Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Black Crowes - Before The Frost...Until The Freeze

Release Date: August 31, 2009
Label: Silver Arrow

Lately, I've been on a huge Black Crowes kick.   I have been a casual Crowes fan since about when Lions (2001) came out, and that, Shake Your Money Maker, and The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion have been hanging out in my collection for years.  If you don't know the Crowes, they're known for their fairly straightforward blues rock, with a bit of a southern flavor.  Early in their career, they had considerable success, and even toured with Jimmy Page in the late 90s.

The Crowes seem to have always been interested in some degree of experimentation, but it seemed their record company (American) didn't enjoy it quite so much.  When Amorica and Three Snakes And A Charm started to stray a bit, they were reigned in, and we got By Your Side.  They then reversed course, and Lions was a little weird, followed by a hiatus.  When they reunited and recorded Warpaint, they used very few takes, little to no overdubs, and even recorded one song outdoors.  This brings us to their latest non-compilation "studio" album, 2009's Before The Frost...Until The Freeze.

BTF...UTF was recorded live, in front of an audience of a couple hundred fans, in a converted barn in Woodstock, NY.  I'm not familiar with the details of the recording process (e.g., whether they used any overdubs to correct mistakes), but this certainly does give it a bit of a live atmosphere, although you might not know it if they hadn't left in the applause between tracks.

levon helm's barn
Levon Helm's studio, where the recording took place
This recording is technically two albums.  When you pick up the physical product at the store, you get Before The Frost... in the cardboard sleeve, which comes with a card that allows you to download ...Until The Freeze from The Black Crowes' website.  Before The Frost... gives us a fairly typical Black Crowes, with their signature style of blues rock.  It is a bit more experimental than we're used to: I Ain't Hiding has a disco feel to it, and there is some folk influence in there as well.

...Until The Freeze, in contrast, has almost no rock, and is essentially a folk album, with a slight bluegrass influence.  Contrary to what some perhaps less adventurous Crowes fans might say, it is my opinion that this disc is what makes Before The Frost...Until The Freeze the penultimate album of the Crowes' career.  This is what truly demonstrates their creative ability, and their aptitude for writing timeless tunes that don't adhere to a worn out formula.  Repetition is something they may have been guilty of in the past, but there is none of that here.

The Crowes' have supplemented this newfound folk sound with a complete acoustic reworking of all their hits in 2010's Croweology, but that's a subject for another review.

Track List:
Before The Frost...

1Good Morning Captain3:24
2Been a Long Time (Waiting on Love)7:47
4A Train Still Makes a Lonely Sound4:23
5I Aint Hiding5:57
6Kept My Soul5:23
7What Is Home?5:13
8Houston Don't Dream About Me5:05
9Make Glad4:18
10And the Band Played on...4:12
11The Last Place That Love Lives4:57

...Until The Freeze
1Aimless Peacock6:40
2The Shady Grove4:42
3The Garden Gate4:21
5Shine Along4:47
6Roll Old Jeremiah4:40
7Lady of Ave. A5:20
8So Many Times4:53
9Fork in the River4:11

The vinyl edition came with the tracks in an alternate order; this is said to be the real intended order of the tracks.  I recommend listening to the album in this order.  In this presentation, there are not two separate albums:
1. Aimless Peacock
2. Good Morning Captain
3. Been A Long Time (Waiting on Love)
4. Greenhorn
5. Appaloosa
6. The Shady Grove
7. The Garden Gate
8. Shine Along
9. Roll Old Jeremiah
10. Houston Don't Dream About Me
11. I Ain't Hiding
12. Kept My Soul
13. Lady of Ave. A
14. Make Glad
15. And The Band Played On...
16. What Is Home?
17. So Many Times
18. A Train Still Makes a Lonely Sound
19. Fork in the River
20. The Last Place That Love Lives

These videos are from the "Cabin Fever" DVD, which I believe is official material, so don't be surprised if they disappear from Youtube:

Here are a couple that didn't make it on the album:


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Neil Young - On The Beach

Release Date: July 16, 1974
Label: Reprise

Every once in awhile, you dig up an old album and think, "Why did I not hear this earlier?"  This recently happened to me, so I decided to write about what is quickly becoming my favorite Neil Young album.

