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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Band: Islands


THE BAND: ISLANDS (1977)

1) Right As Rain; 2) Street Walker; 3) Let The Night Fall; 4) Ain't That A Lot Of Love; 5) Christmas Must Be To­night; 6) Islands; 7) The Saga Of Pepote Rouge; 8) Georgia On My Mind; 9) Knockin' Lost John; 10) Livin' In A Dream; 11*) Twilight; 12*) Georgia On My Mind (alt. take).

If Northern Lights was The Band's Abbey Road, then this is their Let It Be: a somewhat «im­proper» album, consisting mainly of outtakes and a few last minute recordings, chronologically scattered over a large period and released mainly to satisfy formal obligations, so that they could get out of their contract with Capitol and be free to release The Last Waltz for Warner Bros. The analogy is not perfect — Let It Be was more cohesive, and came out already after the band's total demise, whereas Islands was not necessarily supposed to be the end of The Band. But in overall terms of status and quality, it is comprehensible.

Actually, it is not an overtly «bad» record — in general, it might rank somewhere close to Ca­hoots — but it is strictly a minor donation to serious Band fans: no new insights or discoveries will be made here. The only track that is frequently extolled as a highlight is not even an original composition — rather an acknowledgement of Richard Manuel's vocal genius, as he almost pulls off (or just plain pulls off, depending more on your pre-assumptions than actual feelings) a per­fect Ray Charles impression on ʽGeorgia On My Mindʼ (actually recorded in 1976 to endorse Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign). However, this is not a «new reading» or anything, more like a successful, heartfelt homage to a great influence, and it belongs on a Ray Charles tribute album rather than on something more serious. Besides, Hudson's synthesizer backing is a little annoying here — some simple piano would be more effective.

Curiously, there is very little Levon on lead vocals — almost as a couple of leftover chewing bones, he is saddled with a perfunctory, mechanical cover of the old blues-rock standard ʽAin't That A Lot Of Loveʼ (much better done by Taj Mahal anyway), and the brief, upbeat album clo­ser ʽLivin' In A Dreamʼ. The rest is mostly handled by Rick and Richard, and their somewhat similar high soulful deliveries result in a pretty, but somewhat monotonous atmosphere — what Islands would really need is a couple of tough rootsy rockers, ʽOpheliaʼ-style, as such, it is as lullingly smooth as the sea surface on the album cover.

That smoothness works fine and well for the first two songs — ʽRight As Rainʼ is an elegant and soothing intro with Manuel providing his usual restrained majesty, and ʽStreet Walkerʼ is an equ­ally convincing retort from Danko, with moody harmonies and cool piano/brass interplay (even so, rather heavily derivative of ʽStage Frightʼ, I'd say). But it starts getting tiresome around the time that the generically composed ʽLet The Night Fallʼ comes up, and most of the rest is, at best, just pleasant background muzak — starting with the little «fawn dance» of the instrumental title track (why do they call it ʽIslandsʼ with such a pastoral atmosphere, I wonder?) and ending with ʽThe Saga Of Pepote Rougeʼ, which is mostly just Robbie indulging in his mythological fantasies and the rest half-heartedly playing along — or the total throwaway of ʽKnockin' Lost Johnʼ, mostly «famous» for being one of the very few Band songs on which Robbie himself takes lead vocals, and little else.

Rather pitiful, too, is ʽChristmas Must Be Tonightʼ, a song allegedly written by Robbie on the birth of his son — just goes to show how much the man thinks of himself if the analogy is with baby Jesus (and I suppose that Levon, Richard, Rick, and Garth are, without realizing it, playing the part of the She­pherds — well, in a way, since all the royalties go to Robbie anyway). Besides, the lyrics are donwright pathetic for Robertson's usual standards: "How a little baby boy bring the people so much joy?" It is not even clear what makes this so cringeworthy — the lack of proper grammar or the weird decision to write in such a «simplistic» Christmas fashion. But the results are cringeworthy, in any case.

Still, a contractual obligation has to be respected, so it is kinda fruitless to castigate the band for not delivering yet another masterpiece — on the contrary, we should probably acknowledge this as yet another demonstration of the greatness: even a clearly filler-choked, uninspired record is still listenable and, in select places, mildly charming. These are, indeed, scattered «islands», on which you can encounter — at random — awful desolation, paradise beauty, or simply nothing in particular. In a way, that, too, is exciting in its unpredictability.

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

4 comments:

  1. George,
    The last paragraph of this review has muddled a bit for me your opinion of The Band's output beyond Stage Fright. My impression is that you compliment it as non-trivial roots rock, but here you make another Beatles comparison and write about not castigating them "for not delivering yet another masterpiece." Not that I imagine you would rank them on the same level as The Beatles or Dylan, but it does seem that you hold them in higher regard than when you wrote about them on your old site. It even seems like your opinion of the later albums has shifted a bit from when you foretold about them in your "The Band" album review to when you actually reviewed the albums. I'm mostly curious to know whether I'm misreading you or if relistening to the later works has changed your opinion. Thanks for all the great reads.
    -Jon

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    1. It's easy: my old reviews reflect the older (younger) me, my new reviews reflect the newer (older) me. Opinions, judgements, and even ears shift with time - why not?

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    2. Both yous do a fine job (can't wait till you get to ZZ Top). I suppose I was fishing for a summary judgment of their later works since your criticisms seem to be forgiving and outweighed by respect, which isn't always the case with the artists you review.
      -Jon

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  2. If "Cahoots" boils down to the Band's equivalent of "Byrdmaniax", I suppose this one becomes the fraternal twin of "Farther Along" (Byrds). It's definitely sundown time for the guys, and the cover of "Islands" equates nicely with the sepia-toned cover art of the Byrd's Columbia finale. In both cases, the material on offer reeks of closure and a certain itch to get on with their lives as solo affairs in some other, distant port. Finally, Roger McGuinn and Robbie Robertson became the only members of their respective groups to actually achieve the semblance of a successful solo career. (Levon, after trying for ages, managed it only at the very close of his own life, while Robertson seems to call up a solo career at will whenever the mood strikes him.)

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