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Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Band – The Band

Year: 1969
Record Rating = 10
Overall Rating = 14

Best Song: KING HARVEST (HAS SURELY COME) or anything off side one

It seems pretty clear to me, and it's a common belief anyhow, that with their eponymous sophomore LP, the Band were reinventing themselves. Much like Bob Dylan with John Wesley Harding, this reinvention required a full embracement of their roots, and indeed, this is so very much the quintessential roots rock album it almost seems clichéd. And yet somehow it isn't. While I very, very marginally prefer their debut – what with all the incidental quasi-art rock trappings – it's easy to see why this is often considered the Band's absolute peak. As a playing unit, these guys are at their tightest on this record, so much so it's almost unbelievable this was recorded almost overdub-free, and speaking of overdubs, the diversity in instrumentation usually expected from such a recording technique, all in the "creative" roots rock vein, makes for a terrific listen even strictly instrumentally speaking. And in terms of songwriting, Robbie Robertson's despotic acquisition of that task most of the time (he's credited on every track, and only on four are there official co-write credits by one other, usually Richard Manuel) is akin to Paul McCartney becoming the ideological focus of the Beatles: "focus" becomes a keyword indeed, and while his peers might bitch, you really see him at his most creative, with his Dixies, and Cripple creeks, and pines and other Americana topics on the lyrical side, and various creative ideas on the structural side.

What matters isn't just that this album takes on Americana at its most serious, lock, stock, and barrel, but rather that the Band (erggh, it's hard not to capitalize that all the time) come up with some of their very best music. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the first side is the 20 best minutes of constant Band music, and you all remember my abnormally high regard of their debut's second side. But six highlights in a row doesn't happen on every album, especially considering at least two-thirds of these are radio and concert standards for 'em. Ideologically speaking, the opener is perfectly placed, forming a bridge between the slower, more soulful material of their debut with the jauntier, more up-tempo brand of roots rock on this LP. Indeed, "Across the Great Divide" goes from one of Richard's soulful little man routines in the intro ("Standing by your window in pain"), complete with slowly churning guitar chords and whimpering horns, before breaking out into an up-tempo bouncy ragtime-influenced tune with staccato pianos, more delightful guitar fills and the magnificent uplifting trumpet/sax riffs, a stylistic switch accompanied with suitably hopeful lyrics about the American Dream® ("I'm gonna leave this one horse town" and all).

In a similar musical ballpark to the bulk of the opener are two of the hits appearing on this side, "Rag Mama Rag" and "Up On Cripple Creek". The amazing thing about the former is the complete line-up shuffle they accomplish on here. Manuel takes the drums, Danko's on fiddle, Hudson's on piano, producer John Simon's on tuba, and the whole tune is just a fantastic romp, in the fullest sense of the words, given the old fashioned blues innuendo (the title speaks for itself). Musically, this is a fairly diverse romp, going from a folk-dance intro where Danko's fiddle is the focus before switching for a good-time swinging ragtime boogie, with Hudson's incessant piano trills working their way around you complemented nicely by the goofy, bouncy low tuba blasts. In other words, it's a fantastic song, and I haven't even mentioned the impact of Levon Helm's friendly southern drawl and subtle harmonica backing, especially on that particularly melodically solid middle eighth about 100 proof bourbon.

The average listener is probably better acquainted with "Up On Cripple Creek", and rightfully so, as it's one of the group's most instantly recognizable hits. Even ignoring the fantastic chorus with the clever, funny rhyme scheme ("she sends me... she mends me... she defends me", you know the drill), it's just one terrific, simple funky swamp groove, and few songs create quite the swamp-like vibe, not even the bayou-based wonders of Creedence Clearwater Revival. After all, this is one of the quintessential mid-American road tunes, what with the title character's adventures throughout the South with his Bessie (which the lyrics are ambiguous enough about that it could very well be his mistress as it could be his prized hog), and the music captures that mood perfectly: the mucky, cyclical guitar riff, Robertson's Steve Cropper-like twangy licks splattered all over, Helm's steady drumming and inviting vocals, Manuel's occasional falsetto contribution to the latter (like the quasi-yodeling coda), and most importantly, Hudson's keyboards. As it's often the case with the Band, Garth is the unsung hero, who not only contributes some muddy organ fills throughout, but he also came up with the ringing Jew's harp-imitating clavinet part, where he processes his electronic keyboard through goodness-knows-what to get that croaky noise like a dirty swamp toad persisting from the first second but that only really gets its chance to shine after after each chorus.

