Throwback: The Basement Tapes

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I’ve been playing this album low on repeat in while finishing up my students’ final grades. In a way, this background position fits an album planted in the roots and rhythms of what we now call America, or alt.country. Though this album came out soon after Blood on the Tracks, it reaches back to those reclusive years post-accident, when Dylan and The Band holed up in the New York countryside and laid down more than a hundred tracks. This album contains just a selection of those recordings, and Dylan doesn’t even play a central role in a good number of them.

It’s a bit strange to hear Dylan share the spotlight with The Band members, as if he were just another guy in the group, a la The Traveling Wilburys. I suppose that arrangement fits these traditional songs, imported from a shared history. Meanwhile the sound is unmistakably modern: acoustically textured with Cajun blues and rock. “Ain’t no more cane on the Brazos,” Danko croons, and the ensemble responds with a mournful “ooh, ooh, ooh.” “It’s all been ground to molasses / ooh ooh ooh.” These are songs of hardship and stubborn joy recovered from a colonial past, now sorted, remolded, and proffered for decades of Americana acts to follow.

Do I get this album? I’m on my fourth loop through, and the more familiar I become with the songs, the more they’re catching on. Do I need the previous albums to get it? I can’t divorce this sound from the secluded setting of its recording, and its position in time and sounds between Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding. Do I like it? Ask me after another loop through.

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