CK Retro Review: Jericho by The Band

Following the departure of chief songwriter Robbie Robertson and death of Richard Manuel, new product from The Band seemed like a pipe dream. Yet in 1993, the three remaining original members teamed up with some of the musicians who had been touring with them and released Jericho, a fine collection of thoughtful song interpretations and spirited performances. Even though the second half drags, the best stuff here is worthy of their towering legacy. Here is a song-by-song review.

ONE STAR

12. “Move To Japan”- Lyrically, it’s lost somewhere between social commentary and satire. As music, it’s boilerplate boogie topped with thuddingly obvious Oriental touches. So begins the lackluster second half of Jericho.

TWO STARS

11. “Shine A Light”- The Band’s best gospel music sounds like it was recorded under some revival tent. This one sounds like it was recorded in a studio in the early 90′s.

10. “River Of Dreams”- It has a nice enough melody, and Rick Danko sings it with tenderness. But the arrangement, sounding more like the tasteful exotica in which Steve Winwood or Peter Gabriel traded, robs The Band of their personality.

9. “Blues Stay Away From Me”- The closing track is the kind of sleepy blues that you can hear at the end of the night in bars everywhere.

THREE STARS

8. “Same Thing”- The arrangement is maybe a bit too busy for this moody Willie Dixon blues classic. Levon Helm salvages things though with a typically gritty vocal and one of his trademark off-kilter rhythms.

7. “Stuff You Gotta Watch”- The instrumentalists sink their collective teeth into this jump blues, and Levon could sing this stuff in his sleep. Well-done, if not exactly revelatory.

6. “Remedy”- The Muscle Shoals-style horns give this energetic opening track soul to spare. The heart comes from Helm’s lead vocal, who for the umpteenth time plays the role of a harried rambler who finds both aggravation and salvation in the arms of a woman.

FOUR STARS

5. “The Caves Of Jericho”- While this may have been an obvious attempt to recapture the historical glories of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” right down to the somber piano chords, it’s a strikingly successful one. While the lyrics (written by Helm, John Simon, and Richard Bell) may overplay the sorrow at times and lack the deft hand that Robbie Robertson possessed with similar material, having Levon on lead bringing authenticity and passion to the tale of a mine cave-in helps to atone for any weaknesses. And the instrumental mix, fiddles and horns and Garth Hudson’s keyboard apparitions, is undeniably stirring.

4. “Country Boy”- Recorded not too long before his death in 1986, “Country Boy” gave us all one more chance to hear Richard Manuel take a seemingly simple song and wring from it unfathomable levels of emotion. Even at his huskiest, his voice still creaked and faltered in all the right places. When you used the word “soulful” to describe Manuel’s singing, it wasn’t a nod to some genre of music but rather an acknowledgement that he laid his soul bare for the world to hear with every note he sang. One can only hope that soul now rests in the peace it struggled to find down here with the rest of us.

FIVE STARS

3. “Too Soon Gone”- Jules Shear’s song is a beauty, a meditation on loss that takes poetic turns yet never gets so fussy that the hurt isn’t front and center. Danko, undoubtedly drawing on the memories of his old buddy Manuel, gives an achingly pretty performance in tribute, while Hudson roams the edges with impactful saxophone fills. Lumps in your throat the whole way on this one.

2. “Atlantic City”- If Jericho did nothing else, it reminded everyone of what an authoritative and charismatic performer Helm always was. After setting the tone with some evocative mandolin, he takes Bruce Springsteen’s tale of big dreams and hard luck in the gambling mecca, rendered by the Boss in such iconic fashion on Nebraska, and somehow makes us hear it anew. Hudson helps of course, his accordion taking us on a stroll from the boardwalk to the back alleys and back again.

1. “Blind Willie McTell”- First of all, the song itself is among Dylan’s most haunting, expanding Robbie Robertson’s own examinations of the American South into dark corners and tortured pasts. The Band chose a bluegrass route for their take, albeit one goosed by a herky-jerky rhythm, and then let Danko and Helm work their magic, raising the intensity verse by verse until they harmonize in the refrains, summoning all the ghosts to the fore in the process. Chilling and thrilling all at once.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books based on material which originated on this site, check out the links below.)

Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Buy from Amazon

Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs

Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs

Buy from Amazon


CK Retro Review: Islands by The Band

The Band owed their record company one more album and they recorded this album in the midst of rehearsals for The Last Waltz. As a result, 1977′s Islands is as disjointed and discombobulated as one might expect. There is a glimmer or two of the old chemistry and brilliance, but everything from the songwriting to the arrangements to the performances feels ordinary, an adjective that was rarely used when these five guys played together. Here is a song-by-song review:

TWO STARS

10. “Let The Night Fall”- Not even the glorious harmonies in the refrain provide a spark here. This is as pedestrian as anything in their output.

9. “Islands”- The title track is an instrumental that wants to be whimsical but comes off sounding toothless.

8. “Street Walker”- Rick Danko shared writing credit for this track with Robbie Robertson, making it a rarity in The Band’s catalog. Alas, they never pulled off urban with near as much conviction as they did rural.

7. “Ain’t That A Lot Of Love”- Even with the horns coming for the ride and Levon Helm doing what he can on lead vocal, the lack of ingenuity of this cover version is glaring compared to the performances on Moondog Matinee.

THREE STARS

6. “Right As Rain”- The jazz-noir groove sounds like it was borrowed second-hand from Steely Dan, and Robertson’s lyrics are all over the place in terms of focus. Yet Richard Manuel darn near rescues it all with a performance that’s understated yet moving.

5. “Georgia On My Mind”- Upon hearing Manuel’s ravaged voice, it’s hard not to wish for a recorded version of the song with him on lead when he was at the peak of his powers. He tries valiantly though, and even though this doesn’t come near Ray Charles’ definitive take, it’s shot through with enough feeling to make it worthwhile.

4. “Living In A Dream”- The overriding problem with the songs on Islands is that they’re always a bit off; when one or two elements are in place, there are other elements sorely lacking. On this closing track, for example, there is a sweet, slippery sax solo from Garth Hudson and a fine refrain on the good side of the ledger, with a plodding rhythm and trite lyrics on the bad. At least the good wins out here, but Band fans were used to complete victories.

3. “The Sage Of Pepote Rouge”- The title might make you expect one of Robertson’s historical epics, but, upon listening, you’ll find a tale about as far from fact as possible. There is something endearingly wacky about the story of a goddess savior beckoned to save mankind with her spaceship. The music seems like an afterthought next to the quirky lyrics, but the idiosyncratic nature of this one is welcome compared to the rather tame stuff all around it.

2. “Knockin’ Lost John”- Robertson shares lead vocals with Helm on this unassumingly grooving tale of the Great Depression. Hudson’s accordion solo and the loose, rumbling groove makes this the most musically memorable track on the line, even if it would hardly seem revelatory on Music From Big Pink or the Brown Album.

FOUR STARS

1. “Christmas Must Be Tonight”- The relaxed vibe and restrained musical accompaniment really allow the charm of Robertson’s lyric and tune to shine through, one of the few rock Christmas songs that seems like a genuine outpouring of holiday feelings rather than a cynical grab at seasonal royalties. Having Danko sing it with such authentic emotion didn’t hurt either.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books based on material which originated on this site, check out the links below.)

Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Buy from Amazon

Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs

Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs

Buy from Amazon


CK Retro Review: Northern Lights-Southern Cross by The Band

Jubilation was their last album, Islands their last with the original lineup, and The Last Waltz was meant to be their grand finale. But 1975′s Northern Lights-Southern Cross always felt like The Band’s proper farewell. The album reaffirmed all that made them great in the first place, and what it may have lacked in terms of the quintet’s original rollicking energy, it replaced with reflective, assured brilliance. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

8. “Jupiter Hollow”- There are many Band chroniclers much more knowledgeable than I who absolutely love this song. Interesting tidbits certainly abound, such as the off-kilter clavinet beat, Hudson’s swirling synthesizers, and Robertson’s musings on the fine line between mythology and madness. I just don’t feel like those elements ever quite lock in together to make this more than an oddity.

