The notion that Paul McCartney needs a strong, bold-faced collaborator to do his best work doesn’t hold water; see Ram, Band On The Run, even Memory Almost Full for examples that refute it. But there is no doubt that pairing up with Elvis Costello was a good match, for both men. A third of the songs on 1989’s Flowers In The Dirt were co-written by the duo, and a couple of those songs stand out as the best stuff that Paul had managed since Tug Of War. Some production fussiness still interrupts the uniformly sharp songwriting at times, but this was a great album at a time when McCartney needed one. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “Rough Ride”- The mix of synths and horns dates this one pretty severely. Fussy and not as danceable as it thinks it is.
11. “Don’t Be Careless Love”- A weird one co-written with Costello, it takes some nasty turns, including a moment when the person the narrator is addressing gets chopped into little pieces. The doo-wop verses, complete with finger snaps, are the best parts.
10. “Distractions”- Sweet and soft as a lullaby with a hint of a Latin lilt, this one boasts a lovely, winding melody and some off-kilter orchestration. Probably a bit too sleepy to be a true standout, but it’s nice nonetheless.
9. “How Many People?”- It treads the same ground as “Ebony And Ivory,” simplifying issues that are endlessly complicated. But the reggae puts enough of a playful twist on it to keep any kind of heavyhandedness from entering the sonic picture.
8. “We Got Married”- This has more promise than what it actually delivered. The lyrics certainly boast some strong lines and a clear-eyed view of matrimony. It gets bogged down on a sludgy side road after the light-footed opening, David Gilmour’s estimable presence on lead guitar notwithstanding. By the end of it, it’s almost a different song than the one that began, and not a better one, but the strong opening weighs heavily enough for a positive grade overall.
7. “Motor Of Love”- Yes, it’s overproduced as well. But the chorus pulls things together in such stirring fashion that all is forgiven. And McCartney’s heartfelt effort on vocals keeps all of the saccharine elements from invading on the song’s better nature
6. “This One”- Bright and friendly if a bit too polite, this paean to taking action now instead of later when it comes to expressing your love glides by on its goodwill. Nothing too fancy, but displaying pop chops to spare.
5. “Figure Of Eight”- Paul’s energy level never falters on this one, and the song follows suit. He sings everything but the bridge in a high-pitched yelp, the desperation in his hapless narrator palpable as he tries to escape the soul-deadening rut which his relationship has carved. A rock-solid way to start Side Two, back when such things started to dwindle in importance with the advent of the CD.
4. “Put It There”- Here Paul is in foot-tapping, acoustic mode, a pose that suits him very well. When he keeps it light like this, the melodies that seem to ooze out of him are given full room to blossom. How sweet the sentiment also, a sepia-toned father-son story in song with no rancor or recrimination. A little ditty that lingers in the best possible way.
3. “You Want Her Too”- McCartney mildly complained after the fact that Costello playing the Lennon role meant that Elvis got all the best lines. He was probably referring to this quirkily effective duet. The production here very much sounds like Spike-era Costello, with a flying trapeze-like instrumental hook and a searing refrain. And Paul is right; playing the straight man tends to throw the spotlight on the wiseass, who, if you had to put money on it, would probably be the one to get the girl in this love triangle. But the two voices in potent harmony in the chorus is what you remember most.
2. “My Brave Face”- It should have been a bigger hit, but 1989 was already the beginning of the era where great songs were no longer hits, so that explains it. Costello seemed to give McCartney the permission to get as Beatle-y as he’d been in years (and to use far more syllables per line.) The chorus comes first, the acoustic guitar lick sounds like “And I Love Her,” Paul’s bass is forefronted, and there’s even an psychedelic little quaver on the electric guitar: all Fab 4 signposts. Throw in a just right lyric about the perils of bachelorhood and you have pop perfection.
1. “That Day Is Done”- Might just be the best of the Costello/McCartney collabs, and that includes “Veronica,” which is a brilliant song. And I’m not even sure this is the best version of it; check out Elvis’ take with the vocal group The Fairfield Four, which brings down the house. Nonetheless it’s a song that’s somehow beautiful and chilling at once, no matter who performs it. The production here leans heavily to The Band, what with the drowsy horns and all, and the gloomy lyrics owe a nod to “Long Black Veil” for sure. It’s a credit to the potency of McCartney’s personality on the microphone that he sounds completely at home with a song that you wouldn’t think was in his wheelhouse at all. And Nicky Hopkins is on piano, so there’s that too, if you weren’t yet convinced.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Paul McCartney and The Beatles, check out my new book arriving in March, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs. You can preorder it at the link below.)
