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The Sum of the Parts

by Al Edge

Posted in The Band guestbook, 03.30.2011.

Have to admit Rob's mention of his mate - the one and only Brinsley Schwarz no less - opting for Stagefright over the first two albums and Rob's own inclination not to disagree with that view has had me feverishly playing all three albums and reassessing my own Band yardsticks this past week or so.

Now I've always had a fixed mindset on this - namely the precedence of the first two albums - but I know Pete Viney to name but one highly respected time-served GBer has often maintained Stagefright as the equal of the other two. So I felt this latest judgement of such a legendary Band aficionado as Brinsley more or less coinciding with PV's view surely demanded at the very least some considered reflection on my own take.

Having had quite a lengthy hiatus from any Band listening whatsoever - possibly extending [cue entirely justified disparaging grimaces all round] for more than a year - I was quietly enthralled at the task in hand and pleased to think I'd be able to approach it with real objectivity. I opted to begin my contemplation in reverse order with back-to-back plays of the Stagefright album before proceeding in the same reverse order with the Brown album and Big Pink. I felt that way I could avoid any possible clouded judgement of Stagefright arising from saturation with the first two albums.

Possibly due to not having listened to it for so long - and ironically in spite of my long love affair with it - I was caught entirely off guard by the awesome quality of Stagefright. The opening bars of Levon's Strawberry Wine were a real adrenaline rush. Boy did it sound good. Mindful of Adam's recently espoused 'heroin' take I even determined to listen more intently to its lyrics than ever before. Such intent lasted all of 20 seconds. So implanted in my brain is the child-like defiance of those opening Strawberry lyrics that any notion of the song not being a drunkard's rejection of attempts to deny him his precious barley wine swiftly dissipated. Perhaps there is an altogether more sinister slant on it but for now I'm lumbered with the plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face plonkie interpretation.

And so, as Side One played on and the Strawberry Wine revelry melted first into Richard's exquisite yearning for tranquil escape, then into his and Rick's paean to domestic bliss, then Richard's frantic railing at life per se before drifting into the sweetest lullaby since Brahms, so wonderful did it all seem that it was hard to resist the inclination that perhaps this was the time to re-adjust my long held stance as to where this wonderful record stands in The Band's pantheon - and for that matter the pantheon of popular music per se.

And, of course, as we all know Side Two is simply so good it was only ever going to reaffirm such an inclination, to the extent that by the time Rick in that amazing backwoods drawl of his was telling me he'd 'rather die happy than not die at all' [cue moistened eyes] I was sold. Mind made up. This was music that simply could not be bettered. And the quality of the three final cuts only served to seal the deal. 'Open up your arms and feel the good... it's a coming a brand new day'. Richard's clincher, the album's climax invoking more eye moistening this time of pure joy lending testimony to the sheer magnificence on offer.

Next stop, The Band.

To quote John Winston, I should have known better.

Across the Great Divide isn't so much a song as a time machine to an era five or six generations distant. If the song's title alone isn't enough to stir latent 19th century pioneering instincts then its opening refrains are akin to Charlie Worcester's chuck wagon rolling up outside your front door and Ward Bond motioning you to go and calm the stand-off between the gun-toting Molly and her frantic misunderstood spouse so the trek west can begin.

And once, Rags, the 4-19 iron horse is scratching your back at the side of the railroad track with dear old Charlie and WB jigging wildly to its infectious swing in the distance you are no longer in the seedy comfort of your own armchair enjoying a fine musical listening experience. No sir. For something rather special is taking place. The creators of this particular audio spectacular had something in mind a little bit different from the norm. This deal demands you to be there with them down in that special tract of America termed 'the south'. Well virtually any rate. A bit like Arnie Schwarzeneger's virtual vacation on Mars, minus the little green men.

So by the time Vergil Cain has laid down his particular weary tune at your feet, you find yourself surveying a smouldering Virginian landscape. It's 1865. You're in the early stages of a journey that will take in as many aspects of rustic bygone America - the charms, joys and pain of it and its denizens - as even Charlie Worcester cares to imagine. Rolling mud and tolling bells ominously announcing the South's demise, the reassuring wisdom of Holie and a loving grandpa coupled with the rather more earthy comforts of dear Bessie. The heart rending emptiness of a mist shrouded house . Foghorns calling out to sea for the return of lost love. The images are endless. A chancer's insistent craving for a night of joyous passion with the luscious Jemima. Old sailors pining for their Virginny homes and rockin chair comforts, thieves and vagabonds, twisters both human and meteorological; disgraced servants from a country home. The journey culminates in the bleak rural desperation of failed crops, magnolia trees, worn out shoes and an old horse, the aptly named Jethro, going loco.

All told it represents an enthralling listening experience. Probably a unique one. Viewed in the context of its ultimate success in realizing the magical tapestry it sets out to weave, the album has to be seen as music unsurpassed. And, somewhat perversely I guess, it is via a reassessment of Stagefright itself, the same artists' ensuing album, which provides us with the requisite testimony to support the legitimacy of a claim of such boldness.

