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Much has been said of this record in terms of whether or not The Band really wanted to make it, most putting it down as simply a way of getting out of a contract with Capitol, so that The Last Waltz, their grand finale, could be released by Warner Brothers. Thus for most they would assume that this album did not get off to the best of starts and was doomed to linger at the back of their catalogue, and in a sense this is not to far from the truth as it is definitely not their best work, but it still contains a smattering of tracks that I am glad to own a piece of.
The album in truth is made up of a collection of B-sides and outtakes, with a couple of covers and a few new tracks, but this makes for an interesting listen, that far from being entirely cohesive is still a rewarding listen. Even though the lyrics and the instrumentation never reaches the heights of their best works, it still manages to entertain and it feels more upbeat than some of their other albums with a high tempo and short overall time making it a whistle stop tour of The Band's 'final' album.
The album began life in the early autumn of 1976, when Robbie Robertson declared that he could no longer keep up with the group's constant touring, but suggested that the group should go out with a band, a project that would lead to The Last Waltz. This developed and many famous faces cam aboard, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, which lead to it being set down for both a film and album. The Warner Brothers president, Mo Ostin, a friend of Robbie's put up the money for the film but wanted the album to be released on Warner Brothers also, so the group needed to fulfil their contract with Capitol and then move over to Warner Brothers.
This lead to the group looking to tracks they had been chucking around in their studio, Shangri-La, and they looked for a way to cobble these together into a reasonable album. Thus came about Islands, the title of which derives from an instrumental track at the centre of the album first developed by the group three years ago originally titled Dr Medicine Song. For me the highlight is Georgia On My Mind, a track that was originally set out as a hand for Jimmy Carter's bid for presidency in 1976, but the other tracks each have their own positives and negatives.
1. Right As Rain *****
I quite like this as an opening track, as it really does exhibit the sparser instrumentation and vocal style that continues throughout the album. This song, as well as a few others on the album does feel quite distant in terms of looking back on what has been and perhaps not retuning to the future. This track though, as with the rest of the album is so far from some of their earlier work, that it is only the vocals that really tell you who this is, but then at this point it was not so much the identity of the group as simple providing a contract conclusion.
2. Street Walker ****
Again this track to me feels very much trapped in the time in terms of production with the entire instrumentation package, but then many albums of the late seventies and eighties do fall down quite a bit due to the production. This song is about being lost in a world that is beyond you, perhaps something that was probably not too distant from some of the feelings within the group.
3. Let The Night Fall ****
I am not entirely sure why I like this track so much, but the slightly eerie night time feel of it does create an atmosphere and brings the lyrics to a greater conclusion and consistency. The lyrics themselves aren't much to speak of and the tiny organ languishing too far in the background makes this feel a tiny track when the vocals perhaps suggest that it could be otherwise.
4. Ain't That A Lot Of Love ***
This track does just feel so corny and over done in terms of a few areas, with the lyrics and basic structure letting it down. This though is probably what the group meant by not really caring for the result, as this would not pass through on earlier albums, when the focus was greater.
5. Christmas Must Be Tonight ****
Despite being covered in Christian and reflective imagery, this track manages to return from some of the elements shown in the previous track to give quite a nice little track. The vocals here a great and really bring out some of the lyrics which for the most part are not the worst that I have heard and do reflect some of the feelings that are felt and expressed during the Christmas period.
6. Islands ****
The instrumental track that lends its title to the album, this track is quite a nice little piece in its own right, and was described by Robertson as reminiscent of a movie track or something that would adorn a piece of cinema. And you can see that in the laid back, slowly ambling elements of the song, which are really in line with some of the instrumentation of the rest of the album, but still not to the standard that could be found on their earlier albums or in fact in their live performances.
7. The Saga Of Pepote Rouge ****
The title suggests much and could provide some of the beautiful narrative pieces from Music From Big Pink and The Band, but it turns out to be more of a mash of images and strange events. For me this really sums up the drop in lyrical quality that really does make this one of my least favourite albums by The Band.
8. Georgia On My Mind *****
Despite this being a cover, it is for me easily the best track on the album, doing away with some of the poor production and instrumental backing on the other tracks and creating more of a piece of music rather than simply a track. The vocal sails through the piece with an almost anthem-like ambling that very slowly builds to a slight crescendo at its conclusion. This for me does feel very much like a track created outside the bounds of this album, with a more focused arrangement and vocal line that creates a piece of beauty.
9. Knockin' Lost John *****
Following the heights of the previous track, we come to another pretty good piece that despite not reaching the heights of Georgia On My Mind, does still manage to feel like a track done by The Band. The backing seems more dynamic and the use of the vocals with the lyrics creates more of an original piece.
10. Livin' In A Dream ****
This does feel quite a bit like a child's nursery rhyme with a slightly sinister twist, but despite that it does turn out to be quite a nice piece. The drum orientated verses do occasionally grate, but the chorus part is good and helps to provide some degree of balance.
11. Twilight *****
This is the first of the bonus tracks and is a single left of the album, which for me is to the album's detriment, as it is a good piece that has more of a roots feel in terms of the lyrics, which are some of the best on the album. The backing is light and helps to smooth the vocals through the song rather than simply acting as noise behind them.
12. Georgia On My Mind (Alternate Take) *****
This take of the song for me is perhaps even better in parts than the album version with a different vocal style and a slightly different tempo perhaps brought about by it. Even though you can see a few mistakes and parts that should be addressed within it, the lighting backing at the beginning gives it more of a spectral quality that I just like so much. The build up section does fall a bit compared to the final take, but it is still passable and offers an alternative glimpse of the arrangement.
Overall then, this is an album with both ups and downs, although more of the latter in comparison to some of their other albums, but it still manages to hold together and is in parts a good addition to The Band catalogue. But for those of you who haven't previously heard much of their work, I would recommend that you leave this until you have purchased a few of their earlier records, or The Last Waltz if you want to listen to a variety of other artists also. Thus it can't be considered the bets album in the world but neither can it be considered the worst, so if you are a fan of The Band, then I would recommend this as a look at them doing a slightly different style of music than some of their previous works. (***1/2)
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Right As Rain
2 Street Walker
3 Let The Night Fall
4 Ain't That A Lot Of Love
5 Christmas Must Be Tonight
7 Saga Of Pepote Rouge
8 Georgia On My Mind
9 Knockin' Lost John
10 Living In A Dream
12 Georgia On My Mind