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.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bruce-Springsteen-Finest/dp/1442230657

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One Comment on “CK Retro Review: Music From Big Pink by The Band”

  1. Ruairidh Maciver says:

    There have been, as you say, so many stabs at ‘Long Black Veil’, that on first listen I just heard this as another good rendition. Nothing to match Johnny Cash. But listening again…

    It may have been an accident or a twist of fate of sorts that they ended up being called The Band, but as a collection of musicians who combined their individual inspiration and talent with a collective approach to song-writing/creation, they beat the Beatles at their own game – and made their eponymous name their own! And no more so than on this song,

    I’m still with Johnny Cash, but this is edging closer as I Iisten more. Thanks for your review – as ever, enlightening stuff.


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