THREE STARS

7. “Rags And Bones”- Even with Hudson’s synths weaving around the main melody and some punchy licks from Robertson, the music here never quite ignites. Luckily, Robertson’s detail-heavy lyrics, which draw on memories of his Jewish heritage and his keen eye for the ephemera of city life, carry a lot of the load.

6. “Ring Your Bell”- With a head-bobbing bass line from Rick Danko and a generally energetic performance by all, this tale of outlaws on a hard road would have been a standout on Cahoots. Here, it sounds comparatively minor.

FOUR STARS

5. “Forbidden Fruit”- Recalling the ominous vibe of Stage Fright, one can’t help but wonder if this gritty opening track was Robertson’s warning to his Bandmates about their extracurricular pursuits. When his lyrics get a bit precious, Helm is there to save them with the authenticity of his vocals. The groove is rough and ready, and Robbie tears loose with a pair of fierce solos which recall his gunslinging days with the Hawks and Dylan.

4. “Ophelia”- The Band’s music always meshed well with horns, as the Rock Of Ages live album memorably demonstrated. This is essentially a tale of a lovesick fool waiting for the title character’s unlikely return, but Hudson’s buoyant brass won’t let anybody get too down about it. Support comes from Robertson’s just-right lead guitar and Helm, who not only sings the stuffing out of it but provides a beat that stutters and hiccups yet somehow resides in the pocket the whole time.

FIVE STARS

3. “Hobo Jungle”- Manuel may have lost his ability to hit those ethereal high notes as the years passed, but he always maintained his talent for finding the soulful core of one of Robertson’s stories. The latter plays his heart out on acoustic guitar here, and this is a good place as any to mention his songwriting, which can get overlooked in the context of The Band’s musical chemistry (and because he wasn’t the one singing the songs.) On this wistful example, Robbie takes on subject matter that most others wouldn’t even consider and lends it dignity and grace, so that the demise of the protagonist, a homeless drifter, feels as momentous as the death of a world leader. Which is the point of this wondrous song, really.

2. “It Makes No Difference”- Rick Danko’s greatest vocal gift was his ability to convey emotion which always seemed on the verge of becoming unmoored and spinning off into a place from which it could no longer be successfully recovered. Never did he get a better showcase for this talent than on this colossal ballad. Robertson rarely wrote straightforward love songs, but he poured it all out on this one, allowing Danko to go to town. In the final moments, his voice trembles and shakes, a victim to the enormity of his anguish. As if that isn’t enough, Robertson and Hudson pay id and ego in the coda, the former playing as if he can pierce through the hurt with his high notes, the latter blowing resolutely on his sax as if to say that pain is the inevitable outcome of love.

1. “Acadian Driftwood”- From the opening acoustic guitar figure, you can tell something special is afoot, but you can’t possibly expect to have your breath taken away over and over as the song progresses. But then it happens when you consider the poignancy of Robertson’s lyrics and tune, proving, as he tells the tale of Acadians displaced from their Canadian homes in the 18th century and forced to make their way down to Louisiana, that no one in the rock idiom wrote historical material better; no one has ever really come close. It happens when you hear Hudson’s small army of instruments, including piccolo and bagpipes to go with his ever-evocative accordion, conjuring all kinds of wistful emotion. (Byron Berline gets an assist for his Creole fiddle part.) And, of course, it happens when Danko, Helm, and Manuel, oh, those three voices, come together in the refrains to sing of pride of place, of homesickness, and of loss, immeasurable loss. An absolute miracle of a song had it come from anyone else, but this was The Band, after all.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books based on material that originated on this site, check out the links below.)

Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Buy from Amazon

Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs

Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs

Buy from Amazon


CK Retro Review: Moondog Matinee by The Band

Perhaps no group was ever so suited to record an album of covers as The Band, whose musical chemistry stayed tight even as their interpersonal relationships were fraying at the time of the release of Moondog Matinee in 1973. Yet even though this kind of project was right in their wheelhouse, the clever song selection and energetic, loving performances makes this disc extra-special. Here is a song-by-song review.

