Monday, August 9, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob: Week 70 - The Band

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

This summer, I took a class on music in antebellum America. Examining the traditions of our nation's musical heritage turned out to be a fascinating subject. Sometimes I wonder if we Americans have an inferiority complex when it comes to the fine arts, but we have many impressive musical traditions that can be traced back to the founding of our nation and even earlier.

These traditions still continue, although the advent of sound recording has done a lot to de-emphasize the whole "oral tradition" thing. But "folk music" and "roots music" are going strong, and still exert a large influence over music made in America. Sometimes that bubbles up in obvious ways, like when the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? launched a bluegrass Renaissance. Other strands are more difficult to trace, but are there all the same.

The Band is one of those groups produces music that can be summarized as quintessentially "American" - a word undefinable even though we all think we have an idea about what it means. The albums I listened to this week not only echo the old country and folk tunes of the early 20th century, but also tend to lyrically address rural subjects. This gives their work a good deal of gravitas, as if the Band hadn't just written these songs in the sixties, but instead found them up in a dusty attic, preserved for over a century. "Roots rock" inevitably evokes this aura of long-standing tradition.

The hell of it all is that the Band is primarily made up of Canadians, and got their start in upstate New York. But if you listen to a song like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," you'd swear they have roots in rural Tennessee. Many artists, in an attempt to reach out to folk roots, end up stumbling into kitsch. But the Band somehow manages to play their music as if they are part of the tradition, rather than merely thieving it for pieces.



MY LISTENING: I listened to The Band (1969) every day this week. I also listened to Music from Big Pink (1968) four times, Stage Fright (1970) three times, and the live album Rock of Ages (1972) twice.

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: "The Weight" is one of those classic singles that's somehow managed to be put on regular rotation on classic rock stations without being hideously overplayed. So I've enjoyed it throughout my life without getting fed up with it.

As I mentioned above, I really liked the rootsy-aspect of the Band's music. Their old-timey melodies combined with their impeccable vocal harmonizations harken back to the best of the old folk songs of the Appalachians and rural south. Music from Big Pink contains some great folk-influenced pieces - "The Weight," with all its spiritual undertones, and "Long Black Veil," a dirge-like song that reminds me of the old country tunes of love and betrayal. Their self-titled album has even more deliberate folk underpinnings - "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is an incredibly moving paean for the "old south," while "Rag Mama Rag" is a more raucous, less somber song complete with danceable fiddle riffs.

But the Band doesn't let the folk-aesthetic define who they are. Especially on The Band, some of their rhythms are downright funky. "Up on Cripple Creek" has a great bluesy bass riff, and "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" combines the lyrical descriptions of a rural farmer with the smooth blues of a bass and electric organ. Never before has rural folk music had such a groove to it.

Their third album, Stage Fright, is a little more rocking and less folksy, but I still could get into songs like "Stage Fright," even while country-inspired "Daniel and the Sacred Harp" is there to ground the album. But if I really want to hear the Band rock out, I'll put on Rock of Ages, in which a great brass section spices up the Band's best songs on tracks like "Chest Fever" or "Don't Do It."

The worst I can say about the Band is I found some of their plainer tracks a bit boring, especially on their debut album. While sometimes their slower songs perfectly strike that tragic funereal feeling, others just sort of plod along going nowhere. "Whispering Pines" is the one section on The Band that I can sleep through, and "All La Glory" is a similar snoozer on Stage Fright.

Their electric organ carries some great blues riffs sometimes, but other times it just irredeemably dates the music. "Lonesome Suzie" and "Tears of Rage" are too I just couldn't get into, mostly because of the organ. It's a shame, because Garth Hudson is a great keyboardist, but the instrument dates some otherwise timeless songs. I still haven't figured out how I feel about "The Genetic Method," a cadenza like piece Hudson would play at concerts to excite the audience.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: There is more of the Band to explore, but I feel that I should go next to those albums that the Band played with Bob Dylan. The Basement Tapes (1975) is supposed to be a great collection of Dylan/Band demos, and Before the Flood (1974) seems to be the best live recording of the ensemble.


BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD: "Rag Mama Rag" (live version)

Listen to that brass!

NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: Next week is up in the air, as I'm going to be rather busy. If I have time, I'll do a write-up on an artist I've been listening to on and off all summer. If I don't, I'll do a quick write-up of one of my early groups I never got a chance to properly blog out. Stop by next week and be surprised!