Tuesday, March 29, 2011
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ROBBIE ROBERTSON - HOW TO BECOME CLAIRVOYENT
It took me a couple of listens to get into the charms of this album, Robertson's first in 13 years. It's surprisingly guitar-heavy, given his famous reticence to riff. But one look at the guest list explains why, given all the finger-power on hand. There's everyone from Trent Reznor to Tom Morello to Robert Randolph, plus Eric Clapton collaborated on much of the disc from the start, playing on several and co-writing three tracks. It's easily Robertson's most satisfying disc musically since his self-titled first solo disc in 1987, one he's never come close to matching.
Lyrically, many of the songs here are bound to cause lots of discussion, since Robertson's chosen to address his past on several of the tracks. That certainly makes for some interesting listening, especially to lines such as "Walking out on the boys/Was never the plan/We just drifted off course/Couldn’t strike up the band." Just his use of the phrase "Walking out on the boys" is fascinating, since it's an admission that his departure from The Band in 1976 was, in effect, an abandonment, in retrospect. It's as close as he's come (as far as I can recall) to being publicly sorry for the way it went down.
Elsewhere he drops dollops of interesting history, right from the opening line "From the Chitlin’ Circuit to the Peppermint Lounge", early sixties tour dates for The Hawks, and "On highway 61 through the delta night/We shared the backroads with cardsharks and grifters/Tent show evangelists and Luke the Drifter". Andy Warhol makes an appearance in a true story involving Robertson and Edie Sedgwick, and there are references to the literal high life Robbie enjoyed with running pal Martin Scorsese in the post-Band days. Again, it's all engrossing and certainly modes well for Robertson's memoir due next year (and it's a damn smart marketing tool for it, too).
Trouble is, after a few listens you'll have taken in all the history bites, so what are you left with? Thankfully, there's quite a few decent tunes, for the most part in the distinct style Robertson develop when he started his solo career, a funky, slightly laconic groove. There are a couple of clunkers too, depending on your tastes. I find the full duet with Clapton, Fear Of Falling, one of those wimpy numbers Clapton rolls out ad nauseum. And Axman is one of those name the guitar player songs, where he pays tribute to everyone from Stevie Ray to Django Reinhardt.
Being a lyric guy, it's hard for me to turn off my thoughts about Robertson's writing on this disc. Even the title cut presents difficulties, the whole conceit of someone wanting to learn to be clairvoyant is awfully hard to shoehorn into a song lyric. But there are lots of other albums out there with words that just plain suck, and this thing is easy on the ears, as far as the playing goes.