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[Jill Howland photo] by Jill Howland

From, 1995.

CAHOOTS: ("in cahoots") n. "In partnership, esp. one that involves shady dealings".

I was listening to Cahoots last night, and couldn't help but think about how overlooked this album is. Ever notice that it seems to be one of The Band's most criticly-bashed albums? Even the band members themselves talk about how it was such a "negative turning-point" album, and give it very little recognition. Personally, however, I can't get enough of it! I think it deserves tons more credit than it gets, and those of you who don't have it yet really need to check out Cahoots. Heck, what it amounts to is: don't listen to what the guys say, or the critics, or CD sleeve notes. . . I'm tellin' you: the album is definitely worth listening to.

Good old Barney (as in Hoskyns) completely trashes the record in Across the Great Divide, comparing it to a ferris wheel that starts a glorious journy with "Life is a Carnival". Then he goes on, with some kind of BS about how it completely screeches you to a stop at the very top with the rest of the album, leaving you stranded there.

Even Levon doesn't help this image much. In his book This Wheel's On Fire, he calls the songs on it "not memorable". I thoroughly disagree with using the words "not memorable" to describe Cahoots, mostly because one of the biggest reasons that makes The Band my favorite group, is the extremely creative and unorthodox song-writing that floods their albums. Of course to this day, I still go round and round with myself in a conflict of: "Robbie Robertson, lyricist. Sheer genious, or completely pretentious?" (BTW, I'd really like to hear some comments on this topic!) At any rate, I think that the songs on Cahoots really bring out the creative lyrics and unorthodox songwriting.

Think about it: how many bands, these days especially, do you know that would write a song along the lines of "Shootout in Chinatown", or "Last of the Blacksmiths"? Face it, this is not just another album of combination sappy-love-ballads n' catchy-guitar-rock. Granted I don't think there was ever an album by The Band that did fit in that category, but this one would not be the one, if there were. And I'm not just talking about their performance of the originals... for instance, I think Cahoots' version of "When I Paint My Masterpiece" blows the socks offa' Dylan's!!!! Garth's a pure saint on that one. Just like Levon said, his accordian really does give "Masterpiece" an awesome "european tourist-y feel" makes it extremely imagistic.

At the same time, Levon's vocals have never sounded better. His range is perfect for the song, and the man just wails out this cool and completely sing-along-able tune in a perfect mix over the music. (Off the subject for a spur, but probably one of my most favorite Band phrasings is his: "Dodgin' lionnnns... and a-waistin' ti-i-i-i-uh-me...").

There's a lot of high points on that album. For instance, their production knowledge, skills, etc. were really taking off for the first time, which makes this a record of better quality, plain and simple. The horns on it add so much, also. And IMHO, "Where Do We Go From Here" is some of the best lyricism that I've ever heard-- I think it really says something. "Masterpiece" was the first-ever released version of that song, and when Dylan's came out years later, it was obvious that there was no comparison to The Band's much fuller, much more imagistic, and better-vocalized version. The entertainment value of "4% Pantomime" makes me smile each time I hear it: legend has it that Richard and Van were so drunk during the recording of this one, that they could hardly sing into the microphones, and had to literally be carried into the studio.

Of course I am perfectly aware of the album's low point (IMHO, at least): "Moon Struck One" sucks, if you ask me. I will take back all my compliments on the lyricism for this one. I mean, c'mon: "Little John got stung by a snake"? What the hell is that all about? Ah, the things songwriters will do for rhyme, and not reason. However, I certainly don't think that one song should ruin a whole album's reputation.

I'm really sad about the fact that they never play any of the songs of this record in concert, with the exception of the token: "Life is a Carnival". I think that in my collection of concert tapes I have one or two performances of "Smoke Signal", and that's it for Cahoots. Seems like they've just laid it to rest for good.

Here's my personal theory on why The Band members themselves shirk Cahoots so badly: the time period when it was put out was the point in their relationship when no one was getting along. You can read about how estranged Robbie was getting, and the way it was becomming apparent that no matter how much any of the other guys had to do with the songwriting, the credits would always read "JR Robertson". It was a time when the drugs and alchohol were totally out of control, and they were pretty much sick of the whole business. If you'll notice the date on Cahoots, it was the album that ended their "Album-a-year" streak, and the books talk about how that after this one, they were putting records out for the sake of the record company, not for themselves. It was also after Cahoots, that they put out Moondog - nothing original - Matinee. Therefore, I suppose that enough bad vibes circle the album, in The Band's eyes, that they never really saw it as a positive album, and would rather play a happy version of "Up on Cripple Creek" than say, "Where Do We Go From Here", in concert. Even so, I still think that the bad times that the band was going through, don't have a negative impact on the songs themselves... just on the way that they think about that period of time. All it takes is those first funky little intro-beats and bassline in "Life is a Carnival", and WHAM!... I'm stuck in a Cahoots-rut for the rest of the week, at least.

Granted I know a lot of big fans who don't like this album much either, and I'm not suggesting that anyone take the word of a 19-year-old opinionated loudmouth like me, as gospel, but I'm interested in reasons why the people who shy away from this wonderful album do so. Anyone out there have something to add? I'd really like to know how everyone else feels. One thing I will admit, is that it took me a few (2 or 3) listens to Cahoots before I started feeling this way...perhaps it's just a collection of songs that need to grow on you? Who knows.

In Cahoots,
Jill Howland

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