There were a few flashes of the old brilliance to which fans could cling, but, for the most part, 1971′s Cahoots found The Band’s well running a bit dry. Inspiration was somewhat lacking in Robbie Robertson’s songwriting, and he wasn’t getting the help he once did in that department from the other group members. Their instrumental genius and harmony singing wouldn’t allow for them to record anything truly lousy, but the album certainly suffers from comparison to its predecessors. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “Where Do We Go From Here?”- For the first time, Robertson writes less like an objective and insightful observer of American life and more like a scold. This song, even with the boys “La-la”-ing their hearts out, can’t recover from that main flaw.
10. “Thinkin’ Out Loud”- Rick Danko does all he can to try to salvage this one, although he doesn’t have much raw clay to mold here. The instrumental give-and-take between Robertson on guitar and Garth Hudson on piano is nice, but the melody is tired and the lyrics are somewhere in the clouds with the protagonist.
9. “Smoke Signal”- The grittiness of the music and Levon Helm’s makes this one palatable. Still, it’s another case of a humorless song, which is all right if the writing is strong enough. Here it’s only so-so, if only because Robertson’s points about miscommunication and oncoming dangers had been more memorably made in other previous Band songs.
8. “Shoot Out In Chinatown”- A catchy chorus cures a lot of ills, and this oddity has one, so it’s eminently listenable. Among the ills that need curing: Pedestrian music in the verses, some cliched Oriental-sounding guitar riffs by Robertson, and an 0verall feeling that this was never intended to be more than filler.
7. “The Moon Struck One”- A kind of melancholy nursery rhyme/slash parable, it’s certainly unique. And it apparently inspired Bruce Springsteen as he was writing “Spirit In The Night” (he paraphrases Robertson’s lines about Little John being hurt and in the dirt.) Manuel saves the song by investing it with sonority and feeling rather than playing it as a novelty, which it sort of is.
6. “Volcano”- This is the type of come-on song which had usually been assigned to Helm in the past, but Danko is the right choice here for capturing the desperation of this wooer. Add in some punchy horns and a slinky sax solo by Hudson and you’ve got an unassumingly potent track.
5. “Last Of The Blacksmiths”- Robertson’s lyrics seem to expand beyond the plight of the blacksmiths into a wider lament for an entire way of life dying out (a recurring theme on the album), and the strain of that attempt shows a bit. Still, The Band does manage to captures some of the minor-key, topical drama of “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” thanks to Richard Manuel’s impassioned performance.
4. “The River Hymn”- I can live with the nostalgia here because it’s rendered so lovingly. The song also features the best melody on the album, and Helm cradles the tune like a baby about to be baptized while his buddies Danko and Manuel sing to the heavens. A much-needed dose of pure prettiness to balance out an album that was downcast on the whole.
3. “4% Pantomime”- So what if it sounds like the whole thing was made up on the spot with no more inspiration than a couple of bottles of booze? Getting to hear two of the finest vocalists in rock history, Richard Manuel and Van Morrison, trade wails is more than enough to make this a winner. Plus, it provides a source of reckless fun sorely missing from the rest of the album.
2. “Life Is A Carnival”- The great Allen Toussaint really sends this opening track to another level with his horn arrangement. Every utterance by Danko and Helm seems to be punctuated by a blast of brass, each one coming in at a different angle. As a rhythm section, the pair keeps up with the funkiness of the guest players, while Robertson chimes in with energetic lead guitar. Even though the main metaphor is a bit facile, the overall effect of the music more than compensates.
1. “When I Paint My Masterpiece”- Dylan wrote it but Levon Helm hijacked it before Bob ever got a chance to put a good stamp on it. His vocal as an American buffeted about by European extravagances and annoyances is one of those indelible performances that he seemed to give with regularity. (Note there are no harmonies from his buddies here; you couldn’t improve or embellish his performance anyway.) Levon also plays mandolin while Manuel takes over on drums with his winningly ramshackle style. Hudson somehow captures both the romance of a moonlit gondola ride and the homesickness of the protagonist with his accordion. Proof they could still do it better than anybody else when the material was there.
