The Black Crowes “Before the Frost… After the Freeze” Silver Arrow
No one has ever accused the Black Crowes of being innovators. Some say their sound is derivative, others say imitation. I find them somewhere in the middle depending on which record you’re listening to. They’ve made one truly great album (“Southern Harmony and Gospel Companion”) and a few really good ones, mostly towards the beginning of their career. Unfortunately, their latest, “Before the Frost… Until The Freeze,” is neither great nor really good. The songs just aren’t there. The proverbial well seems to have run dry, and not even the addition of Luther Dickinson (of North Mississippi Allstars) on guitar is enough to conjure up their dormant rock and roll spirit.
There’s a clue in the first song title. It’s called “Aimless Peacock,” and that’s a spot-on analogy for the song’s sound. It feels as long as a three-act play and, just when you think it’s over, it finds enough fuel in the tank to roll on a little longer. But it never goes anywhere. It is, as they say, “aimless.” In fact, I can’t discern any chord changes at all. Some might call it warming up. I call it boring. “Been A Long Time” has some of the crunchiness and attitude that Crowes fans remember from more inspired days, but it’s the exception rather than the rule, and things slow down again with “Greenhorn” which is nearly unlistenable unless you like sappy lyrics, woozy melodies, and overused dramatic musical swells. Again, just when you’re ready to celebrate the song’s ending, it starts again. I don’t mean to be overly harsh. Nobody wants to like this music more than I do. When I was a kid, I thought the Crowes were the best rock and roll band on the planet. I saw them play live as a high school freshman and it changed my life in a very real way. They’ve been coasting on the laurels of that era since 1994’s “Amorica,” and I’m afraid it might be time to row this boat ashore. “Appaloosa” and “The Shady Grove” aren’t embarrassing, they’re just not special. There are a thousand local bands that could do just as well, and that’s just not why we buy Black Crowes records.
Interestingly, “Before the Frost…” and “…Until the Freeze” were released separately in digital format. More accurately, “…Until the Freeze” is a bonus download when you purchase the “Before the Frost…” CD. I think the bonus content is stronger than the official release. Both were recorded at Levon Helm’s place in Woodstock where he stages his now-famous “Midnight Rambles” in front of a live audience. The witnesses dutifully clap between offerings, and I probably would have too if only to acknowledge some artists’ attempt to chronicle their craft in a real and authentic way. And they pulled that part off. The record actually sounds good, and the vinyl presentation is pretty neat. (“Before the Frost… is a green record. “…After the Freeze” is white.) But, ultimately, it’s a fine document of a decent band playing flaccid, lifeless songs. I hate to say it, but that’s my impression. Die hard Crowes fans need an excuse to go to the show and burn their incense and do their collective dance, and the band needs an excuse to tour. These songs should serve that purpose well. But this Crowes fan died hard a long time ago, and keeps hoping his fallen heroes will return. As of now, I can’t tell that they survived the freeze.
The Avett Brothers “I And Love And You” American
The first thing I thought at my first Avett Brothers show a few months back was, “Wow. I had no idea there would be this many people here tonight.” My second thought was, “And so many of them are women.” My first thought upon hearing “I And Love And You” was “Man, those women that were at the Fillmore are going to love this record.” My second thought was, “I wish I’d written these songs.” This release has been on my radar for months due to the press it was given for having Rick Rubin as producer. He’s up to his old tricks again (or lack of them), and these guys will certainly reap the benefits of their affiliation with him. But the credit is all theirs. It’s not like he arbitrarily drew their name from a hat (as he’s rumored to have done with the Black Crowes for their debut). These guys came to his attention; I’m sure, on the strength of their prior work – both live and in the studio. They deserve everything that’s coming to them, pretty boys though they may be.
