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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Band – Stage Fright

Year: 1970
Record Rating = 9
Overall Rating = 13


As a commentator on the Band’s intro corrected me, the Band’s third LP is every bit a “debut” for the group as their actual debut and their self-titled album. Granted, the gap between this album and their self-titled is far smaller than that of the latter with Music from the Big Pink, but there are enough differences to think of this as a slight reinvention. For starters, the lyrics are toned down significantly in Biblical allusions (there’s but one minor one) a la Big Pink or historical references (there’s a few very subtle ones) a la The Band; that’s not to say the lyrics are lightweight, as Robbie’s new interest, his own or made-up personal problems, can get very dark, but it’s something just about any singer-songwriter can tackle. Fortunately, he and the rest of the Band deliver these simpler topics with the same gusto as they would the Civil War, and while the musical skeletons might even be simpler takes on the various roots genres than before, the instrumental variety is still as great as ever.

In that respect, the opening “Strawberry Wine” is especially indicative of the album overall: in form, it’s a generic blues rocker, but as the title would suggest, it’s a really alcoholic one, with instrumentation so murky and clattering – jagged guitar chords, bubbly, possibly electronically encoded accordion, distant organ and bass parts and drums with the most tight and compressed tone you’d think Helm had the skins tightened nearly to a breaking point – it almost makes you feel dizzy, giddy and drunk, and Helm’s drawl is especially exaggerated here that you’ll think he was drunk during the recording process. Fitting with the album’s overall lyrical theme of personal troubles, there’s a huge contrast between their actual content (a drunken recluse who’s only happy when drunk, resembling Richard Manuel’s own struggles with the bottle and several members’ future drug problems) and the upbeat packaging.

Song after song, the first side tries extra hard at shedding their ambitious past as much as possible in this vein, especially the other two rockers. Regardless, “Time to Kill” and “Just Another Whistle Stop” are even at worst potential minor highlights. The former, with its simple, three-or-so-chord power pop riff (don’t tell me that guitar tone doesn’t resemble the genre’s early best), its boogying piano, and its perfectly tight rhythm section highlighting danceable snare rat-tat-tats, is just a lot of fun, and not nearly as lazy as the title would imply, although it’s still relevant. The easiest way to describe to combination of the tempo and lyrics is a guy rushing to have as much down-time as possible. I can’t pretend to be nearly as clever in finding hidden meaning in “Just Another Whistle Stop” (unless the title has to do with Harry S. Truman’s method of campaigning for the presidency, which could make sense given the Band’s historical leanings), but what I can do is admire Richard Manuel’s spirited vocal performance – only occasionally displaying his patented falsetto, but it’s the extent of their use that makes most sense on something up-tempo – not to mention the chugging organ fills and the introduction of Robertson’s shrill, harmonic-laced style of soloing in the instrumental interludes that became the focus of his every note on The Last Waltz. Oddly enough, I probably would have preferred this tone on the jagged soloing of “Time to Kill” rather than the more fluid playing on this track, but I digress.

I actually prefer the ballads on the first side, even if they’re technically inferior to, say, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, simply because they pack a similar emotional punch. “Sleeping” is the one that I instantly liked, if only because I can find familiar comfort in a Manuel-sung piano ballad. It starts off as a slow, soft waltz, with a sparse arrangement that manages to still be subtly intricate, with some fantastic delicate piano lines (especially that two-chord descending sequence after the vocals briefly fade away), swirling organ lines carefully buried in the mix, decorative bass notes and soft, tinkling cymbal work, all of which gives off the vibe of one falling asleep, something that Manuel’s soothing tenor/occasional falsetto singing lines like “Now there’s not a sound/Not a soul to be found” only amplifies. Even as the music picks up in tempo, it’s almost as if you enter the dream of the sleeping man, because even if the pianos become livelier, the organ swirls more upfront and chugging guitar riffage joins them, the vocals (now harmonies) are contrastingly distant, creating the hazy feeling that all this energy is just a mirage. And when Robbie rips out a simple solo emulating the melody in the speedier parts, it has all of the meaningless vividness of a dream without the help of words. Of course, it could just be me pulling significance in this song out of my behind, but if even one of you gets what I’m saying, my assumption might not be so far off.

