Monday, 30 March 2015

The Band - The Band (the second album) - album review

Following on from my blog post about The Band's debut album (Music From Big Pink), I thought I'd take a look at the 1969 follow-up, their self-titled magnum opus.

The Bob Dylan influence is much less overt, and there is virtually no discernible overlap with the folk-rock and/or psychedelic movements.  Robbie Robertson's blossoming songwriting prowess is clear for all to see, and the songs sound much less derivative of particular styles. On this work The Band almost created their own sub-genre from a stew of diverse musical influences. It is a thrilling snapshot of a potent idea more or less fully crystallizing.

This record also feels more philosophically and spiritually "together", although that perception may not hold up to minute scrutiny.  Above all, the key to this album's enduring quality and allure is its sheer " musicality", and it reminds us that passion, soul and ingenuity are at least as important as conventional technical prowess or virtuosity in generating art.

The first number "Across The Great Divide" sets things up perfectly. That opening line ("standing by your window in pain...") invites the listener on an invigorating journey. Those bars encapsulate so much of what makes them a captivating act.

"Rag Mama Rag" illustrates the subtle advance which was made between the first album and this one. I have heard Robbie Robertson say how proud he was of this track, and one can see why. So many elements contribute towards its uniqueness - Rick Danko's violin, Garth Hudson's twinkling piano, the humour of the lyrics and the blending of "unusual" instruments. Intangible magic is the result.

Among the general public, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is the best known song on this record, and one of the most famous in The Band's oeuvre. A powerful piece of work, with a theme which was probably "unfashionable" for its time. To be frank, I have never truly warmed to it, possibly because I was familiar with it before I discovered, and embraced, the group's wider body of work.

On an LP of this quality it is harsh to speak of "lesser" tracks, but the likes of "Rockin' Chair" and "When You Awake" constitute the glue which holds it together. The former contains some lovely and touching lyrics.  One of the things which set The Band apart from most of their contemporaries was the variety and imagination of the topics which were addressed in the compositions.  The acclaim which was (rightly) accorded to their music sometimes concealed their willingness to tackle dark or uncomfortable themes. As with the "Big Pink" album, the deliciously ragged and earthy harmonies emanating from three distinct voices permeate the piece.

"Up On Cripple Creek" is cut in a similar vein to "Rag Mama Rag", and could be categorized as "country funk", a label which was often assigned to Little Feat, a group which was seemingly heavily influenced by The Band. The groove is irresistible but idiosyncratic.  The clavinet both accentuates the "funkiness" and in a strange way complements it, as it sounds rustic and bucolic as well as rhythmic. The song also highlights the importance of varied keyboard textures in the make-up and vitality of the band's music.

A change of mood is supplied by "Whispering Pines", which also serves as a showcase for Richard Manuel's vocals, such a feature of the first two albums in particular. Fragile, shaky but a gripping listen. Inventive use of keyboards and vocal interplay to engender the requisite atmosphere.

Two of the most impressive and affecting songs appear towards the end of the album. "Jawbone" has received comparatively scant phrase, possibly a result of its musical complexity, but to me it is one of the work's cornerstones. Another vocal tour-de-force from Richard Manuel, expressing and interpreting some strong and incisive lyrics.

"King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" has been rightly revered by the critics. Almost Steinbeckesque in its setting and poetic sentiments, with Manuel once again in inspired form. At first glance, the R&B backing might seem incongruous, but it actually works beautifully. A real high point of The Band's catalogue, and it can be persuasively argued that they never achieved this level again.

How do I sum up "The Band"?  Well, let me just say that if I was being banished to a desert island, and was allowed to take just one album with me, I would almost certainly plump for this one. Its innate musicality, humanity and zest for life still sustain me today, almost two decades since I first heard it. Whenever I listen to it after a period "away" it refreshes my enthusiasm for music in all its forms, and makes me glad to be alive.

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