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The Black Crowes unearth American roots music

Also reviewed: David Bazan, Pitbull.

September 01, 2009|Randy Lewis; Mikael Wood; August Brown

The Black Crowes

"Before the Frost ..."

Silver Arrow/Megaforce

** 1/2

Mainstream rock acts such as veteran Atlanta outfit the Black Crowes typically find better fortune on the road than on the sales charts. So it's no surprise that in the last decade brothers Chris and Rich Robinson have focused more on the live experience -- both in performance and releasing recordings of various concerts -- than sequestering themselves away in a studio honing new material.

They get the best of both worlds on this set of new songs recorded earlier this year in Woodstock live, for the most part, in front of a hand-selected audience.

Using the home studio built by the Band's drummer Levon Helm apparently inspired them to branch further than they characteristically have into the various tributaries of American roots music. Those explorations feed into the Southern rock that remains at the center of the Black Crowes' sound.

"Good Morning Captain," the leadoff track, taps the same kind of big-footprint backbeat and raucous interplay that Helm and his cohorts did so well. The Robinsons -- who are joined by the band's original drummer, Steve Gorman, plus guitarist Luther Dickinson, bassist Sven Pipien and keyboardist Adam MacDougall with guest assistance from multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell -- move through a range of classic-rock reference points: Creedence-like swamp-rock, Tom Petty-ish Americana, Motown-style psychedelia and, in "Make Glad," an experiment in Southern prog-funk.

There are examinations of rootlessness ("What Is Home," "Houston Don't Dream About Me"), the price musicians pay for so much time spent getting from here to there and one heartfelt meditation on the struggle for connection ("Last Place That Love Lives").

These guys still come up with meaty riffs for fans of guitar-driven rock, but also leave themselves plenty of room to stretch out in jam-band excursions.

"Before the Frost . . . " comes with a code that allows purchasers to get a free, download-only companion album, " . . . Until the Freeze."

-- Randy Lewis


Spiritual journey comes full circle

David Bazan

"Curse Your Branches"


* * * 1/2

On the first full-length he's released under his name, David Bazan describes his recent struggles with faith and addiction in language that makes it clear how far he's traveled since dissolving Pedro the Lion in 2005.

Bazan built a devoted following inside the Christian community during his decade-long run with Pedro, asking tough questions of religion from the perspective of a thoughtful believer. Here, though, Bazan's doubt takes a firmer, more certain form: "I clung to miracles I have not seen," he admits in "Bearing Witness," "From ancient autographs I cannot read."

The past tense there is crucial: "Curse Your Branches" documents Bazan's coming to terms with his newfound agnosticism, a change of heart he credits in "When We Fell" to his inability to accept "the threat of hell hanging over my head like a halo."

Despite its undercurrent of outrage, "Branches" -- which expands Pedro's folksy sound with creamy keyboards, processed drum beats and the occasional spritz of glam-rock guitar -- is no shorter on moral compassion than the older material that earned Bazan a home at Cornerstone, the Christian music festival that he played this summer for the first time since 2005, when he was asked to leave after showing up drunk for a performance.

Perhaps that's because Bazan, who plays the Troubadour Oct. 4, still views his work as evangelical in nature: "I discovered hell to be the poison in the well," he sings in "Bless This Mess," "So I tried to warn the others of the curse."

-- Mikael Wood


They get the party started




* * 1/2

It's truly refreshing to hear a rapper who doesn't need to equate himself to the '90s titans. "R.I.P., uh, Big and Pac," Pitbull rhymes on "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)." "That, he's not, but damn he's hot."

Pitbull has a strong rhythmic pocket, laced with Spanish ad libs that could make a Minuteman blush. But he's a better party starter, and he knows it. His latest album, "Rebelution," is a lighter affair than 2007's "The Boatlift" and 2006's politically-tinged "El Mariel"; it's rife with aspirant bangers in every au courant flavor.

Singles like "I Know You Want Me" and "Hotel Room Service" have been as unkillable on radio as Michael Myers is in the "Halloween" franchise. That's a net positive for pop music -- both are saucy, absurd floor-fillers you can practically feel breathing down your neck. But the record's top-heavy, with the back end succumbing to sodden tracks like "Juice Box" and the rote absent-parents lament "Daddy's Little Girl."

With "Rebelution," Pitbull's filled a rakish niche in pop-rap. "I ain't no thug, I ain't no gangsta, I'm a hustler," he rhymes. If he wants to hustle curvy ladies and expensive speedboats, well, that sounds like more fun than a '90s bi-coastal turf war.

-- August Brown

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