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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Band: Cahoots


1) Life Is A Carnival; 2) When I Paint My Masterpiece; 3) Last Of The Blacksmiths; 4) Where Do We Go From Here; 5) 4% Pantomime; 6) Shoot Out In Chinatown; 7) The Moon Struck One; 8) Thinkin' Out Loud; 9) Smoke Signal; 10) Volcano; 11) The River Hymn.

Cahoots is like Stage Fright without the spark, completing the transformation of The Band from something deeply extraordinary, which they were in 1968, into something completely ordinary. If The Band was an epic undertaking, masquerading as a roots-rock record, and Stage Fright was a roots-rock record, preserving some traces of «epicness», then Cahoots is just a roots-rock record, period. Maybe not coincidentally, it represents an almost complete takeover on Robbie's part: on­ly ʽLife Is A Carnivalʼ co-credits Rick and Levon for anything, and the other two songs that have somebody else's name on them are either a fresh Dylan cover (ʽWhen I Paint My Masterpieceʼ) or a bit of guestwork on the part of Van Morrison, who happened to drop by (ʽ4% Pantomimeʼ).

Curiously enough, all of the songs are good — once all the bile has been spent, these Cahoots tunes stay with me at least until the end of the day, and maybe more. We just naturally expect more than «just good» from a bunch of guys that happened to have the nerve to set themselves such impossibly high standards. In particular, I would want more «band» involvement: it almost seems as if the idea of bringing in New Orleanian bandmaster Allen Toussaint to lead a big brass band on ʽLife Is A Carnivalʼ put the rest of the teamplayers out of focus, particularly Hudson, who does not come up with even a single outstanding keyboard pattern. For this album, it looks like he was there in the studio just to get paid — diligently playing his organ, accordion, and sax parts on whatever songs require them, then packing it in for the night. The rest of the band follow suit. In addition, the vocals are horrendously produced for most of the songs — Levon? Richard? Rick? Who cares, it's all one big mess.

But these are still good songs. Sad, intelligent, cynical, ironic, soulful, and «hooky» enough. The mid-tempo «rockers» (quotation marks are necessary, since by this time Robbie had completely forgotten all about what it means to «rock», and most of the other guys never knew it in the first place), such as ʽShoot Out In Chinatownʼ, ʽSmoke Signalʼ, and ʽVolcanoʼ, are lazy, lumbering sloths that formally fulfill their purpose — get you to sing along to the merry chorus of "shoot out in China town, they lined 'em up against the wall", the ominous chorus of "smoke signal, hear the drums drumming", or the puffed-up, angry chorus of "volcano, I'm about to blow!", and no, the latter is not about humping — it's about feeling bad, which is this album's weakest point: no matter how they huff it and puff it, it just doesn't sound like they're about to blow.

Maybe they are at their «about-to-blow-ing-est» on ʽ4% Pantomimeʼ, which, halfway through, turns into a wild screaming match between their guest star, Van The Man, and all of the singing members of The Band, who just barely manage to outshout the toughest throat in Ireland. For the typical Van Fan, well accustomed to The Man's lack of conventional structure and emphasis on «blue improvisation», this will be a nice addition to the canon — for a Band fan, maybe not so much, because improvised, out-of-control rucus is not one of their strongest sides.

I think, although I am not sure, that if Cahoots has a heart, it is buried somewhere in the ballads — ʽLast Of The Blacksmithsʼ, with a medicinal dose of Manuel's universal sorrow, is the only track that would feel relatively at home on The Band; ʽWhere Do We Go From Hereʼ is a simple, but relevant title, and Rick sings the song so plaintively that you almot do feel sorry for the crew; ʽThinkin' Out Loudʼ is a solid grower, an exercise in «quiet desperation», and so on. These are all emotional songs — never get around to working real magic, but they do try to make the best of these guys' knack for soulfulness, even despite the so-so production and the fact that we have already heard it all before: try as it might, ʽLast Of The Blacksmithsʼ cannot beat the stateliness of an ʽUnfaithful Servantʼ.

In the light of this all, it is mighty mighty ironic that Cahoots kicks off so deceptively, with the Toussaint-led ʽLife Is A Carnivalʼ. The match is not made in Heaven: Toussaint is the legitimate carrier of the New Orleanian go-merry, nonchalant, Mardi Gras attitude, whereas these guys are stern, morose, humorless Canadian hicks, and they can only exploit the atmosphere for sarcastic purposes, which they do. In the end, all this merry brass sort of goes to waste, even if the song is still relatively well written and memorable. In fact, it might have been a big mistake to include it as the album opener — it immediately casts off a whiff of confusion, and you know all about these critical ratings: nothing influences them as much as the first song on the record.

That The Band themselves never thought highly of Cahoots is well reflected on Rock Of Ages: a double live album recorded in late 1971, a time when they should have been heavily promoting the new album, includes nothing from it except for ʽLife Is A Carnivalʼ (ʽWhen I Paint My Mas­terpieceʼ only got added on later as a bonus track). And I will say that Cahoots works better as a whole than as a sum of its individual parts — implying that any individual songs in any live show would inevitably pale next to their earlier competition — but I will also say that, if you need to save up shelf space, this is where you can allow yourself to stop. The Band, by definition, could never release a truly «bad» album (fortunately, they disintegrated before the Eighties hit hard upon all the veterans), but whatever they had to say, they said it all on their first three records. The rest is just variations for the loyal adepts. Still, if only for reasons of generous inertia, a thumbs up here is not out of the question.

Check "Cahoots" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Cahoots" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. I am a unreasonably huge Van Fan, but I can't say I favour "4% Pantomine" very much. For one thing, the vocals are badly produced (just like with the rest of the album), second Van has never been at his strongest on bluesy tunes, and third; Van might often have been unconcerned with convential song structures, but that doesn't mean he just threw a bunch of instrumental tracks out there without bothering to make sure each one actually contributed something to the song, which is pretty much what is happening here.
    Compare with Van's own "Moonshine Whiskey" from the same year, a song which, in terms of lyrics and mood could have fit in on this album with no trouble. The song has no decent structure at all, but the slide guitars, piano, brass, backing vocals, etc. are all exquisitely balanced. Just listen to how the slide guitar dissapears when it isn't needed, rises to the front of the mix when it really has something to contribute, and adds moody background during the slow sections. These are the kind of subtleties that The Band knew well how to exploit on say, "Caledonia Mission", but not here.

  2. This album and "Byrdmaniax" by the Byrds are twins of a sort. Both represent their respective makers at an all time inspirational low, but succeed in the end, thanks to the years of craft and experience that their makers have accumulated. Neither "Cahoots" or "Byrdmaniax" are ever going to top anyone's list, but are good, solid, "relaxing" experiences for confirmed fans who get the occasional urge for some "B-side" music from professionals they can trust. So, a solid "average" rating from me.

    1. Byrdmaniax suffers from less-than-stellar arrangements and production as well, but your assessment is correct: They're both good "lazy summer day" albums.

  3. They did do Smoke Signal live around the time of their live album. It worked pretty well as a live song.