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In 1990, when the Black Crowes’ Shake Your Money Maker touched down, I recall a pal shoring up his indie credibility by hammering on the Crowes—his fellow Southern natives—calling them an Aerosmith cover band gone too far. Though I didn’t entirely concur and had no conscious aversion to floppy feathered hats, I kept quiet. The long-haired teenagers who ruled my neighborhood in buckskin shoes, Levi’s denim jackets, and Molly Hatchet baseball T-shirts had charmed me into their camp, especially a hippie-momma babysitter named Jesse. With regrets, I coolly betrayed them.

The Crowes’ only crime is saving bar rock from its ’80s L.A. pop-metal pileup, holding court with an increasingly sprawling majesty. Suckled on ’70s rock, studied in ’60s soul, and sporting a dynamic singer, they managed to catch a wave of ’90s reauthentication. Their first two albums, Money Maker and 1992’s The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (announcing the band as traditionalists of fringe boogie and rivals of Garrison Keillor’s radio program), sold 10 million copies combined, putting the bar band in the company of the widely popular and the should-have-been-washed-up-but-still-cashing-in: the corporate Stones, Aerosmith, and the college camping trip called the Grateful Dead. But the Crowes clearly exceed those elder groups in authenticity at the juncture where it counts, between the speaker and ear. In rock ‘n’ roll, subtle degrees of realness can mean the difference between satisfaction and sham.

It’s the stuff of a thousand generic press releases, but By Your Side really is the hardest rockin’, most focused Crowes record to date. The Crowes have replaced two members for the new record, but that can hardly account for its assuredness. It’s Southern rock honed with an economy that the No Depression set can appreciate. Rich Robinson’s guitar is turned up, and he plays closer to the surface than ever. Money Maker sounds limp by comparison. The band once ditched the sought-after production team that rose with them, George Drakoulias and engineer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam), for Jack Joseph Puig (Red Hot Chili Peppers). This time, they’ve chosen Kevin “Caveman” Shirley, who resurrected Aerosmith (are they towing life-support systems behind their Marshall stacks?), and he trades in some naturalism for tighter contemporary sounds.

By Your Side comes out fighting, with a straightforward scorching that departs from the noodlier boogie of the Crowes’ songbook. Perhaps it’s drugs and divorce, the dark side, that have focused the band, as the cliché goes. “Go Faster” and the déjà vu of the gratuitous “Kickin’ My Heart Around” will undoubtedly roll around the AOR dial for many months. They’re satisfying, shake-the-demons-out-of-the-system rockers. When titular “By Your Side” comes, it’s a bit of a thoughtful, weary come-down, and surprisingly believable when Chris Robinson says, “I’ve been over/the hill and back.” It’s also a moment when the parallels between the Crowes and the Faces—namely between singers Chris Robinson and Rod Stewart—are crystal-clear. “Horsehead” is hard rock à la Zeppelin; it maintains By Your Side’s rock heft but hardly charts any new territory. It strongly suggests what stadium giants Page and Plant could do with a real big black-lady gospel chorus when their Egyptian orchestra is on loan.

By Your Side contains immediate shortcuts to the glorious moments the Crowes have sometimes pursued or discovered lazily. Amorica’s “A Conspiracy,” the apex of the band’s career, isn’t noticeably melodic: A jam with a recurring chorus comes on, an epiphany resulting in the most electric AOR single of 1994. Otherwise, Amorica is often directionless, an embrace of a kind of madness for which its opener “Gone” sets the stage, but which Amorica never explains. Three Snakes and One Charm offers only “Blackberry” as a succinct radio moment; otherwise, it’s a groovy jaunt lost in neo-psychedelia like “Evil Eye.” There’s nothing in By Your Side that’s as unique as “A Conspiracy.” “Heavy” is a Stax/Volt riff that the organ and guitar can agree on, spill over, and come back to. The band rises to the occasion to fill in the gaps with organ jams. “Then She Said My Name” isn’t so hot—it’s cheap, briefly interrupting the record’s otherwise momentous grandeur. “Virtue and Vice” narrowly reclaims it.

“Welcome to the Goodtimes” is a high point; its ballady sing-along is new for the Robinsons, and Rod or Mick might gladly have taken a crack at it. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band adds almost too much color to the tune, nearly going for baroque. Ultimately, “Goodtimes” and the upbeat, Stones-y “Only a Fool” put another feather in the Crowes’ floppy honky-tonk cap.

The Crowes are really only as good as Chris Robinson, a harlequin and cocky performer of the old school. By Your Side suggests that he still has places to go, and perhaps he’s anxious to get there. He has a way of singing at 150 percent, pushing the Crowes into a rock ‘n’ roll stratosphere that makes me blush, unprepared. On By Your Side, he sometimes doesn’t have the time to warm up and sing through the bridges, and there’s something characteristically Crowes that’s given up to Side’s tautness. But they’re still completely over the top, asking us again, insistently: Do you believe in Southern rock? The denim with the pot-leaf patches and floppy hats, the plane crashes, the weathered cats with their Strats? And the whiskey-drinkin’ bad boys?CP