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Black Crowes - 'Before the Frost...Until the Freeze' Review

The Black Crowes Stretch Out Over Two Shimmering, Reflective Discs

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chris robinson black crowes

Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes

Photo: Kristian Dowling/Getty Images.
The Black Crowes have always preferred looking back rather than looking forward when it comes to their musical approach, but rarely has that strategy worked so well as it does on Before the Frost...Until the Freeze. Culling from classic-rock traditions, frontman Chris Robinson and his guitarist brother Rich have successfully turned their group into an agreeably laidback jam-band, one that recalls the Band, the Allman Brothers, and the Rolling Stones at their bluesy best. This double-album leans heavily on reflective ballads, but this collection of earthy, sad-eyed tunes is a consistent pleasure.

A Live Album ... Kinda

Before the release of Before the Frost...Until the Freeze, the band announced two unique aspects to this album. The first was that the Until the Freeze portion of the record would be available to consumers as a digital download for fans who bought the Before the Frost collection. (Some online sellers, like Amazon, have made the entire two-album set available.) The other twist was that these songs were recorded in front of a small audience of Black Crowes fans at a studio. Initially, I thought this live-recording aspect would be simply a gimmick, but after hearing the double-album, I admit that the songs’ intimacy could at least partly be a benefit of having the Black Crowes play to an audience instead of creating a regular studio record, which can sometimes lend an album a cold, sterile feeling. This is however not a live album – you only hear the crowd clapping at the end of some songs, and lead singer Chris Robinson doesn’t banter with the audience.

Proud Classic-Rockers

From the beginning of their career in the early ‘90s, the Black Crowes were part of a collection of bands who weren’t interested in musical trends of the time. When grunge, metal, and rap-rock were popular (or about to become popular), the Crowes played blues-rock that touched on country, R&B and good-old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. They were proud throwbacks to the Southern rock of yesteryear, and with the majority of this sextet now in their 40s, you get the sense that they’re aging nicely into their roles as weathered torchbearers for undervalued musical traditions. Since the band’s third album, 1994’s Amorica, the Crowes have tried to seem older and wiser than their years, but with Before the Frost...Until the Freeze, they’ve really achieved that gravitas. That doesn’t mean that these songs are lumbering drags – to the contrary, many of the album’s 20 tracks are light and graceful, no matter the litany of woes spelled out in the lyrics.

Paying Homage to Their Elders

Before the Frost...Until the Freeze kicks off with “Good Morning Captain,” the Black Crowes’ most blatant rip-off of the Band’s juke-joint aesthetic, right down to Chris Robinson’s perfect imitation of Band drummer Levon Helm’s roadhouse bark. But the musical influence doesn’t diminish the song’s rollicking power – as throughout Before the Frost...Until the Freeze, the Robinsons are invigorated by their heroes, adding vitality to familiar sonic templates. Likewise, the sun-draped ballad “Houston Don’t Dream About Me” is a fine addition to the band’s arsenal of bummed-out-on-the-road tunes, while “The Last Place That Love Lives” recalls the country-blues of classic Stones songs like “Wild Horses.” Early in their career, the Black Crowes sometimes sounded like kids trying to summon the authority of their beloved rock elders. But on Before the Frost...Until the Freeze, they’re no longer kids, although they haven’t lost their creative spark along the way.

Overlong but Worth It

At 20 tracks, Before the Frost...Until the Freeze can’t help but feel overlong. Cutting out a few of the weaker songs would have resulted in a stronger album, but although the excessive running time diminishes the album some, the breezy, confident, melancholy flow of this double-album compensates in its own way. The Black Crowes’ days as rock-radio kings are probably gone for good, but Before the Frost...Until the Freeze argues that they’ve arrived at a place that suits them far better.

'Before the Frost...Until the Freeze' – Best Tracks:

“Good Morning Captain” (Purchase/Download)
“Houston Don’t Dream About Me” (Purchase/Download)
“A Train Still Makes a Lonely Sound” (Purchase/Download)
“The Last Place That Love Lives” (Purchase/Download)
“Lady of Avenue A” (Purchase/Download)

Release date – August 31, 2009
Silver Arrow Records

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