Many apologies for the hiatus between posts, especially since I left some of you hanging with these last ten. But here they are without further ado. Again, remember that the rule here is that these songs weren’t originally included on one of Bob’s solo studio albums and they can’t be alternate takes of songs that were included.
10. “I’m Not There”- The amazing thing about this famed outtake from the Basement Tapes sessions is how none of the players seems quite sure where it’s going at any time and yet they all get there together. And where exactly is there? It’s that place inside a broken heart where hopes and dreams go to die, where the expectations that the one you love is really going to change finally give up the ghost. I tend not to believe in magic, but there was something clearly afoot at Big Pink beyond just talent and inspiration, and it’s all over this mysterious, marvelous track.
9. “Tweeter And The Monkey Man”- I’ll never stop wondering how much of this was meant to be homage and how much was meant to be parody. The funny thing is that Springsteen had largely stopped writing these streetlife tales by the time Dylan and Top Petty concocted this wild love quadrangle. Instead this plays like some lost connector between Bruce’s second and third albums. And, unlike most songs of this nature, it’s extremely engaging even if you don’t get the jokes, in large part due to the ominous refrain and Dylan’s ability to pull all the various strains together in a fatal but funny ending.
8. “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”- The first Bootleg Series volume was the first huge payload of unreleased Dylan material to hit the shelves, but Biograph leaked some great forgotten songs a few years before that, including this single far too unwieldy to be a hit (except in England, where it snuck into the Top 20.) The Band’s herky-jerky rhythmic inventiveness is in early evidence here, while Dylan curls his words around them like sarcastic vines. This tale of a girl mesmerized by a svengali-like character whom the narrator knows isn’t all that features some of Bob’s most elastic wordplay, with lines that you could never believe even now would work in a pop song (so imagine what it must have sounded like 50 years ago!)
7. “Foot Of Pride”- One of the great songs that Bob left off Infidels and made that disc the ultimate what-might-have-been of his career, “Foot Of Pride” benefits from Mark Knopfler’s tough guitar licks and Bob’s colorful harmonica asides. The music is really just an excuse for Dylan to spin lyrics that take aim at various targets and characters, all of whom are going to survive his diatribes just fine, which is part of the reason he’s so aggrieved. Why he didn’t want the world to hear this kind of wild genius around this time is known only to him. What’s certain is that Dylan spewing venom allows us all to vicariously get out own frustrations off our chests as well.
6. “Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie”- Yeah, I know, not a song. But it has to be acknowledged. The nervousness with which Bob plows through this spoken-word poem about Guthrie’s impending passing and the impact he made on the youngster carrying the torch, which was recorded and captured for posterity on the Bootleg Series, betrays just how much the folk forefather actually meant to him. That makes it an important document of the inner, empathetic Dylan that too many observers overlook in favor of his lyrical brilliance and idiosyncratic behavior. It’s hard to imagine anyone not being mesmerized and genuinely touched by that performance, while it’s easy to figure that anyone hearing it might just look up Guthrie’s stuff too, which is a heartening thought.
5. “She’s Your Lover Now”- Howlingly funny and heartbreakingly disappointed all at once, here is a masterpiece that remained unfinished for many years, thanks to the breakdown at the end of the take included on The Bootleg Series. The complete 65-66 recordings finally gave us the full magilla with Bob on piano, but the band version is the one for the books. Nobody plays the jilted lover like Dylan, as he alternately insults and confides in his romantic rival while directly addressing the former lover with wisecracks that are leavened by the hurt in his voice. Perhaps the best manipulation of pronouns ever heard, as well.
4. “Things Have Changed”- I had the chance to interview Marty Stuart and asked him about the resemblances between this and Stuart’s “Observations Of A Crow,” and he admitted that Bob asked him for the A-OK first. Stuart responded that he had probably borrowed the melody in the first place anyway from somebody else, so Dylan could go crazy with it. People concentrate on the chorus and the seeming weariness of the punch line, but a close listen to the verses reveals that there’s a lost of feistiness in this main character. I think that payoff line should read more like “I used to give a damn, but ….” Because when you’re confronted with the insanity and hypocrisy that Bob details in the lyrics, indifference seems to be the only reasonable option.