THREE STARS

10. “I’m Ready”- This is the weakest thing on here only because the arrangement lacks the specialness of some of the other songs, even with Garth Hudson playing the stuffing out of the piano in homage to Fats Domino, the original artist for this fun raver.

9. “Holy Cow”- An affable rambler written by old Band buddy Allen Toussaint, “Holy Cow” benefits from some great unison singling by Levon Helm and Rick Danko, some crazy wah-wah guitar from Robbie Robertson, and Garth Hudson’s multi-instrumental wizardry gluing it all together. Very charming even if it’s on the slight side.

8. “The Promised Land”- The original song is so impeccable, one of Chuck Berry’s indelible potboilers, that it’s difficult for The Band to put much of a unique spin on it, even with Helm at the mike. They play it expertly and Hudson tries to put some fun spins on the instrumental stuff at the end, but it never quite breaks out of Berry’s formidable shadow.

7. “I’m Saved”- Rock and roll gospel wouldn’t be a bad shorthand way to describe what The Band was all about, so it makes sense that they would feel right at home with this Leiber/Stoller track. And when you have Richard Manuel doing the testifying, how can you go wrong?

FOUR STARS

6. “Third Man Theme”- As essential as he was as a complimentary player, Hudson’s turns in the spotlight, rare as they were, are magical in their own right. This winking take on the instrumental theme from a Hollywood Golden Era classic is completely out of bounds compared with the rootsiness all around it, but there is such cleverness and heart imbued by Hudson in every last note that it fits in just fine.

5. “Ain’t Got No Home”- Levon playing the woeful narrator of Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s playful romp was such a natural, right down to the effects-aided croaking that he does, that it’s the perfect way to start this rollicking album. Hudson does double duty with stuttering tenor sax and ripping piano, elevating the song above mere nostalgia into an invigorating realm. Woo-woo indeed.

4. “The Great Pretender”- Nothing could improve upon the perfection of The Platters’ original, but the song selection is so suited to Manuel that there’s just no way this one could miss. Knowing Richard’s difficulties in life adds a little bit of poignancy to the performance, but you need no knowledge of The Band’s biography to appreciate the sweet sadness conveyed here.

3. “A Change Is Gonna Come”- How could anyone possibly compete with the colossal nature of Sam Cooke’s original? The Band knew that would be fighting a losing battle, so they wisely understate everything, from the delicate instrumentation that’s buoyed along by Richard Manuel’s nifty little drum fills, to Rick Danko’s achingly restrained lead vocal. The result doesn’t top Cooke, but it certainly would have made him proud.

FIVE STARS

2. “Mystery Train”- There was always some dark subtext lurking in this iconic rock and roll/blues song, but The Band bring it to the surface with their searing performance. Robertson’s nifty rearrangement deserves a lot of credit, making it all somehow deeper and more primal than other readings. Manuel and Helm conjure the thieving locomotive by doubling on drums (some accounts credit Billy Mundi as the second drummer and not Helm; I’m going with Robertson’s own account), while Robbie lashes out his guitar licks and Hudson plays as if Stevie Wonder were his inspiration and not Elvis. The original material was compelling enough, but The Band reveal the mysteries anew here.

1. “Share Your Love (With Me)”- The danger with a project like Moondog Matinee is that it can come off sounding fun but inconsequential. Richard Manuel’s performance on this Bobby “Blue” Bland R&B oldie is so essential in its conveyance of desperate longing that it alone silences any of those concerns. His buddies turn in a tender performance in support of him, especially Robertson with his soulful licks and Hudson on his soothing organ. It’s just beautiful and fragile and another example of why there won’t ever be a singer quite like Manuel.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books and based on material that originated on this blog, check out the links below.)

Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Buy from Amazon

Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs

Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs

Buy from Amazon


CK Retro Review: Cahoots by The Band

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.

TWO STARS

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.

THREE STARS

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.

FOUR STARS

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.

FIVE STARS

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.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books based on material that originated on this site, check out the links below.)

Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Buy from Amazon

Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs

Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs

Buy from Amazon


CK Retro Review: Stage Fright by The Band

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.

TWO STARS

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.

