When a clutch of unfinished lyrics written during Bob Dylan‘s 1967 sojourn at Big Pink in Woodstock, New York was discovered in 2013, there were really only two choices left for his publisher: either they could be collected as text or set to music. Once the decision to turn these words into songs was made, there was really only one logical choice to direct the project: T-Bone Burnett, the master of impressionistic Americana. He had played with Dylan during the Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975 and 1976 — a tour that happened to occur in the wake of the first official release of The Basement Tapes — but more importantly, his 2002 work on the Grammy-winning O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack established him as deft modernizer of classic American folk and country, skills that were needed for an album that wound up called Lost on the River. Burnett decided to assemble a loose-knit band of Americana superstars to write the music and play as a band. That’s how Burnett‘s old pal Elvis Costello, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, and Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops became a band called the New Basement Tapes (the name seems more of a formality than an actual moniker), and if Burnett‘s intent was to approximate the communal spirit Dylan had with the Band at Big Pink, the execution was much different. The New Basement Tapes recorded Lost on the River in a real studio fully aware there was an audience awaiting their output, an attitude that’s the polar opposite of the ramshackle joshing around of the original Basement Tapes. Thankfully, nobody involved with Lost on the River contrives to replicate either the sound or feel of the 1967 sessions, even if the artists consciously pick up the strands of country, folk, and soul dangling on the originals. Wisely, the songwriters steer their given lyrics toward their own wheelhouses, which means this contains a little of the woolliness of a collective but Burnett sands off the rough edges, tying this all together. Certainly, some musicians make their presence known more than others — there’s a slow, soulful ease to James‘ four contributions that stand in nice contrast to Costello‘s canny bluster (“Married to My Hack” would’ve fit onto any EC album featuring Marc Ribot) — but the best work might come from Goldsmith, who strikes a delicate, beguiling balance between his own idiosyncrasies and the Americana currents that flow out of The Basement Tapes. Then again, the whole project is rather impressive: Burnett and the New Basement Tapes remain faithful to the spirit of The Basement Tapes yet take enough liberties to achieve their own identity, which is a difficult trick to achieve.
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