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Music From Big Pink

January 1, 2011

I personally love this image. It’s not universally popular – it’s been voted as one of the worst album covers – and even less universally acknowledged. The Band’s influence, although profound, was never extended to the broad public. My parents and others are likely aware of them, but I can count on one hand those age my age who were previously aware of their existence. Even less those who weren’t introduced them by me.

Which is all irrelevant. I can’t simply describe Music From Big Pink as “folk rock” or “roots rock”. The latter depicts it but what it isn’t, and the former gives this album’s compositions and beautiful singing no justice. It’s certainly no jazz fusion in terms of musical ability, but to be so would ignore the entire point. Its musicians, while loosely based on the organ/piano/guitar/bass/drums combination, are cleanly and cleverly interwoven into every song, whether it be the fluctuating vocals of Richard Manuel and Levon Helm sharing lead, or the beauty of Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson accompanying them, through more than simple harmonies, or the incredibly icy organ of Garth Hudson giving way to Danko’s fiddle and understated horns. While not adding to the artistic integrity of the album, it is impressive that all instruments were played by The Band themselves, with help from their producer, given the vast array of accompaniment, including horns, keyboards and strings.

But oh what would this album be without such beautiful songs. Not only are the arrangements and playing spectacular, but the lyrics and pure sensibility of songwriting is absolutely clear. The assistance of Bob Dylan, assisting in writing three of the strongest songs cannot be understated, but on similar terms cannot be credited with the beauty emanating from the remaining eight tracks. If I were hyperbolic I’d claim Music From Big Pink to be the saddest album of all time. Resisting exaggeration, its subtle harmonies and singing certainly do create an eerie environment, which is matched only by the heartbreak suggested by each character in these stories, as Lonesome Suzie or I Shall Be Released so easily suggest. Not all songs are tragic, but they address an underlying theme of qualms, loneliness and particularly the necessary sadness in life. To care is to be hurt, but to not care is to not know the terrible joy of life.

The Band’s Music From Big Pink represents one of the strongest cases of a unified musical statement, rebuking the psychedelia of the era with no acknowledgement, let alone apology for its acute rejection of trends. It took only four Canadians and two Americans (Dylan certainly counts as a presence on this record) to destabilise modern music, but its effect was felt almost immediately, with Eric Clapton’s subsequent resignation from Cream, and the revival of electric folk and blues, soon to be developed into Southern Rock (ironic given its northern heritage), and singer-songwriter medium subsequently turned on its head due to these unprecedented vivid compositions.

To ignore The Band would not be detrimental to one’s understanding of popular music at large. It would however, preclude the reader from an utterly ethereal yet earthy experience, in which the listener is transported across the world yet resident within firm local borders, of which the very nature of life is questioned by these philosophical and mellow men. These experiences are rarely questioned save for the oft-ridiculed country-style storytelling, yet The Band succeeds in developing a coherent and deeply inquisitive glance into the relationships and strife of human life. What else defines us?

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