3. “Positively 4th Street”- The capo de tutti capi of all kiss-off songs; it’s quite amazing that this kind of unrepentant attack made it so high on the singles charts. But, then again, with each new release Dylan was expressing emotions that hadn’t previously been broached in pop songs, so the newness of it probably struck people, that and the fact that he did it with Al Kooper’s chirpy organ as his main accompaniment on the track. I’m in the camp that it was probably written about his former folk song buddies who turned on him, but what does that matter really? What matters is that without it, it would be hard to imagine songs as diverse as “You’re So Vain,” “You Oughta Know,” every diss rap ever recorded, and, heck, even “Diamonds And Rust,” for that matter, ever existing.
2. “Red River Shore”- When we’re permanently separated from the person we love the most, is it possible to truly be happy? What kind of life awaits us if that’s the case? Is it a life at all? Those are the questions underlying a song that might be the most tragic in Dylan’s entire catalog. Much of his music since Blood On The Tracks is haunted by that one girl who reigns above all others in his mind and heart to whom he is endlessly returning but never quite getting there, and “Red River Shore” takes that idea all the way to the harrowing end of the line and dares us to behold the boundless misery that awaits there.
1. “Blind Willie McTell”- Dylan’s intuitive sense of timing on the piano combined with Knopfler’s minimalist acoustic guitar fills make for a haunting combination, first thing. As for the lyrics? Timeless is a word that gets thrown around a lot when discussing music, but this song takes that word to another level. It bounces from Biblical times to slavery ships to a lonely modern hotel room, and a connection that suggests that human nature has never quite been able to get out of its own way becomes obvious. God watches it all, allowing greed and corruption to run rampant and lives to be subordinated to these pursuits while refusing to interject. Only the blues singer can put his finger on the vastness of the pain, providing an outlet if not an answer. And if that pretty well sums up what Dylan has been doing all the years.
(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 the paperback edition of Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)
A left-field project that’s gets a lot of mileage from the sheer enjoyment and passion of the players, The Seeger Sessions: We Shall Overcome featured Bruce Springsteen’s first ever studio foray into cover songs, in this case folk songs and spirituals that were performed by Pete Seeger. Springsteen gets to showcase his skills as an interpreter, but the success of the album rides largely on the big-band arrangements, many of which capture the nuance and power of these deceptively profound songs. Here is a song-by-song review.
13. “Jacob’s Ladder”- With the exception of a neat little intro that sounds like it was borrowed from The Band circa ’70, this one never quite takes off into the heavens like it’s meant to do.
12. “My Oklahoma Home”- Maybe this is just personal preference, but I consider Springsteen’s voice in full-throated, soulful mode to be much more aesthetically pleasing than when he lays on a thick accent. Maybe he nails an Oklahoma twang; I haven’t been to Norman lately. But the bottom line is it gets a tad comical by the end of this thing, which probably isn’t what he’s going for.
11. “Pay Me My Money Down”- The arrangement is maybe a tad too busy here, but you can certainly tell that Springsteen identified with the righteous anger of the wronged working man telling the story. In fact, it’s not too big a leap from a song like this to several Bruce himself would write on Wrecking Ball.
10. “Erie Canal”- I’m not sure the sober reading given quite matches the tone of the story of man and mule. But it’s hard deny the prettiness of the melody and the music surrounding it.
9. “John Henry”- Springsteen lays the accent on a bit thick here as well. Still, this tale of man’s unbeatable spirit works, especially with nice accordion and violin touches spicing up the instrumental breaks.
8. “Froggie Went A Courtin'”- Good choice to end things on a light-hearted note, just like Dylan did with this song on Good As I Been To You. Springsteen locates some tenderness in there somehow, which surprised me as someone who’s known this song since seeing it on an old Tom & Jerry cartoon as a tyke.
7. “Jesse James”- Bruce sings like this one like a grizzled old barfly telling the tale to some newcomer who might have other ideas about the legendary outlaw. The left-right rhythm gets a tad tiresome after a while, but the refrain carries the day.
