The Black Crowes: Before The Frost…

By Team JamBase Sep 1, 2009 5:33 pm PDT

By: Dennis Cook

In Taoism there’s the concept of “the unclouded clarity of a mirror,” where what’s reflected is truthful, blemishes intact but also glowing with the beauty of things seen without masks or subterfuge, fraud or self-delusion. It’s an idyllic perspective that’s either unlikely or flat out impossible to achieve but it’s always striking when one comes face-to-face with such honest glimmers. While perhaps a stretch to some, The Black Crowes‘ eighth studio offering, Before The Frost…Until The Freeze (released August 31 on Silver Arrow Records) positively shines in such a Taoist way, where the music feels as unforced as a breeze or a flowing stream, offering listeners as clear and un-muddled a picture of the band as ever etched.

Recorded live at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, NY, the delighted audience outbursts at end of songs are the only outward sign these aren’t pure studio creations. Well, that and the in-the-moment vibe evident throughout, which approximates the Crowes’ monster concert energy in a more focused manner. Split into two halves, Before The Frost… is the commercial CD that comes with a download code for …Until The Freeze, or the pair is available as double vinyl, where you can sort your seeds ‘n’ stems while imbibing their latest. The very together band – Chris Robinson (lead vocals, lyrics, harmonica, guitars), sibling Rich Robinson (guitars, sitar, vocals), Steve Gorman (drums, percussion), Sven Pipien (bass, vocals), Luther Dickinson (guitars, mandolin) and Adam MacDougall (keyboards, vocals) – are aided in choice spots by Larry Campbell (fiddle, pedal steel, banjo), and producer/engineer Paul Stacey returns, once again capturing a warm, inviting, uncluttered sound for the boys.

Last year’s Warpaint showed they still had fire in their bellies to keep rock ‘n’ roll tough and real and good, but seen in the light of this new double record set, it’s clearly a shoring up of strengths, a condensed primer in the Crowes’ essential characteristics as they attempted to set some tunes in stone for the first time with a freshly minted lineup. Warpaint is a great record, unquestionably one of their best, but what we want of our beloved artists is bravery and invention, tangible proof that they can be more, do more, hear more, communicate more than they have in the past. This new collection bobs and weaves on light feet, taking us places we’ve never been and revealing, perhaps more fully than any other outing, the full rainbow the Crowes are capable of. From the Lovin’ Spoonful worthy skip of “Shady Grove” to the straight-up twang of “Roll Old Jeremiah” to the three-bumps-over-the-line disco strut of “I Ain’t Hiding” to the heart-ticklin’ bluegrass of “Garden Gate” to the delightfully overt Beatles-isms of “And The Band Played Om…” to the effervescent, Brit-folk-like shimmer of “What Is Home?” and peak David Crosby-esque “Greenhorn,” this is a Black Crowes we have not met before…except every element and ancestral echo has been nascent in their makeup for decades. What’s different this round is they seem to have jettisoned their own internal definition of what constitutes a Black Crowes song, which in turn has opened a creative floodgate paired with fully engaged performances and an appealingly relaxed feel. In accepting themselves and the music as it comes they’ve unleashed a harvest basket of treats that harbinger great growing seasons to come. Put another way, this seems like the beginning of a major new era marked by well-sighted craftsmanship and boisterous imagination.

There’s such great harmonies here, full of dinged-up humanity but also the mysterious ability to touch heaven with coalescing voices, and out front, as he should be, is Chris Robinson, exhibiting a master’s range, shifting with the needs of each piece, doing things that only age and experience can produce in a singer. He’s dirt road rough when they plow into the prickly blues of “Kept My Soul” and the jam-dappled “Been a Long Time (Waiting On Love),” then he oozes countrypolitan soul on “Houston Don’t Dream About Me,” Marvin Gaye meanness on the slithery “I Ain’t Hiding” or just plain old angelic shiver on “Aimless Peacock.” And everywhere the balance of singer and song, musical and lyrical setting, is a glove fit, each less without the other but so bloody cool when shaking hands, as on “Make Glad” – perhaps the Crowes’ equivalent to Rare Earth’s “I Just Want To Celebrate,” each a joyful outburst peppered with dark lined verses – or the Gram-tastic “The Last Place That Love Lives.” In fact, taken as a whole this collection is the fruition of Parsons’ idea of “Cosmic American Music,” but unlike most mere imitators, the Crowes don’t halt the music’s evolution where Gram left it. More than ever, the Crowes welcome in whatever floats into their purview and digest it in their own sweet way(s).

Regardless of what’s come before, THIS configuration of players, this massive assemblage of overflowing personality and talent, has come into their own with these recordings. No one is walking in anyone else’s footsteps anymore, and repeat spins reveal wonderful touches and lyrical accents from every man. The Crowes have never lacked for gifted musicians but this grouping beats any past lineup in at least one major aspect – respect for one another and the material. The level of nuance and empathetic partnership apparent on every cut is evidence that the camaraderie hinted at on Warpaint has developed into a bone-depth bond, at least sonically. Nothing gets in the way of anything else, each note where it should be instead of crying out for attention, and thus the overall weight and quality of each number is increased exponentially. It’s not the solos folks will be talking about when they discuss these albums but what textured, varied, inspired work it all is.

Like Warpaint‘s opener, “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution,” the new record’s title has vaguely apocalyptic implications, the ship that began to sink in “Daughters” still going down, but the music itself is a firm hand to hold as ice mounts and temperatures drop. Full of clear-eyed advice and naked-yet-rarely-sentimental feeling, this batch of tunes, 20 in all, charges memory full on, tackling the ghosts and hounds that nip at our steps and staring them down, sapping some of their power over us and diluting the indistinct aura of fear hovering over our collective march these days. And like much of the Crowes’ best work, it’s a merger of music and words that accomplishes these things, a conversation that often begins with Chris’ words but is phrased and punctuated by things beyond language.

It’s no wonder it took a sprawling 90-minute double barrel blast to accurately reflect the enormous range and potential of The Black Crowes today. Neat, concise vessels simply can’t contain this sort of churning, burning mojo, or the more calmative, healing elixir they’ve begun to brew in recent years. No, this is not the just-post-pubescent gonad bop of their debut or the vitriolic bile of Amorica, or even the skeletal fundamentality of Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. But, in so many ways, this is what all of those jagged, informative chapters results in. That is if the musicians evolve and listen to life’s lessons. It’s almost damning praise to call a work “mature” but Before The Frost…Until The Freeze is nourishing, thoughtful, emotionally resonant music made by and intended for adults, a series of primo ruminations on paths taken. I’ll let others wag over “best album” or even “better than such & such album.” When music is this organic, switched-on and skillfully delivered there’s no need for hierarchies. Just kick off them shoes and let it have its way with you and you’ll get it just fine.

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