Disappointing Albums, Music

51 Disappointing albums: ‘Cahoots’

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Each week TONY THOMPSON discusses a ‘disappointing album’: why it’s disappointing, what that means in the context of the band or musician’s career, and what that says about changing critical tastes.

One thing must be made clear,” he says, this is not a series about terrible albums. They might be disappointing, but they are records that you need to hear.

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It’s 1971 and you’ve just picked up an album called Cahoots by The Band, some group you’ve never heard of. They have covered an unreleased Dylan song called When I Paint My Masterpiece and brought Allan Toussaint in to do some horn arrangements. It’s an amazing album, a classic slow burn that reveals itself slowly over the next few months as you await another record by this group.

Or, it’s 1971 and you’ve just bought The Band’s new album. It’s called Cahoots and despite the Dylan song and Tousan’s horns, it is a seriously disappointing effort from a group you consider peerless.

Like many of the records in this series, Cahoots mainly suffers from comparison to other records. If it were possible to hear it without Big Pink, The Band, and Stage Fright looming so large behind it, it would, I believe, be a remarkable record by one of the great bands.

Robbie Robertson doesn’t like it. He calls it cold. Garth doesn’t think much of it either. The mad genius of London Ontario feels like he had trouble coming up with interesting keyboard parts. Really? They sound pretty good to me! But it is significant that neither of the surviving members have fond memories of its creation. Robbie, as readers of his recent autobiography will have gathered, seems a bit disappointed with everything The Band did after 1969.

The endless personal problems of its members and internal strife within the group are both well known, and I won’t recount it all here. Bill Graham seemed to believe that Robbie was holding the whole thing together on the tour that came immediately before work began on Cahoots. Robertson has said he couldn’t write at the time.

It’s true that songs like Smoke Signal seem a bit forced. Where Do We Go From Here?, which Robbie calls “a shithead of a song”, doesn’t really stack up to anything from the previous albums either. Shoot Out In Chinatown hasn’t dated well though Robbie once noted that Martin Scorsese was a big fan. Robbie tries to recreate gold rush San Francisco but ends up with a mildly racist cliché fest, punctuated by cheeseball oriental style guitar lines. Probably their worst song.

Three mediocre songs don’t sink an album though and they are only blips when one considers the big screen funk of Life is a Carnival and Helm’s bravado reading of Dylan’s Roman holiday musings in Masterpiece. Those are the famous songs on the album, and the ones that remained in The Band’s repertoire. But let’s not forget 4% Pantomime, a song featuring Van Morrison himself, a neighbour in Woodstock and a drinking pal of Richard Manuel. The song refers to the difference in alcohol content in Johnny Walker Red and Black. But you knew that, of course! Did you know that it grew out of an improvised wordless performance of the card game described in the song? Yes, a pantomime followed by a slightly drunken rendition in the studio of a song that sounds a bit improvised. “Belfast Cowboy, are you able,” sings Richard Manuel. I always wondered why they didn’t repeat it at The Last Waltz, with the pantomime and everything. I suppose the answer to that one is obvious.

Why is it disappointing?

The strain is showing. There’s no doubt that the circumstances that produced the first two remarkable records have all but disappeared. It’s something that all artists face. A work grows out of a context and whether it be social, political, personal, or philosophical, it is difficult to find that space again. Most artists accept that it isn’t possible and simply try to work with what they have.

For Robbie, this was a group of friends whose success was destroying some of them physically and pulling at the fabric of the bonds created by ten years of touring behind Ronnie Hawkins and Dylan. The basement of Big Pink was a fading memory by 1971. On at least half of the songs here, Robbie seems to be rehashing the products of that original blast of inspiration. Sometimes it works, on buried gems like The Last of the Blacksmiths, and sometimes it doesn’t. Levon’s presence on this record seems somehow less forceful than on the previous records. Listen to it from start to finish. He only imposes himself on When I Paint My Masterpiece. I truly love Richard Manuel and Rick Danko but Levon’s voice, singing Robbie’s lyrics, is what defines the group. Where’s Levon?

Why should you hear it?

On their worst day, they would still be one of the great bands and with a relatively brief career that only yielded about 50 original songs, I’ll take what I can get. Cahoots is more disappointing than the first three albums, but I can’t imagine a list of great albums from 1971 that wouldn’t include it.

For the rest of this series, click here.

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