This record is not for folks with an aversion to ballads. They’re plentiful, and there’s little of the hollering and carrying on that their fans are accustomed to from the Avetts’ live shows. According to my sources, their prior releases have been more in tune with their legendary shows. I can tell you from experience that there’s screaming, and jumping, and wailing that happens live – onstage and in the audience. There are also instruments that fall out of tune, and voices that break. This is not unlikely given the energy that these guys create in a concert venue. They play their instruments like their hair is on fire and they sing like they’re in the Sex Pistols. Rubin seems to have harnessed that energy somewhat and might have chosen some material that translates a little better to the living room setting. The brothers are credited with playing electric guitars on the album but the electrical angle hasn’t exactly jumped out at me after a few listens. The acoustics do though. (And they are tuned perfectly, thanks.) They also called in a couple of heavyweights to help flesh out the sound (not the least of which is Benmont Tench), but the real strength is the quality of the songs. I recognized a couple of them from the Fillmore show a while back, and that’s remarkable because I’d never heard them before or since. The title track is gorgeous, and the second track (“January Wedding”) is a simple love song celebrating the simplicity of love. Scott Avett handles the vocals on one of the two, and brother Seth takes the other. I don’t know which is which, but it gives the listener a clear idea of their respective styles, and I guarantee you that their fans can tell you exactly who is singing what. “Kick Drum Heart” starts the third side of this double record, and gives you a good idea of how hot things can get at an Avetts show. They shift from melodic crooning to hostile shouting like they’re changing hats. It could be a little unsettling to the uninitiated, but you fall in line pretty quickly if you’re anything like the rest of us. Things get pretty again straight away, but “Kick Drum” gives you a little taste of what’s possible and probably serves to placate their core fan base too. I don’t think there’s anything here that’s going to turn their “diehards” off anyway, but it’s always a little troubling to watch your heroes moving on to larger battlefields. Make no mistake about it: that’s exactly what the Avetts’ longtime supporters are experiencing.
The vinyl release is top notch in almost all respects – except the most important. The records are heavy; they’re in a gatefold with fine artwork and printed lyrics. (You get a digital download, but mine didn’t work and I don’t know who to talk to about it.) That’s a minor inconvenience compared to the surface noise that plagues this record. It was alleviated somewhat with a cleaning on my Nitty Gritty Record Cleaner, but not entirely and most people don’t have access to such machinery. It’s like hitting five home runs in your major league debut, but losing the game. The production is perfect in that you don’t notice it. You notice talented musicians playing awesome songs… and then you notice the surface noise. The problem is in the pressing and it’s visible as well. That’s too bad because these guys are perfect for this format. I suspect that they agree as they released the vinyl two weeks before the CD, but I’ll rest a little easier knowing that the Avett Brothers aren’t going away any time soon. You’ll be hearing from these boys soon if you haven’t already.
Levon Helm “Dirt Farmer” Vanguard Records
I met Levon Helm a few years back and he couldn’t speak above a whisper. He had the throat cancer, you understand. He played the drums in his celebrated style, and I couldn’t have been happier to watch him do it, but his daughter handled the vocal load that night. It was simultaneously sad and uplifting. One of the most compelling voices in rock history had been silenced, but he was still out on the road pounding hell out of his drums. “All for the love of the game,” as the saying goes. Fast forward ten years or so, and the man is singing and playing like the whole gross thing never happened. His voice is different in subtle ways, but no less powerful. In fact, it may be more powerful as Helm seems to have to struggle to get to some notes. This lends his performance an even more impassioned spirit. Make no mistake: “Electric Dirt” is one of the best records of 2009, and Helm’s voice is still amongst the most recognizable in popular music – throat cancer be damned.
I’m not aware of many songs that Levon Helm has actually written. There’s some mystery as to whether or not Robbie Roberston was the only member of The Band that was savvy enough to claim songwriting credits or if he actually wrote the songs in their entirety without help from his band mates. Regardless, Helm is listed as a contributing songwriter on only one “Electric Dirt” track. It’s a winner called “Growing Trade” that he wrote with multi-instrumentalist and producer, Larry Campbell. It’s a gut-wrenching tale about a farmer that may or may not have turned to growing a crop out of desperation that would put him afoul of the law. If Helm has it in him to write songs like these, I wish he’d do it more often. It’s an album highlight in a sea of highlights written by some major players with names like Roebuck “Pops” Staples, Carter Stanley, and Muddy Waters. Waters released the similarly titled “Electric Mud” in 1968. Coincidence?) The Band’s music had a timeless quality even in the 1960’s and that vibe has carried over into Helm’s most recent record, for sure. His nod to the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” actually set me off on a minor Dead-listening jag which is more improbable than a rock vocalist’s triumph over throat cancer. I can’t get it out of my head. The New Orleans-style horns on Randy Newman’s “Kingfish” is another neat twist, and Larry Campbell’s “When I Go Away” is a swinging gospel number that he and Helm recorded with the Dixie Hummingbirds a few years back. The version on “Dirt Farmer” has as much feeling as the gospel icons’ due in no small part to Amy Helm’s vocal harmonies which are as strong as her lead was when I met her dad that night in Georgia. All of the songs on “Farmer” coagulate into a whole that sounds like another era. A simpler sound that is sadly absent in most new music.
