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Preaching to the Rock Flock

[whitespace] Black Crowes
Crowes-Magnon Rock: The Black Crowes wallow in a rock-guitar-bound past.

That old-time rock & roll religion is good enough for the Black Crowes

By Gina Arnold

I HAVE A THEORY to explain why "derivative" is the adjective of choice for the most popular acts of the late 1990s. From Marilyn Manson's take on Iggy Pop to Lauryn Hill's take on Bob Marley, from Korn's take on Rage Against the Machine's to Jane's Addiction's take on Led Zep, there truly seems to be, as it says in the Bible, nothing new under the sun.

According to my theory, the cynicism and treachery that have riddled our world of late have finally affected our ability to enjoy pop music. Studio trickery, advertisements that use punk-rock hits and the world-weary machinations of rock stars have finally revealed themselves to a less-than-credulous public. As a result, the world is just a lot less interested in rock & roll music than it used to be.

Indeed, so bad is the relationship between audience and artist that the less authentic an act purports to be--the more obviously retro or derivative its music--the more chance it has of momentary success. Real authenticity no longer seems to exist in any genre. A satiated populace can only stomach "classic rock" acts and nostalgic takes on other eras--punks, glam, disco, swing, anything, just so long as it's not redolent of the here and now.

To a populace fearful of being found gullible, derivative stuff is at least trustworthy, because it doesn't require one to believe in its sincerity. And when it comes to purveying derivative material, the Black Crowes were way ahead of their time. Indeed, 10 years ago, as their peer groups in bands like R.E.M. and Nirvana were struggling to create a new sonic atmosphere, the Black Crowes were passionately committed to conservatism. They shamelessly aped bands like the Rolling Stones, the Faces and Aerosmith, playing music that looked steadfastly backward.

At the time, some critics embraced the Crowes for their belligerently conservative style and outrageously obnoxious behavior. Given that the scene was full of sensitive guys in flannel shirts singing about personal angst, the Crowes' old-fashioned excesses did seem refreshing. Musically, however, the band really stank. The Crowes' first hit was a blanched version of Otis Redding's "Too Hard Too Handle." Their second hit--wait--what was their second hit?

IN THE DECADE that followed, the Crowes achieved a certain amount of success by preaching to a constituency that eschewed alternative and new punk music as well as the chronologically authentic flavor of '60s bands like the Grateful Dead. By the late '90s, however, the Black Crowes were riddled with internal problems. The core of the band, brothers Rich and Chris Robinson, fought constantly. In the face of grunge dominance, the Crowes couldn't buy a hit.

In that sense, the timing of By Your Side (Sony/Columbia), the Black Crowes' fifth LP, is both risky and fortuitous. It's risky because this kind of hard guitar rock is at its lowest ebb in years. The only records that sell these days are ones by heartthrobs and rap and country acts.

But the timing is also fortuitous, because there are many people who are probably just beginning to miss the crunchy sound of loud guitars. And if they happen to be people who don't already own the entire catalog of Faces' records, which By Your Side patently rips off, they'll be very pleased indeed.

If, however, you do happen to know the songs on the Stones' Sticky Fingers or the Faces' A Nod Is as Good as a Wink, then you might very well be appalled by the Black Crowes' utter lack of vision and allegiance to the worst aspects of '70s hard rock. "Kickin' My Heart Around" conjures up Nod's "Stay With Me." "Horse Head" sounds like watery Led Zeppelin. "By Your Side" opens with the same chord sequence as "Tumbling Dice" from Exile on Main Street.

The only song with a modicum of originality is the opening track, "Go Faster," which leavens the band's sound with a pleasant little dose of Dave Matthews-like jangle pop. The ballad "Welcome to the Goodtimes" is also tolerable, except for the unquotable vacuity of the lyrics.

Lyrics are a problem throughout the album. Not only do the Crowes lack a musical vision, they also lack any kind of viable message, context or poesy. Chris Robinson, it's true, is a semicharismatic, if conceited, rock-star type, but more from a personality perspective than from an artistic one. And you either buy that shtick or you don't. To me, Robinson's "I'm a flamboyant 18th-century fop" look--which he's forced his hapless band members to assume on the album cover--makes them look amazingly like a big bunch of horses' asses. But then, I still like to see guys in flannel shirts, work boots and ski-caps.

We should count our blessings, though. It's actually a good thing that the Crowes aren't a more physically attractive band. In some ways, a song like "Go Tell the Congregation," which is highly reminiscent of the unfunky work of Grand Funk Railroad, is kind of frightening. It reminds me of 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president by selling us a "Happy Days Are Here Again" bill of goods that hearkened back to a very false re-creation of the '50s.

Reagan's position was strengthened by the popularity of the show Happy Days and by hits by the Stray Cats--or maybe the show and the hits came first. Either way, the Crowes are similar: they recall a '70s that didn't exist in the first place, a '70s when hard, dumb, sexist rock was cool.

Let's hope such a vision isn't what a population disgusted by the current state of affairs is craving; otherwise we'll get a presidential candidate in 2000 whose platform is all about the grand old days when skinny white guys ruled the earth.

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From the January 28-February 3, 1999 issue of Metro.

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