6. “We Shall Overcome”- What a wonder of a song, how the melody’s sadder turns hints at just how hard a struggle must be endured before the refrain’s promise takes hold. Bruce doesn’t do anything new with it, but that’s probably the right tactic. You don’t want to mess with something like this.
5. “Old Dan Tucker”- The band has enough room to breathe here, each instrument filling out its space in vibrant fashion. Banjoist Mark Clifford brings the old-time religion, while Springsteen has a blast hollering out the square dance calls. Great fun from start to finish.
4. “Eyes On The Prize”- Wisely underplayed vocals by Springsteen allow the haunting melody to take its hold. It also throws the spotlight on the brooding, creeping quality of the music, which suggests just how hard it is to “Hold on” when circumstances and obstacles keep trying to shake you off into oblivion.
3. “Mrs. McGrath”- “All foreign wars do I proclaim/Live on blood and a mother’s pain.” Sounds like a couplet Bruce might have written himself, right? So you can see why he sinks his teeth into this Irish anti-war ballad, violins accompanying him for the melancholy ride that grows in heartbreaking potency as it progresses.
2. “Shenandoah”- Let’s face it: It’s darn near to impossible to screw this one up if you just stick to that achingly beautiful melody. Springsteen, behind a cinematic arrangement that conjures majesty and melancholy, does just that.
1. “O Mary Don’t You Weep”- On paper, you would think a Negro spiritual might be one to trip this assemblage up. Instead, an inspired arrangement, which recalls at times a bigger-band version of something you might have heard back on The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, and Springsteen and the backing vocalists’ impassioned chants make this one the ultimate keeper from the album. Listen to how the music fills up and then drops away at key portions. Springsteen, like on so many of his rock songs, uses this push and pull between intimate moments and cathartic crescendos to drain every last ounce of emotion from the song.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives in June, but you can pre-order it now at all major online bookselling sites.)
It’s fitting that The Band’s last album would turn out to be 1998’s Jubilation, since it seemed to be a conscious attempt to go back, lyrically at least, to where it all began for them. Some of the horn-fueled business that marred High On The Hog creeps in at times, but the songwriting, even though it comes from a variety of sources, keeps a consistent tone and there are a couple of real beauties along the way. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “Spirit Of The Dance”- Way overdone with the horns and mystic lyrics and pounding drums.
10. “White Cadillac (Ode To Ronnie Hawkins)”- Newer members of The Band step up here, but it only makes you realize how integral those three original vocalists were to the group’s success. The song itself, a rollicking tribute to The Band’s mentor Hawkins, is solid with lyrics that wax nostalgic about the old days on Yonge Street, but Randy Ciarlante’s lead vocal never quite gets it airborne.
9. “Kentucky Downpour”- The horns are excessive. Too bad, because this had the potential to be a call-back to “Look Out Cleveland,” wherein some ominous weather presages man-made calamities.
8. “Last Train To Memphis”- This swinger comes courtesy of Bobby Charles, who penned some early R&B classics like “Walkin’ To New Orleans.” Elvis Presley is prominent here as a symbol, his home a destination representing music’s indestructible power even when those who play it are gone. Eric Clapton punches in a few licks for a little icing on the cake.
7. “You See Me”- Dipping back into the Allen Toussaint songwriting well does The Band a lot of good here. Levon Helm wasn’t in the strongest voice on this album but songs like this were never any sweat for him. Garth Hudson’s saxophone gets way down in the dumps with the hapless protagonist.
6. “Don’t Wait”- There are echoes of classics like “When You Awake” and “Rockin’ Chair” in this nice little track, what with an elder on his last legs giving advice to a youngster about to learn the truths of the world the hard way, which is really the only way. This song maybe labors a bit to get those same points across which is why it isn’t ranked higher here, but it’s a nice effort just the same.
5. “High Cotton”- Sometimes life is all ladybugs, Coca-Cola, and mandolins, no matter the blues that bedevil everybody else. Danko, who co-wrote the track with Tom Pacheco, sounds like a guy who knows the bliss is temporary but that it’s better than nothing. Hudson’s sax solo sounds like it was piped in from another song yet it works anyway.
4. “Bound By Love”- John Hiatt was a good choice to make a guest spot, considering that he has the kind of distinctive voice that The Band’s singers all possessed. His duet with Danko is simple and effective, a nice treatise on devotion seconded by typically spot-on accompaniment from the players.
