The Black Crowes Reawakened
The Black Crowes – Before the Frost…Until the Freeze
August 31, 2009
Silver Arrow Records
Victim of Loudness War? No
The Black Crowes have long been established as one of rock and roll’s pre-eminent live acts. Over the last 20 years, they have pushed boundaries on stages across the world, refusing to play their hits, choosing to instead melt faces with soaring guitar duels, earthy jams, outtakes from album sessions, B-sides to singles, new originals, re-worked originals, or a myriad assortment of well-chosen and expertly executed covers. The unfortunate thing is, like a majority of bands who are vitally potent on stage, that vitality does not always translate onto record.
In the case of the Black Crowes, the studio catalog has been spotty at best. Discounting The Lost Crowes (a rarities collection released in 2006 comprised from unreleased sessions recorded from 1993-1997), the Crowes’ recorded output the past 10 years has ranged from tentative but earnest (last year’s “comeback” Warpaint) to non-cohesive experimentation (2001’s Lions), to a downright awful parody of themselves (1999’s By Your Side). Even a live album (2002’s Live), which should have been the Crowes’ “ace in the hole,” failed to impress, mostly due to conservative song selection light on the jamming which defines their live experience, a sub-par line-up, and a very murky mix (very much a victim of the “Loudness War,” it is almost unlistenable).
Last year’s Warpaint, featuring new keyboardist Adam MacDougall and slide extraordinaire Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi All-Stars) on lead guitar was a step in the right direction; however, the raw experimentation that had permeated previous works was mostly missing – the record’s best moments were tempered with a weird anxiety – sometimes in the same songs (i.e “Walk Believer Walk,” “Wee Who See The Deep”), as if, as songwriters, brothers Chris (vocals, guitar) and Rich (guitar, vocals) felt they still had something to prove.
Those anxieties and insecurities are non-existent on Before the Frost…Until the Freeze, a two-disc set of amazing scope and maturity, that was recorded live in front of a small audience at Levon Helm’s Barn in Woodstock, NY. It seems as if the Brothers Robinson chose to push forward by digging further into the musical past. All-out rockers (the opening “Good Morning Captain,” “Been A Long Time,” “A Train Still Makes A Lonely Sound”) can be found on the first disc (Before the Frost… ), right next to folk-tinged numbers (like “Appaloosa” and “Last Place Love Lives”) that feature fiddle and banjo contributions by Larry Campbell (Levon Helm, Bob Dylan, Phil Lesh & Friends). Also found on the first disc is Rich Robinson’s first lead vocal on a Crowes studio record (the wistful “What Is Home”) and the disco/funk-influenced, amazingly snotty first single “I Ain’t Hiding”, a song full of the lyrical vitriol that is found all over this double album.
That being said, the real treat is the second disc …Until The Freeze, (given away as a free mp3 or FLAC download to those who buy Before The Frost…), which opens up with the droning jam of “Aimless Peacock.” Featuring Rich Robinson on sitar, Larry Campbell’s fiddle, and Chris Robinson on harmonica, it is an amazingly vibe-heavy piece with almost no lyrics, save for the closing refrain “A song for everyone to sing.” “Peacock” eventually gives way to the harmony-driven “Shady Grove,” a folk-by-way-of-barroom-honky-tonk rock n’ roll number that is a winner from start to finish.
After that is “The Garden Gate,” which is a positively Appalachian, bluegrass-informed hoe-down. Again, Larry Campbell’s fiddle playing is amazing, and Dickinson’s mandolin flourishes are exquisite. If not for the voice, a person wouldn’t believe it was the Black Crowes, musically sounding as if someone has taken Yonder Mountain String Band, mixed it with Dan Tyminski of Allison Krauss’ band and filtered it through Beggar’s Banquet-era Stones. However, the highlight of Before the Frost…Until the Freeze has to be the gorgeous “Greenhorn,” a song filled with lush harmonies that is assured and mature, while remaining wistful and bright at the same time.
This may not be the record that most Crowes fans expect from the band, but it is an amazing piece of work. It certainly took guts for the band to release a record such as this, but it certainly feels right, as if this is exactly the record that they needed to make at this point, both to separate from their musical past as well as to open up the future. Before the Frost… signals a creative rebirth for the Crowes. While last year’s Warpaint was supposed to be the “comeback” record, this is the Black Crowes’ true return.
– Jeremy Hunsaker
To purchase The Black Crowes’ Before the Frost…Until the Freeze, please click here.
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