“You can’t stop, or I will pass you/If you slow down, I will outlast you,” sings Chris Robinson on the kickoff track of the Black Crowes’ fifth album. Robinson’s band hasn’t been quite as tenacious as his boasts would imply, even if the Atlanta-born group has been around for a decade now. The Crowes debuted with 1990’s Shake Your Money Maker, an album of white-boy blues topped with stylized, raunchy rock. But the ensuing blowup of punk rock and hip-hop found the band fighting irrelevance from inside the realm of roots rock —playing with Blues Traveler, headlining the hippie-dippy Furthur festival. The Crowes smoothed their rough edges and meandered off into increasingly complacent jams; Robinson’s sudden need to go barefoot and sprout facial hair sealed their retro fate.
By Your Side, which comes on the heels of 1996’s largely overlooked Three Snakes and One Charm, is an attempt to return to their leaner, meaner roots. “Kicking My Heart Around” follows in the tradition of the Aerosmith classic “Draw the Line” —perhaps unsurprisingly for an album produced by former Aerosmith collaborator Kevin Shirley. “Go Tell the Congregation” kicks out a weighty, Bachman-Turner Overdrive-style bass line. “Heavy” delivers an old-school Seventies white-trash groove as Robinson sings to his main squeeze, “The way you put on your coat/The way you wiggle your toes/The way you scratch your nose . . . /I know you’re mine.” Robinson’s voice is sure-fire cocky, cheap-whiskey rough and, in spots, downright soulful. He still throws in embarrassingly forced exclamations such as “Goodness gracious!” and “Yeah, baby” —an annoying habit that first surfaced during their live shows —but now Robinson lets his throat, rather than his self-conscious blues-guy persona, lead the way.
His brother, guitarist and co-songwriter Rich, is brilliant in spots, letting it rip with Southern-rock abandon or lazy, drawling slide guitar. But his approach to the blues feels disingenuous on corny, slick numbers like “Only a Fool” (complete with a horn section and sappy guitar solo) and “Welcome to the Goodtimes,” on which overblown production highlights a sing-along chorus of “da, da, das.” By Your Side is catchier and hits harder than the band’s recent albums. But when Chris Robinson sings, “Can you make this thing go faster?” you have to wonder just where it is they’re heading.