Friday, July 31, 2009

Bob Dylan 26: Shot Of Love

While he’d started playing both older and new secular songs live, when Bob put out a new album in 1981, it was automatically labeled as a Christian album. This wasn’t a fair assessment, because although Shot Of Love covers some of the more recent territory on the surface, the album doesn’t sound anything like Slow Train Coming or Saved. For that, purists should have been grateful. At the time, they weren’t.

However, based on some of the new material that he’d tried out onstage, along with a few tracks that have been officially reprieved from the vaults, the album could have been so, so much better. A few of those songs (“Angelina” and “Caribbean Wind”, to name two) would have vaulted this album to classic status; as it is we can only wonder and argue over the sequence that could have been.

So what about it? The opening title track sounds too much like another song (okay, we’re talking about “Gotta Serve Somebody”) to stand out, but at least there’s a good live sound to start us off. “Heart Of Mine” had some nice lyrics at first, but the arrangement doesn’t work. Maybe it was the three drummers? “Property Of Jesus” is much better than its title would suggest, with a nice piano part and Jim Keltner driving it. “Lenny Bruce” seems like an odd choice for a eulogy at this late date, but it’s no worse a tribute than “Joey”. “Watered-Down Love” would be nice if it didn’t sound so much like “Property Of Jesus”.

Side two doesn’t always gel. “Dead Man, Dead Man” thumps along with a slight reggae beat; “In The Summertime” adds some wistful romance; “Trouble” benefits from a trashy backing and introduces his soon-to-be-consistent whine. But the closer, “Every Grain Of Sand”, is one of his best ever, a gaze at the wonder of creation that transcends any creed or denomination.

Sometime after the Biograph set came out, consumers noticed that Shot Of Love now included an additional song at the start of side two: the excellent B-side “Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar”, which certainly enhanced the listening experience. (It was added to the cassette and eventual CD as well.) The overall sound of the album is enough to make it worth several revisits. The band combined some of his tour companions, plus a few ringers like Benmont Tench and Danny Kortchmar, so the playing’s more than competent. But he needed to hit the ball a lot further if he was going to stay relevant in the ‘80s.

Bob Dylan Shot Of Love (1981)—
Current CD: same as 1981, plus 1 extra track

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

U2 2: October

A band’s second album is always a challenge, particular when its first is such a success. In U2’s case, the challenge became more daunting when Bono lost the notebook where he’d kept his lyrical ideas before the recording sessions began.

That could be the main reason why October doesn’t quite reach the heights of Boy. The lyrics Bono ended up singing may have been concocted under duress, but the most obvious theme through the album as that of the Christian spirituality with which the band soon became equated. Right from the get-go “Gloria” is not a nod to that other song by an Irishman, but rather an evocation of Latin from Sunday mass. “Rejoice” can’t help but evoke the same liturgical source, as does “Scarlet”, which is an atmospheric rumination on the same word over a track that predicts their future work with Brian Eno. Biblical references abound elsewhere, even on tracks not as overt.

Still, the album has some definite high points. “Gloria” is still a great single, and “Tomorrow” is an unsettling remembrance of a death in the family. The Edge’s usual guitar work has developed further, as has his use of piano, used so well on “I Fall Down” and the suitably autumnal title track. “Fire” was another hit single, but unfortunately, “I Threw A Brick Through A Window”, “With A Shout”, and “Stranger In A Strange Land” are just too cold. By the end of the closing “Is That All?”, listeners may be asking the same question.

The band hasn’t remained fond of October, undoubtedly remembering the tension that went into making it. In proof that they’d given their all during the sessions, the bulk of the bonus disc on the remastered edition is taken up by live versions from BBC sessions and contemporary B-sides. While a few songs are repeated, they show how much they were able to improve upon he songs on the road. (Some of these are from an excellent Boston show from 1981 that’s been bootlegged for years, and has only seen official release in the Complete U2 download set.) The CD also includes the first CD appearance of “A Celebration”, a standalone single the band also disowned for most of their career, along with the B-sides “J. Swallow” and “Party Girl”, plus a 1996 re-recording of “Tomorrow” with Irish musicians.

