While it’s tempting to write a full-on review of The Black Crowes’s new release, “Before the Frost…Until the Freeze”, we thought that perhaps it would be best to let the initial excitement wear off a bit before making any final judgments. But since Don and I are dying to obsess about it, we figured that we’d try something different – an e-mail conversation. The format is simple – we’ll just shoot questions back and forth until we run out of interesting things to say or get fired.
I’ll start. You were at one of the Cabin Fever shows. How does the final product compare to your post-show expectations?
The final product exceeds my expectations. I am shocked at how Paul Stacey captured exactly what it sounded like in the room – which was a live performance. Yet, at the same time, the recording is so clean that if the applause wasn’t there to remind you an audience was present, you would never know. Each instrument is separated nicely. I was literally one foot away from Larry Campbell. His fiddle, banjo and pedal steel make this record special. I couldn’t hear him well on the one bootleg that emerged, so I’m really happy to hear it again. I do hope the DVD shows some of the banter between songs so those who didn’t attend can see how small and special the barn was.
There was a lot of speculation (and concern among some fans) that the album wouldn’t rock. What’s your take now that you’ve heard what they actually played?
Well, that depends on what your definition of rock is. I’ve always viewed the Crowes as a mid-tempo band that jams - rather than a hard rock band - so I’m not necessarily looking for heavy shredding. By my count there are only 5 rockers out of 20, including ‘I Ain’t Hiding’ and ‘Kept My Soul’ (arguably the weaker tracks on BTF). So I think if you’re a Southern Harmony/Amorica fan you’ll be happy for the handful of rockers but probably will have hoped for more. If you’re a 3 Snakes fan (like me) then you’ll find the mix of rockers, ballads and mid-tempo jams to be perfect. It was probably smart of them to put the rockers on the ‘official’ album.
Your turn: Since BYS, Chris’s lyrics have been dismissed as lazy and/or Lord of the Rings-esque and impersonal. What is your opinion of the words?
(ignores my question and answers his own previous question)
I think rock and roll is a melting pot of blues, country, psychedelia, jazz and other genres. So, in my opinion, the album definitely rocks. I wouldn’t say TSHAMC or Amorica are more rock and roll than TSAOC or BYS. They just tap into different flavors. Southern Harmony is bluesy. TSAOC is more cosmic. BYS is (too) straight-up paint-by-numbers rock. In the case of BTF…UTF, there may be more mid-tempo numbers but they DEFINITELY rock. Take ‘Make Glad’ for example. That is a heavy, funky riff. And I love it.
Obviously they had a lot of songs worthy of release and chose a certain format for releasing them. What do you think of their approach and what would you change if you were Pete Angelus (without the mullet, of course)?
I was giddy running into you at the food court yesterday. Why? Because you were holding an actual LP of BTF…UTF. I haven’t bought a new release on vinyl since 1987 (Tom Waits’ “Frank’s Wild Years” for the record). As a result of seeing that gorgeous double album I will now and forevermore consider BTF…UTF to be a 20 song release. The buy one, get one free bit is a marketing gimmick. I love that you can get all 20 tunes for $9.99 on iTunes. So, yes, I’m really happy with the marketing aspect of the project – from the Cabin Fever shows to the free download of ‘I Ain’t Hiding’ to the ultimate official release. Plus, there’s only one bad tune (‘Kept My Soul’) in the whole lot. As the kids say, Pete FTW!
Are there any clunkers/filler tunes on the album in your opinion?
None of the 20 songs are “unreleasable” and I appreciate that they covered so much ground that they could justify releasing two records. I like the concept of one “more expected Crowes” and one “more unexpected Crowes”. But I think that decision forced them to include some songs on the “main album” that weren’t as good as some on the free download. For example, I can think of many better songs on UTF than “Kept My Soul”. Obviously, they had to include “Kept My Soul” on BTF because it would have ruined the vibe of UTF.
So, if it was me, I would have released a 15 or 16 song double-album called BTF…UTF, and then given away an EP of 4 or 5 songs that didn’t make the cut:
Before The Frost…Until The Freeze (Every format: Vinyl, CD, iTunes)
Good Morning Captain
A Train Still Makes A Lonely Sound
So Many Times
Roll Old Jeremiah
Lady Of Avenue A
I Ain’t Hiding
Been A Long Time (Waiting On Love)
What Is Home
Fork In The River
The Garden Gate
The Shady Grove
And The Band Plays On
The Last Place That Love Lives
EP: “Cabin Fever” (Download only)
Aimless Peacock (throwaway)
Greenhorn (boring, redundant)
Kept My Soul (Been there before)
Houston Don’t Dream About Me (overrated)
Let me know your thoughts and then why don’t YOU tell me about Luther and Adam you Eddie-loving Fordist!
