Tuesday, June 9, 2009

B - The Band - "The Band"

This may prove to be a difficult review to write; not because I can’t think of an ocean of superlatives to describe this album, but because everything that needs to be said about it was said in Greil Marcus’ outstanding essay from his book “Mystery Train” (which I can also gush over, as it’s one of the best books on rock music ever written). I’m so familiar with this essay that I’m worried I may subconsciously plagiarize it, so I’ll try to keep this review short and sweet.

“The Band” is one of my favorite albums ever. There is not one bad thing I can say about it. The songs are all fantastic, the musicianship is never less than impressive, the sound is warm and appropriate, the singing hits all the emotion it sets out to hit, hell, even the cover photograph captures the album perfectly. These guys had been together in Canada for years, and the camaraderie and sympathy in the songs bears this out. In an era of wild psychedelic nonsense, the Band reverted to playing only what they needed to, making every song sound complete without being bloated.

Each song has something about it that makes me keep coming back, no matter how many times I hear it. To wit:
“Across the Great Divide”: the lyrics are very funny, describing a man desperately trying to double talk his way out of being shot by his girlfriend for crimes unspecified. By the end, it sounds like he succeeded, as he’s telling her about how good their life together will be going forward, but, just in case, “tell me hon, what you done with the gun?”

“Rag Mama Rag”: this wonderful chooglin’ song peaks for me when Rick Danko’s violin chimes in after Levon Helm implores him to “rosin up the bow”. Also, great tuba playing! It’s got a great beat and easy to dance to.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” – despite its obvious appeal to me due to its subject matter (the end of the Civil War), this is one of the most heartbreaking songs I’ve ever heard. The narrator of the song, Virgil Cane, (amazingly sung by Levon) is a proud Southerner who’s lost everything and sounds on the verge of giving up, even though it goes against every fiber in his body, the very way he was raised. To give everything you have to fight for an existence that is gone forever & the bewilderment & resignation of how to survive going forward – that’s what this song captures. The playing highlights this well: when Virgil proudly tells of his brave older brother, the beat picks up for a couple of bars, but quickly slows back down when he sings of his brother’s death. Wow. This song illustrates the continuing saga of the Civil War: the aftermath that changed our country permanently. (How was it that a primarily Canadian group (Levon was from Arkansas) could make one of the most evocative AMERICAN albums of all time?)

“When You Awake” – this song features one of the hallmarks of the Band (at least on their 1st 2 albums): the group vocals. There are times when all three singers (Helm, Danko, & Richard Manuel) all harmonize in a manner rough & spontaneous. Each has a unique voice, and their blend gives the songs a rustic 1920’s farm recordings feel – very timeless.
“Up on Cripple Creek” – besides the previous album’s “The Weight”, this is their best-known song. Funky & funny (outstanding clavinet playing by multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson), you can’t beat the feel good chorus: “Up on Cripple Creek she sends me / if I spring a leak, she mends me / I don’t have to speak, she defends me / a drunkard’s dream, if I ever did see one.” Plus I like Levon’s “hee hee” after talking about how he loves it when Bessie “puts a donut in my tea”. And this is the ONLY rock song I’ve ever heard where yodeling is not just appropriate, but welcome.

“Whispering Pines” – Richard Manuel’s vocals were often the most heartbreaking on the Band’s records, & this gentle tune is very affecting, especially when his vocals answer Levon’s on the last verse.

“Jemima Surrender” – song one on side two is the first time on this record that the Band really “rocks out”. It even has a guitar solo (one of only 2 on the album (I can’t tell if the one in “Unfaithful Servant” is a guitar or a mandolin, so for now I’ll exclude it), and Robbie Robertson (chief songwriter as well – can’t sing worth a damn, though) plays it very clinically, almost Steve Cropper-esque. In an album bursting with emotion, this song delights me in its carnality (“If I were a barker in a girly show (I’ll tell you what I’d do) / I’d lock the door, tear my shirt, and let my river flow!”)

“Rockin’ Chair” – this may be Virgil Cane 40 years after the war’s ended. Battered & tired, he works on the water – perhaps a fishing boat. He knows that his life is coming to an end, and that the rest of his time alive “ain’t worth a dime”. All he wants to do is be back home: a mundane routine life has never sounded so attractive, yet still out of reach. Another tearjerker from Richard.

“Look Out Cleveland” – a raucous rockin’ tune about the end of the world. Well, maybe not quite that, but definitely apocalyptic: there are storms coming that will wipe us all away. This song took on a lot more meaning to me after Katrina, Rita, and especially Ike, as it namechecks Houston in the chorus (and Cleveland (TX) is about an hour away).

“Jawbone” – this is the only song on the record that has strange time signatures, which gives if a real fluid sound. Great bass playing by Rick, and kudos to the others as well (you know you’re good when you can switch back and forth between a very tight jazz like beat and the sound of a drunken hootenanny at will.)

“The Unfaithful Servant” – I don’t know much of the lyrics to this one, but the plaintive sad vocals of Rick combined with Garth’s horns provide sometimes unbearable gravity. (I haven’t mentioned the drumming on this record yet – I would put Levon against ANYONE when it comes to drumming with real EMPATHY for the song. Sometimes its just an offbeat, or soft brush stroke, but MAN Levon should’ve gotten songwriting credit for some of these due to his amazing playing.)

“King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” – the apocalypse is back again (though not literally) in this song about a simple farmer caught between a rock (the marketplace) and a hard place (the unions). The industrial revolution has happened, and suddenly the man isn’t working for himself anymore. The strain of the verses is countered by what seem initially to be pastoral images (“corn in the fields / listen to the rice as the wind blows ‘cross the water”), then the thud (“king harvest has surely come”). This feels like a Biblical image, but I take it as the foreshadowing of something deeply final. One last guitar solo, and fade out….

Well, I guess I didn’t have a problem coming up with things to say about “The Band”. Listening to it is a wonderful experience: you’ll be happy, sad, wary, weary, turned on, despondent, fearful, and so much more (plus “Rag Mama Rag” will make you shake your thang.)

VERDICT: uh huh, it’s good. It’s DAMN good. For, uh, rizzle.
VIDEO: this performance gives me chills (from “The Last Waltz”, filmed at one of their final concerts with the original group. Even though Robbie takes on a very overbearing role, almost making the rest of the Band seem like sidemen, the music is classic. A MUST SEE.

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