I first started listening to Neil Young as a Freshman in college, back in 2001.  The first album of his that I picked up was Harvest, and within a relatively short period of time, my collection had Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After the Gold Rush, Zuma, and Harvest Moon.  Each of these albums is completely different, which is what makes Young great.  His music covers the entire spectrum, covering everything from rock to blues to country to folk.  He has even dabbled in electronic music, and was highly influential in the "grunge" movement.  Neil Young will surely go down as one of the greatest musicians of our time.

After the success of Harvest in 1972, pressure mounted to write a successful follow-up, and during this time, Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten died of a drug overdose after having been kicked out of the band.  This led to a stretch of albums known as "The Ditch Trilogy."  The first was a live album, Time Fades Away, which Neil considers a disaster, and remains the only Neil Young album not available on CD.  The second album he recorded, Tonight's The Night, was Neil's most pessimistic album, and would not be released until after On The Beach.

On The Beach was unavailable on CD until 2003, which may be part of why I personally never heard it while "discovering" Neil Young.  It was not commercially successful, but it is now widely considered to be one of Young's best albums.

It opens with a lively, straightforward rock song called Walk On.  This gives way to a remake of a song he did earlier, called See The Sky About To Rain.  The third song, Revolution Blues, is a classic Neil rocker, along the lines of Southern Man and Cowgirl In The Sand.  The fourth track is a weird little piece, For The Turnstiles, featuring Neil's banjo.  Rounding out the front side is Vampire Blues, a bluesy song about the blood sucking tendencies of the oil industry.

The back side is where it starts getting weird.  Neil and co. recorded these tracks while under the influence of a homemade marijuana concoction, leading to a much mellower feel for all three tracks.  Those tracks, On The Beach, Motion Pictures (For Carrie), and Ambulance Blues, all take on a looser, more free-form structure.  They are not as immediately grabbing, but after several listens, they start to grow on you.

1Walk On2:41
2See the Sky5:02
3Revolution Blues4:03
4For the Turnstiles3:15
5Vampire Blues4:11
6On the Beach6:59
7Motion Pictures (For Carrie)4:23
8Ambulance Blues8:56

This album is solid.  And considering he followed it up with Tonight's The Night and Zuma, this has to be considered one of his best stretches.  It seems Neil Young went through some of his hardest times in the mid 70s, but it led to some of his best work.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Josh Ritter - So Runs The World Away

Release Date: May 4, 2010
Label: Pytheas Recordings

I figure it's about time to review a Josh Ritter album... Why not start with his latest?  I've been listening to Ritter for about a year, and by this point, I think I'd say he's my favorite folk musician, and my favorite lyricist.

Ritter, raised in Moscow, Idaho, got his start in the late nineties, when he recorded his self-titled debut while attending school.  He's never had a huge mainstream following, but he has received plenty of critical acclaim.  The reissued versions of his earlier albums have celebrity forewords, and Stephen King called his fourth album, The Animal Years, his favorite album of 2006.  His fifth album, The Historical Conquest of Josh Ritter, sees the addition of electric guitars (and a rougher sound in general), which was quite a departure from his earlier work.

I purchased So Runs The World Away shortly after its release, making it the first Josh Ritter album I purchased at the time of its original release.

So Runs The World Away is a little more textured than his previous album.  It starts out with a short musical intro, which leads to a mildly bombastic folk anthem, Change of Time.  Following that is a dreamy acoustic guitar-heavy folk tune called The Curse.  This beautifully written tune, about a mummy coming to life in NYC, perfectly highlights Josh's lyrical ability, with its elaborate imagery:

She carries him home in a beautiful boat
He watches the sea from a porthole in stowage
He can hear all she says as she sits by his bed
And one day his lips answer her in her own language
The days quickly pass he loves making her laugh
The first time he moves it’s her hair that he touches
She asks, “Are you cursed?” he says, “I think that I’m cured”
Then he talks of the Nile and the girls in bulrushes
The next track, Southern Pacifica, is one of my favorites, and probably the most immediately grabbing.  With a nice smooth feel and a catchy chorus, this one could become a hit if given the right exposure.  This is followed up by Rattling Locks, a rougher tune with semi-spoken vocals and lyrics about giving up on a love interest:

