Unraveling from the pressure of success and celebrity, the Band moved to a new studio in Woodstock and made their fourth album, a stiff and scattershot record that is somewhat enlivened by a new reissue.
The Band knew they’d made a dud. Richard Manuel was in the throes of addiction and had stopped writing altogether. Robbie Robertson—who, by 1971, was tasked with churning out all of the Band’s material—found himself battling an intense bout of writer’s block, which sapped his passion for the project. So the Band didn’t have any completed songs to take into the studio with them, which was fine because the studio itself was barely finished. Their manager, Albert Grossman, had built Bearsville Recording Studio in Woodstock, New York, with the idea that his clients could use it as a clubhouse—most of them lived less than 10 minutes away. They would have a place to experiment, as they planned to do on their fourth album. “We are not traditional studio musicians where we go to a studio for a particular sound,” Robertson comments in the liner notes to this 50th-anniversary reissue. “This studio had no sound. We were trying to find its sound.”
More dire than any of that, however, was the state of the Band, which was unraveling from the pressure of success and celebrity. Following their turn as Bob Dylan’s touring band in the months after he went electric, they’d made two albums—Music from Big Pink in ’68 and The Band in ’69—that took an irreverent approach to American traditional music, mixing old, weird folk with rock and whatever mad scientist Garth Hudson was doing. It was revolutionary, and half a century later those two albums form the bedrock of what we call roots music. It wasn’t a matter of how to follow them up: They’d already released the very-good-but-not-similarly-perfect Stage Fright in 1970, and there was enough ego among them to believe they could scale those heights once more. It was more a matter of rising tension within the Band, which either forced Robertson into a leadership role or allowed him to make a power play, depending on who’s telling the story. Whereas they once shared songwriting credit, by 1971, Robertson was getting the lion’s share. Most of the Band were off getting high and carousing around Woodstock.
So those sessions at Bearsville were fraught, to say the least. Robertson had powered through his writer’s block, but the songs were assuredly not among his best. He’d always rummaged through American history to find his subjects, but these new songs had all the passion and mystery of a book report. By his own admission, he was more interested in film and literature than in music at this moment, but these songs sound like they’re about movies and books rather than actual human beings. Each one has a critical thesis, a clearly stated reason for being written, which makes them sound self-conscious, stiff, oppressively literal. Robertson based “Shootout in Chinatown” on Herbert Asbury’s 1933 book The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld, yet he presents the material matter-of-factly, without the lens of character to bring that milieu to life or reveal any stakes whatsoever.
According to Hudson, Robertson’s songs were difficult and made it hard for him or anyone to find a place within them to experiment. Not that the others were trying: They quickly discovered that they could just pop in at Bearsville whenever they needed to track their parts; suddenly recording a new album became just another errand in the day. So the music turned out as stiff as the songs, not completely lifeless but never quite engaged. The most substantial contributions are made by people outside the Band. Van Morrison barrels through “4% Pantomime” with such lusty exuberance that he inspires an equally rambunctious performance out of Manuel. Robertson also had the good sense to ask Allen Toussaint to write horn charts for “Life Is a Carnival,” which provides the album’s wildest moments. He also asked Dylan if he had any songs for them. He gave them the humorous and inventive “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” perhaps the truest classic on the album, featuring one of Helm’s most animated vocal performances.
Cahoots is about the past giving way to the future and what gets lost in the process. That theme is written on the surface of every song, too calculated in its persuasion and too superficial in its stakes. “How’re you gonna replace human hands?” Manuel sings on “Last of the Blacksmiths.” “Found guilty, said the judge, for not being in demand.” And there’s actually a song called “Where Do We Go From Here,” which ponders the fate of railroads and buffalo in the modern world. The Band once seemed to locate aspects of the past still embedded in the present, but here they sound like they’re stranded in 1971, eulogizing what’s gone and fearing what’s coming. It curdles into an easy, vague nostalgia resembling—horrifically—that of Nixon’s Silent Majority, hungry for the certainty of some mythic American past. For the first time, the Band sound like scolds wagging a finger at the whippersnappers who don’t appreciate the “eagle of distinction.”
Not only did they realize Cahoots was a flop at the time, but they never forgot it. Helm barely mentions it in his memoir, This Wheel’s on Fire, and Robertson also dismisses it succinctly in his memoir, Testimony. But there’s an upside: Because it’s not a sacred text like Big Pink and The Band, this box set can take a few liberties with the recordings and even revive that sense of experimentation that was supposed to animate the original sessions. Whereas the first installments in this reissue series took pains in their remastering, Robertson and Bob Clearmountain cut loose. They take out instruments in order to declutter the arrangements and let the songs breathe a little more, bringing out the lovely sustain of the piano on “Last of the Blacksmiths” and highlighting Helm’s tom-tom rhythm to make “Life Is a Carnival” just a little funkier. They even add a few new parts, such as the new outro on “Where Do We Go From Here” and a reworked intro to “Shootout in Chinatown.”
This kind of thing can raise some alarms, especially when the original mix is not included in the box set, but really, what’s the harm? These changes nudge the album in the direction of Big Pink and The Band and undercut some of its sappy nostalgia. This version sounds much livelier, putting more emphasis on Hudson’s contributions. While he did have trouble finding space in these songs, he was as keenly imaginative as ever, and his sax solo on “Volcano” and his parlor piano on sentimental closer “The River Hymn” sound even more vivid for being more prominent in the mix.
The Band could still kick up a fuss, made evident by the live set included on this box set. These versions of “Rag Mama Rag” and “Slippin’ and Slidin’” barely hold together, but that ragged volatility makes them even more exciting, as though we’re watching a trapeze artist fly through the air. The tracks were recorded in Paris in May 1971, just after the sessions but before the album’s release. That tour—their first in Europe since they backed Dylan five years before—was rocky, and slow ticket sales exacerbated an already-simmering tension between the members. By the time they returned to the States, something had changed between them. It would be four years—an eternity in pop music—before they would release an album of new material. Would things have been different had the 2021 remaster been released instead of the 1971 mix? Probably not. It’s still a fundamentally flawed album, and those flaws were symptoms of a larger ailment within the Band. Perhaps that explains the overriding nostalgia on these songs, that sense of having something beautiful and essential. Cahoots is a eulogy for a Band that was already in the past tense.
Buy: Rough Trade
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