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Friday, October 31, 2014

The Black Crowes: Before The Frost... Until The Freeze


CD I: 1) Good Morning Captain; 2) Been A Long Time; 3) Appaloosa; 4) A Train Still Makes A Lonely Sound; 5) I Ain't Hiding; 6) Kept My Soul; 7) What Is Home; 8) Houston Don't Dream About Me; 9) Make Glad; 10) And The Band Played On; 11) Last Place That Love Lives;
CD II: 1) Aimless Peacock; 2) Shady Grove; 3) Garden Gate; 4) Greenhorn; 5) Shine Along; 6) Roll Old Jeremiah; 7) Lady Of Avenue A; 8) So Many Times; 9) Fork In The River.

This is where the band's «maturity» starts overflowing, as they grow themselves more roots than a five hundred year old oak tree, and you can almost smell the overpowering scent of freshly turned earth and steaming piles of dung on the ground. These twenty new songs weren't just put down anyway, anyhow, anywhere — all of them were recorded honest-to-goodness live before a small, but attentively respectful audience at «The Barn», Levon Helm's personal studio in Wood­stock, NY, the next best thing to The Basement, I guess.

Supposedly the band wrote so many new songs for this happy event that they were afraid to let go of all of them at once — the original album, Before The Frost, only contained the first 11, while the remaining 9 were made available separately as Until The Freeze, a free download from the band's website provided you bought the CD and had your personal access code. They could actually count as two different albums for stylistic reasons — the former is rowdier and more elec­tric, the second one is a little hillbillier and more acoustic — but they do form a conceptual unity, after all, so it probably makes more sense to discuss the whole package in one go.

Which is a bit intimidating — so many songs, for one thing, and for another, the album is a tougher nut to crack than Warpaint. Warpaint was just derivative boring. Before The Frost, on first sight, goes in the same direction — simply with more sprawl, spreading those proverbial roots across a larger chunk of territory. The principal criticism stays the same: the band may have mastered very well the standard lingo of «roots-rock», but whether they have added to that lingo, let alone started their own dialect of it, is quite debatable. However, on their respective individual levels the songs seem a little stronger, and, more importantly, less predictable.

What I mean is, we'd never dream of being pleasantly surprised by a disco song on any «classic» Crowes album — but a sudden encounter with ʽI Ain't Hidingʼ, with its sci-fi keyboards, funky guitars, and hopping bass, here turns out to be a revelation: a damn clever synthesis of blues-rock with old-fashioned disco, not to mention the daring nature of the move in general — accept disco as an integral, if peripheral, part of «Americana». Another surprising and effective attempt at synthesis comes near the end of the first album, as ʽAnd The Band Played Onʼ effortlessly veers between Britpoppy music hall ("let's all gather round the grand piano...") and slide-based country-blues, as the Robinsons celebrate a «homecoming» — well, I suppose the entire album is really just one big celebration.

Big, bombastic rock and roll makes a welcome return on ʽBeen A Long Timeʼ, with those thick, juicy riffs we hadn't heard in a long time, and with a long coda that gives all the soloists plenty of opportunities to stretch out and flex those playing muscles — the bad news is, that's just one track out of twenty, and on the whole, there is no indication whatsoever that The Crowes are still willing to rock out on a consistent basis. A couple others, like ʽGood Morning Captainʼ and ʽMake Gladʼ, are loud enough, but are either too slow or too shapeless to count as legitimate «rockers» — in fact, ʽCaptainʼ is more like a very conscious attempt to suck up to Levon Helm and write a bona fide Band imitation. I could easily picture the late Levon singing it himself, but the question is, would he want to? The melody is nowhere near the average level of Robbie Robertson's songwriting, and Chris Robinson is a very «bland» singer compared to Levon in his prime, even if it is not his fault that nature endowed him with such a dull singing tone.

Surprisingly, I must say that on the whole, I think that I got hit a little harder by the «hillbilly» part of the album — Until The Freeze has a higher percentage of memorable and emotional songs, such as ʽRoll On Jeremiahʼ (friendly-sad country-western travelog with a beautiful duet between piano and slide guitar), ʽLady Of Avenue Aʼ (a nod to James Taylor-era folk-pop with a convincing bitterness to Chris' delivery, even if some of the chords bring on unnecessary associ­ations with ʽDisney Girlsʼ), and, most importantly, ʽAimless Peacockʼ — another of these crazy syntheses, sort of a psychedelic country romp, with harmonica and fiddle on one side and sitar and Eastern vocal harmonies on the other, as the band spends almost seven minutes in a cloudy haze. No discernible melody to speak of, but a distinctly unusual sound combination that works, particularly if you are in a hazy mood yourself and want to align yourself better with the world around you. Experimentation has never hurt the Crowes, no really.

Yet at the same time, I cannot join in the happy chorus of people who not only think that this is a big improvement over Warpaint, but even that it is a downright late-period masterpiece, and opens up a whole new world before the band and their fans. For every good song and for every interesting idea here, there are at least two mediocre bores, completely devoid of original ideas. But then again, how could it be any different? Rock bands are not supposed to reach enlighten­ment and release their hitherto hidden genius after twenty years of existence. I wouldn't altoge­ther discount the possibility of a miracle, but there ain't no miracle here — just a big pile of diligently performed homework, and a few technical inventions to alleviate the charges.

I am almost tempted to give the album a thumbs up for its sheer scope, out of respect for all the good work, but only its second part really gives a bit of a taste of the «salt of the earth», and why should I be recommending a record that I do not properly enjoy, nor am I finding any serious intrigue in it? As far as contemporary roots-rock goes, I suppose you won't find many records better than Before The Frost — but then again, you probably won't find many contemporary good roots-rock records, period, what with 21st century people either not giving a damn about «roots» in the first place or not being able to find a proper way to access them, so that ain't much of an argument. And as far as the songs on here being, well, just good songs — take a good listen to Wilco's Being There instead. Now that was an album of good songs, period, cutting deep and hard. The Crowes here merely brush across the surface. 

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