The side closing “All La Glory” is definitely the album’s sleeper highlight for me. My rough draft of the review actually began by me saying the album was consistent in every way but its weak side closers, but that’s a stance I’ve since changed. Now, aside from “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, I’m usually not a fan of Levon Helm-dominated balladeering, but I’ve since decided this is one more exception, as just like its fellow ballad on the LP, the atmosphere is unbeatable. I’m not even sure what to make of the song as a whole: I’ve read that it may have been written by Robertson in tribute to his young infant daughter, and that’s certainly the idea I like best for it. With Levon Helm’s drawl at its most welcoming – even if it often resembles Bob Dylan’s then-recent efforts at a country croon – and a cozy backdrop of watery guitar chords, slightly weeping slide/pedal steel fills in the refrain, and a beautiful wispy organ solo in the middle, or even the way the melody flows thanks to Helm’s tone gradually rising in the first two verses before the sudden deep utterance of “now”, how could you not get the impression of a father trying to put one’s child at ease, maybe even telling them a bedtime story (adding credence to the “glory” in the title, or the agrammatical throwing in of French article “la”)?

For many fans, side two is decidedly better, but because I have a much stronger opinion of the first side as it is, you might miss that from the way I describe it, but rest assured there’s some great material here as well. I still have a bit of trouble with the closing “The Rumor” (which despite my more lukewarm opinion is a relative fan favourite), but as far as songs about rumours go (I’m sorry, I can’t help but use the British/Canadian spelling… I’m actually surprised they didn’t), this is one of the better ones, especially thanks to the mysterious looping bassline, the isolated bits of pedal steel and the echoey lead guitar, creating a suspense one might expect when they suspect someone is slandering them with falsities, and the traded vocals between the three singing members certainly adds to the feeling of these rumours being spread around. Wait, didn’t I just say I was lukewarm about this one? Oh well, it’s all relative I guess.

Anyways, another easy candidate for fan favourite that’s not a highlight for me but which I quite enjoy nonetheless is “Daniel and the Sacred Harp”. As you can assume from its title, lyrically and musically, it’s a lot closer to their eponymous album, telling the story of a man named Daniel (mostly narrated by Levon Helm, but with a single verse from Daniel’s perspective as sung by Richard Manuel) who gets ahold of a harp that usually only descendants of the family for which it’s a heirloom could, thanks to a mysterious man who retrieves for silver and for an unnamed favour that leads to dire consequences for the title character. Come to think of it, the never explicit allegory of someone selling his soul for a musical instrument works in the general context of the album as well. Couldn’t it be Robertson regretting becoming a rock musician and that he feels like a man whose soul belongs to the devil? Musically the connection between the two albums is far less notable, especially since the prominent feature, other than the opening and closing synth chord pattern, is that of thick, decadent, danceable fiddle and pedal steel licks twirling around it. It might get a little repetitive, but it’s the kind of repetitive music to a story-like song that makes it hypnotic, sort of like Bob Dylan’s “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”.

Ultimately, though, I can understand the general consensus that side two is marginally better, if only because its three major highlights are my favourite songs on the album. The only one of the three I don’t necessarily list as best song, “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show”, is only unlisted as such because I can’t continue to have every Band album have a quarter or more of its songs as the “best”. But it’s this close to deserving to be up there anyways, even if fans of the other two (which are more prominent given their hit single status) might ignore it. As George Starostin astutely put it, it’s essentially the Band’s own “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”. While the Sgt. Pepper track presented circus music as the tool of some psychedelic demon, the Band go for something far more accessible: a goofy, New Orleans-y romp. There’s little more addictive in the Band’s catalogue than Robbie’s mid-tempo bluesy/funky guitar and the descending three-note sax riff from Garth Hudson and producer John Simon , or the former’s fantastic sax solo that sounds like it could have been lifted straight from a 1950s Ray Charles hit, and it serves as the perfect backing for the traded vocals between Levon Helm as the sly, convincing carnival barker and Rick Danko as the overly enthusiastic guest as they sing about saints, sinners, losers, winners and the Klondike Ku Klux Steamboat Band. I don’t know why, but that last one just always cracks me up. It’s just great to hear a band in this particular era just ignore all the social strife at the time, or at least openly mock it.

