Levon Helm – Electric Dirt
1. I don’t know why I hesitated on this album for such a long time. Perhaps it was because Helm’s last outing Dirt Farmer, despite the energy (and inclusion of Steve Earle and Buddy Miller songs), left me indifferent. I was wrong, and I admit it. I won’t venture to say that I love every song on this record, but it is one of the rare ones where the whole record is greater than the sum of its parts. With one listen, Electric Dirt vaulted from an optional listen to a strong year-end top 10 contender.
2. Helm wasn’t the most expressive voice in the Band, but he was certainly the voice of the Band. Amazingly, his battle with throat cancer has only given that voice a dry edge that blends perfectly with his backing vocals (often including his daughter Amy). Though it isn’t enough to carry the too-slow “Move Along Trains”, it is the driving force behind the album’s standout track “Growing Trade”. Penned by Helm and Americana not-so-secret weapon Larry Campbell, “Trade” focuses on a farmer who has been forced to leave his fading legitimate business for a far more profitable marijuana crop. Helm’s drawl manages to carry all the regret and fear of a family farmer doing what he has to do to get by, with Campbell’s moaning fiddle ably filling the gaps.
3. A veteran of Helm’s Midnight Rambles, it would be a glaring omission to not take a moment to highlight the contributions of Larry Campbell. His fiddle opened another of the top Americana records of the year, Buddy and Julie Miller’s Written in Chalk, and he plays several instruments excellently on this record. The pastoral, vaguely Celtic “Golden Bird” builds each stanza to a majestic peak, barely needing percussion to propel it skyward thanks to Campbell’s twin fiddle anchor. The occasional Dylan sideman is going to have a tough time topping his contributions to the Americana scene in 2009.
4. Perhaps because of his cancer bout, or seeing the untimely end of his former bandmates Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, Helm faces death with uncanny optimism. On “When I Go Away”, one of the more upbeat songs about leaving this world, he proclaims that the “sun’s gonna shine through the shadows” at his funeral, and longs to see his parents on “White Dove”. Reminiscent of Appalachian anthems like “I’ll Fly Away”, Helm’s sentiment shows a gratefulness for life that balances out the still-exuberant songs that fill the rest of the record.
5. Most of all, this record reminds me that Helm was the only American in the Band, where he lent authenticity to their Southern-leaning songs like “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. On Electric Dirt, he mines the territory of his youth to present the America he knows: from the rollicking, New Orleans take on the Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” to the cover of Randy Newman’s “King Fish”, from Newman’s own Southern opus Good Old Boys. This record owes its success to Helm’s dedication to sticking to what he knows, rather than succumbing to late-career cash grabs a la Carlos Santana, and makes it look easy.
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