The Listening Post: December 2009

Rocking the Pod last month:

  • Before The Frost…Until The FreezeThe Black Crowes. When The Black Crowes burst onto the scene in 1990, their ambition was clear. They were dead set on reviving a classic rock sound best exemplified by bands like Faces and The Rolling Stones. The music was bluesy without being blues, soulful without being soul. Over the years they’ve followed that path with some great success (their soul-infused second album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion) and some real clunkers (the Zeppelin-isms of the unfortunate Lions). What the Crowes were never able to really convey was any sort of real authenticity. They always sounded like the guys who got their blues influences from bands like the Stones and Aerosmith. On Before The Frost, it sounds like the Crowes have stepped back and started listening not just to Muddy and The Wolf, but also to the old American folk music. It’s still a great big rock record, recorded mostly live in Levon Helms’s barn, but the Crowes have never sounded more like a part of the American canon of popular music. From the Middle Eastern-infused semi-instrumental “Aimless Peacock” that opens the LP, through the rock balladry of the the closing “The Last Place That Love Lives” this is a raw, rootsy album. There are plenty of guitar hero moves from Luther Dickinson (“Been A Long Time” “And The Band Played On”) mixed in with folk and country songs that sound like they could be covers of Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music (“The Garden Gate,” “Appaloosa,” “Shine Along,” “Roll Old Jeremiah”). There are gentle, soulful ballads (“Lady Of Avenue A”), Stones-y disco (“I Ain’t Hiding” which starts like “Miss You” but ends in a ferocious jam), and country blues (“A Train Still Makes A Lonely Sound”). Through it all Chris Robinson’s vocals have never sounded better and the Crowes have never provided a more sympathetic backdrop. This was released as “Before The Frost” with a free download of “Until The Freeze” if you bought the regular CD. However, they also released the two combined with a different running order as a double LP, and that’s the version I think works best because the couple of clunkers that do show up (“The Last Place That Love Lives,” the generic “Kept My Soul”) are lost in the midst of so much material, where they would stand out more on shorter releases. Grade: A-
  • Scraps At MidnightMark Lanegan. At the current time, Jack White is getting a lot of well-deserved press for his modernistic, garage rock recasting of the blues. But White’s not the only one out there who is working in this field. Since the demise of the great Screaming Trees, singer Mark Lanegan has been quietly recording some of the darkest, scariest blues records this side of the Mississippi Delta. The fact that the music itself doesn’t conform to standard blues tropes is testament to his incredible talent. Scraps At Midnight is the sound of rehab, of coming down from your high and looking your demons square in the eye. All of the pain, desolation, and fear of the blues can be heard in these sparse, mostly acoustic songs. From the opening track (“Hospital Roll Call” where the only lyric is a horrifying repeated intonation of the word “sixteen”—allegedly Lanegan’s rehab room number) through the winding, Trees-ish psychedelia of the closer “Because Of This,” Lanegan takes the listener on a guided tour of Hell. It’s a harrowing listen, and not at all instantly likable. Like Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night or John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, this isn’t an album to play when lounging by the pool at a family barbecue. Also like those albums, it reveals it’s greatness only with repeated plays. If you’re up for the ride, a peek into the heart of darkness, then this is modern blues that pays off on the effort. Grade: B+
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