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Electric Dirt by Levon Helm

[Peter Viney]  Review by Peter Viney

[cover art]
Last year's grammy-winning Dirt Farmer had what publishers call a USP, or unique selling point. It was a return to the family songs of Levon Helm's childhood, with the judicious addition of select newer material. It was produced by Larry Campbell, and instigated by Amy Helm. It was the best solo work Levon Helm has ever done, and as good as anything any member of The Band has done since 1976.

Turn to this year's Electric Dirt and put on Happy Traum's Golden Bird or Carter Stanley's White Dove and that magic quality that gained so much praise for Dirt Farmer is right there. Either of these tracks would have graced Dirt Farmer.

But you should start at track one. That's an interpretation of The Grateful Dead's Tennessee Jed, and it looks as if a new style has been established, more electric, more modern than Dirt Farmer, but still deliciously countrified. A very promising start.

But oh, dear. Track two. Move Along Train (by Roebuck Staples). This is exactly the sort of well-played, well-interpreted generic gospel/blues song that Levon Helm has been recording... and failing to sell... for the thirty-odd years since The Last Waltz. The gospel chorus lifts it considerably but as you hit the twin guitar solo, your brain predicts (rightly) exactly where the fingers are going next. Lovely playing indeed, but while it would have had its place on any of the privately-released albums since the 1990s Band dissolved, here it's dull fare indeed.

Growin' Trade is a tale by Levon Helm and Larry Campbell. It reminds me strongly of songs like Caves of Jericho that the 90s Band recorded. It consciously searches for a Band-like first person narrative style, does it well enough, but somehow rings as not quite right. A good theme, a good story but there's a forced quality to it, especially in the middle. It shows you can't imitate Robbie Robertson, though in a spell of lack of inspiration, he tried to imitate himself, resulting in Cahoots. The "Original Quintet" Band album this one harks back to is Cahoots. I'd bet lyric came before melody rather than arriving with it.

Golden Bird? As earlier, this touching folk song with its Irish/Appalachian melody would have sat as a gem on the five star Dirt Farmer. The backing is sublime, with harmonium, fiddle and autoharp. It's my favourite track on the album, and showcases the emotive qualities inherent in Levon's voice.

Then comes Stuff You Gotta Watch. I've often stated that the 90s Band live act was marred by too many songs like this... Caldonia, Stuff You Gotta Watch, The Same Thing, Crazy Mama, Willie & The Hand Jive. The last is a great song, but I have four or five better interpretations than The Band (or earlier, Levon solo) ever managed. Any single one of those songs would have been a positive point in the set. Stuff You Gotta Watch was even better on the Sony demo boots from 1990. It's a fine song in itself. But all five together were boring. I still have that image of catching Rick's face as he was plowing manfully through yet another dull song he could have played with his toes instead of fingers. On Electric Dirt Levon cannily reinvents Stuff You Gotta Watch by doing a small group understated version with mandolin, accordion, bass and drums, plus backing vocals from the Louis Jordan era. I far prefer it to any Band version, especially with Brian Mitchell's accordion solo. It works in the context, but I'm already thinking, five tracks in, and two blues. And he's recorded this one before.

White Bird is sensible track ordering, because this Carter Stanley song is right back to the sound and style of Dirt Farmer. An excellent contrast. It's a very similar song to Golden Bird in style.

Randy Newman's Kingfish is a song The Band did live a few times, notably on circulating tapes from New Orleans (1987) and Tokyo (1994). Levon's voice should be perfect for this tale of the cracker's hero, Huey Long. The horns arranged by Allen Toussaint are in Preservation Hall style (Toussaint was touring with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band a couple of years back). Howard Johnson on tuba connects us to the Band's additional horn sections. I went straight to Randy Newman's original to compare. Randy had a more avant-garde arrangement, but the Levon Helm horn one works better in the context. I prefer the Randy Newman vocal interpretation, more clearly sly and ironic. Levon sings it now (as he did with The Band) as if it's without any irony. He did know that Huey Long was considered a prime example of burgeoning fascism in America, didn't he? Or does he just like demagogues? The Band performed both Kingfish, and Louisiana 1927 from the Good Ol' Boys album in the late 80s/early 90s, and neither Rednecks or Baltimore from that album throw in the irony with subtlety. So maybe Levon singing it straight is deliberately more ironic. More likely to me is that he couldn't resist lines like I'm a cracker, you are too or Who looked after shit-kickers like you, and that the tale of whippin' Standard Oil resonates so well in 2009, that the Huey Long story disappears behind it.

Then back to Muddy Waters for You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had. Yes. Levon can do this sort of thing better than almost anyone. Larry Campbell's guitar and mandolin lifts it above the ordinary. Except that you've heard this song's many, many facsimiles so many times and as I said before, this is what he has failed to sell for years. By the fifth or sixth time I heard the album, my finger hit "skip" as soon as it started.

Larry Campbell's gospelly When I Go Away doesn't fit the previous style at all, but sets out the stall for the last three tracks. Great organ and backing vocals, and it might be the best track on the album. The backing vocals are what I remember, the call and response is brilliant. I have a feeling this is the one I'll be listening to most in a year's time.

Heaven's Pearls is an Ollabelle composition from their Riverside Battle Songs album, and in a democratic mood they say it took five people to write it. We're into a gospelly mood again. The odd sensation I had here was that it would have been sung well by Rick Danko. There's something Dankoesque about the melody that I can't define. These two tracks, taken with Move Along Train have that definite Olabelle sway into the "Christian Rock" category, which is always a problem for me in empathizing with the lyrics.

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free (made famous by Nina Simone on 1967's Silk and Soul) is jubilant. And Levon's voice rings with jubilation so much that you're touched by how much better his voice is now than it was at the time of The Band's last album. A great closer for the album, with more Allen Toussaint New Orleans-style horns. It will be a magnificent concert closer.

My end assessment is four stars, one below Dirt Farmer (exactly how "Uncut" assessed it too), but I wouldn't be surprised to see some three star reviews because after a week of heavy rotation some tracks, like Growin' Trade, are getting less and less likeable, and from past experience I over-rate any Band connected album on first hearing. You have to listen to albums many times and note whether your heart lifts as a track starts, or whether you feel vaguely disappointed, or worse press "skip."

If you loved the Band, it's still an essential purchase, and albums as good as Dirt Farmer are few and far between. The album hasn't the impact of being the first of a new approach, and also isn't as consistent in style. I'd have dropped Move Along Train and You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had without a second thought. Conversely, I'd have kept Stuff You Gotta Watch as a contrast.

Then there's the bonus tracks issue (That's Alright on British iTunes and both That's Alright and Ashes of Love on American iTunes). I hate this sort of thing. I think it dishonest to sell an album from your own site at full price then sell an "enhanced version" at full price elsewhere. What's particularly shoddy is that you can't just buy the tracks from iTunes, you have to buy the complete album again (as an inferior quality file to the one you've already paid for). This policy, driving another nail into the coffin of independent record stores, is short sighted and "mean" (in the British sense of the "opposite of generous".) So no review of those tracks.

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