CK Retro Review: The Band by The BandPosted: February 27, 2014
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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