Thursday, 30 August 2018

Bob Dylan & The Band - The Basement Tapes (1967)

  

Recorded in 1967 in New York State

I have always had a bit of a problem with this sprawling album of largely "demo" songs being hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time, packed full of works of genius. While it is not quite in the execrable category as The Beach Boys' equivalent of studio buffoonery "Smiley Smile", not by a long way, I still have difficulty in accepting the album as anything other than a reasonably interesting collection of loose, pressure-off, relatively light-hearted pieces of studio fun. "Open the door, Richard..." is no improvised slice of genius, to me.

Yes, there are some genuinely enjoyable tracks on here. Personally, I really enjoy "Apple Sucking Tree" in an odd way, with its melodic swirling organ and Dylan's enthusiastically-delivered vocal. The same applies to "Please, Mrs. Henry". Another couple of favourites are the lively "Orange Juice Blues" and "Million Dollar Bash" (later covered by Fairport Convention). The Band's impossibly bluesy "Yazoo Street Scandal" is good too, but it is much better on "Music From Big Pink". Similarly, I much prefer The Band's "Tears Of Rage" to this one here, which is decidedly lo-fi and Dylan's vocal somewhat more nasal than usual. Speaking of the sound, it has always been "bootleg" lo-fi and no amount of remastering will be able to completely change that. As the title suggests it was recorded in a basement and the sound will be thus adversely affected. For some, this ropey sound is part of the appeal and I can sort of understand that. Not quite for me. Just my personal taste. Played on a decent system, though, it sounds as good as it has ever done under its latest remastering. The opener, "Odds And Ends" sounds as good as I have heard it, to be fair. An interesting thing to me is also the fact that the sound on "The Bootleg Series - Basement Tapes Raw" is infinitely better than on the original "Basement Tapes". Check out "This Wheel's On Fire" and "You Aint Goin' Nowhere" for convincing evidence.

I am writing this as a lifetime Dylan/Band fan (dating from the late sixties) in case you are wondering.

"Too Much Of Nothing" is ok in a "Blonde On Blonde" sort of way, but it is nowhere near up the standard of that album, let's be honest. Also, like many of the songs on here, I prefer another version, this time it is British folk group Fotheringay's take on it. There is, admittedly, an appeal in the loose, chilled-out enjoyment that is palpable in Dylan & The Band's delivery of fun material like "Yea! Hey And A Bottle Of Bread". Yes, it is clear that they all had a great time the studio recording all this stuff and that comes across loud and clear but, personally, I prefer a perfect studio album that was painstakingly recorded, however difficult its genesis maybe had been. The sound on "Tiny Montgomery" is pretty awful, it has to be said. I have no desire to listen to it too often. I have to admit a weakness for the take on "Long Distance Operator", though. Dylan's "This Wheels On Fire" is evocative, too. So, there is certainly good stuff to be found on the album, that cannot be denied, despite my other misgivings.

Also, I don't view this album as a treasure trove of "Americana" either, despite the presence of songs like the appealing "Crash On The Levee (Down On The Flood)" and The Band's "Ruben Remus".  There is far more of that to be found on The Band's first two albums, or on late sixties material from The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash.  I would much rather listen to all that material before this one. That is not to say I cannot enjoy things like "Don't Ya Tell Henry" on occasions, however.

The musicians involved on the album have said many times over the years that the material was never intended to be released - they were just trying out a whole heap of songs and styles and having fun doing it. Robbie Robertson has expressed disappointment that the stuff got bootlegged. For me, it will always sound rough and ready, some guys having a good time in the studio, and were it not Bob Dylan & The Band, it would not have garnered 1% of the attention of that it subsequently did. But, because it was them, it does have an interest. Give me "Music From Big Pink" anyday, though. Sorry.

B- (for cultural and historical interest)
C (for sound quality and concept)


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