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The Band’s third album, 1970′s Stage Fright, would have to have gone a long way to match its first two. Looking back on it now, the main criticism is probably that the tonal shifts between songs are more jarring here than they ever were on the opening pair, making for less of a smooth ride. Still, there are several top-notch efforts to recommend here, some of which have rightfully become signature songs of the group and others which deserve more attention. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “Time To Kill”- The term “country rock” never seemed deep enough for what The Band actually played, even though they were sometimes lumped in with that grouping by lazy critics. Alas, this song fits the pedestrian nature of that categorization a bit too well.
9. “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show”- This song definitely has its defenders, but I feel its nostalgia for old-time traveling shows is an end in itself. The music has its high points though, especially the horns of Garth Hudson and John Simon, who doesn’t produce on this album (The Band handled the duties themselves) but makes his presence felt here.
8. “Strawberry Wine”- You’ll notice that the more playful material is holding up the bottom end of these rankings; those songs just feel a little more forced than the more somber stuff this time around, as if chief songwriter Robbie Robertson was having a hard time committing to the raucousness and ribaldry. Still, Levon Helm, who co-wrote, delivers this fun opening track with enough gusto to get it by, and Hudson’s accordion always cures a lot of ills.
7. “Sleeping”- This is Richard Manuel’s lone songwriting credit on the album (shared with Robertson), the air of dreamy melancholy hanging heavy in the air as it has in so many of his previous efforts, albeit this time around without the same level of inspiration as on classics like “In A Station,” “Lonesome Suzie,” or “Whispering Pines.” Typically well-performed by his buddies though.
6. “Just Another Whistle Stop”- Robertson’s lyrics are a tad unfocused here, somewhat caught between a docile past and a frenzied present. The music is pretty straightforward as well, but it conveys a compelling sense of urgency nonetheless, seconded by an expressive, harried vocal by Manuel.
5. “All La Glory”- A sort of sequel to “When You Awake,” albeit more of an overt lullaby, this track captures The Band at its most gentle and charming. Helm’s shows his vocal versatility with a performance of sweet vulnerability, nailing the tone of Robertson’s unfussy yet pretty lyrics. Manuel’s vocal talent naturally overshadowed his instrumental capabilities, but his solo on the Hammond organ here is a scene-stealer.
4. “The Shape I’m In”- At this point in their career, they were more convincing on the addled, agitated tracks, probably because that’s how they felt under the pressure of critical adoration and touring obligations. Robertson’s prickly one-liners certainly hit home here, aided and abetted by Manuel’s ragged, impassioned vocal. It always helps when you have the talent to mine your worries and woes for cathartic rock and roll.
3. “Daniel And The Sacred Harp”- So what if it’s an old story? Who told it better than these guys? The music is a mesmerizing mix of hoe-down and gospel, conjured by Helm’s soothing 12-string, Manuel’s herky-jerky drumming, Danko’s winking fiddle, Robertson’s soulful fills, and Hudson’s angelic organ. With that frame in place, the tale of a musician selling his soul for talent seems both old as time and thrillingly novel.
2. “Stage Fright”- Robertson somehow turned his fear of performing for an audience into a universal lament when it could have come off sounding like the uptown problems of a rock star. A lot of credit goes to Danko, whose twitching, chirping lead vocal is a marvel of idiosyncratic soul. Other than Hudson’s typically inventive organ, the players mostly deliver for locked-in support here, respecting the value of a great singer tearing into a resonant lyric. Even with virtuosos like The Band, sometimes the equation is as simple as that.
