passion, BYS is cold and emotionless. BYS feels like it was produced by the CrowesBot 5000, set to ‘milquetoast hit record’.
There are only three songs worth mentioning in detail. “Horsehead” is old-school dirty blues. The b-side acoustic version does a better job showcasing the song’s intensity, but the album version is still solid. “Welcome to the Goodtimes” shouldn’t work, between the jingle bells and the “na-na-na” chorus, but it does. Again, the acoustic version (off “iTunes exclusive”) is better, but the BYS version is excellent, too. Finally, “Virtue & Vice” is a classic epic-Crowes tune, complete with Eddie’s oh-so-tasteful outro.
“By Your Side”, “Only a Fool” and “Diamond Ring” are all okay songs. The rest we pretend don’t exist and pray they don’t show up in a setlist. The music is forgettable and the lyrics are lazy at best.
in the end, we’re left to play ‘what if?’ and wonder what would have happened to the Crowes’ career if they released the country-fried Band instead of By Your Side after TSAOC. Final Score: 2.6
1) Go Faster: 2
2) Kicking My Heart Around: 2
3) By Your Side: 3
4) Horsehead: 4
5) Only A Fool: 3
6) Heavy: 1
7) Welcome To The Goodtimes: 4
8) Go Tell The Congregation: 2
9) Diamond Ring: 3
10) Then She Said My Name: 2
11) Virtue & Vice: 3
For four albums (plus two virtually finished, unreleased classics we later discovered) and the better part of the 1990’s, The Black Crowes were one of the most ambitious, organic and creative bands of all time. Paradoxically, while they unabashedly tapped into rock’s roots (“The Song” they called it), the Crowes never looked back. Each album was a significant step forward. It was as if they were motivated by naïve critics’ accusations that they were retro copycats. The Black Crowes were determined to prove everyone wrong.
But 7 years of touring and the lifestyle of the road finally caught up to the band in the Summer of 1997, resulting in the departures of lead guitarist Marc Ford and bassist Johnny Colt. Undaunted, Chris and Rich Robinson recruited old friend Sven Pipien and Cry of Love’s Audley Freed to replace Colt and Ford, respectively. A new line-up, a track-record of declining sales and a new label left the brothers with less leverage than during their heyday.
The result was By Your Side, released in early 1999. It’s difficult to listen to this album again and impossible to consider what might have been. Many of the songs were born during the 1997 tour and, while familiar, they were different. Producer Kevin “Caveman” Shirley absolutely butchered the band’s songwriting, sonically and lyrically. He famously challenged them to write and play like teenagers and that’s exactly what the band did. Ironically, a band that desperately denied trying to sound like their influences was desperately trying to sound like The Black Crowes (or at least what the studio execs thought they should be.)
The opening count-off’s cheesiness is only surpassed by Shirley’s production throughout, which is way too loud, way too fast and way over the top. It’s a shame, because a lot of the songs are actually good. Performance-wise, Chris was better when he was restrained (the underrated “Diamond Ring”) but spent too much time screaming. Rich handled all the guitars (Freed was not yet in the fold while they were in the studio). While Ford was missed, Rich held his own. But, clearly, this was a new era and the future was not as bright as it used to be. Final Score: 2.4 (rounding down because of the album cover, one of the worst in rock history.)
Go Faster: 2
Kickin’ My Heart Around: 2
By Your Side: 3
Only A Fool: 3
Welcome to the Goodtimes: 3
Go Tell The Congregation: 2
Diamond Ring: 3
Then She Said My Name: 2
Virtue and Vice: 3
Previous Release: 1996′s Three Snakes and One Charm
Up Next: 2001′s Lions
To learn more about The Black Crowes Album Project, please read the introduction.