It’s a little wearying that Bob Dylan‘s burst of creativity in the spring and summer of 1967 is still getting tapped; it would be nice if, for instance, a single artist had had a moment within the past couple of decades that was both as musically fertile and as exhaustively catalogued, mythologized and picked over. But there The Basement Tapes are—an ever-brighter star in the Boomer firmament—and here we are, as their glow increases from a distance of 47 years.
The six-disc Basement Tapes Complete set that Dylan released last week isn’t even the whole story. At some point in the past couple of years, Dylan found a stash or two of lyrics from the Basement Tapes period that he apparently didn’t get around to setting to music at the time (or, if he did, apparently didn’t bother to play with the Band at Big Pink). Producer T-Bone Burnett was appointed to do something with them, and assembled a kind of new Traveling Wilburys to write and perform music for them: Elvis Costello, Jim James, Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes.
This isn’t the first time somebody else has written music for Dylan’s words—the first example may have been Ben Carruthers and the Deep’s 1965 single “Jack o’ Diamonds”—and two of the original Basement Tapes’ highlights, “This Wheel’s on Fire” and “Tears of Rage”, were completed by members of the Band. Dylan himself participated in a similar project three years ago, completing Hank Williams‘ unfinished lyric to “The Love That Faded” for The Lost Notebooks. Williams, though, didn’t live to finish that album’s songs. Dylan’s just not so much the guy who wrote the lyrics on Lost on the River any more. (He’s moved on: the set list on his current tour includes only four of his pre-1997 songs, not counting a Frank Sinatra cover.)
These Dylan texts are, literally, throwaways, but they come from a period when he was writing spectacular throwaways. The baffled breakup songs “Golden Tom – Silver Judas” and “Kansas City” would both be as perpetually quoted as, say, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” if they’d appeared on record in the ’60s. (The latter features some perfect Dylanoid backhands a la “Positively 4th Street”: “You invite me into your house/ And then you say you gotta pay for what you break!”) And, as always, Bob’s a magpie: the title of “Duncan and Jimmy” riffs on the folk tune “Duncan and Brady”, and “Hidee Hidee Ho” owes its hook to Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher”.
A project like this is a treacherous one for its artists, though. To try to sound like Dylan is to come up short of the mark, and to try to not sound like Dylan can betray the material. So the New Basement Tapes hedged their bets, each writing music for the old lyrics on their own, which is why the 20 tracks here (on the “deluxe” edition, released at the same time as an impoverished 15-track version) include a few lyrics that show up twice in radically different settings. Most of the songwriters err on the side of avoiding Dylanish cadences—Goldsmith’s settings, in particular, are bland adult-contemporary stuff, and his lack of puckishness means that when he gets to a phrase like “I have paid that awful price,” it lands with a dull clunk.
It also seems like a mistake to take these songs as seriously as the NBT’s sometimes do. “Spanish Mary”, for instance, is a chain of stock phrases from old ballads, shuffled until sense falls away from them (“in Kingston town of high degree”?), but Giddens sings it as if it’s a meaningfully dramatic narrative. (To be fair, the funereal Giddens/Mumford setting of “Lost on the River” that closes the album is one of its high points.)
The MVP of this group turns out to be Elvis Costello, who treats Bob as a band member who didn’t happen to show up to the jam that day. Costello’s already started playing a few of his collaborations with 26-year-old Dylan live, including “Matthew Met Mary”, which isn’t even on this album. His two-minute take on “Married to My Hack”, whose lyric is basically just Dylan flexing his rhyme chops, is a rapid-fire monotone rant in the vein of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”; he bellows and snarls his way through “Six Months in Kansas City” as if it was one of his own minor rockers.
Nearly every track on Lost on the River has a couple of memorable moments: a marvelous turn of phrase, a brief Jim James guitar meltdown, an instant of the band members discovering how their voices can harmonize. But what it lacks is the casual joy of Dylan’s Basement Tapes—music that was made almost literally in a woodshed, with no thought at the time to releasing it. Dylan and the Band had the luxury of freedom from expectations and the luxury of being allowed to make something trivial. For all its power and commitment, Burnett’s supergroup doesn’t.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1uYw0a7