‘Greenhorn’ and ‘Houston’ are both gems. You’re crazy.
‘Kept My Soul’ is definitely the worst of the bunch. And I agree that ‘Peacock’ is filler. It’s certainly no ‘Buttermilk Waltz’.
I like your track listing but it highlights just how many mellow tunes there are on the disc – that’s a long run from ‘Captain’ to ‘Hiding’, although I guess ‘Shine’ and ‘Jeremiah’ have a little pep to them. I might bump ‘Shady Grove’ to the EP as well.
Then again, you could also create an EP of just the 5 rockers (Captain/Make Glad/Hiding/Been a Long Time/Kept My Soul) and make a separate release with everything else, book-ended by ‘Aimless Peacock’/’Shady Grove’. Then you could credit that album by its proper band name: “New Earth Mud III featuring Rich Robinson”.
Now, before I wax lyrical on Luther & Adam, you never answered my question about the lyrics. Since BYS, Chris’s lyrics have been dismissed as lazy and/or Lord of the Rings-esque and impersonal. What is your opinion of the words?
My gut says that the lyrics have improved but I haven’t had time to fully digest them beyond these initial observations. I like how he’s writing about interesting characters. “Good Morning Captain” stands out to me – just a great story. Some lyrics are laudable for providing a window into Chris (“Last Place That Love Lives”). I’m on the fence about “I Ain’t Hiding”. Maybe it’s an accurate – albeit simple – take on NYC club-land circa 4 am. But it doesn’t seem like a Black Crowe lives that lifestyle. Long lines at a club? Overall, I’m really happy with some great turns of phrase: “beauty in the broken”, etc.
Now, how about Luther and Adam?
Yeah, I agree. Long lines at the club sounds like an A-Rod/Kate Hudson deal (now there’s a perfectly loathsome couple).
You know that I’ve got the proverbial Luther Dickinson poster on my bedroom wall these days. I was not a fan of NMAS when they opened for the Crowes so I didn’t know what to expect when Luther joined. During the Somerville One Night Only show I really liked his slide work but found his tone to be a little shrill at times. Watching him progress from Somerville to the Opera House to Hampton Beach to last week’s show has been incredible. He’s playing with confidence, his tone sounds great and he’s crushing everything – old and new. I will never speak ill of Marc Ford. Marc Ford took this band to the next level. I view the Marc-Rich partnership in the same light as Mick Taylor-Keith Richards. There’s no higher praise. But I’m really happy with Luther and I credit the brothers for bringing in another ringer.
Adam has been a continuous disappointment on the catalog stuff. I’m not sure why. Eddie Harsch is a great keyboardist but I’ve seen plenty others just as good – Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti – to name the first two that come to mind. Adam seems to be doing everything that he can to not be Eddie (whereas Rob Clores did a decent Eddie impression). Unfortunately, this doesn’t work too well on the old material. But Adam is surprisingly fantastic on the new material and the recent covers. I honestly think that his playing is an integral part of the ‘Old West’ vibe that permeates the new sound. So, aside from wincing at ‘Wiser Time’ I’m okay with Adam. I guess I’d rather see the band taking risks and moving forward than worrying about reproducing the past perfectly.
Let’s get to the heart of the matter. Do you feel like Rich’s riffs are still integral to the sound or is he just along for the ride because big brother is calling the shots?
Are you kidding? I think it’s less Chris calling the shots than it is a more even partnership than it was at the end of the pre-hiatus era. Towards the end of that era, Chris was “out there” and it was obviously Rich’s show (BYS & Lions). You could tell Chris wasn’t into it – he was forcing it. They broke up, grew as artists and people, and I suppose they’re back together on terms that require them to be mutually happy and satisfied with all decisions.