Still, one can’t help but wonder if the album would have been better had Bono not lost the lyrics. Amazingly, the briefcase containing them was returned in 2004, but to date there hasn’t been any suggestion that he’d do anything with them.

U2 October (1981)—3
2008 Deluxe Edition: same as 1981, plus 17 extra tracks

Monday, July 27, 2009

U2 1: Boy

Like a clarion, a song leapt from American radio speakers in 1981. It would soon inspire basements of budding guitarists to detune a half-step and purchase delay pedals trying to replicate the riff just so.

The song was “I Will Follow”, and the band was U2. While they were soon embraced by both their native Dublin and college radio, it was clear the band wanted to be the biggest thing around. With their first full-length LP, they made a pretty good stab at accomplishing that.

Boy begins with that striking single, as it should, the riff pulsating over the thundering rhythm section and glockenspiel accents. The side continues with “Twilight”, a rerecording of an earlier single side and a continuation of the dark mood. The next three songs are listed as separate pieces, and while two are an acknowledged medley, they deserve to be heard as a single unit. “An Cat Dubh” sports another menacing riff, with a tease of a major key in the verse before winding down at the end of each back to that riff (over the omnipresent glockenspiel). Bono’s lyrics are already fairly obtuse, trying to say a lot more than he may mean, but a key component here is The Edge on backing vocals, mirroring Bono’s leads as well as the guitar fills the frame. That riff gets more insistent and builds before easing off into gentle harmonics, before a drone and a simple thudding bass line heralds the next movement. An absurdly simple yet beautiful two-note phrase repeats in variations and extensions before finding its way into the chord sequence of “Into The Heart”. This time the vocal section is more of a repeated chorus, and after its apex it steps aside for the band to gently take it out, with a few piano chords added to the mix. The end of the piece barely has room to breathe before—just as they might onstage—the band kicks into “Out Of Control”, another superior rerecording of an earlier single. After two powerful verses and choruses, and a guitar solo that betrays the influence of Tom Verlaine, there’s another patented hush before the final chorus and a repeat of the intro on the outro. And that is what you call a perfect album side.

Side two, while excellent, is simply not as strong as the first. Part of it comes from the over-reliance on the repeated harmonics Edge plays on too many harmonics (on the twelfth, seventh and fifth frets, as discovered by all those budding guitarists). Also, to these ears anyway, some of the songs just aren’t as strong. “Stories For Boys” was a lesser single, though “The Ocean” would make a nice stage entrance (as many times as they needed to replace songs in the early days before they’d written enough.) The “bwleahhhh” guitar sound all over “A Day Without Me” was as ill-advised an effect as the sped-up vocals at the end. Likewise, Bono’s gruff accent on the last verse of “Another Time, Another Place” still makes one uneasy. However, all is redeemed by “The Electric Co.”, which returns to the winning formula of “Out Of Control” without copying it completely. This time the end segues into a quieter ending with “Shadows And Tall Trees”, a successful experiment over odd meters and acoustic guitars.

In hindsight, Boy immediately put U2 in the running for “best band of the ‘80s”, a title for which their closest competitors—in Athens, GA of all places—were still a few years off from attempting to claim. It’s still a favorite for any fan of the band no matter where they discovered it, and was a popular catalog title throughout the CD era.

The CD was finally upgraded in 2008, and was also issued in a deluxe edition with the by-now arbitrary expanded packaging and bonus disc. This is essential, as it’s packed with the early singles, including “Boy/Girl”, “11 O-Clock Tick Tock”, “Touch”, “Things To Make And Do”, “Another Day”, and alternate versions of songs that would be rerecorded for the album. Two outtakes from the album sessions (including an early version of “Fire” called “Saturday Night”) and three live recordings (including the otherwise unknown “Cartoon World”) round out the disc. The album essay doesn’t reveal much, but Edge’s notes on the extras are certainly worth the glance. Although American fans will miss seeing that old album cover they’d always known.

