Saturday, March 26, 2016

The New Basement Tapes - Lost on the River

My love of Blood on the Tracks is well documented at this point, but there are definitely days when I think that The Basement Tapes might be my favorite Bob Dylan project. Recorded in 1967, but not released officially until 1975, The Basement Tapes brought two of the brightest musical talents of the time—Dylan and The Band—together for an invigorating set of songs. Some of the tunes they recorded (most of the ones that made it onto the original record) were Bob Dylan compositions, now-classics like “Going to Acapulco” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Some were traditional folk tunes. Others were covers of respected country artists like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. And all of them had an infectious looseness that was and is incredibly rare to find on a studio album.

It’s not difficult to see why the original Basement Tapes were so loose, creative, and dynamic. There was no expectation among any session members that the tapes in question would ever be released. And so they all played with reckless abandon—no pressure, no reservations—and made one of the most incendiary records in history as a result. None of those songs had the lyrical depth or eloquence of Dylan’s finest work, nor were they as emotionally resonant as what he came up with on Blood on the Tracks. But because of the fertile and collaborative environment in which they were recorded, the songs from The Basement Tapes became classics anyway.

And that brings me to Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, a project assembled by legendary Americana producer T Bone Burnett to see if that old Big Pink basement had any more magic left to offer. The project was born when Dylan’s publisher contacted Burnett and asked him if he wanted to do anything with a box of unused, handwritten Bob Dylan lyrics that had recently been found. Burnett, a producer always looking for unique projects in the roots music sphere (acclaimed soundtracks for a pair of Coen Brothers films, for instance, or a music supervisor post for the television program Nashville), jumped at the chance and quickly assembled what is arguably the ultimate modern day folk super group.

Elvis Costello, Jim James (of My Morning Jacket), Marcus Mumford (of Mumford & Sons), Rhiannon Giddens, and Taylor Goldsmith (of Dawes): these are the talented musicians, singers, and songwriters tasked with turning Dylan’s outtake lyrics into fully formed songs that honor the tradition of the original Basement Tapes. Each member chose different texts and set them to music individually, choosing the words that moved them, and bringing the contributions to the recording process. Because of this process—of starting separate and then coming together—each song on this record has the distinct flavor of the person who sings lead. However, because the lyrics were all penned by Dylan, and because the songs were all arranged, fleshed out, and recorded by the full group, Lost on the River ends up feeling a good deal more cohesive than you might expect an album with five lead vocalists to sound.

Probably the most refreshing aspect of this record is that no one ever shoots for straight imitation. The New Basement Tapes may be writing songs based around Dylan’s words, and they may be paying tribute to the freewheeling nature of the original Basement Tapes, but it is testament to the talent of these five individuals that Lost on the River never sounds like an attempt to approximate Dylan’s sound. Jim James gets the closest, with numbers like “Down at the Bottom,” “Nothing to It,” and “Hidee Hidee Ho #11,” hitting upon a vintage sound not far off what Dylan and the Band cultivated all those years ago. James even sounds like he’s doing a bit of a Dylan vocal impression during the latter of those three tunes, but he’s a talented enough musician and songwriter to make his songs sound fresh. “Down at the Bottom” is particularly splendid, alternating between moody atmosphere and rousing momentum for the perfect album starter.

If James gets the closest to Dylan’s sound, Goldsmith probably strays the furthest away. A sweet-voiced folkie who has always been compared to Jackson Browne, Goldsmith is tasked here with writing the collection’s most luxuriant songs. His contributions—“Liberty Street,” “Florida Key,” “Card Shark,” and “Diamond Ring”—rely heavily on piano and acoustic guitar, with Goldsmith’s voice providing a lullaby-soft wistfulness to the dusky arrangements. The songs are pretty, particularly “Florida Key” and “Diamond Ring,” and they allow Dylan’s lyrics to breathe in a way they don’t always do on James' or Costello’s more raucous numbers, or Mumford’s more pop-centric ones. When Goldsmith sings “If I ever get back to St. Louis again, there’s gonna be some changes made” at the beginning of “Ring,” it’s the perfect delivery, landing somewhere between the scathing, whip-smart fashion in which Dylan would have sung it, and the more measured insights that Goldsmith imparts on his own records with Dawes.

The problem is, the Goldsmith songs that made the record don’t take advantage of the frontman’s true talents. The best Dawes songs are big, almost church-bound slowburns like “Something in Common” and “A Little Bit of Everything,” songs that build from slow, modest beginnings into cathartic climaxes. Here, Goldsmith’s songs are pleasant little ditties, but they are admittedly lightweight compared to what everyone else is doing. (As stupid as the descriptor is, it’s telling that Pitchfork called his contributions “adult contemporary.”) Whether Goldsmith got pushed to the side because of the presence of bigger names, or simply didn’t bring his best material to these sessions, the fact is that he’s ultimately the only one of the five songwriters who doesn’t deliver an essential highlight.

Costello is probably the group’s key member, providing two of the three best songs here. His “Lost on the River #12” is particularly stunning, playing like something that could have come off this year’s fantastic War on Drugs album, Lost in the Dream. “Six Months in Kansas City,” meanwhile, is the perfect penultimate moment for this record, a wild runaway train of a track that gets each member of the band bellowing at the top of their lungs during the chorus. It’s the most spontaneous moment on the album, and one of the few spots where this album absolutely taps into the unpredictable atmosphere of the original Basement Tapes.

Marcus Mumford also earns his paycheck, penning the record’s most instantly infectious numbers. The complaint most often tossed off about Mumford & Sons is that they write songs that all sound similar, and that their lyrics are poor. Both problems are solved here, where Mumford either writes typical Mumford & Sons melodies, but gets to use them on top of great lyrics (“Kansas City,” featuring an electric guitar shredding cameo from actor Johnny Depp) or co-writes with other members to come up with songs that sound different than anything he’s ever done (the Goldsmith co-written “When I Get My Hands on You”). In both cases, his songs are terrific.

As for Giddens, she’s fairly easily the weakest link, delivering boilerplate Americana that you could hear at virtually any folk festival (“Duncan and Jimmy”) or slowing the first side of the record to a crawl with “Spanish Mary,” a song which wouldn’t have been too out of place amidst a few of the overlong clunkers on Dylan’s own Tempest. She also contributes the worst song on the album, a second version of “Hidee Hidee Ho” that boasts an awkward rhythmic setting of Dylan’s words, not to mention some remarkably flat vocals from Giddens herself. It’s the only number on the record that sounds amateurish, and it should have been cut. Still, even if Giddens is a weak link, she justifies her presence with “Lost on the River #20,” a haunting Appalachian folk arrangement of the same text that Elvis Costello already turned into a winner. In fact, her take on the text might be the best song on the record.

Some will undoubtedly trivialize the New Basement Tapes as a novelty project. Indeed, the whole idea behind the project is high-concept, to the point where many listeners and critics probably won’t be able to get past the Dylan thing to appreciate these songs as standalones. The thing is, though, these songs are great. While the record’s bloat does kind of compromise its overall consistency and cohesion, Lost on the River probably still has more of the year’s best songs in one place than almost any other album. It doesn’t quite match the fun or looseness of the original Basement Tapes, but it’s still both a worthwhile tribute to that album, and an impressive showcase of everyone involved.

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