The Best Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in the World
The Black Crowes Strike Back with Lions

The Black Crowes are the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.

As you’ve probably guessed, this is going to be one of those columns where I make a bold, blanket statement and then spend the rest of several thousand words defending it. The cool thing about doing it this way is that those that violently disagree with me have already stopped reading and are readying their vitriolic return e-mails. Bring ‘em on, I say. Spirited debate is the lifeblood of passionate, intelligent people, and I’m sure you all consider yourselves both of the above. One more time for the world:

The Black Crowes are the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.

How you feel about this statement probably depends largely on your definition of rock ‘n’ roll. A lot of bands purport to play rock ‘n’ roll simply because they have the guitars-bass-drums lineup. Of all the bands to appear in the last 10 years or so, only one has come forth to challenge the Crowes, and that’s Buckcherry. They’re a band whose roots go back farther than Nirvana, and whose whole attitude screams that almost indefinable spirit of rock.

Some fool with a magazine column said of Radiohead’s Kid A that the British quintet had “redefined the rock band.” Radiohead is not now, and has never been, a rock band. Rock as a style requires a near-bypassing of the cerebrum entirely. Real rock ‘n’ roll sounds as if it’s being made up on the spot, and fired with an energy that can’t be planned, thought out or faked in any way. Whether or not you like Buckcherry, you can’t deny their energy and sloppy passion.

But we’re not here to talk about Buckcherry. We’re here to talk about the Black Crowes, the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.

Admittedly, the Crowes have attained their title largely by default. I have a long-running argument with my old publisher, Bennie Green, who would scoff, “As long as the Rolling Stones are still playing, they’ll be the greatest rock band in the world.” I think that statement can only be made by ignoring the last quarter-century of sheer, monumental crap the Stones have consistently produced. At one time, yeah, they had it, but at this point the Stones have sucked for 25 years and no one’s had the heart to tell them.

Aerosmith is another contender, or they were before Diane Warren and a host of awful studio producers got their hands on them. They’ve alternated between glimmers of greatness and torrents of awfulness since re-forming in 1985, and they seem genuinely pleased to warble crap like “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” and share a stage with Britney and Nelly at the Super Bowl. The tragedy of Aerosmith is that when they’re on, they’re terrific.

Besides those two, though, who’s the competition? On sheer attitude and consistency, the Crowes have had the field to themselves ever since their 1990 debut. When you put on a Black Crowes album, you feel it. They’re a band that hearkens back to the grand resurgence of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1970s, drawing on influences like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Grand Funk Railroad and, yes, the Rolling Stones. To call them clones is to miss the point. They’re torch-bearers, and without them, the ‘90s would have been intolerably rock-free.

As something of an acknowledgement of their royal position, the Crowes have titled their sixth album Lions, after the king of the jungle. Like all of their works, this record could have been released in 1972 and no one would have bat an eye.

Lions most resembles the Crowes’ second album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. In fact, they seem to be going in a bit of a cycle. Their debut was a slick rock record, and they followed it up with Companion, a glorious mess. After the challenging double album that became Amorica and Three Snakes and One Charm, the boys returned to the sound of the debut with the powerhouse By Your Side in 1998. Lions, like Companion, follows up a slick rock record with a wondrous, sloppy mess that sounds spontaneously created.

Indeed, it even kicks off with a false start, a feedback-drenched mistake that only cements the impression that Lions is a live recording. A little checking found that the basic tracks (guitars, bass, drums, keys and lead vocals) were laid down live, a rarity these days. Even Phish is assembling their studio albums rather than performing them. What you get with Lions is a great rock band being just that.

Even notorious over-producer Don Was couldn’t sink the vibe the live recording created. He occasionally piles the strings on, which almost ruins “Losing My Mind,” one of the weaker tracks to begin with. His production touches are appreciated in the closer, “Lay It All On Me,” though. Remember on those great Zeppelin records when Jimmy Page would let loose a wailing electric guitar solo in the midst of a flurry of orchestration, and the effect was monolithic? A similar effect is achieved here, and even though we’ve heard this sort of thing before, it still soars.

Don Was also learned well the lesson Paul McCartney taught on the second side of Abbey Road: a bunch of unrelated songs can be made to sound like a suite simply by segueing them. Every track on Lions flows directly into the next (except, of course, for the last one), and even though the songs mean nothing to each other, they seem inseparable. In this age of the three-minute single, it’s a defiant statement that Lions is meant to be heard as a whole.

Driving the whole train, however, is the awesome rock ‘n’ roll presence of the Crowes themselves. Guitarist Rich Robinson has perfected his deceptively messy style, and his tone here is harsh and distorted. A Hendrix parallel wouldn’t be too far off. His singing brother Chris is, God bless him, absolutely live here, just like he was on Companion. Remember “Sometime Salvation,” in which he sounded on the verge of snapping his vocal cords at any second? Remember how invigorating it was to hear a singer thrust that much of himself through the microphone and onto the disc? Robinson hits wrong notes, flubs rhythms and strains his little heart out to reach the high notes, and all the while he presents himself with unrestrained conviction. He is a born rock ‘n’ roll singer.

In an age of computer-adjusted pre-fab pop stars and safe-for-radio “modern rock,” whatever the hell that means, it’s a rare, refreshing treat to hear a great band just get down and play. That’s an opportunity that Lions affords you, and in all its unkempt imperfection, it’s a joy. If you can get through the whole thing without playing air guitar once, you may want to invest in that Steely Dan box set, ‘cause rock ‘n’ roll has passed you by.

End of review proper. Here’s a few scattered notes that couldn’t be squeezed in:

In keeping with what seems to be a ridiculous tradition these days, the album’s weakest track, “Lickin’,” is also the first single. I’m not sure why they did this, especially when the very next song, “Come On,” would have been a far superior choice.

The Crowes have long been supporters of the Internet as a music distribution outlet. Their live album with Jimmy Page first appeared as a download months before it hit stores. For a limited time, when you purchase Lions, you get a password that links you to a site chock full of Crowes live performances. You can stream whole shows, download highlights and even download one entire show, and the band endorses your next impulse, which would be to burn it onto a CD. For the price of one disc, you get a free live album out of the deal. That’s pretty cool, and it also shows this band’s devotion to the ‘net as the future of artist-fan relations.

That’s all for now. Next week is huge, with Tool, R.E.M., Weezer and the Cowboy Junkies. I’m not sure which I’ll choose, but if you have a preference, e-mail me and let me know. Thanks for reading.

See you in line Tuesday morning.