The Black Crowes are back with the follow up to 2008′s Warpaint and I am left wondering, what happened to the blues? The new release entitled Before the Frost is the most country sounding album by the band who at one point were known as “The most rock-n-roll rock-n-roll band in the world”. Before the Frost features Luther Dickinson on guitar and Adam Macdougall on keys who both played on Warpaint and who now must be considered permanent members of the band after the departure of Marc Ford and Eddie Harsch. This new album was recorded live over five nights in front of a small audience in Levon Helm Studios in upstate New York. Once again they released it on their own label, Silver Arrow Records with producer Paul Stacey behind the boards.
Before the Frost starts off with “Good Morning Captain“, a rockin’ honky-tonk tune that is easily one of the best songs released by the band in the last ten years. Luther Dickinson shines on the slide behind Chris Robinson’s cajun spiced vocals. “Been a Long Time (Waiting on Love)” is song two and at this point I’m feeling pretty good about the album. The song is vintage Black Crowes all the way starting off riff heavy then leaving plenty of space within the verses before rocking through an almost three-minute jammy bridge that sounds like the band forgot the mics were on as they let it fly.
The country comes in full force with “Appaloosa”, song number three. Chris Robinson’s soulful croon and the lapsteel carry this slow mover all the way displaying a new side of the Crowes. The country keeps going with song four, “A Train Still Makes a Lonely Sound”. Rich Robinson’s swinging strum gives the song a feeling of an old train on the tracks. The band always recognized Gram Parsons as a huge influence but up until this point that influence was never so evident. It’s a great song.
What do you get when you kick a bass drum on every beat, the high-hat on the off, one guitarist pedals the wah-wah while the other strums with reverb, the bass is out front leading the way while the keys are acting crazy whack funky? That’d be disco. And for whatever reason The Black Crowes thought they should have a go at it with track five, “I Ain’t Hiding”. The funny (literally) thing is they make it work while mixing in rock during the choruses and bridge. Although it’s completely out of place in every way, I’ll let my guard down and say that it works well, or at least it does on the recording.
Track six is “Kept My Soul”, a rhythmically marching rock tune that Chris Robinson’s veteran howl sparkles on. This song is awesome. For the first time ever on a Black Crowes record, guitarist Rich Robinson takes the lead vocals on song seven, “What is Home?” Rich plays acoustic guitar as well and the song doesn’t sound like The Black Crowes (even while stating the obvious that his brother’s lead vocals are missing). Maybe in time this one will grow on me, but for now I think this is a throwaway and that’s unfortunate.
“Houston Don’t Dream About Me” is track eight, and the country is back although in a more subtle fashion than earlier on the album. Song nine is titled “Make Glad”. This song is a rocker with a fantastic guitar riff across the verses and a good jam through the bridge that helps carry the song through the bland choruses. With a close listen, the song has a slight disco influence as well.
Track ten is “And the Band Played On” and new keyboardist Adam Macdougall shows his chops with a fun and upbeat ragtime vibe. The song is a jamboree that should be fantastic live with lyrics like “Let’s all gather ’round the grand piano, Let’s all raise our glasses in the air”. Before the Frost ends with Chris Robinson crying out “The Last Place That Love Lives.” Once again a country vibe is here with a beautiful acoustic song that sounds like it was written in a dusty saloon by a lonely stranger bellied up into the corner with the whisky bottle empty, searching for something as his eyes wet with emotion. It truly is an incredible tune and that is an understatement.
With The Black Crowes now displaying the extensive live experience of their new lineup, Before the Frost excels. It is a little spotty at times but still is a tremendous improvement over their last three releases. Before the Frost sounds like a collaborative effort and a new direction for a band that once defined what rock-n-roll was. While the blues may have been exchanged for country, optimism is here and the result is their best album since 1996 and Three Snakes and One Charm. Following Warpaint‘s move towards the country side of life, The Black Crowes have come full circle with an album that still finds room for their signature soul and rock-n-roll sound. I think what we have here is a rebirth and possibly a sign of good things to come.
EDIT: “What is Home?” has definitely grown on me. This is an exceptional song. Well done Rich!
1. Good Morning Captain
2. Been a Long Time (Waiting on Love)
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