The New Basement Tapes: ‘Lost on the River’ Album Review

Courtesy of relix.com
Courtesy of relix.com

I doubt that Bob Dylan would oppose the artistry in Lost on the River, a record by a band who named themselves as a tribute to his songwriting. The New Basement Tapes were brought together by producer T Bone Burnett after he stumbled upon some unfinished lyrics from Bob Dylan in preparation for The Basement Tapes in the 60s. Burnett set out to record these songs, but needed just the right people to compose and play music for the project. The band is assembled of well-known acts including Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens from The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Jim James from My Morning Jacket, Taylor Goldsmith from Dawe, and Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons. At this point, you’re probably thinking this is a huge collaboration… you would be right. 

Jim James takes the lead in the first song, “Down on the Bottom.” Of course, Dylan’s lyrics are the highlight of the song, but the smooth sound of the bass and the drum sequence have an impressive appeal. Bob Dylan, commonly referred to as the greatest songwriter alive, truly poured his soul into these lyrics. In the song, James sings “Down on the top / Down to the last drop in the cup / Down on the bottom / Nowhere to go but up.” But this song is just one of many great songs on this album. 

There’s a lot going on in “Married to Hack.” Elvis Costello sings over a composition of sounds that typically would not go together. But there’s something about the story in Dylan’s lyrics and the background vocals by Rhiannon. Each vocalist draws your ear, and you’ll be able to ignore the chaos and hear of a man’s complete devotion to someone. Of all the women and places in the world, he says, “I’d rather stay married to my hack.”

Kansas City” has some of the best vocals on the album and reassures us that Marcus Mumford is one of the most talented folk vocalists today. He leads the song with his familiar Mumford & Sons tone, but Bob Dylan wrote the song, and that’s a powerful sound. In addition to that, the pure emotion in his voice truly evokes the longing for a place or a person. Then, Jim James performs an immaculate guitar solo. Even if you’ve never been to Kansas, you’ll probably find yourself longing for it. 

Just when you think you’ve reached an untouchable vocal peak with the previous track, “Spanish Mary” proves otherwise. Introduced with the fine guitar picking of a blues melody, this song is one of the high points in the album. Rhiannon’s folk vocals pull you into a sea voyage where three sailors sail away “for the love of Spanish Mary.” The lyrical content in this song is a bit mystic, with “Beggar man /  Beggar Man / Tell me no lie / Is it a mystery to live / Or is it a mystery to die.” 

Liberty Street” is the quaintest song on this album, involving only a piano and Goldsmith’s vocals. There is an intense presence of the background vocals that get louder throughout the song, adding a huge significance to the lyrics that explain a struggle of survival on Kansas City’s Liberty Street. 

In the next song, all of the vocalists in the newly-formed band can be heard singing their own particular voice parts. “Nothing To It” is a more upbeat song with a more upbeat message. It’s no surprise that the artists perform easily – like there’s nothing to it. The bass line is the highlight of “When I Get my Hands On You,” although Mumford’s vocals are flawless. Devotion is clearly a theme in this album, as this song mimics the feelings in track four. The lyrics are “Now you know / Everywhere on earth you go / your gonna have me as your man.”

There are eight more songs on the album, including the title track, “Lost on the River #12” as well as continuance of track five, titled “Six Months in Kansas City.” All around, this album shows a tremendous amount of artistry in the compositions with great instrumentation, vocals, and of course, the “lost” lyrics of Bob Dylan. The world owes T Bone Burnett a huge thank you for the discovery.

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