“Electric Dirt” is the follow up to 2007’s “Dirt Farmer” which I’ve not yet heard. I’ve read that Helm claims to have been 80 percent recovered from cancer during its recording. “Dirt Farmer” won a Grammy for “Best Traditional Folk Album” which would lead me to believe that “Electric Dirt” could get nominated this year in a similar category. But it might not. “Electric Dirt” is a traditional rock and roll album, and there’s no category for rock and roll at the Grammys. That’s too bad because Levon Helm sounds like he’s at 100 percent on this one. And I’d take Levon Helm at 50 percent over most of the “winners” I see today. There’s nothing too special about the vinyl release other than its’ awesome cover art and the fact that it’s just a fine sounding record by a legendary bad man. The lead out on side A of my copy doesn’t quite work right as the needle makes it all the way to the paper sticker creating a nasty racket through the speakers. I take that as a symbol of imperfection on an otherwise stellar release. That somehow jibes perfectly with my impression of Levon Helm as an artist. He’s not perfect, but he’s still here. We should all be thankful for that.
Yim Yames “Tribute To” ATO Records
I get excited by just about anything that Jim James does these days. I got really excited when I heard that he was releasing a tribute EP to George Harrison on 180-gram 45rpm vinyl. And that’s exactly what he’s done. “Tribute To” is comprised of six Harrison songs that James recorded on an eight-track reel to reel in 2001 shortly after Harrison died. There are no drums and few overdubs. James tasteful acoustic playing is on full display, but the star of the show is James’s voice. It’s otherworldly. I mean, it’s from someplace else. I was still a few years away from discovering My Morning Jacket in 2001, but James shows on “Tribute To” that he was on top of his game whether I realized it or not.
James’s liner notes for “Tribute To” explain that he didn’t really get into Harrison’s solo work until around 1999. The fact that these six songs were recorded a mere two years later is a testament to James’s talent as I can’t imagine picking out Harrison’s work by ear in twenty, let alone two, years. It’s not as if the Beatles or Harrison wrote songs comprised of “cowboy chords.” To say that Harrison’s writing was innovative is to say that the beach has sand. And yet here sits Jim James (Yim Yames as he’s taken to calling himself) playing and singing these intricate compositions as if he’d written them himself four years after graduating from high school. The legendary Jim James vocal reverb is ever present on “Tribute To,” and the vocal harmonies that James accompanies himself with create an even more ethereal effect. They sound as impossible as Harrison’s original songs. It’s hard to imagine having the talent to make songs like these, but James makes it sound easy with minimal help. The fact that he’s the only one helping is even more amazing and this set comes to an early end just when I’m starting to come to terms with my own comparative ineptness as a recording artist. Most of the selections on “Tribute To” are from Harrison’s epic “All Things Must Pass” triple album with “Love You To” (from the Beatles’ “Revolver”) thrown in for good measure. I’d have to choose the song “All Things Must Pass” as the high point on “Tribute To” but there are five others that each makes their own case for it. I especially like this one though because there are no overdubs and nothing tricky about it other than James’s own proficiency. Just a guy and his acoustic guitar paying homage to one of his heroes. It’s hard to go wrong with that if the guy with the acoustic has the chops to make it real. This one will take your breath away if you’re partial to what James does with his own band. He’ll probably win over some Harrison fans too if they’re lucky enough to find their way to “Tribute To.” The only thing I can find to say bad about it is that it’s too short, and that doesn’t really count.
