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William C. Altreuter
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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Two things that seem to me to be often overlooked about Bob Dylan come into focus for me on Lost on the River/The New Basement Tapes. The set itself, produced by T-Bone Burnett, consists of Basement Tapes-era Dylan lyrics for which music has been written by Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, Marcus Mumford, Jim James and Taylor Goldsmith, who perform as a band. The first point is that Dylan himself has collaborated with others more frequently than is generally assumed; the second point is that Dylan's reputation for writing great melodies is nearly completely overshadowed by his skills as a lyricist. Dylan himself has bemoaned the latter point, noting in Chronicles that Duane Eddy recorded an album of guitar instrumentals of Dylan songs. Eddy was far from the only one, of course, but his record is pretty terrific. In fact, with the notable exception of his work with The Band, in general when Dylan collaborates with others it is usually with another lyricist. Jacques Levy (“First of all, it got me a little nervous. I said to him — and it was very funny at the time, though I don’t know how funny it will be now — I said: ‘You know, I write the lyrics; I don’t write the music.’ … It never dawned on me that he was going to ask me to write lyrics for him.”), and Robert Hunter being the most prominent examples.* So what does Lost on the River sound like? Well, it doesn't sound much like a Bob Dylan record, but that's fine. It seems to cohere as an album, which tells us that Burnett's production counted a great deal, although I wish the voices worked together better. A big reason the Traveling Wilburys recordings were fun was precisely because the singers didn't sound homogenous-- it would have been fun to have more of that, although I will note that Giddens comes through fine. What we really get here are songs that are sung by each of the principals that sound like they'd fit just fine on a personal project from each of the principals. Not that there's anything wrong with more Rhiannon Giddens, and I'm fine with more songs that sound like Dawes, or My Morning Jacket as well. The Marcus Mumford numbers are forcing me to concede that Mumford & Sons are better than my inner traditionalist snob would want to concede: the Dylan/Mumford/Goldsmith "Kansas City" (lot of songs about Missouri on this record) is a highlight.What this doesn't sound like is a Bob Dylan project. I've been listening to it for a couple of days and I haven't yet heard the sort of Dylanesque turn of phrase that characterizes great Dylan lyrics. These are good songs, but that lyrical spark isn't there.  Is it a good listen? Sure it is-- it almost couldn't help but be, and a good thing too. Ultimately it has to stand or fall on its own merits, otherwise it would just be an odd gimmick. It's better than that-- in it's way it would be an interesting companion on a mix tape featuring Peter, Paul and Mary singing"Too Much of Nothing", Ian & Sylvia, on "Tears of Rage", (or"Quinn the Eskimo" and "This Wheel's on Fire"), Manfred Mann on "The Mighty Quinn", Fairport Convention covering "Million Dollar Bash",  Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity doing "This Wheel's on Fire" and "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" by the Byrds
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* Of course, there are counter-examples. Rick Danko worked up tunes to Dylan lyrics, and it seems probable that Robbie Robertson did too, even where not credited.

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