The thing is, in terms of much of its core essence Stagefright may well be said to emulate its predecessor. Wonderful songs with ensemble singing, playing and arrangements transcending even the highest standards to attain levels few, if any, before and since have achieved. Four Canadians and an Arkansian somehow aspiring -and managing - to fuse into a single seamless entity. So tight, so fluid, so intricate, so complementary, so in touch with their roots and yet at the same time so able to take the heritage plucked from those roots to a new high water mark of musical accomplishment.

Yet the stakes of judgement are also at their highest here. They have to be if that judgement is to be worthy of the subject matter it is judging. And so, in this regard, we do have to ask ourselves the question - most especially those of us who hold The Band so dear -as to where Stagefright as an entity actually takes the listener?

Sure, it is manifestly cut from the same cloth as the Brown album and many of its individual tracks certainly conjure up similar powerful imagery of their own. As an entire piece, however, Stagefright simply does not work on or at the same level as the Brown album. Whilst its majesty is unquestionable, that majesty lies in other areas. In contrast, what can only be termed the high art of the Brown album is that not only does it provide songs of supreme quality, arranged, played and sung with matching quality and not only is that standard maintained across every track on the album but each of those tracks also gloriously complement each other to provide a cohesive entity equating to that of the singers/musicians performing it. And all of it wrapped for the most part in a 150 years old southern USA landscape that is as tangible as any such vicarious experience can ever be.

Moreover, so real and so convincing is it that there can be no question of it not having been the intended objective of all parties involved in the project to aspire to creating it. It didn't simply happen like that. It was planned. Crafted. A unique amalgam of inspiration, perspiration and incredible innate ability saw to that. And all done in such a subtle fashion that the listener is left with the impression that they are simply eavesdropping upon a group of musicians from the era itself just there to play for themselves or, more likely perhaps, for kith and kinfolk. Crucially those musicians also seem part of what they are singing about.

Stagefright, in contrast, is without question the work of a band reacquainted with and re-attuned to the modern era flexing its considerable collective muscle to show just how damnwell fine and accomplished it is. And whilst its members manage to demonstrate that more than capably, never do we get the sense they are still part of any of the things about which they are singing. Rather the songs provide us with what amount to their own personal commentaries about what is happening to them and their ways of dealing in many instances with the very disconnection they have experienced or are still experiencing.

One simple analysis illustrates this disconnection and some of those subtle distinctions between the respective albums. Taking what most regard as Stagefright's cornerstone song - The Rumor, we find a truly mighty track by any criterion. Within its majesty we find its protagonists the butt of the rumour mongering about which they sing. Initially disconsolate, then philosophical, they ultimately become defiant and fired with the conviction of a brand new dawn awaiting them.

On the one hand, it is wonderful life-affirming music, its vocal performances interchanged between Rick, Levon and Rick particularly stunning. And yet on reflection the song itself has little if any connection with anything preceding it on the album. It speaks, isolated, only for those singing it or for those few of like experience. That is not to detract from the undeniable top quality of the song in itself. It is merely to make the observation that the limited degree of its interface with and connection to the rest of the album tracks - and theirs with it and each other - inevitably results in an album whose overall quality is forced to depend upon the quality of its individual parts rather than any cohesive amalgam. In the ultimate analysis the ensuing whole is only equal to the sum of the parts. Such disconnection is a world away from how the music of the Brown album was envisaged, forged and linked so seamlessly making its whole nigh immeasurable in quality.

Sticking with Stagefright's party piece, there is a further closely associated distinction worth noting here. If we were to speculate as to how a song dealing with the concept of rumours would have featured on the Brown album or even more so on Big Pink with its more emphatic underpinning sense of community, it would seem fairly evident how with hindsight it might have turned out. The singers as part of the community wherein the rumours germinated would more than likely have been part of the rumour mongering rather than the targets for it. However unsavoury or unpalatable it might have seemed - being as most people would like to think that they would view rumour mongers as the bad guys - it would simply have been the way such things work. The brutal reality is most folk love a bit of gossip. Art imitating life, as it were.

So, taken in the splendour of their own isolation, The Rumor and its fellow Stagefright tracks may all work magnificently, yet together they fail to emulate the Brown album's seamless artistic integrity and completeness. That meshing together so pivotal in creating the wonder of the Brown album is absent. As such Stagefright - albeit fairly typical in its 'unmeshed' sense to most albums - has to be viewed as having fallen somewhat short of the high water mark of its forerunner.

Some may regard the need to apply such fastidious criteria as I have done as nitpicking. And perhaps in one sense it may well be. Yet the piece I've written speaks for itself in this regard. It has not been formulated to decry Stagefright in any way. Rather to help ensure the Brown album remains elevated - even if only within the stronghold of The Band's own community - at the unique niche its uniqueness merits.

In the final analysis, whilst many of the points made are certainly fine and marginal ones, if they can provide even a modicum of insight as to why my own instincts arrived at the conclusion that one album is simply a wonderful one whilst the other has entered artistic territory trodden by few, then as far as I am concerned the effort will have been more than worthwhile. Individual musical tastes can lead each of us down different paths, yet I do still believe there are occasionally certain absolutes that call for us to defy charges of mere favouritism and attempt to provide a rationale. Surely, it is especially encumbent upon diehards such as those of us who inhabit the GB to explore any such subtle distinctions and fine margins when evaluating the music we love. Hopefully, my own little soul search has gone some way to doing just that.

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