U2 Boy (1980)—
2008 Deluxe Edition: same as 1980, plus 14 extra tracks

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Roger Daltrey 8: Can’t Wait To See The Movie

While we can’t find the exact quote, we distinctly recall hearing an interview with Roger Daltrey around the time this album came out, saying that hearing the songs made him think, “I can’t wait to see the movie they’re from,” as if that were a good thing. Can’t Wait To See The Movie sounds like a stereotypically bad ‘80s movie soundtrack, all programmed drums, power chords, slapped and/or synth bass, and screaming saxes. As usual, he relied on outside songwriters for material, starting with his go-tos Russ Ballard and the otherwise unknown Kit Hain, and apparently Pete Townshend didn’t leave anything lying around for him, which is a shame.

Thinking back it seems like there were approximately a couple dozen different songs called “Hearts Of Fire” in those days, none of them very good. This one came very soon after a legendarily bad Bob Dylan cinematic vehicle, so at least there’s something of a tangential relation. “When The Thunder Comes” is overwrought with battlefield metaphors, while “Ready For Love” is nearly drowned out by a loud gospel-style choir. He wrote “Balance On Wires” himself with Don Snow, best known as the guy who replaced Paul Carrack in Squeeze; as one of the more understated tracks here it stands out, and in a good way, but it’s still too long at over six minutes. The choir returns to belt out the chorus of the sappy “Miracle Of Love” alongside him, but while he’s a decent actor, he simply can’t pull off the role of a sentimental fool.

Along the same basic theme, “The Price Of Love” is the long-awaited collaboration between schlockmeister tyrant David Foster and Night Ranger’s Jack Blades, who was a couple years away from Damn Yankees. (This was included on the soundtrack for that year’s Michael J. Fox vehicle The Secret Of My Success, which had a theme song written by the same pair, and performed by Night Ranger.) And while it may be that “The Heart Has Its Reasons”, that’s no excuse for aping the arpeggios of “Every Breath You Take” and its innumerable clones. Four writers are credited for “Alone In The Night”, one of whom wrote the lyrics for most of the songs from the Top Gun soundtrack. “Lover’s Storm” sports some good harmonies, but we can’t tell if those are by Roger or one of the ten people listed in bulk on the sleeve. Most curious is “Take Me Home”, a remake of a French song called “Cargo” from a few years before, with new lyrics.

The album was a sales dud, and rightfully so. Ironically, it did not include his cover version of Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”, as featured in the summer’s hit film The Lost Boys and on its soundtrack album—conveniently issued by the same label—which might have helped. Nor did it have “Quicksilver Lightning” from the year before, the theme for a Kevin Bacon movie nobody liked. These would have been prime candidates for inclusion when Can’t Wait To See The Movie was expanded in 2004 by the Wounded Bird label, which even fewer people needed.

Roger Daltrey Can’t Wait To See The Movie (1987)—

Friday, July 24, 2009

Bob Dylan 25: Saved

Anyone who saw the tour following Slow Train Coming knew that Bob’s new-found Christianity wasn’t a passing phase. In addition to the familiar songs from that album, he had a pile of new ones with similar themes, recorded quickly with the touring band, and thrust upon an increasingly dubious public.

Saved is not as strong as its predecessor, which isn’t fair to either. Much of the immediate criticism stemmed from the cover art, which was replaced on a later pressing with a more benign painting from the inner sleeve. “A Satisfied Mind” is a good warmup of a gospel song (known to anyone who had the second Byrds album), followed by the insistent title track. “Covenant Woman” is one of the better ones, something of an extension of “Precious Angel”. Unfortunately, “What Can I Do For You?” isn’t as successful. But the side closes with “Solid Rock”, a powerful number that keeps its evangelistic message beneath the groove. It’s a grower.

“Pressing On” doesn’t quite find its way over the lopsided rhythm, but he gives it a strong vocal delivery that encourages a growing dynamic sound. “In The Garden” could be sung by kids at Sunday school, provided they could get their heads around the verses; he wouldn’t truly nail it until he hooked up with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. “Saving Grace” is another contender for a gospel standard for anyone inclined to cover it. It would work very well outside of this album’s context, particularly since “Are You Ready?” doesn’t do much but repeat itself.