I think the observations (accusations?) by some that Warpaint and BTF…UTF sound like NEM III have to do with Chris’ vocal style (phrasing and tone) more than anything else. That’s evolution of his instrument, not a purposeful walk away form his classic Crowes howl. Warpaint is full of Rich riffs (‘Evergreen’, ‘Wounded Bird’, ‘Goodbye Daughters’ to name three off the top of my head). And so is Before the Frost. Just listen to the first 4 tunes, plus ‘Kept My Soul’ and ‘Make Glad’. Rich’s playing is absolutely integral to the sound. In fact, when I listen to the new stuff on headphones I’m amazed by the parts he’s playing. He’s in and out and highly creative, far from mailing it in. While Until the Freeze has much less “rock-guitar”, I don’t think that’s only a Chris thing. All you have to do is listen to Rich’s cover choices of the last few years to realize that his range is much wider than his stereotype.
Big question – how successful do you “Before the Frost…Until the Freeze” will be? And how would you define success?
At this juncture in their career – almost 20 years after the release of SYMM – I think that success for this band is measured by only one measure: respect. Judging by the early reviews, it looks like they’ve done it. This is a band that’s never been critically revered. They’ve been viewed as talented musicians that effectively channel their influences without transcending them. I think that changes now with BTF…UTF. From now on they’re going to be viewed as a truly original American band that is carrying on the torch from the ‘70s rock scene.
Does anyone even know how many albums are sold anymore? Does it even matter? I’m sure that BTF…UTF will be profitable, especially since you paid for the studio time in Woodstock. They make their money on the road and by playing corporate gigs. I just wish that they put a disclaimer on their tickets to the effect of “if you want to hear the greatest hits, go to a festival show or see them when they’re opening for someone else. If you go to “an evening with” show expect to get lots of new stuff, album cuts and obscure covers.” It’s a pretty obvious format but people still seem to struggle with it.
So, after a couple of days and few dozen spins how do you rate the album? Where does it stack up in the pantheon?
I still think it’s too early to tell where it ranks vs. “pantheon”. But I will say that it is a great album. In fact, I think it’s their 5th “great” album (others being the first four). By comparison, I would describe By Your Side as fair, Lions as terrible and Warpaint as good. The range on Frost/Freeze, though, is so great that I have a feeling it will grow in stature in time. It all comes down to the songs and there are at least a dozen great ones and a bunch of really good ones with only 1 or two clunkers. Throw in the performance (superb), production (second only to Southern Harmony) and album concept (live in studio) and it goes to another level.
We haven’t covered Sven and Steve. Talk to me about this…
It’s surprising that we haven’t talked about Steve & Sven yet, but I guess it’s because they’re both so solid and dependable that it’s easy to overlook their impact.
I consider Sven to be the MVP of the Crowes on the last two releases. His playing is outstanding and he’s all over the new material. Just listen to his work on ‘Houston’ – it’s phenomenal. On top of his excellent bass work his vocal harmonies have really strengthened the band’s overall sound as well. I’ve got nothing but positive things to say about Sven.
With regard to Steve I need only to draw your attention to the 3/26/05 Hammerstein ballroom show – the only non-Steve show that I’ve seen. Bill Dobrow, who’s a perfectly decent drummer on the Rich solo stuff, couldn’t come close to filling Steve’s shoes. Many rock drummers are only noticeable if they screw up. But Steve has a gift for knowing exactly what to play and when to play in order to add texture and richness to just about every tune. “And the Band Played On” is a great example of how well this current line-up plays together: the combination of Sven’s foundational bassline, Rich’s hook, Luther’s slide mimicking Chris’s vocal line and Adam’s fills. But it’s Steve that stands out. You know what’s wrong with Steve? Nothing.
Last Question. We’ve gotten two albums and endless tours from this line-up in the last 3 years. Is this it? Do you think this line-up will last for years to come?
Yes, I think this lineup will last. Although I think they’ll take a break after the 20th anniversary world tour in 2010. They have been full-throttle for 5 going on 6 years and I bet they take a breather for a year. In fact, I hope they do, because it will prevent burn-out. Plus, Chris, Rich and Luther (NMA) are so prolific and so dedicated as musicians that I have no doubt we’d hear new music from them if TBC goes on “hiatus 2”.
In the end, though, they were made to be The Black Crowes; they know this, can’t help it and are well aware of the legacy they are creating. I’m sure they want to continue to build on it.
If you’ve read this far then you’re obviously a Crowes diehard. That means that you’ll probably enjoying reading a review of the 8/27/09 Boston ‘Stuck Inside Utopia” show, the Black Crowes Album Project, plus many other essays about music and concert reviews here.