1. “The Rumor”- Perhaps their most underrated song. The music is ominous without being overbearing, starring Robertson’s guitar at its most melodic. (Heck, the instrumental break sounds downright Beatlesque.) The lyrical baton-passing is handled effortlessly, each performer adding his own touch: Danko sounds like a man on the edge of snapping, Helm is all wounded wisdom, and Manuel brings it home with help from his buddies, singing as if he’s trying to blow the malicious gossip away with the desperate compassion in his voice. It’s a far cry in tone from the joyous testifying of “We Can Talk”, yet, in it’s own way, it’s just as powerful and moving.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @jimbeviglia. For books and e-books based on material that originated on this site, check out the links below.)
It was almost titled America, which would have been fitting considering the deep understanding of that subject matter these four Canadians and an Arkansan demonstrated on their second studio album. Instead, it was simply named The Band, and never has an eponymous album been more appropriate than on this brilliant 1969 offering because it is the ultimate distillation of the genius and magic of this one-of-a-kind group. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “Jawbone”- Richard Manuel co-wrote this song and creates an indelible portrait of a ne’er-do-well who nonetheless sounds like a fun guy to join for a night on the town. The music, with its tempo shifts and other quirks, is a bit more impressive than lovable.
11. “Jemima Surrender”- Levon Helm picked up a rare writing credit and sings this ribald tale with a twinkle in his eye and a few tricks up his sleeve. Jemima has little hope of resisting his charms, nor do we of resisting this relatively inconsequential yet undeniably fun mixture of innuendo and boogie.
10. “Look Out Cleveland”- Rick Danko takes the lead here, and it’s a good choice because he always played harried and frazzled well. His rubber bass work also proves that a song can rock hard and still swing. The oncoming hurricane here, which hits all the way from Cleveland to Houston, seems to be Robbie Robertson’s allegorical warning to members of his generation at what was a tumultuous time in the history of youth culture in America.
9. “Across The Great Divide”- The buoyant opening track immediately takes us deep into the American South via some Fats Domino piano and drunken horns. Robertson’s lyrics, indelibly sung by Richard Manuel, don’t skimp on the sinning in the verses, but they immediately subvert that vibe with the gospel-like refrains. Molly might have reason to shoot this bounder of a narrator, but he states his case with such ragged charm that the rest of us end up rooting for him to make it down to the river to the redemption for which he longs.
8. “When You Awake”- A sweet lullaby that’s sung with ultimate tenderness by Danko, this track effortlessly brings smiles. Helm’s hop-along beat and Hudson’s enveloping organ are the instrumental stars here, while the harmonizing in the refrain can send anyone off to slumber with sweet dreams.
7. “Rag Mama Rag”- Like “Jemima Surrender,” Helm plays the seducer here. He made the double-entendres (“Resin up the bow”) sound devious and innocent all at once, such was his vocal gift. And Robertson always knew just the right words to highlight that gift. The fiddles and Hudson’s wild piano work their magic, making The Band sound like the back-porch musicians they always were at heart, albeit the most accomplished and talented ones around.
6. “Unfaithful Servant”- As gentle as some of the other tracks are rousing, this showcase for Danko’s expressive, emotional vocals benefits from somber horns courtesy of Garth Hudson and producer John Simon and a killer acoustic solo from Robertson in the coda. The tale is beguilingly mysterious, as it is slowly revealed that the narrator is the title character, giving himself a pep talk for the next part of his journey. While the dynamic of the relationship in question here seems to be that of a rich mistress and the worker who betrays her, it also seems like Robertson’s sly commentary on the power trips that bedevil modern couplings.
5. “Up On Cripple Creek”- The rhythm, with Danko’s bass playing off Hudson’s effects-laden clavinet, would make any funk band proud. Robertson’s conjures a sort of lighthearted sequel to “The Weight,” a tale of escalating frustration and bemusement for the narrator, although all the heartache and happiness comes via a single captivating woman. This is Helm’s show, from his drumming so evocative it’s practically melodic, to his inimitable vocal, right down to the last yodel.