As for the two hit singles, it’s interesting to note their similarities. Lyrically, they’re both “confessionals” in a sense, with Robertson creating a portrait of himself (or, more accurately, whoever sings his words) as a troubled man, sets it to a contrastingly bouncy tempo, not necessarily to contradict the message but almost to add a sense of urgency to it. To diversify them, he gives one each to Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, whose distinct voices could emphasize a specific emotion (more on that for the individual tracks). And to cap them off, of course, is some fine music, especially notable in compact improvised instrumental sections. Actually, I’m almost a bit surprised the title track managed to have any kind of chart success, because its vocal hook is somewhat non-traditional. To fully capture the spirit of someone who suffers from the debilitating inability of being up on stage, Rick sings in a higher tone than usually, almost trembling as he delivers the words, and the third line of each verse has a sudden jump up in his register that makes you all fidgety just listening to it. Maybe the way Rick sings as if he’s actually suffering from stage fright combined with the music – a quasi-epic mix of bombastic piano chords and slick rootsy guitars occasionally emphasizing the paranoia with the nimble basslines and jittery drum work, with Hudson’s organ fills merging the two – is where the success lies: a small man trapped on a big stage, in a big world he can’t handle. As much as I love the song proper, extra credit really should go to Hudson’s organ playing. As I said, it mixes the epicness with the paranoia in terms of actual melodies (which are probably more memorable than half of the album’s melodies), and that thick, buzzing tone he uses is just perfect for it.

The popularity of “The Shape I’m In” is far easier to understand. Can you honestly say the Band have had a catchier verse melody (with equally catchy, if comically negative, lines like “Out of nine lives/I’ve spent seven/How in the world, do you get to heaven?” or “I’m gonna go down to the water/But I ain’t gonna jump in no no”) or refrain (that quasi-country rock-ish “Ooooooh, you don’t knowwwwww, the shape I’m in”) than on this one, bar their earlier hits? And given that it’s a rare sight… err… sound… of Richard Manuel taking on a relatively rocking tune for the band with great gusto, that only adds to its power. While the title track required some shaky restraint to emphasize the trouble in its lyrics, this track needs someone who can sound like he’s jumping out of his skin, and the man who sang the desperate verses of “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” is just the guy. And the music is something pretty unique for the band. Yes, the bulk of the song is driving roots rock music with a hint of funk à la “Up On Cripple Creek”, even a bit speedier, but the minor key instrumental interludes, with thick, swirling clavinet chords from Manuel and stinging guitar leads from Robertson, add a hint of menace to it, and the fun jamming, with Manuel playing big fat chords on the clavinet, Robertson adding danceable chicken-scratch guitars and Hudson delivering another fine set of organ solos, this time with a thin, almost synth-like tone playing some great lines that resemble the ‘60s best garage rock hits, is just that – fun.

The question that usually weighs on people’s minds about this album is if it shows the Band headed for a steady decline. As you can tell, my answer to that isn’t black-or-white. In terms of composing simple roots rock arranged beyond the generic tendencies the genre would shortly display (or with lesser bands, was already displaying), it certainly shows them at a similar creative level to The Band, if not Music from Big Pink (which had that quasi-prog feel in parts). Maybe lyrically they’re doing themselves a disservice abandoning the mid-’60s Dylan-style wordplay or late ‘60s Dylan-style authentic rootsiness, but with the end of the Woodstock era, a little personal confusion and confessional attitudes does some good for a rock band. The only reason this gets a 13 as opposed to the 14 its two predecessors get is that it lacks both their innovation and the quantity of great songs. After all, this only only has three contenders for best song, and the other two have four or more. It’s not a big enough difference for me to not adore this album, but don’t come running expecting something that really reaches their level of genius.

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