THREE STARS

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.

FOUR STARS

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.

FIVE STARS

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 countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @jimbeviglia. For books and e-books based on material that originated on this site, check out the links below.)

Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Buy from Amazon

Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs

Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs

Buy from Amazon


CK Retro Review: The Band by The Band

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.

THREE STARS

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.

FOUR STARS

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.

FIVE STARS

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 countdownkid@hotmail.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.)

Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Buy from Amazon

Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs

Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs

Buy from Amazon

Pump It Up: Elvis Costello's 100 Best Songs

Pump It Up: Elvis Costello's 100 Best Songs

Buy from Amazon

Breakdown: Tom Petty's 100 Best Songs

Breakdown: Tom Petty's 100 Best Songs

Buy from Amazon

No Surprises: Radiohead's 100 Best Songs

No Surprises: Radiohead's 100 Best Songs

Buy from Amazon

 


CK Retro Review: Music From Big Pink by The Band

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.

THREE STARS

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.

FOUR STARS

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.

FIVE STARS

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 countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @jimbeviglia. Check out the links below to books based on material which originated on this site.)

Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Buy from Amazon

Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs

Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs

Buy from Amazon


CK Retro Review: The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan & The Band

Coming on the heels of the triumphant Blood On The Tracks, the release of The Basement Tapes of 1975 was a double-whammy of brilliance for Bob Dylan. These mythic recordings had been bootlegged for years, but the official release confirmed that the music that Dylan and The Band made in Woodstock in 1967 sounded timeless and ahead of its time all at once, summing up everything good about American music in the 20th century. Here is a song-by-song review. (Just the Dylan-performed tunes, since he seems to have only a tenuous connection on The Band-led songs at best.)

TWO STARS

16. “Tiny Montgomery”- All of the whimsy of the lyrics falls a bit flat without a little musical spark. I’m not sure if we should welcome Tiny’s arrival or fear it. Gas that dog, indeed!

15. “Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread”- I know this one has its defenders, but there’s no real tune on which Dylan can hang the Mad-Lib lyrics. It’s only funny the first time really, and then all you’re left with is silliness.

THREE STARS

14. “Please, Mrs. Henry”- A drunken plea for some kind of mercy from the titular missus, this track has so many double-entendres that even Dylan has to laugh at song’s end about it. The stop-and-start nature of the recording is comical in its own way.

13. “Lo And Behold”- A round trip from San Antonio to Pittsburgh featuring Ferris Wheel taxis and flying moose? On The Basement Tapes, it somehow all makes perfect sense. Richard Manuel gives the song just the right bit of locomotive energy on piano, chugging it along like a rickety old train.

12. “Apple Suckling Tree”- The Band was known for shuffling instruments between themselves; on this track, Robbie Robertson plays drums and provides a crazed, hiccupping beat. The real star is Garth Hudson, whose organ solo at the end is worth the price of admission alone. “Underneath that tree” sounds like the funkiest place in the world to be.

11. “Crash On The Levee”- When they tackled it in concert years later, Dylan and The Band turned this one into a real barn-burner. On The Basement Tapes, it’s more of a relaxed stroll that fits into a long line of Dylan songs about ominous floods. The matter-of-fact way in which he delivers the news suggests that he knows “Mama” is doomed, so she might as well dance her way into the deluge.

10. “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”- The gentility of the music, a sweet country lope that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Nashville Skyline, belies the harshness of the wintertime setting that Dylan suggests. Everything sounds just fine once Dylan gets into nonsensical ramblings about Genghis Khan, especially when Rick Danko and Richard Manuel join in on the memorable chorus.

9. “Clothes Line Saga”- One of the funniest songs Dylan has ever delivered was allegedly a parody of Bobbie Gentry’s huge smash hit “Ode To Billie Joe.” What Bob really seems to be satirizing is a kind of linear approach to folk-song writing which, when taken to its extreme as it is here, can make the most trivial occurrences, like washing and drying clothes, sound strangely riveting. Meanwhile, the insanity of the vice president can’t compare to the necessity of getting those damn clothes off the line.

