Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The New Basement Tapes – Lost on the River (2014)

I got lost on the river, but I got found

Maybe not on the river, but what was lost and found was a box of song lyrics handwritten by Bob Dylan back in the 1960s. This was the time when Dylan and the Band were recording their album The Basement Tapes in Woodstock, New York. More than 40 years later, the dust was shaken off the box and the newfound lyrics were offered to producer T Bone Burnett. He then contacted a bunch of talented musicians – Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James, Rhiannon Giddens and Taylor Goldsmith – and gathered them to a studio.

The two tracks after which the album is titled, “Lost on the River” #12 and #20, reflect upon the same theme, the former doing so from the perspective of a man and the latter from that of a woman. #12 gives off the feeling of roaming the empty streets of a city usually so busy, at the crack of dawn, feeling exhausted but glad to see this moment that you usually sleep through. Costello as the author of this melody has obviously applied his decades-long song-writing experience. The track has a strong hint of conclusion in it, be it then the ending of a nocturnal journey homeward, a movie or an album. It’s far from being the final track of the album, though, as it ends with the other song in question instead, “Lost on the River” #20. This one is even softer, could be called melancholic, and among these few tracks that do not include percussions. In #20, the background vocals almost take over the stage as they constitute such an important part of the track. It is too difficult to truly overshadow the vocals of Giddens, though.

The deep, rich voice of lead singer Jim James in “Down on the Bottom” cannot be applauded enough, neither the harmony that is created between the general vibe and the vocals. This track is an example of how the length of lyrics does not matter – in this case, 12 different lines of lyrics are set to a song four and a half minutes long. These 12 lines were just enough for Dylan to express the feeling of hitting rock bottom and they were also just enough for this group to turn it into one of the best tracks on the album. In fact, Jim James manages to sing it in a way that makes you WANT to be down on the bottom.

Another track featuring these enjoyable vocals of James is “Nothing to It”, definitely an even better experience live than on the album with its almost hypnotic duo of drum and bass. Add to this the harmonious combination of the voices of James and Giddens in both the chorus and especially the bridges with the staccato rhythm, and you’ve got a piece well worth listening.

According to the statistics, the lead vocals of Marcus Mumford seem to attract some nine times more listeners than other songs. Or it might be that the duo Mumford-Goldsmith works out extremely well, since the two tracks with disproportionally high numbers of listens, “Kansas City” and “When I Get My Hands on You”, are written by this same duo. The second guess is probably closer to the truth since “The Whistle Is Blowing” and “Stranger” are also led by Mumford, yet have received much less attention than the former two. 

This being said, “Stranger” is one of the most underrated tracks on the album. The rhythmic variations on drums, occasional yet absolutely essential fiddle riffs, the flowing chorus and also that something about Mumford’s vocals make a combination that pushes the replay button for you. “The Whistle Is Blowing” is a slow-paced track that isn’t bad, far from that, but isn’t anything remarkable either. It’s one of those songs that go in one ear and out the other, not leaving a distinct memory nor the desire to give it an immediate second listen.

Coming back to the most popular songs on the album, “Kansas City” definitely deserves its position. Its alternating dynamics and catchy tune make it an easy, uplifting listen and the high-pitched dazzling guitar solo creates an interesting mixture with the folkish background. There’s just one thing, though, and it might be just me, but the similarity between the main guitar riffs in “Kansas City” and in The Offspring’s “The Kids Aren’t Alright” simply does not stop haunting me. Not to accuse the writers in plagiarism or anything – the riff is short and simple, easy to accidentally duplicate. As a sidenote, Johnny Depp also makes an occurrence on this track, passing by the studio to replace Costello who couldn’t attend that day.

When I get my hands on you
Gonna make you marry me

And now you know
Everywhere on Earth you go
You’re gonna have me as your man

As far as the second-most popular song goes, it does not take a vivid imagination to see Mumford uttering the above lyrics and the consequential reaction of the female crowd. It’s very likely that many share the dream of someone singing “When I Get My Hands on You” to them personally. An utterly romantic song in which the Mumford-Goldsmith duo has once again shown its expertise.

Goldsmith also receives lead singer position in some songs such as “Florida Key”, “Diamond Ring”, and most notably, “Card Shark”. The last one leaves a somewhat childish impression in the beginning, but goes on to present a very catchy chorus. The group has had quite a lot of fun performing this on stage as well, as can be seen here:

“Quick Like a Flash” stands out on the album, not because it has received more praise or acknowledgement than others, but because it’s quite different in style. Listening to it apart from the album, it would be difficult to associate it with The New Basement Tapes, except for the intro. Not that it’s a bad thing – the vocals of Jim James are, once again, rather hypnotizing and the funky bass line lays a solid foundation upon which all else is drawn. “Quick Like a Flash” is arguably another undiscovered and underrated pearl on the album.

Rhiannon Giddens has mostly contributed to the album through her flawless vocals and folkish fiddle-playing, adding a notch of country to it all. Of the songs she has either written or co-written, the most notable is “Spanish Mary” which allows her to demonstrate her vocal abilities and dynamics. In this track, the cooperation of bass and drums works out remarkably well, again indicating that Goldsmith-Mumford, on bass and drums respectively, make a productive duo. The loudest applause goes to Giddens, however, as the author and lead singer – especially praiseworthy is the quiet bridge (Beggar man, beggar man tell me no lie / Is it a mystery to live or is it a mystery to die?) in which the music and lyrics have achieved an absolute harmony. “Duncan and Jimmy” is another piece written by her, quite characteristic in its country-folk feeling. It’s not among the best tracks of the album, though, as it becomes a bit tedious towards the end, most probably due to lack of variation.

Since many songs were recorded as more than one version, some of them made it to the album in two versions as well. One of those is “Liberty Street”, the second version of which is renamed to “Six Months in Kansas City (Liberty Street)” on the album. The first of those features Goldsmith as the lead singer, the second has given the stage to Costello. Why both versions have been included is quite self-evident as the natures of the two tracks are very different. Which one is better or whether one of them is better at all is impossible to say because of that same difference. However, it has to be mentioned that the groove of Costello’s version is welcomed on this album of mostly intimate and calm-natured tracks. “Hidee Hidee Ho” is another title which has received two different forms, both of which rather belong to the less significant portion of tracks, however.

The New Basement Tapes has succeeded in their original intention which was to create a free and inspiring atmosphere similar to that of the original Basement Tapes. What is truly spectacular is how they were able to collaborate in a way that you’d think they have performed and written together for years, not only a week or two. The album is unique in many ways, from the origin of the lyrics to the collective of musicians achieving such a level of harmony.

Those who’d like to get a better grasp of how this album happened, the documentary Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued is a must-see. Here is a snippet showing how much fun they had with all this:

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