Bob Dylan's Atmosphere Captured In New Basement Tapes

Nov 19, 2014

A batch of lyrics that Bob Dylan wrote in the late 1960s were given by Dylan to producer T-Bone Burnett, who came up with the idea to have some contemporary musicians set the words to music. Burnett gathered Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes, and Rhiannon Giddens from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and they recorded an album over the course of two weeks in L.A. It's called Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, and Showtime will air a documentary about the making of the album on November 21. Fresh Air rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. A batch of forgotten lyrics that Bob Dylan wrote in the late 60's were given by him to producer T-Bone Burnett, who came up with the idea to have some contemporary musicians set the words to music. Burnett gathered Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James from My Morning Jacket, Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes and Rhiannon Giddens from the Carolina Chocolate Drops. And they recorded an album over the course of two weeks in LA. It's called "Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes." On Friday, Showtime will air a documentary about its making. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING TO IT")

JIM JAMES: (Singing) Well, I knew I was young enough. And I knew there was nothing to it. 'Cause I'd already seen it done enough, and I knew there was nothing to it. There was no organization.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's Jim James' melody set over the framework of a lyric Bob Dylan wrote when he was in his 20s. The words describe a scene - a man flipping a coin to decide whether he'll commit murder. The language itself is flip in the manner of a young writer, but James' melody and his lead guitar playing give the tale some weight. It's a good matchup. Elsewhere, Rhiannon Giddens takes what we now think of as a typical Dylan construction, a newly conceived tall tale recounted as though it was a well-established legend, and renders it with folk music purity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPANISH MARY")

RHIANNON GIDDENS: (Singing) There were three sailors, bold and true, with cargo they did carry. They sailed away on the ocean blue. For the love of Spanish Mary. So deeply now were they disturbed no longer could they tarry. Swoon and swerve for the love of Spanish Mary.

TUCKER: In this 1960s Bob Dylan context, it's hard not to imagine Rhiannon Giddens' voice substituting for that of Joan Baez. They possess a similarly chilly skill set. "Lost On The River," subtitled "The New Basement Tapes," comes on the heels of the release of "The Basement Tapes Complete," these staggering, six-disc, treasure trove Dylan recorded with the men who would become the band around the same time he wrote these songs. It was inevitable that a lot of "The New Basement Tapes" lyrics would end up sounding like tunes for tracks that Elvis Costello, Taylor Goldsmith or Marcus Mumford might make with their own bands. Costello understands that to meet a giant like Dylan even halfway, one must be aggressive. Listen to the way he grabs hold of the Dylan lyric "Married To My Hack" and makes it his own.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARRIED TO MY HACK")

ELVIS COSTELLO: (Singing) Five in the morning, she would fix my lunch. Put it in a paper sack. Where I'm headed, I always appreciate it, but I'd rather stayed married to my hack. I move like the breeze and the birds and the bees, and I've never been known to look back. I've got 15 women and all of them swimming, but I'd rather stay married to my hack. I move 15 miles every minute...

TUCKER: The Showtime documentary film to promote this album called "Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued" is fascinating for the way it reveals musicians' various, often divergent approaches to creation. We see them arrive at the studio in varied degrees of preparedness. Costello and Jim James come on like old pros, bristling with ideas and opinions. Giddens treats it like an art project, intentionally approaching the studio as a blank canvas. Poor Marcus Mumford is often notably stress, as though he just wants to crawl back to his Mumford and Sons. At one point, Costello expresses the wonder of coming upon this material, and then we hear Dylan himself, who provided a little bit of voiceover commentary, placed the lyrics within his own history.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LOST SONGS: THE BASEMENT TAPES CONTINUED")

COSTELLO: I mean, the basement tapes are an inspiration. These are songs from that time lyrically that have sat undisturbed, and you can't imagine that the writer would leave it in a drawer for 40 odd years, you know.

BOB DYLAN: You can't record everything you wrote. So it's understandable that a lot of this stuff just fell by the wayside or - I don't even know where it was kept all these years. I've never seen these lyrics since the day they were written, never seen them.

TUCKER: The music created by the not-quite-super-group assembled for "The New Basement Tapes" sounds utterly contemporary. Dylan's sensibility, when not delivered in his voice, frequently gets lost. But that doesn't mean there aren't good, complete songs here. The best of them share one quality the original basement tapes had in full flower - the warmth achieved in the heat of collaboration in the hothouse atmosphere of anything goes and let it all hang out.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed "Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes." A documentary about the making of the album will air on Showtime this Friday. If you'd like to listen to FRESH AIR on your own schedule, try podcasting us. You can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIDEE HIDEE HO")

DYLAN: How could she reject me? Send me on my way? How could she suspect me? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.