Monday, February 16, 2015

Music review -- Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes

lost on the river: the new basement tapes

I saw the doc on this the other day and was captivated by it. I ordered the cd and was totally pleased. Some background:

It's the 60s, Bob Dylan and the Band have just finished the tour that solidified their celebrity with music fans. Dylan is overwhelmed by the crush of that celebrity and on the pretense of a motorcycle accident, cancels an upcoming tour and flees to upstate New York, eventually renting a house in the artist community of Woodstock (yes, that Woodstock). Eventually the other members of The Band join him as they are in the mood for a little nothin' too, as Dylan says. Just hanging around being twenty-something guys, Dylan is also writing. Occasionally they go down to the basement of the house and record what Dylan has written. These recordings are eventually bootlegged and released as the first basement tapes that cement Dylan's reputation as iconic songwriter. But these few songs were not the sum of Dylan's output that summer, he wrote upwards of 150 songs, song fragments, and ideas. This unfinished material was boxed up when they left and forgotten about until recently when Dylan discovered them in a dresser. He takes this time capsule of 50 year old lyrics to legendary producer T-Bone Burnett and asks him if he can do anything with them.

Burnett assembles a diverse group of contemporary artists and brings them to L.A. and Capital Records for two weeks last year and basically says Let's see if we can bang out a record. The group consists of Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford who I had not heard of but had record of the year recently, Jim James a session musician who plays with Costello and also appears is a band called My Money Jacket, Taylor Goldsmith from a band called Dawes, and Rhiannon Giddens a bluegrass/folk singer from a trio (I think) called Carolina Chocolate Drops.

The cd has four or five songs by each of the artists including different takes on the same song, which is fun because you get to see how different people interpret the same lyrics.

Costello probably channels Dylan more than the others. His version of Married to my Hack is a syncopated ditty of irrythmic verses and funky little backing vocals. I should mention here that this cd begs to be heard with headphones or on an excellent sound system. I used the player in my car because my 2008 SRT Charger has an absolutely bad ass sound system. The cd is sort of quiet if you get my drift, so you can crank it up and really hear the nuance of the arrangements.

Costello's version of Lost on the River is amazing, he puts a lot of heart break into the song. Giddens' version, that closes out the cd is one of the best on the disc. Hauntingly beautiful, it is simply her and three back up singers along with Mumford and Goldsmith on acoustic guitar. On the doc, Giddens remarks that it's fucking beautiful and hides her face during replay because she's afraid she's going to cry as she listens with the others. She's not far off there and more amazing is that the version on the disc is the demo that Mumford suggested they record for the others to hear. It just came out that good. Very cool.

Whereas Costello and Giddens saw that song similarly, Costello and Goldsmith differed greatly on Liberty Street. Goldsmith lays out a melancholy lament about a guy down on his luck in a worn down city. Costello takes the same lyrics and turns them into a bluesy rocker with a gospel tinged call-and-respond chorus. Both versions are excellent and if you aren't paying close attention, you might not even realize its the same lyrics re-imagined. I like that.

Another similar case is James and Gidden's versions of Hidee Hidee Ho. James turns the song into something that envisions Murf and the Magictones at the Ramada Room in their crushed velvet jackets with drowsy, overly made up back up singers swaying languidly off to one side. It brings a smile to my face every time I hear it. Giddens channels her bayou woman on the same song and turns it into a warning about someone that might want to do her wrong.

James' take on all his songs is impressive. I'm not familiar with his work but he seems to enjoy creating a lush sound, lot's of guitar and backing instrumentation, not overwhelming, but definitely thicker arrangements than the others. He opens the disc with Down on the Bottom, an excellent song and choice for the first tune. But my favorite of his takes is Quick like a Flash. Great guitar work, good vocals both by James (who looks like a muppet with his wild hair, beard, and big black eyes) and the others.

As with James, I'm unfamiliar with Goldsmith or his band, but I'm assuming they're not exactly rockers. Goldsmith's take on all his songs have a sadness to them and have relatively simple arrangements -- mostly piano and acoustic guitar. Not complaining, just saying. His version of Liberty Street is probably my favorite of his contributions.

In the doc, much was made about Mumford struggling to come up with a song. He points out that he simply doesn't write like this -- quickly and on demand. But he finally breaks through with Kansas City, another fairly sad song (more about that later) that inexplicably includes Johnny Depp on backing guitar. My favorite track of Mumford's is probably When I get my hands on you which is pretty much what it sounds like -- a love song, and Mumford arranges it minimally with some organ and muted guitars.

Rhiannon Giddens is the gift of the cd. Her voice is a force of nature, something that these whisper and grunt artists topping the charts today would sell their soul for. And she's quite attractive as well, so why no one's giving this chick a chance at something bigger is beyond me. Perhaps this will be a jumping off point for her. I hope so.

Her bluegrass background is evident in Duncan and Jimmy a foot stomper about two buddies that has Giddens' banjo work front and center. Spanish Mary is perhaps my second favorite of her contributions, one that Burnett singled out as something he thought would be perfect for her. Soaring powerful vocals, banjo, and thumping drums give the song a mystical dreaminess to it. I can't help but wonder if Spanish Mary isn't a reference to a woman but rather a substance, given the time period when it was written, but the song works both ways and I guess only Dylan knows for sure what it's about.

A word about content here. Though this isn't a "sad" cd, I'm surprised at the melancholy tone to it. All these different artists, and they all saw something downbeat in Dylan's lyrics. Is that a reference to our time now or his then? Or my own interpretation? Who can say? I'm also surprised at the number of times Dylan references Kansas City or St. Louis, and he uses "pale" in a couple of songs as well. If these had been spread out over multiple recordings it probably wouldn't be noticeable and probably doesn't mean anything. Just something funny I've picked up on during repeated listenings.

Before I bought this cd, I read the negative reviews on Amazon because I like to see what people hate about something first. Most of the complaints fell into two catagories -- One: it doesn't sound like Bob Dylan and Two: it sounds too polished.

Yeah, if you're expecting mimicry of Dylan's nasal twang and sparse arrangements you're going to be disappointed. These artists weren't tasked with sounding like Dylan but rather interpreting his lyrics. So it isn't an homage as it is what James said in the doc -- Here's some lyrics for your new song, oh by the way, they're written by Bob Dylan, so . . . no pressure.

Complaining that the songs aren't full of mistakes or gaffes is fairly ridiculous in my opinion. Today's music artists are vastly more tech savvy than they were 50 years ago. Using a cell phone, laptop, and open source software even a marginally talented musician can create something that sounds cleaner and more professional than a lot of the studio work in the 60s. That shouldn't be held against these current artists.

In closing, I've only got two thumbs and they're way up for this cd. And I'm a guy whose default music choices are AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and 80s hair bands. I like my foot stompin' and my head bangin', but this is a good cd full of good music and it's worth a listen. I don't think you'll be disappointed.


todd said...

Great CD, I am enjoying it, not a big Dylan fan. Love Mumford and Sons though :) enjoy.

postaldog said...

Yeah, I'm not a Dylan fan either, I've always thought he was wildly overrated. But these various interpretations of his lyrics are pretty amazing.

Glad you're liking it too and thanks for commenting :-)