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Bob Dylan and The Band - The Basement Tapes

  by Jeff Thiessen

published: 19 / 2 / 2009

Bob Dylan and The Band - The Basement Tapes
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In our 'Re : View' section, in which our writers look back at albums on the past, new Pennyblackmusic writer Jeff Thiessen examines Bob Dylan and The Band's sprawling 1975 album, 'The Basement Tapes', and finds, underneath all its seeming looseness, a surprising sense of structure and deliberateness

Somebody I respect very much once told me that the real genius of Bob Dylan is his unmatched skilfulness to offer albums full of allegorical political musings, meaningful sociological statements, and a totally comprehensive representation of his modern state.I’m going to take it a step further though and say Dylan is great when he puts all these abilities forth, but only when he allows it all to fall apart and let love and confusion reign supreme, does he truly transcend the hip Bohemian description that has followed him so closely throughout his career and become an artist not only worthy of a legacy, but literally above it. As far as I can tell, I have only heard this happen once in Dylan’s entire catalogue, and that’s 'The Basement Tapes', his double-album released in 1975 with The Band. I’ve always despised ‘jam albums’. They nearly always reek of overwrought studio fuck-abouts satisfying to nobody other then the tripped-out band and maybe a handful of dipshits who like to smoke hash and play hackey sack on the weekend. If you know me at all, you’ll know that I don’t merely dislike the Grateful Dead, I absolutely loathe them, and if you know me fairly well, you’ll know that hatred also extends to acts like Quicksilver Messenger Service, Phish, the Dave Matthews Band, and Television’s seminal 'Marquee Moon' title-track (if you can give me three legitimate reasons why that song has attained semi-legendary status, I will tattoo the complete lyrics to 'Hotel California' on my back). 'The Basement Tapes' has proven to be a masterpiece in nearly every conceivable way, and in this particular case, it’s a bit important to be sort of fastidious, as too many people are aware of the sum of the album, and not the parts that went into it. On the surface, the whole thing comes across as very loose, blithe music, but upon repeated listens, there is not only an inherent sense of deliberateness, but an unmistakable aura of accountability. There has to be. Both respective acts seemed to be acutely aware, perhaps on a subconscious level, that with jamming freedom comes great responsibility, and luckily for us, neither were content to let the enormity of their names lend credence to the album. This sense of symbiotic earnestness never allows this carefree music to regress into music that is free-of-care. To me, this is where Dylan’s coolness really comes in, not that icy detachment that defines so much of his marked exterior, an aloofness that may have been a marriage of convenience, both for him and many of his hair-brained fans, but never really meant anything to the world. No, what I really dig about this album is the redeeming quality that places it high, or perhaps the highest among the best Americana albums ever released, which is the overt willingness to allow the listener to believe it’s just a natural offshoot of two geniuses at work. When in fact the final brilliant output isn’t, however, merely the end-product of a couple prodigious musical acts hanging out in a studio together, but a mutual respect between the two. This all but ensures selfishness will be kept at an absolute minimum, and talent level totally maximized, all filtered through a free flow of ideas and exchanges. Structurally, 'The Basement Tapes' contains none of that rickey-tickey redundancy that so many folk acts suffer from when they get a band with electronic instruments backing them up. Instead, like all the most important music, it constantly boils over with fury, love, and everything in between. Since its release, it has been discovered that Dylan was essentially the principle songwriter, and while I do believe that, I also choose to believe The Band were active participants in the writing process, as a rent-a-band-for-hire wouldn’t have put their stamp on every single song in the imposing manner The Band did. This is really not a rock record in the traditional definition of the term, but it’s not a folk one either, and the grey area Dylan and The Band occupy is rarely emotionally sonically or emotionally vacant, and unrelentingly engaging. Conceptually, everything works, but that is precisely beside the point, as the basic concept of 'The Basement Tapes 'is the crystallization of everything remarkable and sincere in this world, channelled through a simplified essence of extreme precision. The simplicity is unavoidable and marvellous. More then anything, this really is an album made by friends, for friends, to listen to as friends. As time passes, things change, people become less and less connected with the outer world, and the more this happens, the more crucial it becomes to latch onto something, anything that contains a scrap or even a shred of resemblance to that brutal human condition that domestic fulfilment can so rapidly warp us out of. The heartfelt immediacy of 'The Basement Tapes' serves as a hell of a lifeline to those sands of time that so many of us are quick to forget. This is why, by and large, 'The Basement Tapes' is apolitical. When clouds part and sun-bursts flow into our lives, sometimes, albeit for an extremely limited an temporary amount of time, we are free from the idiosyncrasies of those far-off powers well beyond our control, and exist only to serve the present moment. Some might define that as the pursuit and capture of true happiness. 'The Basement Tapes' offers a stern, but affable reminder that there are no angels in this world, no demons, only the everlasting option to destroy or create, and in the company of the right people, both can be combined for luminescent or catastrophic effects. How it all ends is entirely up to you, and exactly how you define the present. Finally, and perhaps above all, 'The Basement Tapes' allows us to surrender to the initially grim, yet eventually liberating realization, that life is not in fact, a gift, it’s gift wrapped. Far too many of us don't take the time to see what's inside, instead settling for the shiny gloss coating the exterior, designed by masses of people that will never enter your life, even in the most marginal way imaginable. I’ll always be grateful for the journey 'The Basement Tapes' has opened up for me, and I don’t give a fuck what is waiting for me on the other end.

Track Listing:-

Picture Gallery:-
Bob Dylan and The Band - The Basement Tapes

Bob Dylan and The Band - The Basement Tapes

Visitor Comments:-
170 Posted By: Bridget, Canada on 26 Mar 2009
that I should give Dylan another listen. To say I loathe the man and his whiny voice is an understatement. To say that I have been embarassed by his public spectacle...well...is just besides the point - but fun to mention. Anyways...the reviewer has made some points that I have not considered. *gasp* Perhaps some day....in some state of inebriation...I will give Dylan another shot at my favour.

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