CD Review: Robbie Robertson’s “How To Become Clairvoyant”

Robbie Robertson

How To Become Clairvoyant  (429 Records)

By Brian Arsenault

If I could become clairvoyant maybe I’d know what to make of this album.  I mean I have all intentions of liking it.

After all, it’s Robbie’s first album this century, which is already a year or so into its second decade. Clapton’s on it and Stevie Winwood slides in for some tasty organ work. Ian Thomas’ timing on the drums is so good it’s almost spooky. Is he a drum savant? Or is he a rhythm machine?

And maybe that’s the problem.  Is this album so smoothly produced that its grit is gone?

The playing is so clean — dare I say sanitized — that it can’t get down and dirty.  Best example of what bothers me is also the album’s best song — “Axman.” This piece is so good and inherently bluesy that I could see ZZ Top covering, especially in concert. But that little ol’ band from Texas would speed it up and take it below the belt. Know what I mean?  Blues shouldn’t be too clean.

The title song is strong.  It pushes a little more than most of the album and the irony of being so far down the road and still not being able to see what’s ahead is not lost. In fact, irony is one of the album’s best qualities.

You have to be around a while to want only to make “The Best Mistake.” And “This is Where I Get Off” seems a lament for The Band though “Fear of Falling” sounds most like his old gig.  Robbie and Clapton play together to close out “This is Where I Get Off” and we all know that works.  Who didn’t see The Last Waltz.

Earlier, “When the Night Was Young,” with a nice support vocal from Angela McCluskey, is Music from a Little Pink. It’s probably unfair to keep listening for The Band whenever one of the former members makes new music, but some of us can’t help it because it was so good when the night was young.

I’m not sure the Clapton influence was so good for this album. The Eric-penned instrumental “Madame X” is pretty but it’s a bit like calming music at the dentist’s office. A much better instrumental is Robbie’s own “Tango for Django” that closes the album.  It’s instrumentally interesting with cello, violin and accordion intermingling with Robertson’s gut string guitar work.

Clapton also co-wrote “Won’t Be Back” and this is Eric at his morose balladeer worst. You can understand why she “won’t be back again.”   Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.  But Clapton’s a force for good on “He Don’t Live Here No More,” It has a nasty little outlook which always makes good rock ‘n’ roll and it would be easy to dance to – Oh, Dick Clark. Do I hear a little Stones?

In fact, quite a bit of this album makes you want to dance, but usually slower in dim lights.  Sometimes I think there’s a single song here played several different ways.

There’s some depth here, there’s complexity.  Thematically, what is lost, what is over, what is past runs through much of it. No surprise there.

Musically, all these old guys move toward jazz.  Rock is after all a limited genre however forever free.  How much faster can you play? You can’t be as horny near 70 as at 20.

Rock n roll means sex after all.  Turns out those ‘50s Bible belt ministers were right. It was all about sex.  There just wasn’t a damn thing they could do to stop it.

It’s just that jazz guys for a long time told us rock was crap.  And if our rock heroes are playing jazz, were the jazz guys right too?  Or is it just a matter of aging?

To read other reviews by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

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