3. “French Girls”- Garth’s little postscript is a mix of power-ballad synth chords and end-of-the-evening saxophones. That doesn’t sound like it would be lovely, moving stuff, but it is.
2. “If I Should Fail”- I think a lot of people would peg Rick Danko as the ultimate support guy in The Band, underpinning things on bass, coming in with harmonies at just the right time, etc. But Jubilation‘s best moments come when he takes the spotlight, such as on this ballad of a doomed gunfighter facing his end with equal parts resignation and courage. The redemptive love of a good woman, the trail coming to an end in gunfire and defeat: It’s nothing that hasn’t been written or portrayed before. But the innate tenderness that Danko brings pushes it past cliche into truly powerful territory.
1. “Book Faded Brown”- Much credit goes to Paul Jost, who wrote such a lovely song that dovetails so nicely with themes that The Band has always embodied: Family, tradition, the wobble between sweet and sad that life inevitably dances. Danko wisely understates everything, for these things are as they once were and always will be, so there’s no need to shout about it. Hudson captures it all anyway as his accordion trips through the bucolic scene with benevolence and wisdom. Heck, this one is so fine you don’t even notice that Levon sits it out. Could have fit in seamlessly on either Big Pink or The Brown Album; is there any higher praise than that?
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books based on material that originated on this site, check out the links below.)
Proving that their rebirth as studio artists had legs, The Band followed up 1993’s Jericho with High On The Hog in 1996. This album was even more reliant on cover material than its predecessor, with some of the song choices inspired and some a tad wacky. Nonetheless, they still sounded great, even if their horn-laden, big Band sound drastically deviated from the relatively stark magic they conjured in their prime. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “I Must You Love Too Much”- There was a reason that Bob Dylan shelved this one. Not even Bob’s idiosyncratic phrasing could have saved this mess which sounds like it took less time to write than it does to perform.
9. “The High Price Of Love”- One of two “originals” on the album (although Jules Shear and Stan Szelest are credited along with The Band), there’s nothing special here, a groove in search of a song. Sung and played well, but still filler.
8. “Crazy Mama”- Once a hit for J.J. Cale, this grinding blues has Helm on bass, and he acquits himself well in service of an otherwise routine genre exercise.
7. “Ramble Jungle”- Sort of out of left field. The vocals are provided by Champion Jack Dupree, a New Orleans blues legend who died in 1992 not long after this recording was made. It’s got a little bit of “Don’t Do It” in it, but its inclusion probably speaks more to the lack of suitable material for the album than to its effectiveness.
6. “Free Your Mind”- I’m sure this one is a bit polarizing if only because of the risky song choice. I actually think Levon Helm sells the lyrics of the one-time En Vogue song well by playing them straight. If there’s a problem, it’s that the horns are a bit of overkill. Better to have stood pat with the Helm’s stinging drum groove as the main focus.
5. “Stand Up”- The herky-jerky beat and horn-heavy arrangement are reminiscent of the great work The Band did with Allen Toussaint back in the day on “Life Is A Carnival” and Rock Of Ages. Levon sings the heck out of it, turning this 80’s country hit into a solid if unspectacular blues.
4. “Forever Young”- I’m not sure they could have done much with this evergreen on which they backed Dylan on Planet Waves that would have turned heads. That they chose the same lumbering tempo as the original version probably sealed its fate as loving homage instead of clever re-imagining. But Garth Hudson’s accordion part in the breaks is worth the price of admission.
3. “Where I Should Always Be”- Written by one-time Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin, this ballad gives Rick Danko the soulful showcase with which he always charmed. Once he sinks into the minor keys, it’s easy to overlook the somewhat pedestrian lyrics because Danko makes them sound like the most profound poetry. Nice work by Hudson, of course, keeps the vibe intact in the instrumental accompaniment.
2. “Back To Memphis”- Not to be confused with the Chuck Berry raver that The Band memorably covered, this is a soulful lament that Helm, with Danko in harmony, handle with power and grace. Hudson’s saxophone work is typically on-point, playing nicely off Richard Bell’s nimble piano work. As inspired as some of the best stuff on Moondog Matinee.
