With this post I introduce the occasional “Featured Album,” which will discuss albums that are so good they deserve their own write-up. And I decided to start with a disc I recently bought, which is a (sort of) tribute to Bob Dylan. Apparently he wrote a bunch of lyrics for which he had never actually done any music. Dylan wrote these lyrics in the ’60’s, a time when he was churning out songs so prolifically he likely couldn’t even keep up.
Now I’m not quite sure exactly how this happened but a disparate group of musicians (Jim James, Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith and Rhiannon Giddens) was brought together under the direction of ace producer T Bone Burnett to come up with music and record an album. They called this endeavor The New Basement Tapes, a nod to Dylan’s ’60’s output with The Band.
I don’t recall how I found out about this, but much of the recording of these sessions was filmed for Showtime. I watched it, not really expecting much of anything. This was not because of any discomfort with the talents of any of the musicians – although some I didn’t know – but more because there was something about this that, for me, had disaster written all over it. They were basically taking a bunch of people, most of whom didn’t know each other, putting them in a house and saying, “Make something of this. Plus we’ll film you while you’re trying to do it.”
What was fascinating about the show is the relative abilities of the players to come up with music quickly. Elvis Costello, for one, seemed to be able to churn out tunes on demand while others (Mumford, Giddens), struggled to keep up. But during the course of this potential train wreck an interesting thing happened: some good, good music was made. Now, I was not familiar with Giddens who had acquired some level of reputation with an outfit called Carolina Chocolate Drops. But her version of “Lost on the River” is nothing less than haunting:
Marcus Mumford is another guy that had a hard time creating music “to order.” In fact if you watch the show you’ll see different camps banding together to write. I didn’t sense any real rivalry per se, just frustration on the part of the slower writers that they couldn’t work that fast. I empathize. I am no songwriter but if I were, the idea of doing it under that kind of pressure would be very stressful. In any event, here’s Mumford’s turn on Dylan’s “Kansas City.”
Since I always like to have three songs, I was debating which one I would talk about for the last one. I decided to go with “Diamond Ring,” by Taylor Goldsmith. (And yes, I intentionally avoided using an Elvis Costello tune. Not because I don’t like him. Quite the opposite. I LOVE his music and songwriting and will have plenty to say about him later on down the road).