4. “Rockin’ Chair”- It’s so unassuming that it sneaks up on you, until you realize the tears welling up in your eyes. Helm on mandolin, Robertson on acoustic guitar, and Hudson on accordion push that rickety old boat across the water, while Manuel steers as the old salt trying to get back home to die. And those harmonies…I can’t believe I’ve got three songs ranked better than this one.
3. “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”- It’s hard to imagine another song demonstrating the wealth of musical talent The Band had at their disposal. Helm’s thumping toms, Hudson’s lurking organ, Danko’s ominous bass lines all build the unbearable tension released by Robertson’s guitar solo which blazes like the fire that burned the barn. All through the album, the songs celebrate a simpler, gentler way of life that “King Harvest” makes clear is in mortal danger from hectic, encroaching modernity.
2. “Whispering Pines”- Manuel wrote the melody. Robertson heard in those chord changes, which struggle through their blue moods until finding their golden resolution, the essence of Richard’s personality, responding with lyrics of heartbreaking loveliness. Manuel’s vocal is ethereally soulful, while Hudson softens every blow with his keyboards. At the end, Helm joins for some call-and-response that sound like the two men were singing from mountain peaks across a wide distance impossible to breach. And yet they do come together for the final line: “The lost are found.” Music this powerful can make such things happen.
1. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”- What is the greater songwriting achievement by Robbie Robertson here? That he undercuts the popular storyline of the Civil War and dares to empathize with the losing side? Or is it how, in a few short strokes, he creates an unforgettable character and tells his personal tale that transcends tine and place? Of course, none of that works without Levon Helm, who embodies the wounded pride, resilient integrity, and horrifying, unrecoverable loss that’s found both within the lyrics and between the lines. Forget what you learned in class; this is the true damage done by The Civil War, lingering still.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Check out the links below for books and e-books based on material which originated on this site.)
Next week, the deluxe edition of the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert from 1992 is coming out on CD, DVD, and Blu-Ray. For American Songwriter today, I gave my choices for the Top 10 from that star-studded event. Check it out in the link below.
Welcome to all those who have joined the blog for The Band Retro Review countdown. Just so you newcomers know, I’ll be posting those reviews in chronological order twice a week (probably Monday and Thursday), so if you’re tuning in for them, you’ll know when they’re coming. And I appreciate any comments, good or bad, that you might have. (I usually respond, just because I love having the last word.)
In addition, I’ll occasionally post links to my work at American Songwriter as a little extra content for my readers. Today I’ve got something about as far removed from The Band as you might care to find: A look at the 80′s power ballad classic “Total Eclipse Of The Heart.” It’s in the link. Talk to you all again later this week.
It’s difficult to say too much about Music From Big Pink without drowning it in superlatives that could never match just what it feels like to hear it. It’s quite simply one of the finest albums in rock history, which is something considering that it was The Band’s debut album. Of course, they’d been around for a while as a touring outfit and Bob Dylan’s hand-picked electric wreckers, but they showed here their stunning abilities as songwriters, arrangers, and performers of music that felt as old as the hills yet still maintains its eternal relevance. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “To Kingdom Come”- You might think that I’m coming down on this one because of Robbie Robertson’s lone lead vocal on the album, but he gets by all right with plenty of assistance from the more accomplished vocalists in the group. The song is actually a solid effort with some fascinating “The end is nigh”-type lyrics. It only pales next to the more magical stuff all around it.
10. “Caledonia Mission”- A bit of a quirky track with enigmatic lyrics from Robertson, it possesses enough interesting moments to atone for the fact that the whole is a little disjointed. That’s the thing about The Band: They were so virtuosic and their chemistry was so fine that even the filler captivates.
9. “This Wheel’s On Fire”- Garth Hudson’s prickly keyboard effects are memorable, but the arrangement gets a bit too busy, failing to match the ominous murk of the The Basement Tapes version with Dylan on lead. The song itself contains limitless mysteries, which cover up any faults in the performance of it quite well.