Of the three slower tunes on this side – showing that the Band haven't completely abandoned their dirge-loving ways – only one is instantly recognizable, but it's such a fantastic song, I don't mind. Yes indeed, I'm referring to "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"; you can't have an album that's "quintessential Americana" without at least one song about the Civil War, and while I don't know many others on the subject, I can safely say this one is the best. What's amazing is how they manage to make a song about the hurt Southern pride after this war so tastefully, but then you don't have to be a stereotypical confederate supporter to know what it's like when your pride has been targeted. And as dirges go, this one is the most dirge-like, with a head-in-his-hands vocal from the group's only real Southerner, Levon Helm, and a slowest of slow tempo with echoey, deep piano, slow banjo twanging and the occasional weeping harmonica fill popping up every so often in the verses, before the downbeat yet contrastingly triumphant refrain, where Manuel's falsetto and Helm's drawl harmonize beautifully on the title and the infamous "na na na" hook. Basically, the song captures a mood, one of hope and loss, both musically and lyrically, with Robertson at his best here as he claims to having witnessed Robert E. Lee out his window and losing his brother to a "Yankee" (which Helm sings with passionate disdain, no less).

The other two slow songs are every bit the highlights as well, though. "When You Awake" is even more nostalgia-filled than the Southern Pride anthem, with the basic premise being a young kid listening to his grandfather's stories, the mood of which the band capture with familiar talent: the verses flow from weepy (the first lines, like "Ollie told me, it's a mean ol' world") to jaunty (the remaining lines, like "So I walked on down the road a mile/Went to the house that brings a smile"), though both types are sung with starry-eyed wonder by Rick Danko, and as for the refrain, well, aside from having some tight harmonies singing one of the album's most absurdly catchy melodies – which as fellow critic George Starostin once pointed out, is also bizarrely difficult to sing along to – it also has another starry-eyed element to it, Garth Hudson's whiny, croaky organ riff that fits the dream-like telling of grandpa's stories in the tune. Potentially even better is the Manuel co-penned Big Pink-like tune, "Whispering Pines". Aside from being the perfect side closer, it also happens to have that emotionally devastating vibe that Manuel at his best would pull off the previous year, with a heart melting quasi-falsetto vocal – occasionally veering off into real falsetto – and one more terrific contribution from the keyboardists, twinkling piano from Richard and equally twinkling, bright snowy organ from Hudson. The contrasting "temperature" between Manuel's vocals and the waves of organ chords – one warm, one frigid – is truly a sound to behold.

One could make a strong case that the second side is nowhere near as great, as it's easy to point out strong enough similarities between its tracks and the first side's tracks that you could pass them off as subtle rewrites. In simpler terms, rockers like "Jemima Surrender" and "Look Out Cleveland" proceed where "Rag Mama Rag" and "Up On Cripple Creek" left off, ballads like "Rockin' Chair" are parallel to "When You Awake" and "The Unfaithful Servant" to "Whispering Pines", you know the score. And yet, what differences are there are enough if not to make these tunes highlights than to make them strong enough so as to be quasi-highlights. For "Jemima Surrender", there's a terrific proto-cock rock riff (that almost threatens to become annoyingly repetitive, but then shifts to a secondary riff before that can happen) to fit the Helm-sung brothel-praising lyrics (like on my favourite line "If I were a barker in a girly show/Tell ya what I'd do/I'd lock the door, tear my shirt and let my river flow"), every bit as good as the ragtime vibe on the thematically similar "Rag Mama Rag", although this riff would probably suit the likes of Faces better.

