Robbie Robertson – How to Become Clairvoyant

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A critic's darling.

How else would you explain the attention given To Robbie Robertson’s new release?  Appearances on Letterman, The View, Jools Holland?  Even an NPR review.

Who is this guy?

The necessary introduction in any venue is that Robertson played in a band that most (middle aged) people have heard (“Rag Mama Rag,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”) but a band of which they have not heard.  Right?  The name of that band?  The Band.

You can read the linked Wiki article if you want, but in short, they backed Bob Dylan when he went electric, at once offending many of Dylan’s fans but bringing a mature, creative backing band to greater attention.  They are partially credited with laying the foundation for what is now “Americana” music, with a good helping of traditional, acoustic instruments (never mind that 4 of the 5 were Canadian).  But they were successful in blending rock, country, gospel, blues, etc. into songs that formed a solid groove through a disk.

In the late 60’s they released two superb albums, Music From Big Pink and a self titled album, before mediocrity became associated with each follow-up.  Their last hurrah was The Last Waltz (1976), recorded for theatrical release and starring many guest musicians of the era in winning versions of their own and others’ work. 

Robertson, then, wrote most of The Band’s better songs, sang a few, and ably played lead guitar.  He re-emerged in 1989 with a self-named release, well written and well produced (though now sounding dated by virtue of tired U2 treatments).  Like his previous track record, he then followed with a great idea that failed to deliver (Storyville) or were more personally meaningful works that were completely forgettable.  Now, 13 years after his last clunker, he’s released something much better…

… for long time fans.  Sure it’s listenable music to an unfamiliar audience, quite listenable, actually.  But it’s the lyrics that set this apart from his songs over the last 20 years.  Robertson has always been known as a story teller, and this CD reads like a logical extension of his work with The Band.  A couple of the tracks even sound like he had a 70’s groove in mind (“When the Night Was Young” and “The Right Mistake”) in part due to the complementary backing vocals from Angela McCluskey, who unfortunately isn’t featured on more of the disc.

The production values are excellent but at the same time muted.  Robertson, , as would befit a story teller, is more successful in context as a narrator than a singer himself.  He has a raspy, whispered, gravelly or similar throaty voice that, while limited in range, offers ample expression to his own words.   However, he no longer has the volume to rise above the din of the instruments.  Accordingly, the music has to lie low, whether the band is in full momentum or even during a lead guitar duet (as opposed to a duel).   It’s all good, but the mood is affected, likely positively for those who appreciate Robertson’s gifts and frustratingly for those who would prefer more evident musical payoffs. 

Eric Clapton contributed to 7 songs in a reserved manner, with the only strike against being one of his too-common repetitive saccharine riffs in “Fear of Falling.”   Robert Randolph’s pedal steel shines in its two opportunities (“Straight Down the Line” and “How to Become Clairvoyant” (a difficult phrase for a chorus if ever there was one).  Tom Morella (from Rage Against the Machine) shows well in a tribute to guitarists (“Axman”) as well.  

Lyrically, themes include weathered idealism, the juxtaposition of the spiritual and the worldly in music and in life, the excesses of touring, the breakup of The Band, and the (futile) desire to foretell among others.  Also included are two instrumentals which neither add nor detract, but from song to song and in total, the CD contains a generous 54 or so minutes of music.  It should be noted that the “bonus” disc included in the Best Buy version isn’t either generous or a bonus.

Recommended Songs: “Straight Down the Line,” “When the Night Was Young,” “The Right Mistake,” & the title track.

3 of 5 STARS

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