Like a sitcom, The Black Crowes’ follow-up to their 2008 reunion album Warpaint was recorded in front of a live studio audience. Before the Frost … Until the Freeze is split into two halves, but the pieces form one cohesive whole, recorded over five days at the upstate New York studios of The Band’s Levon Helm. The presence of an audience is a little strange, especially since the songs sound like fairly clean, polished studio recordings until the smattering of applause and occasional “thank you” at the end of each track.
Still, having fans present seems to have loosened the band up a little; it was already drifting further into jam-band and roots-rock territory on Warpaint, and this album continues that slide both for good and for ill. Some songs, especially on the more rock-oriented Before the Frost, are too aimless, but the quiet alt-country of most of Until the Freeze represents a welcome development, one that fits with the less rigid songwriting that bandleaders Chris and Rich Robinson favor these days.
Freeze is the stronger of the halves, with its surprising emphasis on fiddle, pedal steel and acoustic guitar giving it a pleasant, lived-in feel and a connection to Helm’s old group. The days of driving, catchy rock songs like “Jealous Again” and “Remedy” are long gone, but in their place is a band comfortable in its anachronistic appeal, making ramshackle music that’s a little messy and a little timeless.