Saturday, March 13, 2010
Rattle in the Basement
This was probably the most interesting match-up for me so far...Two sprawling albums that both seem to be striving to pay appropriate due to American roots music...I'm not convinced I have anything really original to say about either one but, hell, here goes...
Rattle and Hum by U2
I loved this sh*t when I was a teenager. I had a t-shirt with the album cover on it (Just because I got it at K-Mart or JCPenney or something didn't mean the authenticity of the rock and roll it represented was any less, well, authentic.) But that was a long time ago. (I am now 58.) My tastes have broadened and matured, U2 have gone on and made other albums, and I have heard many a critic/ music snob poo-poo this record as U2 hitting rock bottom. The usual argument goes something like thus: Disoriented by the newly found uber-celebrity status achieved with The Joshua Tree, the four lads from Dublin tried to prove they were worthy of being the world's greatest rock band by setting off to discover "America" for themselves...What resulted was a pretentious and ridiculously over-done album (and movie) full of references to Elvis and Billy Holiday, the gospel and the blues, presented as if Bono and the boys had uncovered them for the rest of contemporary musicdom to marvel at. Mercy mercy me, as Marvin Gaye put it.
Well, I only half-buy that line. After listening to Rattle and Hum a couple times this week (for the first time in literally years), I was surprised by how many great tracks there are among the ruins. I will acknowledge that the cover songs are superfluous, as are most of the live tracks (with the definite exception of "Bullet the Blue Sky"). Bono is positively at his preachy and self-righteous worst during some of the onstage banter captured here. And I don't know how the hell "Van Diemen's Land" made the cut...A little Edge-written yarn about a poet banished to Australia?!? Seriously? Huh?
But back to the good stuff..."Desire", "Angel of Harlem", and "All I Want Is You" genuinely surprised me by how great they still sound. True classics. And then there is that quiet little "Love Rescue Me" (co-written with Dylan!), an absolutely beautiful track which has never gotten the attention it deserves. And while I am probably in the minority on this one, I actually realy like "God Part II" ; its driving rhythm section and refreshingly ironic lyrics seem to me just a tiny foreshadowing of the changes around the corner for U2 (i.e., the recording of Achtung Baby, which I still regard as their magnum opus).
A mess? Yes. Still hip? Yip. Well, sort of.
Uncle Eric's Overall Album Rating: 3.9
The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan and the Band
I should start by saying I listened to the "official" release of this album on Columbia Records, not any of the legendary bootlegs or "The Great White Wonder" or any of that crap. I love Dylan but not that much. I leave that sort of thing to Andy Wilson, to whom anyone reading this should refer if they have further questions about the history of these recordings, their larger significance in the history of American music, their uniqueness in the discographies of both Dylan and the Band, their unparalleled incorporation of traditional music forms from the "old weird America" of the early twentieth century into the new weeeeeird America of the late 1960s., etc. Yep, I would talk to Andy if you have questions about any of that stuff. Him or Greil Marcus. But I'm not gonna talk about that here because I start feeling a little over my head. Hell, I felt out-of-my-league reading the liner notes...Geesh.
Anyhoo, Disc One really is killer. Solid as hell. The opening rave-up "Odds and Ends" just gets me all excited and the enthusiasm hardly wains for the next half-an-hour or so. It's been said before, but the looseness of the music and the sense of fun these guys sound like they are having making this album are down-right infectious. The bass-playing and the organ-swirls are consistently impressive. "Yazoo Street Scandal", "Goin' to Acapulco", "Apple Suckling Tree", and "Please, Mrs. Henry" all stand as some of my favorite songs recorded by Bob or the boys from the Band. "Bessie Smith" is a keeper, too. And "Lo and Behold!"...Good Lord, like it or not, that song is so catchy it could get stuck in your head for a week and a half.
My excitement does cool a little on Disc Two...Maybe I need to listen to this double album one disc at a time to appreciate it properly. Some of the tracks just start feeling a little too "straightforward" or "mid-tempo" or something. But there are some great songs here, too...My favorites probably being "Crash on the Levee", "You Ain't Going Nowhere", and "Open the Door, Homer".
Despite all this praise, I do have to say I don't fully understand what makes this album so entirely unique or historically important. It just sounds like top-notch "Americana" music to me...Perhaps this is because I live in a post-alternative-country universe in which there is now a whole genre's worth of bands making quality "American" music. I don't know. I better go consult with Andy about this one...
Uncle Eric's Overall Album Rating: 4.2
The Winner: The Basement Tapes