Friday, 12 December 2014

Music From Big Pink - The Band - album review

There are relatively few rock albums which can be said to have heralded a shift in the prevailing direction of rock music, but The Band's Music From Big Pink, released in 1968, is one of those. Its honesty and earthiness went against the trends of the time, and persuaded listeners and fellow musicians alike that there was another way.  It also came to epitomize the notion of "Americana", in rock music terms anyway.
In truth, the true "Band" sound did not fully emerge until 1969's eponymous second album, but Music From Big Pink had something approaching a seismic impact. The likes of Eric Clapton and George Harrison were enraptured, not just by the musical content, but also by the ethos and the modus operandi which underpinned it. There was no suggestion of The Band confronting the existing music scene ; they just played what came from their hearts and souls.

In asserting that the group's signature style was not fully shaped on the debut effort, we are acknowledging that they had only just struck out on their own, having spent much of the previous decade backing other people, most famously Bob Dylan of course. The Dylan/Basement Tapes influence is still keenly felt, with three of the songs originating from that era. In addition, Robbie Robertson did not yet dominate the songwriting stakes as he did on the "brown album" the following year. This renders the album less cohesive than its successor.

It is one of the numbers co-written by Bob Dylan, "Tears Of Rage", which opens the record, and for me it is one of the highlights. The boys make the track their own, and Richard Manuel's superb vocal brings out the full poignancy of the lyrics. As so often with The Band, the keyboards are much to the fore, but all the band members contribute in creating a most engrossing rendition. This is also an early taste of the distinctive vocal harmonies which would help to make The Band's music so captivating. Three distinct voices (Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Rick Danko), blending and weaving together in a kind of ragged glory.  Few groups could boast a performance as confident and affecting as this to open their debut album.

This vocal interplay plays a prominent role in "To Kingdom Come", especially in the choruses. This track exudes the R&B-influenced ruggedness which would come to characterize much of the Band's best output in the years which followed.

Although The Band were often cited as an antidote to psychedelic music and its excesses and pretensions, they came perilously close here to making a psychedelic song, in the form of "In A Station". The mildly ethereal keyboard and guitar sounds, together with some of the lyrics, certainly point in that direction. However, these factors are counter-balanced by the homeliness and finesse typical of the group.

I always feel that "Caledonia Mission" is a Band song par excellence, with its blend of country/folk flavours with R&B funkiness, and its enigmatic but compelling lyrics. Perhaps Rick Danko's most impressive lead vocal performance with The Band.

"The Weight" is possibly the group's most famous song, and it has an enduring appeal, part of which is in interpreting the biblical and other imagery.  I think that many people imagine that the song is espousing the sense of community which is often associated with the group's music, but it seems that it was intended to be somewhat more complicated than that. What I really like is the simplicity of the arrangement, with the platform of acoustic guitar, drums and bass embellished by Garth Hudson's engaging piano flourishes. The interest is heightened by the switching of lead vocals between the three primary singers.

"We Can Talk" is a delight, from the sumptuous organ-driven introduction, to the amusing lyrics, to the satisfying drum sound (a feature of the whole album, incidentally).  Those inimitable vocal harmonies are more rugged and likeable here than ever, and the soulful "middle-eight" section still surprises and pleases after repeated listens.

"Long Black Veil" and "This Wheel's On Fire" are probably the two weakest cuts on the record. The former, although lyrically interesting, comes out as ponderous and uninspired. "This Wheel's On Fire" has never really grabbed me as a song, and the Band's interpretation is not a patch on their own versions of "Tears Of Rage" and "I Shall Be Released".

There is a case for saying that "Big Pink" is more outright soulful and permeated with rhythm and blues than the follow-up, and "Chest Fever" is a prime example of this, although there is a strong dose of Johann Sebastian Bach (the organ sounds) as well as Sam and Dave!  The snare drum is once again a feature, and this recording contains some of Robbie Robertson's most effective and dextrous guitar work.

The next track, "Lonesome Suzie" can almost pass the listener by unless close attention is paid. Richard Manuel excels here, on his own composition, and his fragile and expressive vocal is complemented by delicate keyboard and guitar parts. The organ is a reminder of the pivotal role played by Garth Hudson, and his versatility, in the potency and vitality of The Band's music.

Although Music From Big Pink did not attain massive commercial success, it still endures as one of rock music's most important records. It has a pull subtly different from the sophomore release which followed. It sounds as fresh and as "musical" now as it must have done way back in the late 1960s.

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