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.)

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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Some New American Songwriter Articles

I’ve been remiss of late as far as posting some of my writing from American Songwriter. So here are three articles.

First, for fans of my Paul Simon Retro Review series, is a list of my choices for the Top 15 Simon solo songs:

http://www.americansongwriter.com/2014/03/top-15-paul-simon-songs/

Next, a pair of Lyric of the Week articles. One on Elvis Costello’s “Peace In Our Time”:

http://www.americansongwriter.com/2014/03/elvis-costello-attractions-peace-time/

And another on “Walk Away Renee” by The Left Banke:

http://www.americansongwriter.com/2014/03/the-left-bankewalk-away-renee/


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.)

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

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


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.)

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

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


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.)

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

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