Graded on a Curve: The New Basement Tapes, Lost on the River

Talk about your promising prospects. In 2013 Dylan’s publisher dropped some handwritten Bob Dylan lyrics from 1967 into T-Bone Burnett’s lap, and asked him to turn them into songs. Burnett recruited Elvis Costello (his Coward Brothers partner), Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, and Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops to write music for the lyrics. They called this studio collective The New Basement Tapes, and their results were showcased in a Showtime documentary called Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued, the latter is which is a patent untruth and has caused me (if no one else) a world of trouble.

Don’t get me wrong. I love many of the songs on the resulting LP, 2014’s Lost on the River. But these songs, good as they are, are contextually about as far away from the spirit and results of the original Basement Tapes as you can get. The latter songs had an effortless, carefree, snatched from the air feel to them; they sounded raw because they were, and a good part of their genius and charm stemmed from the fact that Bob Dylan and the boys who would become the Band were just messing around in the basement of that legendary house in West Saugerties, NY called Big Pink. Theirs is a genius that is both casual and easy-going, and about as comfortable as an old pair of slippers; their songs are a tip of the hat and a neighborly howdy-do from a band of guys leisurely feeling their way towards greatness.

Not so with the songs on Lost on the River. They’re too carefully produced and have a studied sound, and it’s evident the New Basement Tapes took an overly reverent approach to do justice to the lyrics of the greatest folk-rock musician of them all. Awed by his genius, the folks who make up The New Basement Tapes have in effect produced a document that is everything the original Basement Tapes weren’t; produced to a T-Bone, they lack for the most part that sense of free and easy spontaneity that characterized the songs produced by Dylan and the Band. There isn’t a single song on The New Basement Tapes half as good as “Apple Sucklin’ Tree,” which I’d be willing to bet Dylan and company tossed of in, oh, ten minutes or so. The New Basement Tapes have provided us with a labor of love, but it’s the lack of that sense of labor that makes the original Basement Tapes so brilliant. Its songs sound found, not labored over, and the sense of free-flowing joy that emanates from that lack of crossing every “t” and dotting every “i” is contagious.

In my opinion, the idea of a continuation between this LP and the original Basement Tapes is a nonstarter; the two LPs couldn’t be any more different. So it’s best to forget Big Pink and 1967 and judge these new tunes on their own merits, which I’ve tried unsuccessfully to do. Don’t get me wrong. The album boasts some excellent tunes. It opens strong: I love Jim James’ haunting and guitar-heavy take on “Down on the Bottom,” Elvis Costello’s cool take on the closest thing to an absurdist Dylan lyric of Basement Tapes vintage, “Married to My Hack,” and Marcus Mumford’s heartfelt approach to “Kansas City,” which includes some great guitar by James and one Johnny Depp, who was sitting in for Costello that day. The line, “You invite me into your house/And then you tell me I gotta pay for what I break” is Dylan at his best, and Mumford pulls it off.

Other highlights include the jaunty “Nothing to It,” which features some tremendous guitar by James, and Elvis Costello’s bridling take on “Six Months in Kansas City (Liberty Street),” which beats hell out of Taylor Dawes’ Jackson Browne-flavored version of the same song (called just “Liberty Street” in the latter case). I also love the banjo-inflected “Duncan and Jimmy,” on which Giddens sings and which may just be the best song on the LP. One song I can say I’m not wild about is James’ “Hidee Hidee Ho #11,” which reminds of something off Self-Portrait. And while I like Giddens’ slow take on “Lost on the River #20,” it reminds me too much of “All Along the Watchtower,” which is not to say that her vocals aren’t astounding.

I guess what bothers me most about the LP is that it doesn’t sound like a collaborative process as much as bunch of songs that bear the characteristic stamp of the individual musicians who created them. “Lost on the River #12” sounds like an Elvis Costello song, as does “Six Months in Kansas City (Liberty Street),” as much as I like it. James’ contributions sound like My Morning Jacket songs, and so on. It’s the price you pay for putting a bunch of stars to the task of individually taking on songs, instead of putting one band (my vote would have gone to the Felice Brothers) in a room and asking them to knock out some down and dirty takes on Dylan’s lyrics. The songs on Lost on the River lack that impromptu, let’s do this together feel, and in which, say, Costello might sing a James’ song, and so forth. The exceptions, such as Costello’s uncharacteristic take on “Married to My Hack,” are saving, but there simply aren’t enough of them, at least for this critic.

The slick studio production also rankles. At the very least, Burnett could have tried to stay true to the slapdash ethos of the original Basement Tapes. In and out, one or maybe two takes tops, no gloss—Dylan and the Band were just fucking around, and it’s that spirit, the spirit of just having fun, which is completely lacking on this project. And to me, that’s fatal. I know I said I’d try to forget 1967 and judge this LP on its own merits, but I can’t do it. I listen to it and I wonder, where’s the joy? Where’s the exuberance? Where the hell is the sheer sense of making music, a new music, just for the fuck of it? I don’t know, but you won’t find it on this inaptly titled “continuation” of the Basement Tapes. What you’ll find are some excellent songs, and some not-so-excellent songs, not one of which has anything in common with another. A mish-mash in which every musician does his or her own thing, in other words, and one on which you can feel the strain. This LP wasn’t a lark, it was a job. And that’s a damned pity. Bob and the Band deserved better.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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