All Dylan fans know the history of The Basement Tapes, for me one of the cornerstones of Dylan's collected works. Why, when they're not even a proper album? Because they show him relaxed and playing some different styles of music with friends, away from the pressures of touring and the recording studio.
This `official' set has many of the best Basement songs, with some strange exceptions such as Quinn the Eskimo and I Shall Be Released, which came out many years later in The Bootleg Series. However, you're still left with some great, not so great, unusual, funny , low fi, risqué and silly songs which never seem to lose their appeal.
The vocal and instrumental interplay between Bob and The Band (at the time, probably not known as such) is delightful. Clothes Line Saga epitomises the attraction of the set: Dylan's deadpan but humorous narrative counter-pointed with some lovely guitar lines from Robertson. Or take Tears of Rage, with lovely high harmonies from the late Richard Manuel.
The general critical view is that the songs by The Band didn't belong in this collection, as they weren't recorded in the Basement and were probably demos for Music From Big Pink. True, they have much better sound than the Basement tracks, butI don't care because there are some real gems here: Orange Juice Blues, Bessie Smith, Ain't No More Cane to name a few.
This album is quite unlike any other Dylan music, with the possible exception of Love and Theft. It's rootsy, rocky, laid back and bluesy, but sounds nothing like its predecessor, Blonde on Blonde, or its successor, John Wesley Harding.
PS If you can track down the 'unofficial' Basement songs, it's worth it. The complete sessions have the qualities of this set, but in greater measure - especially the goofs and mucking about. For example, Get Your Rocks Off is a long lost classic which deserves official release and She's Not There is brilliant.