‘The New Basement Tapes’: A Bob Dylan Supergroup [Review]

The New Basement Tapes
On Nov. 11, The New Basement Tapes was released by a Bob Dylan supergroup consisting of Elvis Costello, Jim James, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith, and Rhiannon Giddens. Led by producer and previous Dylan collaborator, T Bone Burnett, the group takes a remarkable jaunt through half-finished musings of the folk legend, crafting songs from unfinished lyrics that were recently discovered. The result is nothing short of exceptional and it sits as the cherry on top of a cake of Dylan content that has flooded the music industry in the last two weeks.

During the Basement Tapes era of 1967, Bob Dylan wrote and recorded an incredible amount of content. At this point in time, he was living in Big Pink with The Band, penning a variety of songs, some quirky and others very introspective. Less than two weeks ago, Dylan’s camp released the eleventh volume of his series of bootlegs, cataloging nearly 140 tracks from the time period. The lyrics utilized for The New Basement Tapes were written during this time, but have not seen the light of day until now.

At the heart of The New Basement Tapes, Bob Dylan’s exceptional lyricism is abundantly apparent. These long forgotten songs are actually quite articulate and intriguing, evoking compelling imagery, and sounding much like the rest of his wording from the era. The band does a superb job capturing this. The sound is clean and polished, but feels playful and experimental, which is the heart of the original Basement Tapes. It is important for artists performing this content to not take it too seriously while still respecting the importance of it. The New Basement Tapes band clearly understood this.

Each song is usually dominated by a specific artist, though sometimes more than one of them peek out of the woodwork of the track. Each of them is credited as a writer because they were tasked with the mission to complete the lyrics and write music for them–a daunting task and weighty one with Dylan’s words. Each performer pulls their songs off well, managing to add their own creative license to tracks without compromising the Basement Tapes sound.

Elvis Costello is the oldest member of The New Basement Tapes Bob Dylan supergroup, and his experience as well as talent make his tracks the most memorable on the record. Married to My Hack, Six Months in Kansas City, and Golden Tom-Silver Judas are highlights of Costello’s additions to the record. The record should be listened to in its entirety, which is 20 songs. Some services have dubbed this version the “deluxe” version, with the regular version only containing 15 tracks. Listeners should only seek out the extended version, as the five extra songs are pivotal to the sound of the album.

Jim James’ take on songs are interesting, too. He manages to harness the vocal style of Dylan during the late 1960s eerily well. Nothing to It and Quick Like a Flash shine as his best contributions. Taylor Goldsmith also brings quite a bit to the table, especially during Card Shark and Liberty Street. Rhiannon Giddens is slightly less accessible than her male counterparts, since her wailing voice is a bit too much during Spanish Mary, but the rest of her contributions are equally as powerful as Costello’s or James’. Marcus Mumford’s songs are nicely arranged, though they feel too much like Mumford & Sons tracks, organized in an incredibly predictable and similar manner.

The New Basement Tapes, an album of unreleased Bob Dylan lyrics interpreted by a fantastic supergroup is very much worth a listen. The record captures the youthfulness of a captivating and insightful Bob Dylan during 1967, remaining true to the sound of the era while building a modernized sound scape to contribute to it in a very positive light. The actual Basement Tapes will always be more enduring, but that does not mean that this outing is not an enjoyable or remarkable one. One can draw comparison to the Bob Dylan in the 80’s record that was released earlier this year. The legend’s lyrics are always poignant, but it is difficult to best him. The best a performer can do is provide beautiful artistic homage. The New Basement Tapes deliver on that in spades.

Review By Brett Stewart

The New Basement Tapes
Rolling Stone
Consequence of Sound
Photo By Paul VanDerWerf – Flickr License