You don’t do yourselves any favors when you subtitle a forthcoming collection of re-recorded late-1960s Bob Dylan lyrics The New Basement Tapes. Not if you understand the history.
After all, before their polished-up release in 1975, the original verite recordings — featuring rough-edged songs composed and performed downstairs in an upstate New York farmhouse dubbed Big Pink — held a talismanic power. Over the course of a few months in 1967, Dylan, then hiding out after a motorcycle accident, and his old backing group the Band discovered untold depths in their own craft. The results hurtled them both into new career trajectories, and rock itself into an entirely different direction.
And so, we have “Nothing To It,” advance sounds from November’s Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes — a 20-track set featuring a multi-artist group that spent two weeks together recording leftover Dylan lyrics from that same era. On paper, it probably looked like a homerun.
After all, from this same fertile period grew mythical anthems like “I Shall Be Released” and hip hit songs like “The Mighty Quinn,” rambling rockers like “This Wheel’s On Fire” and country-rockers like “Nothing Was Delivered” — each of them, in their way, a clarion call for the coming post-psychedelic age of rock. Then you have the next-gen artists involved: Elvis Costello, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, and Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops, with all of it overseen by throwback producer T Bone Burnett.
What could go wrong, right? The James-sung “Nothing To It,” in reality, never had a chance. There’s too much incumbent anticipation, too much to compare it to, too much history. That was always the risk, to be sure, but then they go and connect it — as directly as it could be — to the big bang of Dylan’s second career, the Band as a stand-alone working entity, and the Americana movement itself?
Credit Dylan for releasing the lyrics for their use, and for a credible enough performance here by all involved. You can tell their heart is in it. But something important is off: The production — Lost On The River was recorded, after all, at Capitol Studios in Hollywood — is too clean, too bright, far too considered to be associated with that dingy old basement. And the weight of expectation smothers the rest.