12/22/14

"Lost" on the River Indeed

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 THE NEW BASEMENT TAPES
Lost on the River
Harvest Records Deluxe Edition
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It sounded like a match made in heaven–a trove of unfinished Bob Dylan songs from the fecund writing period between his motorcycle accident in 1966 and his return to the stage in 1967. Dylan was so on fire during this time that he must've gone through Bic pens and tablets like flames raging through a barn of dry hay. So why not hand off the song fragments to producer T Bone Burnett and let others write music for them? Best of all, let others sing 'em! Dylan's poetic credentials are not in dispute–as a wordsmith he ranks with the man whose ID he appropriated when he busted out of Minnesota: Dylan Thomas. As a singer though, the adjective "unique" is about the nicest thing one can say of his voice. Most people sing better than Dylan; hell, even I sing better and that's no endorsement of my vocal prowess.

As the old clich√© goes, be careful what you wish for, you might get it.  Lost on the River is surely one of the year's most disappointing albums-a muddy, meandering journey to nowhere in particular. We learn several things right away. First, not every word Dylan spun was lyrical gold. (Check out the words for "Duncan and Jimmy" and keep an airsickness bag handy.) Second, there is an enormous difference between singing Bob Dylan songs and getting Dylan. The artists who collectively call themselves The New Basement Tapes flesh out the Dylan fragments within a range that extends from semi-successful to utter flops. By far, the best efforts come from Lewis Mumford and Elvis Costello–Mumford, because he has the wisdom to keep arrangements simple so that one can actually hear Dylan's lyrics, and Costello because he's old enough to understand the Boho sensibilities that inspired Dylan. Mumford is especially sharp on "Kansas City" and "The Whistle is Blowing," which come closest to sounding like the way Dylan might have fashioned the tunes. Costello shines on "Married to My Hack," whose Beat-poet cadences he nails. Jim James (My Morning Jacket) also has a few nice turns, though he has a tendency to overdue the production values by half. Aside from his opening track, "Down on the Bottom," most of his other mixes blur the lyrics in and render them irrelevant as Dylan compositions.

On the disappointing side are selections from Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I'm a huge fan of Giddens, but a big voice like hers is a drawback on this project. Her take on "Hidee Hidee Ho # 16" comes off like a histrionic outtake from a Jazz Age stage show. And I've no idea what Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) is doing on this record. There's no nice way to say this—he's so bad that he makes "Card Shark" sound like it should be on a children's music CD. G-rated Dylan? Please!!! Even Mumford and Costello drop the ball on occasion. Mumford's "When I Get My Hands on You" is a brilliant interpretation--of Paul Simon, not Dylan; Costello's take on the title track has less shape than a mu-mu.

Maybe the next time someone finds a Dylan cache they ought to ask the man himself what he had in mind. The fact that several of the tracks on Lost on the River are reworked previous versions might indicate Dylan just forgot to take out the trash. 
Rob Weir

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