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This is an album with its own unique purpose and sound, that demands to be judged on its own terms. For compared to other records, it sounds terrible and silly, and as such would merit a low rating. But if you let yourself into the world of this record, it's almost perfect. It took me a couple years to get beyond the sound of this LP, and understand what was going on in the songs.

The goal of The Band, as articulated through the songwriting of Robbie Robertson, was to make a record 'out of time'. That is, this music is not 1969 music, but neither is it specifically any other date. It's evocative of an archetype of American society and music that we all have in our minds from exposure to Mark Twain and Davy Crockett.

Technologically, achieving this sound meant eschewing a lot of the recording techniques that make records sound polished, such as equalization, compression, and artificial reverb. What's left is a sound reminiscent of early radio or old 78s. Take the drums - on Big Pink there was a definite 'presence' to their sound, but here they're flat and constricted. Listen to the end of "When You Awake", which has a terrific tom-tom and cymbal pattern, but loses much of the texture one would expect. Similarly the organ loses a lot of its overtones and richness, and often sounds slightly overamplified.

The Band make up for such factors by performing at virtuoso levels, but not as individuals, but rather as a virtuoso band. There are rhythms here that would challenge many an ensemble. Take the loose beat of "Across the Great Divide" - it slips along in the cracks between the downbeats, and any other band would 'tighten' it by shifting the emphasis back to the one. But this group is so empathic one with another that it's able to keep the rhythm without slipping. Other examples include "King Harvest", which marries a menacing electric piano-line playing syncopated triplets to a jazzy drumline, or "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" with its unusual timing of the vamp into the verse.

Even so, all that would just be excellent playing with bad sound if it weren't for the brilliance of the songwriting. This is a new type of music - it resembles rock and roll, but it draws on older now forgotten music, like parlor ballads ("Unfaithful Servant"), marches ("Across the Great Divide"), and ragtime ("Rag Mama Rag"). Not that it replicates those styles, but it folds them together with Rock and Folk, into a whole new music - The Band's music - that has never really been duplicated.

With the tunes being unique, the lyrics need to be something special too - and are they ever! Big Pink had an unusual element of rural consciousness, but every song here has a historical consciousness as well. Only one - "Dixie" - could be placed in a specific time. The others are evocative of small towns before the modern age. It's beautiful what Robertson does here. From "When You Awake" with its grandfatherly wisdom, to "Up on Cripple Creek" with its reckless narrator enjoying a mildly salacious life, the songs penetrate to the root of the American experience as received in our collective memory.

There's a tiny bit of filler - "Jemima Surrender" is a distractingly crude come-on - but masterpieces abound. I'm sure Jeff Tweedy would give his right arm to have written just one of these songs, but at least three are virtually flawless.

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is one of few songs about the southern view of the Civil War to catch on. That's because it makes no claims about ideology or 'southern pride'. Instead, it tells one man's story, and it's a story of defeat. Listening to this should give us northerners some perspective on the enduring and mostly mystifying pride in the Rebel flag.

"Whispering Pines" is sad beyond compare. From the odd flats in the piano vamp to the lonesome downward arc of the melody to the naturalistic imagery in the lyrics, it's a tearjerker in the best sense. Richard Manuel is particularly good here.

"Rocking Chair" is another Manuel showcase, but the harmony singing is exquisite as well. So seldom does the voices of old people get written into songs, it's almost a shock to hear. But it's done so well - without sentimentality, nor any disparagement of his condition - that it resonates with us all as we look to old age. It is one of the finest of all The Band's songs.

Let yourself into The Band - it's worth the effort.

Rated:
by Reviewer: Steve Knowlton

Posted: Thursday 27th Nov 2014 8:17 PM

review
It would be incorrect to claim Kate Bush was out-of-this-world. She didn't do anything all that unconventional, particularly on A Kick Inside, where every song is either keyboard- or guitar-based. Her lyrics are also very much based on earthly things, typically tales taken from classic literature or matters that pertain to the human condition.

But even with those qualifiers, Bush did manage to come up with a positively unique approach to her songs. Nobody ever dreamt of such an approach before Bush came around, and nobody after her was able to replicate it, try as they might.

The songs on this album are unconventionally structured and theatrical, and Bush frequently uses the entire range of her four-octave voice. Some people find her high voice shrill, but I don't - I find her songs too fascinating to think of anything as shrill.

A song that was a surprise hit in England was "Wuthering Heights", which obviously takes its inspiration from the Emily Bronte novel. It's difficult to tell why that song is so compelling, since it doesn't contain hooks, or at least not conventional hooks, and yet its melody somehow settles in my mind like a ghost.

"The Man With the Child in His Eyes" is a piano ballad with a beautiful melody and heavy string orchestration, probably the most 'normal' thing here, but it's never less than compelling. And "Them Heavy People" might almost be described as a reggae. Or rather, reggae as loosely interpreted by this enchanted pixie-voiced English girl, who seemed to pop up out of nowhere.

Rated:
by Reviewer: Don Ignacio

Posted: Thursday 27th Nov 2014 9:06 PM

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