8. “Long Black Veil”- Many people have taken a stab at this famous murder ballad, but The Band’s take just might be definitive (although Johnny Cash gives them a run for their money.) When those voices start piling up on each other with Richard Manuel’s electric piano nudging them along, they make you believe in even the most fantastical of the song’s elements.
7. “In A Station”- Most people know about Manuel’s inimitable voice, but they might not know that he wrote several idiosyncratically beautiful songs in his time with the group. With Hudson dancing all around the singers with his keyboards and the harmonies gorgeous as usual, lines like “Once upon a time leaves me empty” and “Can’t we have something to feel” feel like more than just one man’s thoughts; they feel like universal pleas.
6. “Tears Of Rage”- Robertson wanted a ballad to kick off the album, so The Band dipped into The Basement Tapes material for this unforgettable song with music by Manuel and lyrics by Dylan. I still like the simplicity of The Basement Tapes version, with those high harmonies surging all around Dylan’s bereft vocal, maybe a tad more, but the staggeringly slow version from Big Pink compels in its own way, with Manuel’s vocal capturing every bit of the shunned parents’ pain and Robertson’s gargling guitar part adding another haunting hook.
5. “Lonesome Suzie”- Robertson adds some tender guitar, Hudson bathes everything in a spectral glow, and those trademark woeful horns do their work, but this is Manuel’s show. The song portrays a hopelessly isolated soul with lyrics that charm with their simplicity and empathy. Then Manuel sings it and breaks your heart right in half like only he could do.
4. “Chest Fever”- Lest anyone think they couldn’t rock out, this groovy beast answers all doubts. Hudson’s mad-scientist organ sets the tone, getting The Band as close to pyschedelia as they would ever cone, before the rhythm section, consisting of Danko’s swaggering, skipping bass and Levon Helm’s funky yet muscular beat, takes over. Helm and Manuel bark out the nonsensical lyrics with gusto, and the moment when Helm snaps the woozy bridge back into attention with a few snare shots can’t help but invigorate you. Man, these guys could play.
3. “We Can Talk”- No band has ever had three vocalists like The Band, and “We Can Talk” shows this off in exhilarating fashion. “One voice for all/Echoing around the hall,” they sing, and the unique give-and-take they manage here really brings that feeling through the speakers. Proving they could do Gospel with the same ease and spark that they brought to every other genre, this track could uplift even the most long-gone soul.
2. “I Shall Be Released”- I’ve gone on record in these write-ups as saying that I preferred The Basement Tapes versions of “This Wheels On Fire” (by a lot) and “Tears Of Rage” (by a smidge) over the Big Pink takes. On the other hand, The Band’s version of “I Shall Be Released,” which benefits, as the whole album does, from John Simon’s intuitive production, can’t ever be topped, by Dylan or anyone else who takes a crack at this miracle of succinct songwriting. Manuel plays the spiritual prisoner and exudes fathoms-deep wells of yearning and hurt, even as Hudson’s cocoons him protectively in his wah-wah keyboards. At last the trio of voices in the chorus, high, higher, and highest, achieve the transcendence that no wall could ever contain.
1. “The Weight”- It’s their signature song, which is OK, because it’s still the song that, if you had to explain The Band’s incomparable music to someone, you would play them. Hudson’s piano work may come to the fore, but it’s the instinctive interplay between the players, all in service of the song, that really leaves an impression. It’s also Robertson’s first great lyric; he uses the colloquialisms and idioms effortlessly not as the song’s end-all, be-all, but rather to help tell his story about the futility of being a good man when everybody else is out to get theirs. He also knew he had Helm’s innate feistiness and integrity to imbue the lyrics with layers that weren’t on the page. It all leads up to the refrains and once more to Helm, Danko, and Manuel unifying those unique voices, helping each other to carry Fanny’s load right to Judgement Day.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @jimbeviglia. Check out the links below to books based on material which originated on this site.)
For those waiting for a new Retro Review series, we’ll be kicking one off on Monday. In the meantime, check out the link to my American Songwriter piece on Billy Bragg’s “Valentine’s Day Is Over”.