FOUR STARS

8. “Too Much Of Nothing”- Robbie Robertson had precious few leads on The Basement Tapes tracks, but he made the most of his chance here, delivering efficient, stinging licks. This is one of the more serious tracks on the collection, with Dylan warning of the dangers of wanting things that ultimately lack substance. An overload of such nothingness can lead to disastrous results, Bob suggests, and the intensity of the tune shows he’s not kidding around. Plus, one of my favorite rhymes in the Dylan canon: “Vivian” and “oblivion.”

7. “Open The Door, Homer”- The off-kilter wisdom that Dylan spins in this lilting track featuring Hudson’s swirling organ may not seem to make much sense on first listen, but it has a way of sinking into your consciousness if you let it. No word on when Homer got replaced with Richard in Bob’s refrains, but who cares when things turn out as charming as this one does.

6. “Nothing Was Delivered”- Richard Manuel delivers for sure on this one, in terms of the Fats Domino-inspired piano that leads the way and great backing vocals with Rick Danko. Dylan sings woefully throughout, a tear in his voice as he expresses indignation at the person who hasn’t come through. As with so much of the Basement Tapes, there is a bit of mystery to the proceedings, making this one worthy of revisiting again and again.

5. “Odds And Ends”- For all of its wild wonder, there aren’t too many times when The Basement Tapes truly rocks. The album-opener is a rollicking good time though, with The Band sinking into a Chuck Berry groove so that Dylan can cut loose with a tirade against his loose-juiced lover. The refrain’s profound warning that “Lost time is not found again” sort of sneaks into the craziness, adding a touch of weight to the inspired lightness around it.

4. “This Wheel’s On Fire”- I’ve always felt like this song was too much of a loner to truly corral, so that both The Basement Tapes version and that the one knocked out by The Band on their debut album come up just short of its true potential. The portent is practically stifling as the titular wheel prepares to blow and take all of the participants with it. Another one with layers upon layers of mystery, it’s still fantastic even if it hasn’t quite been solved by any of its performances.

FIVE STARS

3. “Goin’ To Acapulco”- Perhaps the greatest example of the mystical qualities of The Basement Tapes, this song reads a bit silly on the page. When Dylan sings it against the backdrop of Garth Hudson’s mournful organ and Robbie Robertson’s soulful licks, “Goin’ To Acapulco” practically oozes import. It’s a fantastic melody sung beautifully by Bob as The Band’s rhythm section of Danko on bass and Manuel on drums suspends the song in midair. Calling it haunting doesn’t do it justice, but there are really are no words for what went down in Big Pink anyway.

2. “Million Dollar Bash”- The singular achievement of The Basement Tapes might be the way Dylan and The Band made light-hearted music that still managed to have lasting impact. For example, “Million Dollar Bash” is at heart a surreal depiction of a wild party full of suspect characters. Yet the chorus provides an irresistible hook to keep the events from spinning too far out of control, the “whoo-wee” vocals of Dylan, Manuel, and Danko bringing a flash of beauty to the lunacy. You’d be a fool to sit out this bash.

1. “Tears Of Rage”- Richard Manuel didn’t write too often, but the songs he did write were always beautiful in undeniably sad ways. Dylan took Manuel’s wistful chords and delivered lyrics of understated, aching tenderness, telling a gut-wrenching tale of a father estranged from his daughter. The hurt and the anger are there in the verses, but those gorgeous refrains, abetted by Manuel and Danko’s ethereal backing vocals, clearly long for reconciliation. “Life Is brief” are the last words uttered, an urgent reminder that the generational gap shouldn’t be left to widen for too long a time.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)

Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Buy from Amazon


CK Retro Review: Planet Waves by Bob Dylan

1974’s Planet Waves found Bob Dylan reuniting with The Band, his old buddies from the incendiary electric shows of the mid-60’s and the bucolic mystery music they made together in Woodstock subsequent to that. It marked a return to Dylan being a full-time rock star, as he scored his first ever #1 album and put together a huge arena tour with The Band behind it. While many of the songs still harkened back to the simpler pleasures of his previous few albums, a few pointed in the direction of the masterpieces to come. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

11. “Forever Young” (Side Two Version)- Even for Dylan, the decision to start Side Two of the album with a charmless, country-rock version of a song that he and The Band had done just about to perfection to send Side One was a bizarre one. The producers of the NBC drama Parenthood use this version for a theme song; they must have been in possession of a one-sided copy of Planet Waves growing up and missed out on the good one.

