Welcome to #ThrowbackThursday, a weekly column where I take a close look at a classic album. Maybe it's an album you haven't heard of, maybe it's an album you're aware of but haven't ever bothered giving a proper spin, maybe it's an album you love and wouldn't mind being reminded of. Regardless, the goal is to spark conversation about the albums that made today's music what it is.
It's good to get back on track with this column. This week, we're looking at Music From Big Pink, the 1968 debut album of The Band and one of my all-time favorite records.
The Band formed as the backing musicians for rockabilly musician Ronnie Hawkins; then known as The Hawks, they eventually parted ways with Hawkins to become the backing band for Bob Dylan.
Music From Big Pink is, as mentioned, their debut album and, in my mind, their magnum opus. Eric Clapton famously claimed that the record inspired him to break up Cream to pursue a roots-ier solo career, which would be a shame if true because Cream was awesome and Eric Clapton's solo career sucked.
That has nothing to do with what I'm talking about, though. Music From Big Pink is often described as a sort of American Sgt. Peppers. I don't think that's strictly true--first, several of The Band's members were Canadian, and second, Music From Big Pink is better.
"Tears of Rage," co-written by Bob Dylan, is simultaneously immediately beautiful and not an album opener: layers of organ, piano, horns, and Levon Helm’s impressionistic drum fills underscore Richard Manuel's pained, haunted vocals about a lifetime of familial disappointment. The decidedly uplifting horns and Robbie Robertson's bare yet shimmering guitar keep the song just above outright sorrow. This isn't a song that would start any other record, but it's the perfect intro to Music From Big Pink--sad while charming, dirge-y while soulful, downbeat while offbeat. This is a record of contradictions, and it's only fitting it starts with one.
Before we move on to the rest of the album, let's take a moment to discuss Levon Helm, who--for me--was always the highlight of the band (or The Band, uppercase). A music critic once described Helm as "the only drummer who can make you cry," and while I don't know if that's strictly true, you've never heard anyone like Helm. His swung, freewheeling fills somehow make percussion seem melodic if not emotive; his approach to timing is almost like a guitarist's. At any rate, there will be very few times on this record you'll hear anything resembling a standard rock beat. "Lack of steadiness" isn't typically a compliment for drummers, but in Helm's case, it absolutely is. And this lack of steadiness is somehow the exact type of rhythmic understructure The Band's music requires.
"To Kingdom Come," by comparison, is more of a song you'd expect to hear within the first few tracks of the record. This song is a great introduction to the type of vocal harmonies you can expect on this album. The lead vocals switch between bassist Rick Danko and Robertson--it's actually one of the few lead vocal tracks Robertson ever had with the group. Manuel and Helm also join in for three- or four-part harmonies, where it sounds like every member is singing the same words and melody in isolation, and their unique frills and flourishes bounce off and around one another. This gives the harmonies a loose, improvisational feel that suggests a casual jam session rather than a tight, thoughtful composition. Other than the vocals, Robertson's guitar solo is a major highlight here.
"In A Station" starts off with carnivalesque clavinet before giving way to another stately Richard Manuel vocal. The driving force to the song is Danko's bassline, which plays around--rather than with—Helm’s understated percussion, melodically driving the song from chord to chord. Finger-picked acoustic guitar drives the second half off the song.
"Caledonia Mission" is a funky, constantly shifting number: driven by Manuel's piano during the verses and Garth Hudson's organ during the chorus, the song seemingly takes a left turn every time Helm changes his drum patterns--which is often. This is one of the more tightly-crafted songs on the record.
You know the next song, "The Weight." What can I say about this song that does it justice? Everybody knows and loves this song; it's easily one of the most iconic songs in the canon of American rock 'n' roll. The surreal American lyrics delivered by Helm's powerfully soulful Arkansan voice, the rambling drum licks, the harmonies in the chorus--delivered by Helm, Danko, and Manuel as a musical round--this song is deservedly legendary. What's truly amazing about "The Weight," though, is how well it fits into the record despite its clear ability to stand on its own. When a song stands as independently of an album as "The Weight" does, it can overshadow the rest of a full-album listening experience. "The Weight" doesn't. It's a natural progression.
"We Can Wait" features more vocal interplay between the band's primary singers. As Danko's bass teases at its upper register and Manuel's organ and Hudson's piano--seriously, why don't more people combine organ and piano?--work around each other, Danko, Manuel, and Helm trade lyrical gems like "I'd rather be burned in Canada/ than to freeze here in the South."
(It's worth mentioning again that a few members of The Band were Canadian, which makes their complete mastery of southern-sounding music really, really bizarre.)
"Long Black Veil" is a country standard, first recorded by Left Frizell and made famous by Johnny Cash. The Band's version, though, is definitely the funkiest take on the song, which itself is about a wrongly-executed man who refused to give an alibi for a murder accusation because, truth is, he was adulterin' with his best friend's wife. Funky, right? In any other group's hands, this is a dark, sorrowful song. In The Band's hands, it's both of these and more. Remember what I said earlier about contradictions? The Band--especially on this song--have an amazing ability to make solemnity upbeat, to combine serious lyrical introspection with playful, loose arrangements, to create something more complex than any of the component parts.
"Chest Fever" starts with a pounding, melodramatic organ riff like you might hear on a Boston record. The organ, met with fuzzed-out guitar and Helm's unusually steady drums, would turn this into proto-stadium rock if not for Hudson's rockabilly piano licks, Robertson's supplementary chicken scratch guitar, and--oh yeah--a Dixieland jazz breakdown. Manuel's organ solos over the second half of the song are one of the more straightforwardly virtuosic moments on the entire record. This song is so far ahead of its time.
"Lonesome Suzie" is a downer, though almost anything would be after "Chest Fever." The song, with Manuel at his most Ray Charles-iest, features a complex horn arrangement which, at times, gets buried under organ and guitar. This song is a mess, in the best way possible.
"This Wheel's On Fire" is driven by frenzied guitar and clavinet--frenzied clavinet, yeah I said it--and baroque piano flourishes.
"I Shall Be Released," another song co-penned by Bob Dylan, is probably better known as the Dylan version. But here, Richard Manuel's falsetto is the star. This is where Music From Big Pink's gospel influences are the most obvious. Rather than me trying (and failing) to describe how great this song is, just watch the group perform it live in The Last Waltz, the Scorsese-directed concert film of their farewell performance. Focus on the arrangement rather than, say, Bob Dylan's bucket hat/perm combo, or how yoked-out Neil Young is.
Damn. These guys were awesome.
Our staffchat topic this week was good bands with bad names, and The Band comes teetering dangerously close to that territory. But they don't enter it. Conversely, I'd argue that "The Band" as it exists, as a name by which we know this particular group of musicians, is perfect--the only name they could have been called.
There are moments on this album of sheer instrumental brilliance--moments you probably won't or wouldn't notice unless you play music yourself. Levon Helm's drum fills, Rick Danko's leading notes, Garth Hudson's flourishes, Robbie Robertson's picking patterns, Richard Manuel's organ riffs. You could listen to this record twenty times and not pick up on the subtleties and nuances of any of these things, and still walk away thinking this is one of the most well-crafted records you've ever heard. The music isn't about any of those things; even the solos don't feel like they're there to draw attention to the soloist, but rather because they add to the total, holistic music.
And that didn't even touch on the vocals.
The music displayed on Music From Big Pink is entirely without ego. While this could mean that the music is humble, rural, accessible, honest, real--or a thousand other terms that do describe the record don't really mean anything--I mean it to say that there are five performers who exist as one entity: The Band.