The Black Crowes Album Project: The Lost Crowes: The Tall Sessions (2006)

The Black Crowes Album Project:
The Lost Crowes: The Tall Sessions (2006)

Band Members:

Chris Robinson, vocals, harp
Rich Robinson, guitar
Steve Gorman, drums
Johnny Colt, bass
Marc Ford, guitar
Eddie Harsch, keys

Additional Musicians:

Gary Louris, backing vocals
Andy Sturmer, backing vocals
Eric Bobo, percussion
Karen Grotberg, backing vocals
Bruce Kaphan, pedal steel

Produced by:

The Black Crowes

Engineered by:

Jim Mitchell (1994)

Mixed by:

Paul Stacey (2006)

Mitch’s Review:

In 2006 The Black Crowes finally released two classic albums that had been shelved back in the day. The Lost Crowes is comprised of The Tall Sessions (which is the early version of Amorica) and Band, which was the intended follow-up to TSAOC. These archival pieces, while widely available in trading circles for years, help us to fill in the blanks in understanding the band’s evolution.

I don’t think that we can consider The Tall Sessions as a final, mixed album. My guess is that they just filled the disc with their favorite cuts from the 1994 Conway Studio sessions. But Tall has to be viewed in the context of Amorica, so let’s focus on what’s different.

Songs that appear on Amorica but aren’t represented on Tall include ‘Gone’, ‘She Gave Good Sunflower’ and ‘Downtown Money Waster’. Curiously, I’ve always regarded those 3 tracks the weakest on Amorica, so in that regard Tall has a stronger tracklisting than Amorica.

More illustrative, however, is how Tall’s ‘Lowdown’ turned into Amorica’s ‘Ballad in Urgency’. ‘Lowdown’ perfectly captures the dark nature of the Tall Sessions. The music is powerful, emotional and raw.

My suspicion is that Tall was shelved because it was too dark. It was likely a cathartic experience in it’s creation but perhaps too painful to commit to wax forever. The music and the lyrics live within the shadows, the place deep within where love and fear intermingle, where the burdens of adulthood and the loss of innocence threaten our sense of self and raise too many questions that can’t be answered.

Or maybe the record company just didn’t like it.

The additions to the album are solid, including a better version of TSAOC’s ‘Evil Eye’. The instrument guitar duel ‘Sunday Night Buttermilk Waltz’ is a treat. The rootsy ‘Tornado’ and ‘Thunderstorm 6:54′ foreshadow the Crowes’ current direction. And ‘Dirty Hair Halo’ is just a great, great rocker.

But the most impressive track to my ears is ‘Feathers’. I can remember hearing the bootleg of this tune many years ago and just listening to it over and over again. It may be Chris’s most expressive vocal performance ever. It’s an intense tune.

Career-wise, I don’t think the band made any major mistake in shelving Tall in favor of Amorica. If anything, Amorica is slightly more accessible. But it’s still amazing to think that the Crowes chose not to release a better version of one of their best records. Final Score: 3.8

1) A Conspiracy: 4
2) Evil Eye: 4
3) Cursed Diamond: 4
4) London P25: 3
5) Dirty Hair Halo: 4
6) Hi-Head Blues: 4
7) Feathers: 4
8) Nonfiction: 4
9) Tied Up and Swallowed: 3
10) Wiser Time: 4
11) Sunday Buttermilk Waltz: 4
12) Descending: 4
13) Lowdown: 4
14) Tornado: 4
15) Songs of the Flesh: 3
16) Thunderstorm 6.54: 4

Don’s Review:

One of the greatest rock and roll albums of the 1990s – The Black Crowes’ amorica – may not have been as good as its rough draft, Tall, which was recorded over several sessions covering almost two years during perhaps the most tumultuous period in the history of one of the genre’s most dramatic bands.

Tall was intended to be the Crowes’ third album, following their stunning debut, Shake Your Money Maker, and masterpiece follow-up, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. When Harmony hit #1 on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart and delivered several top 5 rock radio hits, they were arguably the biggest (if not best) band in the world.

No doubt American Records and the vast majority who bought the first two records would have been more than satisfied had the Crowes followed with another 60’s and 70’s flavored slam dunk.

But Chris and Rich Robinson wrote and recorded more than 30 songs that were so different from what had preceded them – and so different from one another – that it is still fascinating to listen to Tall, which was released in 2006 after sitting in the vault for a dozen years. In fact, even the official release varies from the original intended track-listing (see the “Sessions” section of crowesbase.com), perhaps evidence that the brothers probably still haven’t truly agreed on the album’s direction and sound, which is what held it up for so long in the first place.

But this review focuses on 2006’s official release, which was finished by Paul Stacey, one time guitarist for New Earth Mud and post-Marc-Ford-Second-Era Black Crowes. We’ll refrain from ruminating on the tracks from the Tall Sessions that didn’t make the official release. And won’t compare it to amorica. We’ll judge it on its own merits.

The Official Tall is a sprawling collection of 16-tracks that, in this writer’s opinion, based on its scale and exploration, would have catapulted The Black Crowes into the pantheon of greatest bands ever and shattered their 70s-poseur label forever.

A few elements make it distinct from any of the band’s other official releases. Take the CSN-esque background vocals of Jellyfish’s Andy Sturmer and the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, prominent on many tracks. Even the use of a French horn works as a bridge to Eddie Hawrch’s unforgettable piano at the end of ‘Descending’.

Rich’s songwriting was clearly influenced by Nick Drake, most notably the finger-picking of ‘Sunday Night Buttermilk Waltz’ and verses of ‘Thunderstorm 6:54′. Meanwhile, he and Marc Ford are as one, from the twin solos on ‘Dirty Hair Halo’ and ‘Wiser Time’ to their instrumental duet, “Sunday Night Buttermilk Waltz”.

Chris may never have been in better form vocally or lyrically. His voice sounds different than it has before or since, higher and more plaintive, though no less soulful. Hear the rawness of the line, “it’s all in my mind”, at the peak of ‘Cursed Diamond’. His lyrics have rarely been as evocative or revelatory than on ‘Nonfiction’ (“I like mine deep, so very deep, tied to the bottom, with a noose ‘round my feet”). His vocals on ‘Tornado’ get me every time. It’s maybe the best example on a Black Crowes original song of how he can take the simplest of tunes and make them untouchable. (I could go on forever about how he does this on many covers, easily surpassing the vocals of those songs’ writers. Maybe that should be a future guest-column here on Mitch’s blog.)

What strikes me most upon listening to Tall over and again is how it alternates between light and dark, sometimes even within the same song. Evidenced by the calm-after-storm endings of ‘Evil Eye’, ‘Feathers’ and ‘Cursed Diamond’ and epitomized by the coda of ‘Descending’. To me, this contrast of tension and release, desperation and salvation, devils and angels, is what epitomizes The Black Crowes. Final Score: 3.7

1) A Conspiracy: 4
2) Evil Eye: 3
3) Cursed Diamond: 4
4) P.25 London: 3
5) Dirty Hair Halo: 4
6) High Head Blues: 4
7) Feathers: 4
8) Nonfiction: 4
9) Tied Up & Swallowed: 2
10) Wiser Time: 4
11) Sunday Night Buttermilk Waltz: 4
12) Descending: 4
13) Low Down: 4
14) Tornado: 4
15) Song of the Flesh: 4
16) Thunderstorm 6:54: 3

Previous Release: 2001’s Lions

Next up: 2006’s The Lost Crowes: Band

To read more about The Black Crowes Album Project, click here

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