'Before the Frost' and the makings of a wintertime album
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
The mornings and nights, lately, have been freezing. It’s certainly not atypical, but the constant bundling of scarves and gloves under jackets and the need to layer two pairs of socks and long underwear before heading out into the world is still a nice reminder of mother nature and her coldest intentions. When I get home, the routine works in reverse. I pull off my gloves and tuck them into my coat pocket, take off my coat, find a spot for it to hang on the rack, unwrap my scarf and lay it over the back of my chair, and then off come the boots and one pair of socks before settling into my couch.
And with that, I usually like to put on some music. And more and more often in the cold, I pull the Black Crowes’ Before the Frost … Until the Freeze off the shelf, letting its four sides warp their way through the cold.
I have a tendency to assign some albums to sections of the year. The summer belongs to Pearl Jam’s Yield and the craziest parts of the White Stripes’ catalog, among others. The winter holds a different makeup, one best accompanied by long, rustic pieces of music. The longest and messiest songs by Neil Young and Crazy Horse fit this nicely, and so does Before the Frost, the Crowes’ two-record take on the woodsy American landscape.
Why certain albums become affiliated with seasons is a minor mystery. The Black Crowes’ own Warpaint, released the year prior to Before the Frost, aligns with the summer in my mind, though that’s likely due to my living in Arizona when it was released. Playing an album incessantly for a year while living in a climate locked in a scope panning from “nice” to “Mercury” will lend a sunny sheen to the memory, to say the least.
I was back in Massachusetts when Before the Frost was released at the end of August, 2009, when trips to the beach to sit on a rock and write were still feasible, so by all measures, I should equate this album to the lukewarm water and sandy terrains I was occupying so often.
But that’s not how this works. There is some measure of explanation, sometimes, as to why seasons attach themselves to music and vice versa. The pounding rhythms that announce “Been a Long Time (Waiting on Love)” lend itself to long, slow drives down the highway while the snow falls and trucks plod past, sanding and salting and fighting nature’s cold hurdle.
Beyond snow, however, the record just has the feel of its locale, which in this case was Levon Helm’s barn in Woodstock, N.Y. It’s hard not to imagine flannel shirts and fireplaces as the backdrop of some of this music; rustic numbers like “What Is Home?” and “Shine Alone” sound as though they belong in the woods, the demented takes on the L.L. Bean catalog they are.
It’s hard to listen to “Appaloosa” and it’s shining steel guitar and not imagine a frigid Civil War tent, packed with weary, bearded men longing for home, a humble counter to “Good Morning Captain,” which finds the upbeat narrator ready to tackle the world. They’re all songs that certainly sound fine when the weather’s pretty, of course, but they feel like winter. They don’t feel cold, though; they’re a counter to the cold.
Or perhaps it’s as simple as this: this is not an album I own on CD. I have the double LP and a digital copy to keep in my pocket, ready and waiting to be played when necessary. In the summer months I’m certainly out of the house more often, running errands without fear of frostbite or catching baseball games around town. But in the winter, more often than not my entertainment lives on a turntable or bound in a book. And this record, even more so than Warpaint, displayed a surprising late-career revival. The Black Crowes, long past their commercial peak, gambled and made the most adventurous record of their career, a double album recorded live in Helm’s intimate space that saw the band jumping genres and disregarding running times.
It’s easy to call every band’s attempt at a sprawling double album their own Exile on Main St. or their White Album, but that oversimplifies things, obviously. But a clear line can be drawn from Manassas, Stephen Stills’ masterpiece recorded with his mega band anchored by Dallas Taylor and Chris Hillman.
Like Before the Frost, Manassas jumps genres and styles, keeping one foot in the blues and another in the mountains. Furthering the point, a cover of “So Many Times,” a song from the second Manassas album, can be found on side four, perhaps a sly nod to an obvious influence.
Of course, while they share a spirit, Manassas has a decidedly brighter texture, a product of Topanga Canyon and the burgeoning country rock scene in the early 1970s. No record cut in Malibu could conjure the proper cold spirits, clearly, unless Neil Young was involved.
But Before the Frost was born miles away from excessive rock stardom and power trips. It was, instead, conceived through countless shows on the road and nurtured in the woods of upstate New York in the presence of a true master. It’s a record that transcends labels and even the Black Crowes’ own history, carving out a unique little place in music today.
And as it just so happens, it sounds best indoors, shut away from 20 degree air and biting wind. Without intention, it lives as an ode to the cold. Some records just sound better in the winter.
Jan. 12, 2013
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org