The Basement Tapes was the name of the-1975 album by Bob Dylan and The Band, whose lyrics were actually written eight years before. Indeed, 1967 was a period of extreme creativity for His Bobness, who spent the year in and around Woodstock, recovering from a motorbike accident. He was joined for this extended convalescence by various members of The Band (then known as The Hawks), and together they recorded more than 100 songs, many of which finally saw the light of day on the six-CD The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete, released earlier this month. Even that mammoth collection, however, wasn't the total of what is probably the most prolific writing period in a 55-year career.
The New Basement Tapes is made up of a collection of Dylan's handwritten lyrics from the same period which never made it to tape. Fresh from his work on the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack, T. Bone Burnett was challenged with putting them to music. To this end, he put together a band of new country all-stars, including Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Rhiannon Giddens from roots revivalists Carolina Chocolate Drops and Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes, who recorded Lost On The River over a frantic two-week period. The results range from the lovely to the over-produced.
Opener "Down On The Bottom" has the My Morning Jacket frontman getting all downtempo, the best guitar solo on the album notwithstanding. Equally impressive are the rambunctious "Kansas City" and the squalling country rawk of "Nothing To It."
Sometimes, Dylan gets accused of being too serious, and while listening to some of his '60s output can be akin to sitting in an uncomfortable chair and being sermonised to for an hour, there's a playfulness to "Card Shark" that belies this earnest reputation.
The minimalist backdrop and pizzicato plucking of "When I Get My Hands On You" has almost a nu-soul sheen, which probably shouldn't work but does. Conversely, "Hidee Hidee Ho" and "Liberty Street" sound far too polished for these ears, attempting to package Dylan's rawness with a glossy plastic modern Nashville lustre, which makes even Bob's words sound darn ornery.
Much more traditional are the folky banjo hoedown of "Duncan And Jimmy" and the dustbowl guitar of "Spanish Mary," both of which feature Giddens on vocals. The former is a big campfire holler-along, while the latter sees her imbue every syllable with a grace and gravitas.
"Married To My Hack" is two minutes of Tom Waitsean trashcan blues, with Elvis Costello's vocal echoing Bob's own phrasing, whether deliberately or unconsciously. On "Six Months In Kansas City (Liberty Street)". however, Costello's voice makes two seasons in Kansas sound like a hard stretch in Mountjoy.The Attractions frontman does add a delightful warble to the old time country waltz of the title track, yet it's the second version of the same song that really excels, closing the album with Rhiannon Giddens' honeyed vocals.
Though by no means perfect, Lost On The River will keep Dylan aficionados happy until His Bobness releases his planned album of cover versions next year.