Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes
Harvest Records

When Billy Bragg and Wilco set Woody Guthrie’s lyrics to music for Mermaid Avenue, they didn’t have to worry about what he would think. But when producer T Bone Burnett was given several of Bob Dylan’s unused Basement Tapes-era lyrics for similar treatment, the artists he called had to be aware that Dylan might hear the results. As conveyed in Sam Jones’ terrific “making of” documentary, however, it would appear that Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops), Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) were equally worried about being worthy of one another, much less Burnett and fellow collaborator Elvis Costello. But Burnett knew what he was doing when he corralled these artists. Freely swapping ideas and instruments, they wound up recording 40 tracks in two weeks (15 are here; a deluxe version has 20). They’re all wonderful; Mumford’s “Kansas City,” with the Haim sisters singing harmony and Johnny Depp cameoing on guitar, has a keening urgency. Giddens, who can sing or play almost anything and is well-versed in the folk tradition, went Celtic for “Spanish Mary,” and her soulful vocal on “Lost on the River #20” casts the song as both mournful lament and hopeful hymn. Applying his mellifluous, vibrato-filled voice to some of the same lyrics, Costello turns “Lost on the River #12” into a lovely centerpiece. He could have handled “Hidee Hidee Ho #11,” too, but Jim James draws a straight line to Cab Calloway with a playful jazz-blues vibe. Goldsmith’s “Card Shark” is even more delightful, like a spirited children’s song. Dylan made many geographical references in his lyrics, but these talented artists never settled for the obvious route. Working as musical explorers, they arrived at destinations Bob himself might have gone. And did him proud. — LYNNE MARGOLIS