Saturday, April 18, 2009

Robbie Robertson

With an impressive artistic template that takes in disparate styles like arena-rock, New Orleans cadences, ambient electronica, Native American patterns and Americana country-blues, Robbie Robertson, erstwhile leader of famed folk-rock collective The Band, has long ago stamped his mark as one of the most accomplished rock performers of our time. However, it is a real shame that Robertson these days is reduced to being a cult artist existing on the outer fringes of mainstream rock, occasionally chipping in with production duties or the odd soundtrack contribution, but otherwise, just living off the fruits of his past labours. It's a rather sad fate to befall anyone, let alone one of the more respected members of the rock intelligentsia.

This two-for-one collection from 2005 won't do anything to rectify Robertson's present situation: if anything, it will only appeal to hardcore Band followers who might have missed out on Robertson's solo jaunt the first time around. Encompassing his first two albums (1987's eponymous debut and 1991's 'Storyville') on two discs, it handily serves as a new-millennium replacement for those two above-mentioned, long out-of-print records. Throw in a pristine remastering job and some new liner notes, and it becomes a truly essential purchase for any serious rock fan, never mind the zero commercial aspirations that it holds.

'Robbie Robertson', which makes up the first disc, was co-produced by maverick knob-twiddler Daniel Lanois (who famously worked on U2's 'The Joshua Tree' and Peter Gabriel's 'So'), and bears evidence of the French-Canadian's archetypal expansive, atmospheric sound. This is most obvious in the majestic opening track, 'Fallen Angel', which bristles with all manner of creative effects like found-sound percussion, ambient guitar noises, vocal samples and sculpted synth chords. Meanwhile, tracks like 'Showdown at Big Sky', 'American Roulette' and 'Sweet Fire of Love' are more visceral numbers, replete with the requisite measured guitar pyrotechnics, fortified bass underpinnings and strident drum work.

Robertson also takes some time to indulge in some heart-wrenching balladry on 'Robbie Robertson', not just in the sneakily subtle but highly effective 'Broken Arrow', but also in the shivering, uneasy nocturnal elegy 'Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight'. The album's most dramatic moment comes in the form of the surreal spoken-word narrative 'Somewhere Down the Crazy River', while the concluding 'Testimony' is Robertson's earnest tribute to time-honoured Stax-Volt soul traditions, complete with stately horn charts and sweeping orchestration.

For 'Storyville', Robertson decided to rein in some of the more impressionistic touches so prevalent on 'Robbie Robertson', and introduce a grittier sensibility to the scheme of things. This resulted in earthy, organic tunes like 'Night Parade', 'Soap Box Preacher' and 'Hold Back the Dawn', all of which come complete with brassy, New Orleans-informed R&B textures, post-bop jazz rhythms and a strong dose of Neville Brothers-approved funky soul. The Cajun-flavoured 'Shake This Town' is filled with call-and-response dynamics and murky swamp-blues aesthetics.

Elsewhere, 'Resurrection' sounds remarkably like a free-for-all musical jam in the middle of the French Quarter, while the rough-hewn 'Go Back to Your Woods' is the sonic equivalent of a late-night backwoods spiritual-healing session. 'Breaking the Rules' is another consummate Robertson ballad, a heartfelt plea for understanding from an estranged loved one, and the closing 'Sign of the Rainbow' is a poignant, moving gospel hymn that is considerably strengthened by the backing-vocal support of the Zion Harmonisers.

Simply put, this double-disc is a marvellous testament to Robertson's prodigious songwriting, intelligent production skills and unerring ear for an emotionally charged tune. Even though he isn't as prolific as he used to be, and the powers-that-be have more or less consigned him to the scrap heap of rock history, the contemporary-rock gems assembled here still bear proof to how consequential and engaging Robertson's talents are. They also help to display why he will forever be held in high esteem by more discerning, bona fide rock fans who are still holding out in this era of crass commercialism. An absolutely fantastic and absorbing introduction to one of the rock era's most underrated and noteworthy singer-songwriters.


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