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The Black Crowes
Lions
label: V2
released: 05.08.01
our score: 4.0 out of 5.0

Flying High
by: matt halverson

The Black Crowes' decision to tap uber-producer Don Was for their six album, Lions, met with skepticism from several who believed his glossy pop production didn't jive with the '70s southern rock revivalists' sound. But the band proceeded as planned, setting up shop in a converted Yiddish musical theater in New York to record the follow-up to 1999's By Your Side. Surrounded by incense and flickering candles, the Crowes proved the doubting Thomases wrong and laid down the best unofficial comeback album in recent memory.

The Crowes have established a reputation for being a hard-working touring band, largely through their decision to allow fans to tape their live performances. But it's been a while since they've written a song worthy of the effort it takes to tote that recording equipment to a show. The band's third release, Amorica, was more notable for its racy cover art than its sonic quality, and 1996's Three Snakes and One Charm was a messy collection of pot-induced tripe. The Crowes cleaned up and tried to make a comeback of sorts with Side in '99, but failed to return to the gritty blues-rock style they had introduced in 1990 with Shake Your Money Maker and perfected on the follow-up, Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. With a VH1 Behind the Music episode already behind them, the future looked bleak.

From guitarist Rich Robinson's grinding opening riff and brother Chris's sinister growl on "Midnight From the Inside Out," it's clear the Crowes got down and rolled around in the mud to regain their dirty southern rock sound for Lions. A rumbling dirge of guitar fuzz augmented by Chris's trademark screams, it's a much-needed musical enema that flushes out the remains of their previous misfires. "Greasy Grass River," a bluesy romp of mountain-top guitar solos and crashing cymbals, is another welcome return to the good old fashioned rock 'n roll the Crowes are capable of writing. But it's the rapture-inducing sing-along of "Soul Singing" that you'll be clapping to for the rest of the summer.

Touring with Jimmy Page over the past two years may have rejuvenated their love for rambling-man rock, but the brothers Robinson aren't too macho to unplug and throw in a few ballads for good measure. "Lay it All on Me" is the closest they've come to recapturing the beauty of Money Maker's "She Talks to Angels," and keyboardist Ed Harsch, who joined the band on Southern Harmony, lays down a soft, piano-bar accompaniment that gives a nod to Billy Joel's "Piano Man."

The Crowes' music has always had a familiar sounding quality. Often dismissed as a latter-day Led Zeppelin cover band, they've never tried to hide their derivative nature, but few have had as much success channeling the spirits of Page and Plant as Robinson and Robinson. (It's no coincidence their covers of Zeppelin classics like "Shapes of Things to Come" and "Whole Lotta Love" sounded so good on 2000's live release, Live at the Greek.) They show no signs of changing their ways with Lions, but at least this time they've expanded their influences. The dancing piano of "Cosmic Friend" is pure Yellow Submarine-era Beatles, and the power-ballad string arrangement of "Losing My Mind" scream of Aerosmith's "I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing." But there are worse bands to emulate.

So for all the debate over how Was would alter The Black Crowes' sound, the results of his knob-twiddling did nothing short of bring back their '70s bell-bottom swagger. After two albums-worth of sub-par material, Lions finds the Crowes knee-deep in the territory they know best.