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.
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?
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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)
The Band took their own crack at this Basement Tapes track on Music From Big Pink, but they didn’t quite get the tone right. Speeding up the tempo and adding a clavichord that’s way too prominent in the mix, the song is drained of much of its mystery. Rick Danko’s frenzied vocal does pick up the slack somewhat, but this was one instance where Bob’s buddies missed the boat a bit.
They would have been better served trying to recreate some of that Basement Tapes mojo, although, if they could do that, I guess it wouldn’t have been that special in the first place. The recording of the song Bob & The Band created in Woodstock has a creeping menace to it, all the instrumentalists inexorably trudging down a path that leads to some dark end. Dylan, Danko, and Richard Manuel stagger through the chorus together, as if the words are too heavy to lift.
From music written by Danko, Dylan creates a tale that’s almost sinister in the way it insinuates and suggests but never spells the facts out. I’ve always heard the narrator as someone who has done a favor, likely something not quite on the up-and-up, for the person he is addressing, and he’s now come to collect his payment. Maybe he was an intermediary for someone even more dangerous (“You’ll remember you’re the one/That called on me to call on them/To get you your favors done.”) Someone even further down the ladder, so to speak.
His favored phrase (“If your mem’ry serves you well”) sounds like just the kind of thing a smooth-talker of questionable morals would say to partially hide his threatening nature. Even more ominous is his repeated suggestion that these two are destined to meet again. Where? I’m guessing that it’s a place where all those who have made self-betraying compromises must answer for them.
When the wheel does explode, all that is hidden will be revealed. “This Wheel’s On Fire” leaves scorched souls in its slowly-trodden path.
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It’s not even two minutes long, but “Odds And Ends” sure packs a lot of wallop and wonder into that brief time. It chugs right by before we even know what hit us, leaving us out of breath and bewildered in its wake, feeling just a tad confused even as a silly smile is pasted on our face. What better way to kick off The Basement Tapes, right?
“You know what I’m sayin’ and you know what I mean.” Well, actually, I don’t, Bob, but I love the song anyway. On the surface it’s a straightforward diatribe against a promise-breaking woman, but “Odds And Ends” throws in enough lyrical quirks to keep listeners eternally guessing. And, like other Basement Tapes tracks, it stops the silliness long enough to drop a cosmic truth on us in the refrain: “Lost time is not found again.”
And what about this girl’s propensity to spill juice? Considering the wicked humor prevalent in these recordings, I suppose there could be some sexual connotation in there. Then again, considering the out-and-out wackiness of these recordings, Bob literally might have been taking about a girl who’s just sloppy with her juice. I would think the general stickiness would become pretty annoying after a while.
The beauty of such songs is that we can debate such minutiae ’til the cows come home, or we can just get caught up in the barreling 50′s rock vibe of the music, propelled by Richard Manuel taking a raucous turn on drums. It’s over quicker than most horse races, yet “Odds And Ends” gloriously gives us more than we could handle.
It cannot be overstated how important The Band’s contributions were to Bob Dylan’s compositions on The Basement Tapes. The pixie dust that they spread all over those songs transformed them from quirky oddballs into mysterious beauties. When people say that music is timeless, they usually mean from the time it was recorded on forward. What’s on The Basement Tapes is infinite in both directions.
On “Nothing Was Delivered”, a Fats Domino-style stroll is banged out on the piano by Richard Manuel, allowing for Dylan to really emote his lyrics in a soulful manner, rising to the challenge of his musical cohorts. Garth Hudson’s spectral organ rises and falls in the mix intuitively, while Robbie Robertson picks and chooses his spots as well for some economically powerful licks. Just when all of that is too much to take, Manuel piles on with one of those harmony vocals that come from a dimension much sadder and more interesting than the one in which we all operate.
When you add all of that to “Nothing Was Delivered”, the hurt in Dylan’s voice as he calls out an unnamed person for shirking on his or her promises takes on new depths. Suddenly, it’s not just personal; the wrongs inflicted by this person have somehow reduced the world.
And yet, forgiveness mixes with sorrow in the chorus, as Dylan and Manuel wail out: “Nothing is better, nothing is best/Take care of yourself and get plenty of rest.” The sweetness mixed in with the pain is a mix that’s impossible to resist. Never was there a more ironic title than “Nothing Was Delivered,” because this one gives us much more than expected every time.