THE BAND: HIGH ON THE HOG (1996)
1) Stand Up; 2) Back To Memphis; 3) Where I Should Always Be; 4) Free Your Mind; 5) Forever Young; 6) The High Price Of Love; 7) Crazy Mama; 8) I Must Love You Too Much; 9) She Knows; 10) Ramble Jungle; 11) Young Blood*; 12*) Chain Gang.
Rule # 1: you do not call your album High On The Hog and place an ugly swine on the cover if you care at all for your reputation. Above everything else, High On The Hog used to be the name of a commercially successful Black Oak Arkansas album, which swept up the charts with the aid of the hit single ʽJim Dandyʼ, a novelty tune that sounded cute, charming, and kick-ass when done by LaVern Baker ages ago, but dumb and tasteless when reworked by crude Southern rockers in the 1970s. Now these here guys in The Band must have had a complete memory reboot to forget about it — or else, they consciously went for the same title. Needless to say, that is not a good sign. Neither is the nasty grin on the piggy's face.
No composing activity from the original members is registered here whatsoever: «The Band» is co-credited on ʽThe High Price Of Loveʼ, which is really another Jules Shear song, and Helm and Hudson take partial credit for ʽRamble Jungleʼ, which is not really a song at all, but rather a tribalistic jam beaten out by several very tired old men. Additionally, Helm's lead vocals sound awful on most of these songs — perhaps not much worse than on Jericho, but somehow the transformation of his deep-set, snappy laryngeal bark to an annoying high-pitched whine is far more notable here, further depriving The Band of energy. And there are no signs of Hudson making any efforts to return from his position of bit player to a more advanced role in the group.
Consequently, this is yet another decrepit show: snail-paced, melodically trivial roots-rock with generic arrangements — and are we really going to emphasize real drums, modest use of electronics, and carefully rehearsed ʽLife Is A Carnivalʼ-style brass parts as «charm-workers»? As in, «yeah all right, but this could have been so much worse»... well, no, it probably could not, because to some extent, The Band are under a strict obligation to respect the trademark, and it is hard to imagine, for instance, Garth Hudson head-diving into «adult contemporary». In other words, as inoffensive background music, High On The Hog is still effective.
But the bad news is, they are not even pretending to try. ʽStand Upʼ, with the already mentioned brass arrangements and a stinging clavinet line straight outta ʽUp On Cripple Creekʼ, seems to be the only song at all that took a little bit of pre-writing and rehearsing; everything else could easily have been slap-dashed out in the studio with a total of thirty minutes allocated to each song. Chief culprits are a cover of J. J. Cale's ʽCrazy Mamaʼ, done in improvised 12-bar blues mode, and a long-winded, never-ending re-recording of Bob's ʽForever Youngʼ (a song that was already originally recorded by Dylan with The Band in 1974) — supposedly dedicated to the passing of Jerry Garcia in this particular case, but the years have worn away the touching effect, and now it is just another ʽForever Youngʼ, and who needs it?
Bob actually contributes another song here, the only fast rocker on the entire album — ʽI Must Love You Too Muchʼ; it functions as a much-needed change of pace, but the guitars are dull pub-rock, and the noisy keyboard and whatever-else background makes it sound overproduced and fussy at that. Still, it is kinda fun, and definitely livelier than the stiff slow-tempo country-blues of about half of the other numbers.
Towards the end, they plunge into older outtakes — another post-mortem souvenir from Manuel (no less than a live recording of a Bread ballad, aaaahh!), and the above-mentioned ʽRamble Jungleʼ, where the players are led by blues pioneer Champion Jack Dupree in a session that has little other than historical interest. Again, «listenable» (only because Manuel is such a good singer, even when he is totally soaked, and because we are all supposed to love all the old blues guys, no matter what) is the most polite definition that can be hung on these tunes.
To add insult to injury, British and Japanese first pressings of the album used to replace ʽRamble Jungleʼ with a cover of ʽYoung Bloodʼ — with most of the world unaware that the track was originally recorded for a tribute album to the recently deceased Doc Pomus. On that tribute album, it certainly belongs; on a new Band original, it only brings to mind the principle of «If you have no idea what to do, do another ʽYoung Bloodʼ», first implemented by Bad Company in 1976 (because, frankly speaking, The Coasters went as far with that novelty number as it was possible to go already in 1957), and serves as a total downer of a «grand finale».
Overall, of the three post-Robbie albums, High On The Hog is easily the worst — containing even less involving song material and even more boring arrangements than Jericho, dragging on for far longer than the ensuing Jubilation, and — last, but maybe not least — featuring arguably the single worst album cover in Band history. Thumbs down guaranteed a-plenty here.
Check "High On The Hog" (MP3) on Amazon