As for "Look Out Cleveland", while the overall groove is "Cripple Creek"-esque, the stop-and-start structure between the slower refrains with shaky chords blasts and drunken refrains, the quasi-oompah-style drumming of the somewhat paranoid verses and the brief ragtime piano fills transitioning back to the former makes it somewhat more diverse than its predecessor, and that looping bassline in the final minute or so of jamming is just incredibly hypnotic. At times I like "Rockin' Chair" more than "When You Awake"; at the very least, they complement each other very well. With the side one track showing a young kid admiring his grandfather, this nostalgic ditty shows us the grandfather's point of view – and of all bands, the Band were the best poised to unite the young and the old as they do here – with Danko imitating Manuel in the verses and the two of them harmonizing charmingly in the refrain, which concludes with my favorite part of the tune, a country guitar and mandolin "duelling" riff.

The major highlight of these somewhat rewritten tunes is the Danko-sung "The Unfaithful Servant"; as his answer song of sorts (never mind the lack of songwriting credit for him) to "Whispering Pines", it's unbeatable. Aside from a terrific regret-filled vocal performance from Rick, the changes in arrangement are suitably far more natural sounding, what with Rick-sung tunes being usually more authentically rootsy. So rather than Hudson's "foreign" organ patterns, you have pretty mandolin trills and weeping saxophones from Richard and Garth that become particularly uplifting as the melody rises, or during the solo, for that matter. If you've done the math, you'll notice there should be two more songs on this side, ones that don't have an older sibling on the first side. It probably shouldn't be surprising that I consider them highlights. Well, "Jawbone" is a minor highlight, what with the tempo shifts being a bit clunky, but then they also add to the charm of it. The whole thing is in 6/4, a weird time for roots rock, but even with all the clunkiness, it's fun, going from a quasi-psychedelic intro to waltzy, two-part verses (one downbeat, one up-tempo), to the silly chorus with the line "I'm a thief, and I dig it" in alternation with a tricky little piano riff.

The other more experimental track, the closing "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)", is not only a highlight; it's potentially the best song on here, as you might have noted from the "best song" section above the review. It's essentially a love song whose subject is a farmer's labour union(!), but naturally it's laced with plenty of irony, baked right into the arrangement. Unlike the standard of quiet verses and louder refrains, this tune uses the far rarer reverse method, with Richard Manuel panting and writhing and jumping out of his skin in the verses to present the struggles this poor farmer faces ("Dry summer, then come fall/Which I depend on most of all") and the hope the union supposedly gives him ("I'm glad to pay those union dues/Just don't judge me by my shoes"), in contrast to the refrain where, with dark, ominous two-part harmonies from Manuel and Helm, the Powers-That-Be, i.e. nature, coldly dismiss any such hopes usually with some clever, dark, quasi-psychedelic imagery ("The smell of the leaves/From the magnolia trees in the meadow" or "A scarecrow in a yellow moon/Pretty soon, the carnival on the edge of town" are my favourites), which not only represents nature's ignoring Manuel's pleas, but his own doubts. And the music is just as clever, with a similarly wound up rhythm track consisting of a syncopated drum pattern, stuttering swirling organ chords and lots of garage-y guitar chops from Robertson. And speaking of whom, he allows himself the chance of the last word on the album, with a twangy, messy solo in place of Richard's vocals in a final verse/chorus duo, a significant solo indeed given that it's one of the few on the album.

In short, it's interesting that an album meant to represent the spirit of America could have been recorded in L.A., in Sammy Davis Jr.'s home, no less, and actually be a successful representation of said spirit. I've read some more scathing descriptions refer to this album as dry and emotionless, but what do they know? This album is rightfully considered a pioneering roots rock effort, and while subsequent Band albums would continue on this path with significantly less originality and fervour, I still consider this to be a masterpiece. I mean, it's a solid 14 compared to the strong 14 of Big Pink, but both albums are essential to their legacy. Besides, anyone who dismisses this one for not being as experimental as its predecessor is sadly mistaken; Hudson, Manuel, and Danko are particularly willing to add a new instrument to Robertson's simple musical skeletons, whilst Robertson himself at this stage is still influenced by Bob Dylan's clever wordplay (downplaying the psychedelia a bit) and playing around with folk, country and blues structures, and the vocalists are all great, and... You know what, I think I should stop here before I gush any further. I wouldn't want to lose all credibility. But believe me, this is just one of many masterpieces in that distant year filled with masterpieces.

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