There are those that maintain that the recordings on Saved don’t do anywhere near as much justice to the songs as some of his live performances of the era. Indeed, Bob had allegedly compiled a live album around this time, to be called Solid Rock, but even his label was getting impatient for him to stick to rocking. It would take a future volume of The Bootleg Series to bring that music to light, including some of the other original songs he only performed on stage during that period. Beond that, the curious have these two albums to reconsider, or they can try 2003’s Dylan-endorsed tribute album that marketed the songs squarely at the contemporary Christian market.

Bob Dylan Saved (1980)—

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Roxy Music 2: For Your Pleasure

Even when you’re trying to stand out from a multicolored crowd, it’s important not to shake things up too much. Bryan Ferry knew that, so most of the elements that made Roxy Music’s debut so startling are still in place on For Your Pleasure, right down to the model on the cover and the band’s own poses in the gatefold.

A terrific opener, “Do The Strand” exhorts the listener to try the latest dance craze for a variety of bizarre reasons, the most compelling being that “rhododendron is a nice flower.” If you think “Beauty Queen” has a menacing undercurrent, you ain’t heard nothing yet, especially since it evens out once the song proper starts. Plus, that cool double-time section is lotsa fun (cute reference to “sea breezes” too). “Strictly Confidential” also seesaws between drama and lilting falsetto, dragging things somewhat. Luckily, “Editions Of You” revives the better moments of the first album, ponding away at the riff with Eno finally getting a chance to unleash his beeps and whoops. It provides something of a sorbet before the debauched horror of “In Every Dream Home A Heartache”, wherein the ladies’ man expresses his devotion to vinyl. It’s worth sticking around once Phil Manzanera lets loose on guitar, even through the fake fade. (The subject was tackled with a little more humor a few years on by the Police.)

Eno has more room to wander on “The Bogus Man”, a nine-minute groove on one note that still manages to stay interesting due to everybody’s input. Once that sputters away, “Gray Lagoons” sounds almost carefree, reviving some ‘50s elements and even breaking down for a harmonica solo. The title track brings the mood back to dark, first taking its sweet time to get rolling, then wandering around the piano for far too long to the end, culminating in Mellotron and Judi Dench.

For Your Pleasure has to compete with the first album, and while it’s not as striking, it’s still worthwhile. We want to like it, if that helps. Eno’s own opinion was clear when he said “tarah tarah” to the band for his own feathered path, yet the others would soldier on.

Roxy Music For Your Pleasure (1973)—3

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Roxy Music 1: Roxy Music

When they emerged, they were just plain goofy looking, and it’s hard to disagree today. Roxy Music was part greasy pompadour, part progressive, part glam, part outer space, and damn catchy. Looks weren’t everything; they had to sound good, and they did.

“Re-Make/Re-Model”, which opens their eponymous debut, might as well be the theme song to their imaginary TV series. After the sounds of a cocktail party, a piano establishes the rhythm before the band pounds it into submission. You can hear Bryan Ferry posing through his vocals, while Phil Manzanera solos like he’s trying to hit every fret on the neck at least five times. Andy Mackay honks his saxophone, and Brian Eno adds wacky synth effects seemingly at random. Everybody gets two bars to solo, including drummer Paul Thompson and bass player Graham Simpson, who would set a standard by leaving the band before the album was released.

The rest of the side does well to live up to the promise. “Ladytron” begins with a space landing and continues with an oboe solo before Ferry starts singing in a different key. Whether or not he’s trying to seduce a robot is just part of the fun, which continues big time on “If There Is Something”. Here the simple piano chording gets processed through a mildly country-western filter, then takes a darker turn through a descending riff wherein Ferry lists all the ways he’d show his affection, from climbing mountains to “growing potatoes by the score.” The music finds its way to a more comfortable resolution, and if you got the album in the US, the wondrous single “Virginia Plain” comes over the hill into Whoville like sleighbells. Elsewhere, “2HB” bubbles in next, with Casablanca references underscoring the actor’s initials in the title.

