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For the past 50 years, songwriters of all kinds have been trying to write Bob Dylan songs with various degrees of success. The list of people doing this is long and includes not only the singer-songwriters who immediately followed in Dylan’s wake but also groups such as The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and tons of musicians after them. Sometime in the past year (maybe a little longer) it was announced that Bob Dylan had discovered a bunch of lyrics he wrote in 1967 but never used and had given them to T Bone Burnett to do something with. Burnett gathered a group of songwriters who happened to be multi-instrumentalists, put them in a studio and had them create the music. The result was a band called The New Basement Tapes, and the just released album Lost On The River. Songs from the project started appearing as internet videos sometime last spring and late in the summer all this was complicated by the announcement of the complete Basement Tapes being released the week before Lost On the River was due to hit the market.
The initial songs from the project were not exactly impressive. They sounded overproduced, didn’t sound like the (real) Basement Tapes or Bob Dylan songs. As more songs from the project were released as videos, the music started improving and showed that the first songs released were not necessarily indicative of the feel of the entire album.
My feeling all along about this particular record was I wanted to hear the entire album as an album and hear how it flowed and how the songs worked with each other before rendering any kind of judgment. As an album, Lost On The River is actually quite enjoyable. The various songs and singers are kind of presented in a circle with the person who co-wrote the song being the singer with a couple of exceptions where more people were involved in the writing. It is best appreciated if you put aside any preconceived notions of Bob Dylan or The Basement Tapes and meet the album on its own terms. That way the lyrics seem to find you on their own and a few listens in, you might imagine how Dylan might have delivered these songs.
The fact all the main people involved, Elvis Costello, Jim James, Taylor Goldsmith, Rhiannon Giddens and Marcus Mumford play and sing on most of the tracks gives the album a more cohesive feel than it would have had everyone had recorded in separate studios with their own bands. Each person sings lead on three songs and everyone involved came up with at least one winner and some hit it out of the park every time.
Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops are the most successful in putting Dylan’s words to music in a meaningful way. Goldsmith said earlier this summer that he let the words write the melody and as a result his songs, “Liberty Street,” “Card Shark” and “Florida Key” sound the most natural and his performances seen effortless. Giddens is the secret star of the album. Her singing is amazing throughout and she kept her melodies the closest to folk music. “Spanish Mary” is cast as a traditional mountain ballad and is both the spookiest and most mysterious song on the album. Her minstrel banjo, not all that distant from Dock Boggs, sets the tone, the lyrics and imagery timeless. In a strange way the lyrics seem closer to John Wesley Harding and it’s liner notes than any song on The Basement Tapes.
In Kingston town of high degree
The buffoon, the fool, the fairy
All paid the dues and inquired to me
For the love of Spanish Mary
“Duncan and Jimmy,” in which Giddens’ banjo is a bit closer to bluegrass and one can imagine Dylan and The Band singing the chorus. Here the lyrics would seem right at home with the other songs from the basement.
Fill up the glasses and take your stand
Tip your hat to the world
Button up the bowtie and dance around
Once again with the fat Hawaiian girl
Giddens also delivers the closer, “Lost On The River #20” which also shares a credit with Marcus Mumford. What Giddens clearly understands is the mystery inherent in much of Dylan’s music and she knows how to convey it. Equally important, she realizes the music is what gives that mystery its depth.
Jim James did such an amazing job, totally nailing the Basement Tapes song “Goin’ To Acapulco” in the film I’m Not There that I had high hopes for his participation in this project. He opens the album with “Down On The Bottom,” a three-verse song that is repeated a few times. The opening is bluesy and scary but on the third verse it turns into something reminiscent of a George Harrison song making the return to the first verse have enhanced impact. “Nothing To It” was the first song released from the album and strays the farthest from Dylan musically, with a jaunty pop melody that seems to run counter to the lyrics which contain this verse:
There was no organization I wanted to join
So I stayed by myself and took out a coin
There I sat with my eyes in my hand
Just contemplating killing a man
Interestingly enough, on the fadeout the music suddenly turns ominous.
James also contributes “Hidee Hidee Ho #11” which is half lounge jazz and half a bunch of other stuff thrown together and lyrically one of the strangest things Dylan ever wrote.
Marcus Mumford scores on “Kansas City” which Goldsmith contributed to though he doesn’t play on the track. There’s a very cool guitar solo probably played by Johnny Depp and the song has one of the best choruses of the album. Goldsmith also helped write the music to “When I Get My Hands On You,” and Mumford delivers a convincing vocal, but the arrangement takes away from impact of the song. He really hits it however on “Stranger” where he is solely responsible for the music and the arrangement is perfect starting out with a raunchy country lead guitar. A song that instantly hits you, it’s one of the high points of the album.
Elvis Costello first appears on the album’s second track, “Married To My Hack” which he delivers as a talking song with Rhiannon Giddens scatting in the background in a way similar to Maeretha Stewart on “If Dogs Run Free” on New Morning. It’s one of those crazed Dylan songs sort of like “Tiny Montgomery,” but the drums-based arrangement becomes what you pay attention to instead of the song. Costello’s best contribution is “Lost On The River #12,” which he delivers as a slow soulful ballad. It sounds like he wants it to be “Tears of Rage” but he doesn’t quite reach that level. “Six Months In Kansas City (Liberty Street)” is Costello overdoing it and basically writing an Elvis Costello song complete with anguished vocal.
Obviously Dylan had a couple of songs with the same themes or more likely they were different drafts of the same song. Part of the fun of this album is seeing the different approaches to the same theme by the various writers.
Overall, Lost On The River works as an album. The best songs you want to hear again and again. The lesser songs work in the context of the entire album. As noted above sometimes the arrangements along with typical T Bone production touches get in the way of the song instead of enhancing it. Time will answer whether it stands up as a companion to The Basement Tapes. This record was done in a contrived situation and sometimes some people seem to be trying too hard. One of the reasons what Dylan and The Band did in 1967 is so great is they weren’t trying to do anything but play music, create songs, and record them as demos. So when the great songs and moments happened, it was purely on inspiration. If this group puts out a second album, they should keep that in mind.
Peter Stone Brown is a freelance writer and singer-songwriter. His site and blog can be found here: http://www.peterstonebrown.com/