Having gotten over their Stage Fright (sorry), The Band had promises to keep, and promptly recorded their fourth album right on schedule. The result was Cahoots, their weirdest effort yet. The front cover is a murky painting incorporating the photo from the second album, while the back shows the guys with their eyes closed. Some suggest that this is indicative of how they sleepwalked through the recording process, but that’s not entirely fair.
Never having been fans of the New Orleans sound, and equally dismissive of horn sections, it says a lot that “Life Is A Carnival” is such a good opener. Those horns also provide a step to the future before we get there. “When I Paint My Masterpiece” appears here a few months before Bob Dylan’s own version; the Band’s has a few different words, takes the Roman setting too literally and gets a somewhat strained vocal by Levon, who sings much better elsewhere. “Last Of The Blacksmiths” does indeed sport an arrangement that suggest a man pounding molten metal, with a slightly processed piano and even weirder sax interludes. Besides being an unintentionally fitting title, “Where Do We Go From Here?” is an oddly placed defense of such endangered species as buffalos and trains. Though better than most of the ecological songs the Beach Boys were trying around the time, the backing is inspired, right down to the abrupt ending, signifying how things can disappear just like that. Woodstock neighbor Van Morrison turns up to duet with Richard Manuel on “4% Pantomime”, an enigmatic in-joke that’s still a highlight. (Interestingly, Van calls Richard by his Christian name, while Richard’s return address is to the “Belfast cowboy”, giving Van an apt nickname at his most rural.)
Robbie is credited with writing all the songs on side two, so perhaps their success or failure should be ascribed solely to him. “Shootout In Chinatown” is all misplaced mystery, complete with dopey “Oriental” touches in the arrangement, and all three vocalists trading lines. “The Moon Struck One” does the mystery a little better; is it a portrait of neighbor kids, a love triangle, or both? As one correspondent has pointed out, Bruce Springsteen borrowed some of the themes for the less vague “Spirit In The Night”. “Thinkin’ Out Loud” sports some fantastic piano and a tasteful dobro solo, but the basic rumination of the title is derailed by “band on the road” tangents. “Smoke Signal” works over every possible metaphor to defend the Indians from the cowboys (Robbie being descended from the former) and ending up wondering how to communicate, while Levon beats a tattoo on the kit. While “Volcano” is, thankfully, not the same song made famous by Jimmy Buffett, it does provide some grit, from the horn section to Rick’s considered voice. Finally, “The River Hymn” returns us to the old-time antebellum feel of the second album, understood and interpreted best by Levon.
Cahoots has gotten a bad rap over the years, its biggest fault being that it’s neither Big Pink nor the second album. Taken completely on its own, it’s just fine, and only hindsight reveals that they may have been running out of steam.
The Band Cahoots (1971)—3