Tuesday, October 4, 2011
The Band - Music From Big Pink
When it comes to The Band, Music From Big Pink is simultaneously the most obvious and most misleading place to start. For a group that most writers describe with a heavy dose of historical context and mythology, it can be difficult to separate both the association with Bob Dylan that preceded this album and the widespread fame and musical accomplishments to come from the actual music contained herein. After long years of fandom and complete subsumption into these sounds (The Band's first three albums still sit firmly atop my iTunes play count list) I find it a little easier to bracket the legendry and approach the music directly, which has in turn led to an odd sort of historical contextualization in my own mind.
Part of the reason I've chosen to review Music From Big Pink is that I've recently spent an inordinate number of keystrokes bitching about musicians not working hard enough to make music that is completely unprecedented when, in fact, I don't believe that that's the only valid approach to music-making. Case in point, The Band--sure, they laid down some undeniably innovative songs and sounds (though it's arguable that it was a little easier to innovate within a roots rock context back in 1968), but really their genius lies in those pedestrian virtues of group interplay, emotional delivery and great songwriting. Such is the individual instrumental idiosyncrasy and group chemistry of each band member that even their worst albums are at least pleasant listens, and at their best, hearing Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm rotate in between lead and backing vocals, and hearing everyone swap instruments with carefree abandon to serve each song becomes a dizzying and rapturous spectacle. Naturally, it helps that the songs are uniformly great--Dylan/Manuel's "Tears of Rage" becomes a New Orleans dirge when Manuel's Canadian Ray Charles falsetto and Danko's aching harmony blends with a weepy horn arrangement, while Manuel's own "Lonesome Suzie" puts Manuel's pathos center stage but wryly winds into a pickup line by the song's end.
The group also betrays a budding interest and capable hand at country and folk on "I Shall Be Released," "The Weight," and a definitive version of "Long Black Veil," which the group immeasurably elevates with the addition of electric piano and the multi-textured combination of Rick Danko's mournful lead with Helm's twang and Manuel's ethereal top third. This is exactly what I'm talking about--if you're this good at simple melody, harmony and straightforward songwriting, why would you even feel the need to subvert the basic principles of pop music-making? The problem is, the vast pack of songwriters and performers (both past and present) attempting to achieve transcendence with these simple elements just don't have the knack, the ear, or the equipment to pull it off and end up blending genially but forgettably with the rest. There are very good reasons why a song like "The Weight" never sounds as good note-for-note on The Band cover albums, without Danko's quivering, that thunderous Danko/Helm bottom and Garth Hudson's all-penetrating class on those honky-tonk octave piano runs (Hudson, by the way, just might be the group's musical linchpin, somehow molding his erudite classical and jazz chops with the rest of the group's self-trained abilities so effortlessly that it's easy to forget that most in his position can't overcome the rigidity of their academic training).
The songs that really sustain my fascination these days, though, are the gnarled, weird ones--the pseudo-Baroque psychedelic dreamland of "In A Station," the reeling melancholy and bluesy escapism of "Caledonia Mission," and especially the lurching transitions between pounding rock and some some kind of drunken, swinging R&B or jazz on "We Can Talk" and "Chest Fever," the latter of which unites Hudson's icy classical Lowrey organ tones with some of the album's funkiest riffing before the aforementioned teetering interlude. With all of the genre blending, strange musical cul-de-sacs and weirdness, I'm tempted to even refer to this music as progressive in a very literal sense. Across the board, the group's (and Dylan's) lyrics perfectly match the album's off-kilter tendencies, combining religious and rural imagery with fragmented, hazy narratives--never quite telling a whole story, but choosing just the right words to evoke endless speculation and fascination--and somehow the skills of the three talented but discretely idiosyncratic vocalists overcome the sketchiness of the words to create authentic emotional depth, every single time.
As I mentioned earlier, I've personally come to view this album in a historical context different from the received narrative; for me, the most engaging progression between The Band's albums is the creative one, in which Music From Big Pink occupies a totally unique place. While mid-career (and especially nowadays) The Band became known for reassembling an appealingly anachronistic vision of "Americana" in a rock music context, there was a time before the formula that would later limit the group was standardized and the songwriting and playing was considerably more impulsive. If there's one endearing flaw to The Band's music, it's got to be Robbie Robertson's tendency toward a slightly academic, contrived feel when it comes to his attempts to imagine himself into old-timey America, which I think pops up quite often and became a songwriting crutch later in his time with The Band, especially as the songwriting workload became increasingly his responsibility. With Music From Big Pink, though, there's a sense of innocence and freshness in the approach that arguably exists only on this album (and maybe on The Basement Tapes). In spite of years of experience professionally touring, the group was on its maiden voyage as a project imbued with creative vision, and their lack of exposure and the album's long creative gestation made for a wholly eccentric debut. I think it's this fact coupled with the bizarre mix of Dylan's influence, country, soul, folk, rock, beat poetry and searching that make Music From Big Pink The Band's least accessible album. Before critics and the public consistently (if somewhat quietly) applauded the album's merits and the group decided to continue further down the nostalgic rural America avenue on their second album, there was just a group of musicians who realized that they could do anything they wanted with the songs they were writing and playing. It really shows in the fact that the songs are uncompromisingly quirky, but the guys play them like they really mean it. As the group's tenure progressed, this freshness and excitement was gradually replaced by a workmanlike attempt to recreate the elements about their most-loved songs, and while they repeatedly succeeded in creating deeply resonant, emotional music, they never again reached this album's peaks of unspoilt spontaneity of vision.