1. “She Knows”- So what if its divine tenderness throws a harsh light on the rest of the album? The Band does right by their fallen comrade Richard Manuel by including this gorgeous live performance (recorded just months before his death) of an unreleased Bread song. Hudson provided the restrained string arrangement that proved the ideal setting for some of Manuel’s most heart-rending emoting. Then Danko comes in for one of those skyscraper harmonies in the closing moments to absolutely kill you.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Check out the links below for books based on material that originated on this site.)
Following the departure of chief songwriter Robbie Robertson and death of Richard Manuel, new product from The Band seemed like a pipe dream. Yet in 1993, the three remaining original members teamed up with some of the musicians who had been touring with them and released Jericho, a fine collection of thoughtful song interpretations and spirited performances. Even though the second half drags, the best stuff here is worthy of their towering legacy. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “Move To Japan”- Lyrically, it’s lost somewhere between social commentary and satire. As music, it’s boilerplate boogie topped with thuddingly obvious Oriental touches. So begins the lackluster second half of Jericho.
11. “Shine A Light”- The Band’s best gospel music sounds like it was recorded under some revival tent. This one sounds like it was recorded in a studio in the early 90’s.
10. “River Of Dreams”- It has a nice enough melody, and Rick Danko sings it with tenderness. But the arrangement, sounding more like the tasteful exotica in which Steve Winwood or Peter Gabriel traded, robs The Band of their personality.
9. “Blues Stay Away From Me”- The closing track is the kind of sleepy blues that you can hear at the end of the night in bars everywhere.
8. “Same Thing”- The arrangement is maybe a bit too busy for this moody Willie Dixon blues classic. Levon Helm salvages things though with a typically gritty vocal and one of his trademark off-kilter rhythms.
7. “Stuff You Gotta Watch”- The instrumentalists sink their collective teeth into this jump blues, and Levon could sing this stuff in his sleep. Well-done, if not exactly revelatory.
6. “Remedy”- The Muscle Shoals-style horns give this energetic opening track soul to spare. The heart comes from Helm’s lead vocal, who for the umpteenth time plays the role of a harried rambler who finds both aggravation and salvation in the arms of a woman.
5. “The Caves Of Jericho”- While this may have been an obvious attempt to recapture the historical glories of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” right down to the somber piano chords, it’s a strikingly successful one. While the lyrics (written by Helm, John Simon, and Richard Bell) may overplay the sorrow at times and lack the deft hand that Robbie Robertson possessed with similar material, having Levon on lead bringing authenticity and passion to the tale of a mine cave-in helps to atone for any weaknesses. And the instrumental mix, fiddles and horns and Garth Hudson’s keyboard apparitions, is undeniably stirring.
4. “Country Boy”- Recorded not too long before his death in 1986, “Country Boy” gave us all one more chance to hear Richard Manuel take a seemingly simple song and wring from it unfathomable levels of emotion. Even at his huskiest, his voice still creaked and faltered in all the right places. When you used the word “soulful” to describe Manuel’s singing, it wasn’t a nod to some genre of music but rather an acknowledgement that he laid his soul bare for the world to hear with every note he sang. One can only hope that soul now rests in the peace it struggled to find down here with the rest of us.
3. “Too Soon Gone”- Jules Shear’s song is a beauty, a meditation on loss that takes poetic turns yet never gets so fussy that the hurt isn’t front and center. Danko, undoubtedly drawing on the memories of his old buddy Manuel, gives an achingly pretty performance in tribute, while Hudson roams the edges with impactful saxophone fills. Lumps in your throat the whole way on this one.
2. “Atlantic City”- If Jericho did nothing else, it reminded everyone of what an authoritative and charismatic performer Helm always was. After setting the tone with some evocative mandolin, he takes Bruce Springsteen’s tale of big dreams and hard luck in the gambling mecca, rendered by the Boss in such iconic fashion on Nebraska, and somehow makes us hear it anew. Hudson helps of course, his accordion taking us on a stroll from the boardwalk to the back alleys and back again.
1. “Blind Willie McTell”- First of all, the song itself is among Dylan’s most haunting, expanding Robbie Robertson’s own examinations of the American South into dark corners and tortured pasts. The Band chose a bluegrass route for their take, albeit one goosed by a herky-jerky rhythm, and then let Danko and Helm work their magic, raising the intensity verse by verse until they harmonize in the refrains, summoning all the ghosts to the fore in the process. Chilling and thrilling all at once.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books based on material which originated on this site, check out the links below.)
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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