The New Basement Tapes, a Group of Folk-Rock Superfriends, Take On Bob Dylan
The New Basement Tapes -- the new project featuring Jim James, Marcus Mumford, Elvis Costello, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, and Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops -- is an experiment not entirely without precedent. Of course, Bob Dylan’s songs have been covered many, many times before, almost as a matter of course -- from Peter, Paul, and Mary’s ‘Blowing In the Wind’ and the Byrds’ ‘Mr. Tamborine Man’ to the White Stripes' 'One More Cup of Coffee' and Jim James’ 'Goin’ to Acapulco.’
Each has the tendency to make Dylan disappear -- Hendrix had no problem inhabiting 'All Along the Watchtower,' summoning up entire continents with his guitar where Dylan's harmonica had dizzily squealed; if Dylan could do tender, he had nothing on Richie Havens, whose barely-controlled wild horse of a voice brings an emotional heft to 'Just Like a Woman' Dylan never did. One of the characteristics of Dylan's genius is that the songs are strong enough to be owned by someone else, but they still retain some essential Dylan-ness, in the way they move, the way they rage and moan, in their hustle and spark.
It's an entirely different thing to play a Dylan song that was never actually written.
But it's an entirely different thing, of course, to play a Dylan song that was never actually written. Old Crow Medicine Show had a hit with 'Wagon Wheel,' and then Darius Rucker had an even bigger one -- a song whose lyrics were partially written by Dylan, but that song sounded so little like anything Dylan had ever released that anyone who heard it would never have made the connection. (Same goes, of course, for how Billy Bragg and Wilco appropriated Woody Guthrie's tunes for 'Mermaid Avenue.') Covers retain chord changes, melodies, pacing, the instrumentation of the original -- these projects build an entire song where there was just the hint of one.
The genesis of this project begins with super producer T Bone Burnett. Burnett, who helmed the New Basement Tapes and produced the album, 'Lost On the River,' was entrusted by Dylan's publisher (with the permission of Dylan himself -- motives inscrutable as ever) to set some of Dylan's discarded words to music. The words had been written in 1967, during Dylan's exile with the Band. Burnett assembled the New Basement Tapes and locked them in the basement of Capitol Records in Los Angeles, leaving them to tackle not only lyrics of unknown quality and character but also the question: How much of Dylan is left in these songs, bereft as they are of every chord change, melody, arrangement, and so forth that characterized his sound?
It will be hard for some purists to even swallow the notion of this endeavor in all its presumptuousness. Burnett told NPR: "At the time [he wrote the lyrics], Bob was collaborating with one of the most extraordinary groups of musicians in history. I thought, in keeping with that spirit of collaboration ... let's do the same thing. Let's find a group of bandleaders who know how to collaborate, and could come in and conjure something up out of these lyrics."
Did Burnett choose the right ones? They're all very impressive musicians -- videos posted in advance of a Showtime documentary about the recording of the album show the songs being run through seamlessly in one take. But not all are well suited to the enterprise. Mumford and James do the best job with their interpretations, executing them well in their own respective styles -- Mumford with his over-emotional, goosebump-folk (see 'Kansas City' and 'When I Get My Hands On You,' two highlights from the set). James dares to be weird, if ever-so-slightly, on 'Hidee Hidee Ho #11,' welcome on an otherwise safe -- almost stiflingly-safe -- set. Costello and Goldsmith's entries are vanilla enough to be downright boring, and probably not worth listening to more than once. Giddens adds a quiet, menacing banjo to 'Spanish Mary,' but the song is so shiny and over-produced that any kind of rusty glory was long gone by the time the drums stopped crashing and the guitars stopped slashing.
So, what is there of Dylan in this, and what does it say about him as an artist? Unfortunately, there appears to be a reason the lyrics were thrown away. Not that they're bad; the line that drives 'Kansas City' is pure spiteful Dylan, and meaningful perhaps for Mumford, who sings it, too: "You invite me into your house / And then you say you gotta pay for what you break." They're just not that special, for the most part. Ironically, James' 'Down On the Bottom' is the best song on the record, and has the simplest, least Dylan-like lyrics: "Down on the bottom / Down to the last drop in the cup / Down on the bottom / No place to go but up." It's a better-than-average My Morning Jacket song, with some great vocal work by James.
If nothing else, this disc shows what good could come from a full-on Mumford/James collaboration.
The only thing that recalls the real 'Basement Tapes' on the entire album is the Levon Helm-like strut achieved by Mumford on the drums. And the words themselves on all of these songs could have been written by anyone, with the exception of, perhaps, 'Kansas City.' If nothing else, this disc shows what good could come from a full-on Mumford/James collaboration -- and that they might as well leave Bob Dylan out of it.
Watch the New Basement Tapes, With Marcus Mumford On Vocals, Play 'Kansas City'