by Ryan McKeeman
Every so often we are privileged as listeners to be able to witness the birth of a really spectacular collaboration album - a recording where two (or more) artists who may not have worked together before, and may not have similar musical styles, team up to put out a song or a record. The result is a work where each artist's existing style is married to the other to create something completely new, yet at the same time warmly familiar. What we are ultimately hearing at its core is a conversation. A musical conversation. One where each unique voice is heard but also where each voice is shaped by the other, each coming out of the experience changed for the better. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better example of the quintessential collaboration album than Lost On The River by The New Basement Tapes.
Late last year a dear friend sent me this NPR interview with music critic, Tom Moon. During the 8-minute featurette for "All Things Considered," Moon reviews three musical collaborations - duo albums in this case - that were released in late 2014 under the heading of "Art As Conversation," including the jazz duo album of the same name featuring Kenny Barron and Dave Holland. In the world of music appreciation and critique, Tom Moon is no slouch. His New York Times bestseller, 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die is a list that represents a lifetime of appreciating music. When I read Moon's words, "The duo setting is all about conversation and only conversation...it completely relies on what each participant brings," it hit me hard and stuck with me. To that end, Lost On The River, by the supergroup dubbed The New Basement Tapes, expands this notion of musical conversation in a way that only a project like this one can.
The New Basement Tapes project was born from the genius of musical alchemist and renowned producer T-Bone Burnett, and showcases his ability to formulate groundbreaking musical ideas and then make those musical ideas happen. This man has a storied history of pairing artists together the way a sommelier picks the finest French wines - at first, you maybe wouldn't think of the pairing yourself, but once you try it you wonder why you hadn't been doing it your whole life (try a dry riesling with a watermelon feta salad this summer; you won't regret it). Without getting into full detail, a sampling of T-Bone's brilliantly strange pairings includes Tony Bennett & K.D. Lang (A Wonderful World, 2002), Robert Plant & Alison Krauss (Raising Sand, 2007), and Elton John & Leon Russell (The Union, 2010).
In each case, T-Bone was able to facilitate a musical conversation between two seemingly unrelated artists with astonishing results. Each pairing negotiated a middle ground; keeping what was special and great about an individual artist's sound and style while building something totally new with their partner-in-collaboration. In the case of Raising Sand, Robert Plant essentially relaunched his sound and career after learning how to sing back-up harmonies for the first time, alongside the pure vocal talent of Alison Krauss - who honed her craft in the Bluegrass and Country circuits beginning at the age of 10. Plant even reimagined some of his prior material with Led Zeppelin under this new, silky, sultry sound (with T-Bone playing guitar in the background).
T-Bone's latest project, Lost On The River by The New Basement Tapes, was released in November 2014. The record brings us a supergroup of contemporary artists including Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) paired with previously unrecorded Bob Dylan lyrics penned during the 1966-1967 period when he and The Band recorded The Basement Tapes album.
This was a legendary time in Dylan's career, coming on the heels of the huge commercial success of Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde On Blonde (1966). After a motorcycle accident in 1966, however, Dylan was forced to slow down and decided to return to his home in Woodstock, NY. There he began to collaborate with new friends - which included members of The Hawks that would later become The Band - in the same way that we, as kids, might have biked over to a friend's house in the summer to hang out and just play. During this period Dylan would meet The Hawks at the legendary "Big Pink" house, where they had just moved in, and they would all sit around and jam and just let the music come to them there in the basement. He has referenced the period at Big Pink as being the ideal circumstance for recording music - in your friend's basement with the windows open, casual and free. The result for us was over 100 songs written by Dylan during that 18-month span - what he recorded and released on the original Basement Tapes album was just the tip of the iceberg.
The New Basement Tapes project was recorded in just two short weeks in the studio with Mumford, Costello, Giddens, James, and Goldsmith laying down over 50 tracks together, including multiple musical arrangements of the same lyrics. On the album, each contemporary artist sings lead vocals on three to five songs and then provides support on an instrument or backing vocals (or both) for the other tracks. Having every artist participate on every tune - as opposed to just recording isolated vocals with a group of hired session musicians behind them - served to bring everyone closer to Dylan's lyrics and distilled the chemistry of the project as a whole.
There are 20 tracks in total on the four-sided, double LP, and all of them have a quality of comfortable familiarity with a hint of surprise. You can hear what the contemporary artist brings to the musical conversation in terms of style and context, and at the same time you can feel Dylan's fingerprints all over the recording through his lyrical magic. It kind of feels like reuniting with your best friend after not seeing them for years, their character and personality having changed, molded by their experiences in the interim. There's an old familiarity behind the new creation, yet it's something completely novel to the ears - the essence of a perfect musical collaboration.
Especially impressive is the range Marcus Mumford displays on the album, and there are two particular tunes that highlight this range. The first single released from Lost On The River is his arrangement of "Kansas City." It's a fast song driven rhythmically by the acoustic guitar, which is a signature trait of Mumford & Sons' first two records (Sigh No More and Babel). Marcus brings a melody line that's very comfortable and reminiscent of his musical identity entering the project. The only development to the trademark Mumford sound is the inclusion of the crunchy electric guitar solo provided by Jim James and the exclusion of the banjo. It's a catchy tune that I can't help but enjoy. It makes me want to get on a train. To Kansas City.
Marcus also sings lead vocals on Track 8, "When I Get My Hands On You," which swings to the opposite end of the spectrum of "Kansas City" and the early Mumford & Sons sound. This tune is stripped down to a simple drum kit, a staccato electric guitar, and Marcus singing a soulful melody that will make you stop and do a double-take. The song is slow and is meant to be savored by the listener. It feels like you might hear it in a speakeasy lounge under candlelight with a craft cocktail. The range displayed by Marcus Mumford on the record is quite remarkable, the different sounds and styles generated undoubtedly being influenced by his collaborations with the other contemporary giants of folk-rock with whom he was working. That and perhaps just the freedom that comes with working on a collaborative project - trying something outside one's comfort zone is easier because the added baggage of needing to fit into an already established sound that listeners are expecting is absent.
When Dylan and The Band first recorded the tracks that became The Basement Tapes, "their mission was not to 'make a record' the way Dylan's peers were doing in 1967, but instead to explore music, using just their wits and whatever instruments were lying around. And to have fun doing it," according to our friend, Tom Moon. The feeling of Lost On The River and The New Basement Tapes is similar. With only two weeks in the studio, the record feels like a group of old friends sitting around and having fun playing music. You can hear the artists exploring new sounds while still holding onto their roots, the Mumford-led tracks above being prime examples. And you can feel their chemistry in the breadth of the recordings - as if they had met in the basement of Big Pink in the spring of 1967. Bravo, T-Bone Burnett, for putting together and producing yet another great collaboration project in a career filled with similar gems. Be sure to check out the Showtime documentary for a behind-the-scenes look at the making of this album.