I had a dream that I was dying
But it wasn’t a nightmare I was real peaceful as I fell
And if I was falling into heaven
Heaven must be hotter than the Bible tells
I woke up sorry I was living
Rather than rattling your locks I rather spend another night in Hell
 Folk Bloodbath is a great example of Ritter's storytelling ability.  Borrowing the refrain from Mississippi John Hurt, it is a slow, sad ballad in which several characters die.  The next track, Lark, another one of my favorites, is an up-tempo, acoustic guitar-based folk song with beautifully textured instrumental depth during the chorus, and perfectly placed vocal harmonies.  This one is a happy song:

What is it drives the driven snow?
Upon whose temples will I rest my weary hopes now?
The rain distills down steeples fills the ears of lonely church mice with the
Heartbeat of a lark or the lark in my heartbeat

I am assured yes I am assured yes
I am assured peace will come to me
A peace that can yes surpass the speed yes
Of my understanding and my need
This is followed by another anthem, Lantern, with a guitar part only slightly reminiscent of U2, and an infectious melody.  This one is sure to be a crowd favorite.

Tell me what’s the point of light
That you have to strike a match to find?
The next track, The Remnant, is dominated by a staccato piano and drum beat.  Not a terrible track, but for me, it's easily one of the weaker cuts on this album.  This is followed by See How Man Was Made, a soft, peaceful interlude leading into what may be considered the album's centerpiece, Another New World.  This lengthy, brooding track is a fantastical account of an attempted exploration of the North Pole, and the soft texture of his voice and the music perfectly captures the dreariness of the lyrics.  Musically, it's not particularly interesting, but this song is a veritable study in tone.

Following this is another anthemic piece, Orbital.  This is another easy to listen to track, and lyrically it's one of my favorites:

The hawk around the field mouse
The love around a lover’s mouth
I find my mind is settling down
In circuits round you
The angels round their crowded pins
The amber-waved electrons spin
In planetary transits
Round the ones they’re bound to
 The final track, Long Shadows, finally brings it back to more traditional folk, and excellent way to wrap up the album.

This album's greatest accomplishment is it's coherence.  Everything flows well, and you get the sense that it's arranged how it needs to be arranged.  It's one of Ritter's best.  Only his third album, Hello Starling surpasses it.   At this point, I'd rate it as my third favorite of the year.  This album has staying power, and I enjoy it as much now, seven months after its release, as I did when I bought it.

2Change of Time4:07
3The Curse5:00
4Southern Pacifica4:22
5Rattling Locks4:28
6Folk Bloodbath5:19
9The Remnant4:02
10See How Man Was Made3:27
11Another New World7:39
13Long Shadows2:24


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

La Strada - New Home

Release Date: April 20, 2010
Label: Ernest Jenning

Here's one that you might not have heard of.  La Strada is a relatively unknown Brooklyn band formed in 2007.  I'm not sure how I found these guys, but I heard a few tracks, and decided to purchase their album (their catalog consists of New Home, and their self-titled 2009 EP).  Considering the Wikipedia page for "La Strada (band)" points to some defunct Yugoslav band, this must be fairly obscure.

If I had to describe their sound in one phrase, it would be "a more upbeat Death Cab For Cutie."  It would probably be best categorized as Indie Pop/Rock, with a easy-on-the-ears sound, lots of melody, and a good instrumental depth.  One can get a sense of that by investigating the band's lineup:

James Craft - Accordian, Guitar, Lead Vocals
Devon Press - Bass, Guitar, Accordian and Vocals
Ted Lattis - Guitar, Vocals
Brady Miller - Drums, Vocals
Daniel Baer - Violin, Vocals

I have to say, I am actually fairly impressed with this album.  The whole thing was assembled very well, with a great flow that keeps you interested, some well-designed transitions between tracks, and sleek production.  It doesn't give you the feeling that they just threw whatever songs they had written into a box and shook it up (maybe that's what they did, but it doesn't sound that way).   Often times when I listen to what is termed "indie" music, it is too electronic or too lo-fi.  These guys are just a straightforward band who know what they are good at, and make good sounding, straightforward music.

There's really not a bad track on the album.  Most are upbeat, and all of them fully utilize their entire instrumental spectrum, with the strings featuring prominently, and a very clear guitar sound.

Here is the track list:
1Go Forward2:58
3The Traveler4:28
4Wash on By3:46
6My New Home4:55
7Where You Want to Go2:17
8There's Only Love4:14
9the Mountain Song5:41
10the Wedding Song2:55
11Shapes in the Sky3:57
12Mean That Much4:04
13Old Hill3:32

Alas, this might be their last album.  A couple weeks ago, they announced they are breaking up in December.