By Your Side
Like any small group of world-class, highly paid performers -- from sports teams to rock 'n' roll bands -- when things take a downward turn, an individual or two pays the price. For the Black Crowes, after two subpar-selling records, the heads that rolled belonged to guitarist Marc Ford and bassist Johnny Colt, both of whom parted ways shortly before recording began on By Your Side, the Crowes' fifth studio album. With Rich Robinson taking on all guitar duties, the result is a pure, unadorned Southern-rock album: a backtrack from the experimental Amorica (1994) and Three Snakes & One Charm (1996), and a sequel to the Crowes' 1990 debut, Shake Your Money Maker.
With each of its songs clocking in at less than five minutes, By Your Side lacks the complexity, and some might say genius, of the Crowes' less popular albums but conversely offers several potential radio hits, including the title track, a slow rocker reminiscent of "Twice as Hard," with a gospel touch. Also destined to stick in the head of many a fraternity brother are "Go Faster," a vintage Crowes straight-ahead rocker, and the swaggering "Kicking My Heart Around."
Throughout By Your Side, singer Chris Robinson proves he is peerless, unless he should find himself in a room with Rod Stewart or Steven Tyler. If there were ever a voice tailor-made for pure, hard soul-rock, Robinson's gritty, full cry is it. He gets help to boot from female backup singers who often sound like a church choir (lest you forget for a minute that this is a Georgian band). Lyrically Robinson has traded in some of his social consciousness (marijuana legalization was a favorite topic in the past) for simpler messages that fit nicely into the simple songs -- most being love-related. "When you feel your heart is breakin'/And all your friends are fakin'/ When it's givin' and no takin'/I will be by your side," he sings on the title track, adding (of course) an "I'll be right there for you, baby," the second time through. On "Only a Fool," a soul-on-steroids effort, Robinson wails, "Only a fool would let you go/I need you, so baby please don't go/ Don't go, girl."
Though Robinson's screeching voice and his brother's heavy, Allmanesque lead guitar drive By Your Side, the backing vocals and a horn section give the disc a second dimension, especially on "Welcome to the Goodtimes," a melody-driven power ballad that hints at Dixieland, and the overtly gospel "Go Tell the Congregation." But then again even a bare-bones classic-rock album is refreshing to hear these days, especially at the hands of the Crowes -- this generation's best.
-- Jonathan Lesser
Out of Tune
Mojave 3 is actually a quintet, but the contradiction its name implies is fitting. It's almost an English Americana band, but it's just as much a country-influenced, space-rock outfit. The lonesome melodies, pedal steel guitar, and Gram Parsons-esque songwriting all use the neocountry movement as a point of reference, but the six years spent by singer/ bassist Rachel Goswell and singer/songwriter/guitarist Neil Halstead in the ethereal, shoe-gazing band Slowdive have a strong presence as well.
What separates Mojave 3 from other indie rock bands who have "discovered" George Jones and Hank Williams is the spacy, drawn-out quality of the tunes and production. Like the desert from which the band takes its name, Mojave 3's songs drift and fade into each other, with a laconic mood that carries throughout. Co-produced by the band and electronica artist-producer Mark Van Hoen, Out of Tune benefits from the simplicity of the arrangements and strong songwriting, which rarely strays from the time-honored country topic of bad love and the ensuing pain. Halstead's voice stays stoically calm, but with Goswell's radiant harmonizing the well-worn lyrical ideas are given new life.
When Mojave 3 does branch out from the y'allternative style, it approaches the gospel-influenced bombast of bands like Spiritualized and early Verve (worth noting since B.J. Cole, Mojave's pedal-steel player, toured with the Verve last year). But the group keeps the bombast in check, even when they speed up and get louder. On "Caught Beneath Your Heel," with guest Lisa Millet adding soulful vocals, the band takes its time with the six-minute track to craft a thoughtful, falling-out-of-love song. Building from simple acoustic guitar, Hammond organ, and Halstead's vocals, it hardly feels like a song until tambourine and drums are added. But just as the song works up a head of steam -- with Millet's voice crying out amid train-station reverb -- it drops back to the original instrumentation, so as not to get out of hand. The last half of the song finds Millet, Halstead, and Goswell repeating the line "just tell me what you see" ad infinitum as the song fades in a blur of reverb and organ droning.
Whereas most bands would use a song like "Caught Beneath Your Heel" as an excuse for excess, Mojave 3 finds a low plateau and goes no further, staying in control and creating a quiet maelstrom. Mojave 3's attention to the pacing of songs and the overall album are what make Out of Tune such an uncontradictory joy.
-- David Simutis