10. “Never Say Goodbye”- Each of the instrumentalists have nice individual moments but the music never quite coheres, while Dylan’s lyrics feel like an unfinished sketch. Somewhat interesting, but ultimately a bit of a misfire.

9. “Tough Mama”- There is a bit of an uneasy mix here between heady, impressive lyrics and the chunky rock conjured by The Band for the song. Dylan feels hemmed in and, as a result, this one never takes off like it might. Plus the phrase “a-hotter than a crotch” should have stayed within the bounds of Bob’s imagination.

8. “Hazel”- The sentiments are nice enough, but they are rendered in lyrics that sound like they could have come from a Dr. Hook single. The good news is that The Band would take the slow-song arrangement of “Hazel” and build on it for their classic “It Takes No Difference” a few years later.

THREE STARS

7. “You Angel You”- Planet Waves might be Dylan’s most lovestruck album; at least six of the songs can be considered odes to captivating women. There’s not too much fancy going on in this one, but the players all sound so at ease on the recording that it’s hard not to get swept up in the effortlessness of it all.

6. “Something There Is About You”- At times awkward, at times revelatory, this song is intriguing for the unique ways that it pays tribute to the object of the narrator’s affection. The references to childhood in Minnesota in the wonderful second verse would seem to indicate autobiography. Dylan never makes it that easy though, muddying things up by making metaphorical references to sabres and batons that sound more like something from Don Quixote. The Band provides one of their inimitable, weightless performances that encase the singer in a gorgeous glow.

5. “On A Night Like This”- On the surface, it’s not all that different from songs like “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” or “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” in that it’s about shutting out the world and enjoying some alone time with a significant other. But swathed in Garth Hudson’s joyous accordion and containing references to reminiscences and déjà vu, it’s easy to hear this one as a celebration of the reunion of Bob and The Band, especially considering it’s the album’s opening track.

FOUR STARS

4. “Wedding Song”- Bob let The Band take five for the closing track, dusting off the acoustic and the harmonica and going to town on this testimonial to an all-encompassing love. There are just enough hints of darkness to keep this one from being sappy, and the focused intensity of the vocal is potent almost to the point of being harrowingly so.

3. “Dirge”- Whether Dylan is signing to a woman or to a drug, the intent is the same: To cast out the presence that is haunting him and revealing his worst self. Much of the song’s success comes from the mesmerizing duet between Robbie Robertson’s acoustic guitar and Dylan’s stutter-stepping, intuitive piano chords. Bob also provides a terrific vocal, all stark howls that strive for catharsis but end up simply baring more wounds. In its way, this song, perhaps more than any other on the album, signals the ultimate return to elite form that Dylan’s lyrics would take on his next album, Blood On The Tracks.

2. “Forever Young”- Now this is more like it. The magical, improvisational chemistry of The Basement Tapes met its logical, mature conclusion in this expertly-crafted, undeniably moving musical performance that can convey the intended message without a single word. Dylan steps up and delivers one of his most heartfelt set of lyrics. The placid wisdom of the verses is contrasted by the wailing vocals in the refrain, desperate and fearing like any sane father who sends his children into this unforgiving world rightfully should be.

FIVE STARS

1. “Going Going Gone”- This is one of Dylan’s most underrated classics, with nary an ounce of flab on it. The Band’s performance is both pristine and powerful, with special props going to both the herky-jerky rhythm section of Rick Danko and Levon Helm and to Robbie Robertson’s stinging licks that punctuate each verse. Dylan’s narrator seems to have reached a metaphorical point of no return, possibly driven by a break-up, but there is a certain amount of freedom in his banishment of all hope. (After all, as a wise man once said, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”) That home-run call refrain could either be a final lament or a new beginning, or maybe both somehow.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)

Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Buy from Amazon


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