Side two isn’t quite as classic, and works a little too hard to be as epic. “The Bob (Medley)” is indeed a series of vignettes stuck together, with only the effects strewn throughout seeming to refer to the Battle of Britain (again, a pun of a title). A punk dirge makes up the first part, a heck of a chorus (“Too many times beautiful”) peeks out from somewhere, and peek from the other side of the window to a party we’re not invited to returns us to the dirge, and big tympani to end the suite. The lecherous creep in Ferry returns on “Chance Meeting”, his pitch leering over the piano while Manzanera unrolls sheets of distortion and feedback. “Would You Believe?” is a little more pleasant, a sweeter approach to seduction, even through the rave-up sax solo straight from the car hop. It’s a nice change of pace, since “Sea Breezes” is very slow and spare, Ferry sounding like a cross between Tiny Tim and Jeremy Hilary Boob. Another decent guitar solo sets up the middle section sung over the slowest drum solo you’ll ever hear. And just like closing credits, “Bitters End” sums up the cocktail party, our narrator sadly, drearily alone. Or something.

Until we can think of another word for it, Roxy Music is just plain goofy fun, particularly side one, which gets a major boost from “Virginia Plain”. That tune has gone on and off different reissues of the album, but sits squarely in sequence for the most recent super deluxe edition overseas, along with demos, outtakes, BBC performances, and a DVD with video clips and the obligatory 5.1 surround mix by Steven Wilson.

Roxy Music Roxy Music (1972)—

Monday, July 20, 2009

Bob Dylan 24: Slow Train Coming

First he went electric. Then he went soft. And now his fans were just as confused to find that Bob Dylan had become a born-again Christian. His concerts no longer featured any of his hits, but concentrated solely on his new original, spiritual material—nine of which would appear on Slow Train Coming—and featured long “raps” about Armageddon.

The cover art features some fairly obvious cross depictions, but for the most part the lyrics (on side one anyway) don’t pound the Gospel into your ears. “Gotta Serve Somebody” goes against the “a list is not a song” rule, but he can get away with it. The remarkable “Precious Angel” has a tension that builds, and fortunately is not ruined by the more gentle if direct “I Believe In You”. “Slow Train” was one of the first songs written after his conversion, and it’s a good one.

Side two doesn’t always register, starting with “Gotta Change My Way Of Thinking”, but has its moments. “Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)” is another rare excursion into odd tempos, while the fire and brimstone of “When You Gonna Wake Up” ruffled many feathers. “Man Gave Names To All The Animals” is essentially a kids’ song; it’s good, but not exactly the poetry we’d come to expect. The album closes with “When He Returns”; just voice and piano, it works because of that.

Part of the success of Slow Train Coming can be ascribed to the producer Jerry Wexler, whose legendary no-nonsense approach suited Bob’s needs just fine. And the band was great too: Barry Beckett of Muscle Shoals plays keyboards, Tim Drummond adds understated basslines, and the one-two punch of Mark Knopfler and Pick Withers of Dire Straits gives the album a sinuous sound. Even the horns don’t get in the way. The religious overtones notwithstanding, it is a strong album that should get more respect.

Bob Dylan Slow Train Coming (1979)—3

Friday, July 17, 2009

Bob Dylan 23: Masterpieces and Budokan

Back before Street-Legal had been recorded, Bob and his new band embarked on a massive tour that took them through Australia and the Far East before hitting Europe and America. To promote the Down Under leg, Columbia in Australia put together a three-record set of hits, live alternates and rarities called Masterpieces. It’s not the best overview, particularly in such cases as the Isle Of Wight version of “Like A Rolling Stone” instead of the single, but collectors would have been happy to have such rare sides as “Mixed-Up Confusion” (Bob goes electric in 1962!), “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” from 1965, the amazing “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” recorded live in Liverpool with the Hawks, the Desire outtake “Rita May”, the standalone single “George Jackson” and the solo piano version of “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue”.

The album has been reissued several times in the same countries, but has never been available as an official American release. Some, but not all, of the rarer tracks would be included on Biograph. (And like that set, the six sides were thematically arranged thusly: hits, live, rarities, protest, poetry and love songs.)