It’s an interesting time for Beatles fans with all of the recent media exposure from the re-issues and video games. I’d like to hear the mono re-issues, but haven’t plunked down the cash to buy the box set which is the only way you can get them. And I don’t play video games so that whole thing is lost on me. I am, however, stoked to own this little gem as a tribute to my favorite Beatle. The album comes with a CD of the entire offering so you can take it with you when you go. That practice seems to have fallen off a little as I suspect record companies are withholding the CD’s or digital coupons to inspire people to buy the music twice. If that’s the case, they’re going about it all wrong. The solution to saving a dying industry is not to trick fans into spending money on duplicates rather than downloading single songs. The solution is to generate a product worth having in its entirety. That means an album’s worth of strong songs and killer performances. That’s what we have here. “Tribute To” is a quick listen, but it’s one that will stay with you when the needle leaves the groove. And you can take it with you on your portable device to play for all your friends if you’re so inclined. That’s not going to sound as warm as a 45rpm record, but it’ll sound better than most anything else out there this year…
Little Feat “Little Feat” Warner Bros/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab
I used to call Little Feat’s self-titled debut album “the best Rolling Stones album that the Rolling Stones never made.” They don’t really sound like the Stones, but the attitude and the subject matter are all there. This is a rough bunch of recordings by a rough crew of young men. Lowell George had been playing in Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention band before leaving to do his own thing so he’d already enjoyed some success on a big stage, but Little Feat was George’s crowning achievement in a too brief career defined by strong songs, soulful vocals, and killer slide guitar. “Little Feat” has one of my favorite single vinyl sides in all of rock and roll (side A), and Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab did a superb job with this reissue. The sound is gorgeous and rich, and the vinyl is flawless. This is a long overdue upgrade for an overlooked masterpiece, and it’s already one of my most cherished additions to my vinyl collection.
The ubiquitous Little Feat slide guitar sound accounts for the first notes on their debut recording, but Ry Cooder is supposedly the player – not George. (There isn’t much in the way of liner notes for this release, but Cooder is credited on the classic “Willing” as George was rumored to have injured his hand just prior to these sessions.) When you couple this with the fact that the album opener, “Snakes on Everything,” is a Bill Payne (keyboards and vocals) composition, you have a seemingly inauspicious start to a great songwriter’s career at the helm of his first big league band. But George asserts himself quite noticeably from there on out with vocal turns on powerhouse originals like “Strawberry Flats,” “Truck Stop Girl,” and the aforementioned “Willing.” The band closes out the first side with “Hamburger Midnight” which is simply one of the most scorching rock songs from that era or any other. I can’t account for why this band doesn’t get its due from a historical perspective, and I’m even more confused as to how this particular record is seemingly ignored even amongst Little Feat fans. Their sound changed pretty drastically between their debut and follow-up (“Sailing Shoes”), but that’s no excuse. Maybe I’m talking to the wrong folks, but I rarely hear Little Feat mentioned in the pantheon of great rock bands from the ’60’s and ’70’s, and I’ve met exactly no one (outside my circle of music snob friends) that has ever mentioned their first album to me in any musical discussion at all. That’s crazy! I’m saying that Side A of Little Feat’s eponymous debut album is one of the top ten greatest single sides in all of vinyl rock history, dammit, and I welcome any commentary on the matter from anyone that cares to get involved…
As I mentioned, MoFi’s reissue is a major shot in the arm for this gem. My previous copy was a flimsy affair that I recall having the “Right Price” sticker (remember those?) on its cover when I found it. I was stoked to have a vinyl copy at all, but I knew mine was lacking. There’s nothing lacking about the MoFi release, I can assure you. It was half-speed mastered, then pressed on 180-gram high definition vinyl with a static and dust free inner sleeve and heavy protective packaging. It’s a numbered, limited edition release and I got number 262. I can’t tell that 262 people have even heard this record, but I guess it’s garnered enough attention to warrant the release. Steve Hoffman listed MoFi as one of his few trusted companies for vinyl reissues when he and I spoke recently about his re-mastering projects, and I’m glad he did. (http://www.hometheaterhifi.com/interviews-musicians-artists/interviews-musicians-artists/interview-with-steve-hoffman.html) This record sounds phenomenal and I can’t wait for the next Little Feat titles to be released in this format. Apparently, they are on their way and not a moment too soon. There are a lot of things wrong in this world. The fact that Madonna and Earth, Wind, and Fire made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame prior to Little Feat is chief among them.