Black Crowes Attempt To Return To Their Roost ...

Their cover of Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle" was hugely popular.

The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Faces, the Yardbirds, and ... the

Black Crowes? From the sounds of the band's fifth album, I'm afraid not.

Ever since the brothers Robinson (Chris does vocals, Rich plays guitar) debuted with Shake Your Money Maker (1990), the Black Crowes have made it clear that they aspire to be the '90s version of the classic English rhythm 'n' blues rock bands of yore. And at first it seemed as though they just might succeed. From the ambitious swagger of "Jealous Again" to the surprisingly enjoyable cover of Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle" -- who would have imagined that a group of white boys could do justice to Redding's seemingly inimitable soulful charge? -- Shake Your Money Maker was a boogie-down, homegrown hit. Since then, the Crowes have faltered. The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion (1992) saw the band continue in pursuit of this decade's Exile On Main Street. But somehow, on their subsequent two albums -- the pretentiously titled Amorica (1994) and Three Snakes And One Charm (1996) -- they turned left when they should have turned right, or made a U-turn. Worse yet, the band that once disdained the prevailing trends in modern music seemed to be casting around for a niche: they toured with Blues Traveler and headlined Further, the Un-Dead's revival show (somehow the Paisley Crowes don't work quite as well).

Now -- nine years and many musical trends later -- the Black Crowes are back with an attempt to return to their roots. Chris Robinson's

whiskey-soaked singing is as appealing as ever, and brother Rich's guitar

playing is more inspired than it's been in years, so the parts are good, but the whole is unsatisfying. After years of lukewarm reception, the Black Crowes seem to be trying too hard -- even their press materials are strained: the release that accompanies By Your Side trumpets: "The most 'rock 'n' roll' rock 'n' roll band in the world is back!"

The album-opener, "Go Faster," (RealAudio excerpt) sets the tone. As Chris implores the band

to "make this thing go faster," his fellow musicians fire off rock

clichés: shouts of "yeah!" punctuate the song, as do formulaic

bridges and overly enthusiastic back-up singers who sound as though they've been lifted wholesale from a Ford truck commercial. While the Black Crowes still rock (the highest compliment one can give them), their search for relevance has pretty much dead-ended, and they've begun to ape, rather than pay homage to, their idols. Which is too bad: Chris Robinson will never

outstrut Mick Jagger (literally or lyrically) and Rich will never

out-crunch Jimmy Page. Their lyrics are consistently tired and

clichéd and the songs never quite realize their potential. For

every guitar solo they nail, there's a superfluous and often silly gospel chorus thrown in; for every great melody, there's Chris Robinson

shouting "get on, get on, get on!" or "goodness gracious!"

Despite all the misplaced enthusiasm, there are a handful of wonderful musical moments here. The shimmering organ line and stop-start swagger of "Heavy" (RealAudio excerpt) is one, and the slowed-down blues of the title track is another. And the best song on the album, the anthemic "Virtue And Vice," (RealAudio excerpt) can proudly take its place

alongside "Jealous Again" as a true Crowes classic. Finally, Rich

Robinson continually delights: he's one of the best straightahead rock guitarists of the past 10 years. And the Crowes remain a solid rock band. In an era in which the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls rule the charts, that still counts for something.