The New Basement Tapes—Lost on the River (Harvest Records)
With 2014 winding down, the year seems to be shaping up as a Basement Tapes world with the release of The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete. Stemming from the legendary Woodstock sessions Bob Dylan cut with what would become The Band, this revisiting of Zim’s legacy not only yielded unreleased home recordings, but a cache of lyrics for 48 new songs.
Not unlike what Wilco and Billy Bragg did with previously unreleased Woody Guthrie lyrics that would become the Mermaid Avenue string of albums, producer T-Bone Burnett took these Dylan songs and pulled together an ad hoc group of musicians to bring them to life. A core group of Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons) were recruited by Burnett along with a string of special guests including the gals from Haim and a guitar-slinging Johnny Depp. Significantly more polished than the sessions they were originally slated for, the compositions Burnett inherited benefit from the wisely chosen gaggle of musicians he tapped to be a part of this ambitious project.
Among the highlights are James, who goes from the laconic swamp rock dirge “Down on the Bottom” to the psychedelicized vaudeville shuffle that is “Hidee Hidee Ho.” Elsewhere, Goldsmith smoothly croons of old religion and Baby Snooks (the Honky Chateau-flavored “Liberty Street”) boats and goats (a mandolin-kissed “Florida Key”) and unrepentant gamblers (the whimsical “Card Shark”). Costello easily slips into the atonal and vaguely Waitsian take of “Married to My Hack,” imbues plenty of sorrow into the mournful “Lost on the River #12” and gives a different spin on “Liberty Street,” turning it into a railing soul shouter he dubbed “Six Months in Kansas City (Six Months).”
But the one performer whose contributions wind up being the perfect marriage for this project is Giddens, whose mountain music influences work splendidly whether it’s the hoedown spin she gives “Duncan and Jimmy” by way of her fleet-fingered banjo picking, the Southern gothic aura she infuses into “Spanish Mary” with her clarion phrasing or the haunted pall she cast on the closing cut “Lost on the River #2,” which works splendidly thanks to the combination of sparse acoustic guitar accompaniment and eerie harmonies. Lost on the River winds up being a trip well worth taking into the Dylan canon and a worthy companion to this recently released volume of The Bootleg Series.