Eagle Vision [Release date 25.05.15]
‘The Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued’ is a publishers dream. Take a bunch of recently discovered and unrecorded Dylan songs from the legendary ‘Basement Tapes’ era, get a bunch of cross-generational roots artists and veteran producer T Bone Burnett to interpret them, film the recording and add some grainy Dylan footage with voice-overs, and hey presto, you have a project that has spawned an album and a DVD that premieres ‘new’ Dylan material.
So it is that Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops) Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and producer T Bone Burnett, set about interpreting apparently forgotten Dylan lyrics.
‘The Lost Songs’ is similar to the Bob Weir tribute to Jerry Garcia and Billy Bragg’s Woody Guthrie album, albeit Dylan is still very much with us.
The DVD is good in parts. It’s a contemporary take on 50 year old lyrics. Dylan wrote 150 songs in 8 months that were never meant to see the light of day. The film hovers over the sessions, drawing us in and out of moments of frustration and inspiration, as the artists interpret the material individually and collectively.
It’s a quasi documentary that will interest Dylan fans and songwriters in general, but it doesn’t necessarily make for essential viewing.
As Elvis Costello reminds us, it’s a project full of everyone’s “insecurities and vanities,” and as such, director Sam Jones probably had to tread carefully when filming and editing.
The film is at his best when Jones captures those unfolding creative moments, but he doesn’t really connect with the significance of the lyrics or the interaction of the performers. Then again, given the relatively short time span of 2 weeks in which to nail the songs, you wouldn’t necessarily expect that.
There’s no doubting the collective commitment to interpreting Dylan songs, but the thinly drawn parallel between the original ‘Basement Tapes’ recordings and this project is too contrived.
‘The Basement Tapes’ were after all never meant to be heard, whereas this recording session has the opposite end-result in mind. As T Bone tellingly reminds us, ’The Basement Tapes’ were the result of chilling out and being creative; “but if you know it’s going to be heard it changes the energy.”
The real problem with the film is that it never quite resolves what it’s mean to be. On the one hand it occasionally captures the de facto creative process, but on the other, it palpably fails to get inside the interrelationship of the musicians.
Only Marcus Mumford really makes a connection with the viewer, as he puts himself under pressure to come up with the goods. He does so beautifully on the clickety-clack of ‘Kansas City’, with great harmonic support from the ensemble.
The rest of the cast are like-minded musicians, but don’t have a lot in common, and while Elvis Costello does convey due reverence to Dylan’s legacy and indie folk artist Taylor Goldsmith reflects that its as if: ‘I’ve stumbled on a secret that wasn’t ever meant for me to hear”, you don’t really get a real feel of an essential connection between the past and present.
Inevitably the best moments are when the ensemble break though with a song and it all magically comes together. Rhiannon for example, finally resolves her problems with ‘Lost On The River,’ as she adheres to her own feeling that: “to let art have a life of its own you have to detach from it.”
Presumably T Bone Burnett gathered the musicians together, and his guiding hand is visible in little suggestion and the opposite, when he lets events take their course. Significantly, he only responds when the musician’s get stuck.
Aside from Dylan freaks, the DVD is targeted to those interested in song-writing and the creative process, but the movie never seems to make up its mind whether it’s a fly on the wall doc, or a reality style presentation with occasional face-to-camera confessionals.
Elvis Costello cuts a benign, but astute presence, as he reminds us they are:” making songs out of unfinished texts, lyrics or sheets of lyrics.”, while Taylor Goldsmith seems a tad overwhelmed when he says: “We didn’t really know what to expect”, but he relies on what he identifies as communal “acceptance and support” to come good on a great version of ‘Six Months In Kansas City (Liberty Street’), sung with real presence.
Sonorous vocalist Rhiannon Giddens initially struggles with arrangements but connects with the narrative of ‘Lost On The River’ and her folky take of ‘Spanish Mary’.
Elvis leads his compatriots through an impassioned ‘6 Months In Kansas City’ and Marcus Mumford stars on the ‘The Whistle Is Blowing’, which is shot through with real emotion and brought to life by his impeccable phrasing.
Jim James shapes ‘Down On The Bottom’ to his own end with a slightly nasal attack delivered with real feel, while Elvis interprets the same song in similar fashion to his own ‘Shipbuilding’
Producer T Bone Burnett reminds us of the project’s mission statement, which is to be “true to the spirit of the original,”, and on balance the ensemble do aim for that, though you can’t help but dwell on the original smoke filled basement sessions in stark contrast to the clinical, unforgiving studio environment of the Capitol building
T Bone further reflects that: “I used to arrange everything but this is the complete opposite.” No mean feet given they only had two weeks in which to finish the album.
The results are suitably showcased by the 6 bonus tracks, which suggest that whatever the lack of charisma and spark in the film, the Dylan mystique lives on and the music ends up speaking for itself. ***½
Review by Pete Feenstra
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