After the tour had moved on from Tokyo, Sony put together an official live album from the shows. Just as with happened around the same time with Cheap Trick, enough copies were sold as imports from Japan to compel Columbia into releasing it Stateside. Unfortunately, unlike Cheap Trick’s album of the same name, Bob’s At Budokan wasn’t very good. The band had retained a few members from Rolling Thunder but added backup singers and the sax and flutes from Wrecking Crew legend Teenage Steve Douglas. The result was slick, not unfairly derided as “Vegas”—Lou Reed had a similar approach the same year—and the retooling of the songs was ill-advised. Some tracks stand up, like the ferocious “It’s Alright Ma”, but you have to endure reggae versions of “Don’t Think Twice” and “Shelter From The Storm” to get to it. (“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” was also reggae, perhaps in a nod to Eric Clapton’s recent cover.) “Oh Sister” and “One More Cup Of Coffee”, two highlights from Desire, are pummeled here. At least he was smart enough not to screw with “Like A Rolling Stone”.

The LP did come with a poster—like all ‘70s double live albums should—and included, for the first time, lyrics on the inner sleeves. But these didn’t always match what was being sung, as in the drastically overhauled “Going, Going, Gone”. The audience claps politely throughout, but it’s still a sad waste of plastic.

Then, only 45 years later, somebody decided to commemorate the shows with a pricey package that, along with liner notes and other ephemera, presented the two remastered concerts as performed on four discs. The setlists are similar, each beginning with a startling instrumental arrangement of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, followed by an obscure cover—“Repossession Blues” for the first show, “Love Her With A Feeling” for the second. Along with the debut of “Is Your Love In Vain?” and a gentle “Girl From The North Country”, some startling choices include “One Of Us Must Know”, “I Don’t Believe You”, “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”, a reworked “The Man In Me”, and a still-evolving “I Threw It All Away”. Nowadays, of course, we should be used to Bob rejigging song arrangements and playing with the phrasing, but that was heresy in 1978. (We also know now that the shows’ promoter insisted on choosing the songs that would be performed. Since Bob needed the money after an expensive film flop and a messy divorce, he agreed, but certainly needed to play them his way.)

Hearing the music in context—as performed—does fill out the listening experience, but this band simply wasn’t the best to suit the material. Hindsight shows us he was in transition; soon enough, he would write all-new songs that wouldn’t need horns onstage, yet had plenty of room for full-throated female backup singers.

Bob Dylan Masterpieces (1978)—
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan At Budokan (1978)—2
Bob Dylan
The Complete Budokan 1978 (2023)—

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Bob Dylan 22: Street-Legal

Street-Legal is something of a transitional album. While Bob had been surfing a wave of success for some time, his marriage was over and the movie he’d spent a year editing was lambasted. The songs that emerged on the album hint at some of the turmoil in his head; some of his most intricate rhyme schemes attempt to follow some equally intricate melodies against a band heavy on horns.

“Changing Of The Guards” has some suggestive imagery—“They shaved her head” being one favorite—but it’s mostly the debut of the “chick singers” that will be omnipresent for the next ten years. “New Pony” is a twelve-bar blues that thuds along while the ladies repeat “How much longer?” for no discernible reason. “No Time To Think” crams too many words in to the point where it’s hard to believe it’s really him. “Baby Stop Crying” ends the side with a musical foreboding of his live show, with updated arrangements of older songs fronted by a guy in a really bad jumpsuit torn between Elvis Presley and Neil Diamond.

Speaking of Elvis, “Is Your Love In Vain?” has echoes of “Can’t Help Falling In Love”. It also doesn’t sound like Bob, but is a good performance. “Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)” is the highlight of the album, mostly because he doesn’t sound as much like he’s straining to be mysterious. “True Love Tends To Forget” is notable for that chord in the middle that always conjures the Looney Toons theme. “We Better Talk This Over” has something of a twang with an extra beat designed to discourage line-dancing. “Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat)”, despite the titular reference to “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, doesn’t register enough to make one want to play the album again.

It’s been said that this album has improved thanks to modern technology advances, but the sound doesn’t matter if the songs don’t work. Still, it’s not to suggest that Street-Legal is half-assed; it’s clear he was trying to say something, but he didn’t seem to know what that something was. He would find his way soon enough, and also find a way to confound his audience yet again.

Bob Dylan Street-Legal (1978)—

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Neil Young 32: Silver & