This week’s entry of the Bucket Tracklist comes in at Number 45 on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Albums of All Time. Considered one of the first real concept albums, The Band’s eponymous second album explores the history of America, from the Civil War to the Dustbowl, and the fragmentation of the USA in the 60s. While this album is often celebrated as one of the best, The Band themselves are relatively unknown today, unlike other ‘classic’ artists (such as The Rolling Stones or The Beatles). They do, however, have famous fans, with groups such as Mumford & Sons championing them as legends in the field, and constantly covering what may be their most famous track, The Weight.
The Band started as a backing band for other artists – hence their genius name – such as Bob Dylan who continued to work with them throughout their career, including a joint tour. Their last concert as the original line up was immortalized in a Martin Scorsese documentary The Last Waltz; they’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; they won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and they’re Rolling Stone’s 50th Greatest Artist of All Time. All in all, they’re a pretty big deal.
As with most entries on The Bucket Tracklist, what I like about this album is the variety of styles and influences. While The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down is slow, contemplative, dragging and stretching the vocals out along with the music, Rag Mamma Rag is an adrenaline rush of fiddles, guitars, drums, and ragtime piano. This peaking and troughing continues throughout the album, from Whispering Pines, which is another moment of tenderness, to Look Out Cleveland, where the pace is racing again. The defining attitude is nostalgia, obviously due to the retrospective Americana that defines this album, as well as constant reference to symbols of the past from rocking chairs to ragtime itself.
A definite highlight of the album is the story of a Southern Confederate in The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. In this track, Levon Helm sings from the perspective of a southerner, Virgil Caine, at the time of the American Civil War (writer Robbie Robertson claimed that this song was written for Helm, who was from Arkansas). This song is unlike most of what I’ve heard in recent music, as The Band completely submerge themselves in this character to depict the war from the inside. In that way, it reads more like a poem than a song, and has been heralded as one of the best lyrical songs by many over time. Many say that it goes further lyrically than the work of The Band’s contemporaries, such as Dylan, as it moves past the metaphorical into actual embodiment of subject matter. In Mick Gold’s words, it “is not a song about the Confederacy, it is a song of the Confederacy”, and in many ways sounds like a historical piece rather than an interpretation.
Another gem – and a favourite of mine – is King Harvest (Has Surely Come). This is an edgy, bass-driven rocky folk number with the organ dominating the melody. If that’s not enough to make you listen, I don’t know what is. The song itself stops and starts, flowing from upbeat semi-gospel-rock to a slow, moodier chorus which interrupt the melody and make for great one liners: “The smell of the leaves in the Magnolia trees in the meadow / King Harvest has surely come”. All of this serves to highlight the uncertain nature of the subject matter; the struggling southern farmer whose crops are failing him, signing up to the Union in desperation. Again, this is like a poem set to music rather than merely a song.
In a way, I think this album is quite dated now, due to the production of the tracks, where the instruments sound more separate from each other than in what we get from bands now. Moreover Helm’s voice – and the close harmonies that accompany it – can at times come across strained, but this may be the strong accents more than anything. That being said, I can hear how this album has influenced many subsequent bands (listen to Mumford & Sons’ Dustbowl Dance and you’ll get it), from the notion of the concept album to the instrumentation. I also think the artistry of the lyrics, and the depiction of the struggles of America that they cover should be celebrated. Overall, I think more than the other older music covered in this column, you need to like this specific type of music to like The Band. Luckily, I do, and I’d have to agree with Rolling Stone that it deserves to be taken seriously.