The Black Crowes, Before the Frost/Until the Freeze

bcrowes_phixrThis past year has seen plenty of rock bands that ruled the 90s reunite in an effort to relive their past glories with some being much more welcome (Blur!!) than others (Creed??). Nevertheless, do not lump the Black Crowes in with this reunion bands.

Sure, the blues rock band led by Chris and Rich Robinson enjoyed its biggest success in the early 90s with the mega-sellers Shake Your Money Maker and The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion but the Crowes have been planning its rebirth for a while now.

After a harsh beginning to start this decade in which there were disagreements that led to an extended hiatus, the Robinson brothers brought back the band with a few lineup changes a few years ago and decided to focus on one of its biggest strengths–live performances. Not surprisingly, the Black Crowes regained its swagger behind Rich Robinson’s impressive guitar work and Chris Robinson’s dirty soul vocals.

With the live side of the Crowes working so well, it was time to start recording new music and the band did just that with last year’s mighty fine Warpaint. That record was such a joy because it continued with the Atlanta band’s love of its influences–classic rock, blues, and gospel–while also introducing another new talented guitarist for the band, Luther Dickinson.

Dickinson proved to be such a great addition to the band that the Crowes are now on a creative roll. Just a year after Warpaint, the band has released a double album entitled Before the Frost/Until the Freeze. This recording is not your normal run of the mill one though as it is full of new material recorded in front of a live audience at Levon Helm’s barn and the Until the Freeze half is available as a free download.

Regardless of the double album aspect, it is best to consider each record separately and that is for two reasons. One, the sound of each is different with one more electric and one more acoustic. Secondly, one–Before the Frost–is more superior that the other.

The electric Before the Frost is classic Black Crowes. It is raunchy and loud at times but also passionate and somber at other times. (Yes, it sounds like 70s era Rolling Stones and late period Faces but there’s nothing wrong with that with such great musicians playing here.)

Of the louder numbers, the highlights include the opener “Good Morning Captain” with its killer chorus, boogie piano, and shimmering slide guitar and “Been A Long Time” which features sublime vocals along with a fantastic guitar jam near its end. The band, particularly Rich Robinson and Dickinson, sound so good early on that even the rock disco number “I Ain’t Hiding,” which could turn out embarrassing for most bands, sounds sublime.  

As for the ballads, there are some graceful ones such as the country-tinged “Appaloosa” and the sad “Houston Don’t Dream About Me.” Yet, the most interesting soft song is the spare closer “Last Place That Love Lives” which features Chris Robinson’s vunerable singing backed by acoustic guitars, banjos, and fiddles. It is a strange way to end the album but a beautiful one.

Strangely enough, one would think that spare, acoustic vibe would translate well onto the much quieter Until the Freeze album. For the most part though, it doesn’t. Until the Freeze is more country-rock with songs that feature plenty of pedal steel guitar and banjos. There is no doubt that everything is played and sung well here but the songs themselves aren’t particularly memorable. “Greenhorn” and “Lady of Avenue A” are the notable exceptions to this but one is left wondering how much better they might be with the band giving it a louder, electric sound.

In the end, this double album is nothing the Black Crowes should be ashamed of though. Before the Frost is a great recording that, along with Warpaint, continues along with the band’s resurgence. As for Until the Freeze, it might not be the band’s best but it shows the Black Crowes are willing to try something different and aren’t afraid to let people to listen to it.

Author: Todd Sikorski

[Rating: 3.5/5]

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