CK Retro Review: Islands by The BandPosted: March 17, 2014
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:
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.
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.
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.
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