- - Monday, April 4, 2011

How to Become Clairvoyant

Robbie Robertson

429 Records

Although a contemporary of Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson has become something of an unsung hero since the late ‘80s, when his songwriting skills last caught the public’s eye. He used to be a musical tornado, however, touching down at key moments in rock ‘n’ roll’s history and leaving a big impact.

Mr. Robertson performed with rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins in the early ‘60s. Years later, he helped Bob Dylan go electric during the songwriter’s 1966 tour. Then, as a member of The Band, he pioneered a rootsy, country-influenced sound during an era dominated by psychedelic music.

Nowadays, Mr. Robertson seems to prefer a slow drizzle of behind-the-scenes jobs — mainly film scores, with the occasional sideman gig — to the constant glare of the limelight. This makes “How to Become Clairvoyant,” his first solo album in 13 years, an interesting return to the guitar-driven music that launched his career.

“How to Become Clairvoyant” won’t make Mr. Robertson a household name to a new generation. The guest musicians who lend their help to the project — Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, Trent Reznor and others — have more star power than Mr. Robertson himself, and Mr. Clapton often steals the spotlight by co-writing some of the album’s best numbers.

Where Mr. Robertson’s past solo albums fumbled, though, “How to Become Clairvoyant” sounds determined and self-assured. These tracks don’t experiment with jazz influences or Native American chants, focusing instead on a mix of blues, funk and country-rock. It’s a homecoming of sorts, aimed at the baby boomers and Americana fans who’ve made “The Last Waltz” an annual part of their Thanksgiving routine since the late-‘70s.

In addition to handling most of the vocal and guitar duties, Mr. Robertson fills the album with lyrics that are unsparingly autobiographical, turning what could’ve been an instrumental showcase into a very personal song cycle. “This is Where I Get Off” deals with his exit from The Band, and “He Don’t Live Here No More” shines a light on the dark temptations of a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

Mr. Robertson keeps things completely old-school. He co-produces the album with Marius de Vries, famous for his work with pop crooners like Josh Groban and Rufus Wainwright. He also enlists help from Tom Morello, a modern guitarist whose style differs wildly from Mr. Robertson’s own, which adds some modern flavor to his vintage Southern gumbo.

Still, “How to Become Clairvoyant” is fairly straightforward guitar music, relying more on familiarity than innovation and offering few surprises beyond the star-studded guest list. After avoiding this type of music for decades, though, Mr. Robertson has earned the right to return to his roots — and he hasn’t lost his touch.

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