The Band: Cahoots album review (50th anniversary edition)

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The group knew they had missed. Richard Manuel was addicted to drugs and had completely given up writing. Robbie Robertson, who in 1971 was in charge of producing all of the band’s material, found himself struggling with an intense writing crisis, which sapped his passion for the project. So the band didn’t have any finished songs to take to the studio with them, which was good as the studio itself was barely finished. Their manager, Albert Grossman, had built the Bearsville Recording Studio in Woodstock, New York, with the idea that his clients could use it as a clubhouse – most of them lived within 10 minutes. They would have a place to experiment, as they had planned to do on their fourth album. “We’re not traditional studio musicians where we go to a studio for a particular sound,” comments Robertson in the cover notes of this 50th anniversary reissue. “This studio had no ring. We were trying to find his ring.”

More serious than all of this, however, was the condition of the group, which was unraveling under the pressure of success and fame. After their turn as Bob Dylan’s touring group in the months following his switch to electricity, they had made two albums—Big Pink music in 68 and The group in ’69 – which took an irreverent approach to traditional American music, mixing weird old folk with rock and whatever mad scientist Garth Hudson did. It was revolutionary, and half a century later these two albums form the bedrock of what we call roots music. It was not a question of how to follow them: they had already released the very good but not so perfect Stage fright in 1970, and there was enough ego among them to believe that they could climb those heights again. It was more a matter of growing tension within the group, which either forced Robertson to take on a leadership role or allowed him to make a power play, depending on who is telling the story. While they once shared the credit for songwriting, by 1971 Robertson got the lion’s share. Most of the band were getting high and partying around Woodstock.

So those sessions in Bearsville were busy, to say the least. Robertson had gone through his writing block, but the songs were definitely not among his best. He had always delved into American history to find his subjects, but these new songs had all the passion and mystery of a book report. By his own admission, he was more interested in cinema and literature than music at the moment, but these songs sound like they are movies and books rather than actual human beings. Each has a critical thesis, a clearly stated reason for being written, which makes them literal embarrassed, stiff, oppressive. Robertson based “Shootout in Chinatown” on Herbert Asbury’s 1933 book The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld, however, he presents the material in a neutral way, without the prism of character to bring this environment to life or reveal any stake whatsoever.

According to Hudson, Robertson’s songs were difficult and made it difficult for him or anyone else to find a place within them to experiment. Not that the others were trying: they quickly discovered that they could just go to Bearsville whenever they needed to watch their games; suddenly recording a new album became just another rush in the day. So the music turned out to be as stiff as the songs, not completely lifeless but never quite engaged. The most significant contributions are made by people outside the band. Van Morrison runs through “4% Pantomime” with such vigorous exuberance that it inspires an equally exuberant performance from Manuel. Robertson also had the good sense to ask Allen Toussaint to write the horn charts for “Life Is a Carnival,” which provides the album’s craziest moments. He also asked Dylan if he had any songs for them. He gave them the humorous and inventive “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” perhaps the album’s truest classic, featuring one of Helm’s liveliest vocal performances.

Coalition talks about the past giving way to the future and what gets lost in the process. This theme is written on the surface of every song, too calculated in its persuasion and too shallow in its stakes. “How are you going to replace human hands?” Danko sings on “Last of the Blacksmiths”. “Found guilty,” said the judge, “of not having been wanted. And there’s actually a song called “Where Do We Go From Here,” which reflects on the plight of railways and buffaloes in the modern world. The group once seemed to locate aspects of the past that are still rooted in the present, but here they sound like they’re stuck in 1971, praising what happened and fearful of what is to come. It turns into an easy, vague nostalgia that resembles – horribly – that of Nixon’s moral majority, hungry for the certainty of a mythical American past. For the first time, the group sounds like reprimands that wave the finger at whippersnappers who do not appreciate “the eagle of distinction”.

Not only did they realize Coalition was a flop at the time, but they never forgot it. Helm barely mentions it in his memoirs, This wheel is on fire, and Robertson also succinctly dismisses it in his memoir, Testimony. But there is a good side: because it is not a sacred text like Big rose and The group, this box set can take a few liberties with the recordings and even rekindle that sense of experimentation that was supposed to animate the original sessions. While the first episodes of this reissue series took care of their remastering, Robertson and Bob Clearmountain went wild. They take out the instruments in order to declutter the arrangements and let the songs breathe a little more, bringing out the lovely sustain of the piano on “Last of the Blacksmiths” and highlighting Helm’s tam-tam rhythm to make “Life Is a Carnival ”just a little more funky. They even add some new parts, such as the new outro on “Where Do We Go From Here” and a reworked intro on “Shootout in Chinatown”.

This sort of thing can set off some alarms, especially when the original mix isn’t included in the box set, but really, what’s the harm? These changes push the album in the direction of Big rose and The group and undermine some of its sappy nostalgia. This version looks a lot livelier, with more emphasis on Hudson’s contributions. Although he struggled to find space in these songs, he was more imaginative than ever, and his saxophone solo on “Volcano” and his more sentimental salon piano on “The River Hymn” still ring. more lively to be more important in the mix. .

The group could still make a fuss, as evidenced by the live set included in this set. These versions of “Rag Mama Rag” and “Slippin ‘and Slidin’” barely hold together, but this irregular volatility makes them all the more exciting, like we’re watching a trapeze artist fly through the air. The songs were recorded in Paris in May 1971, just after the sessions but before the album was released. This tour – their first in Europe since supporting Dylan five years before – has been difficult and slow ticket sales have exacerbated an already latent tension between the members. By the time they returned to the United States, something had changed between them. It would take four years – an eternity in pop music – before they released an album of new material, and this album would be their last. Would things have been any different if the 2021 remaster had been released instead of the 1971 mix? Probably not. It’s still a fundamentally flawed album, and those flaws were symptoms of a more serious illness within the band. Perhaps that explains the dominant nostalgia of these songs, this feeling of having something beautiful and essential. Coalition is a eulogy for a group that was already in the past tense.


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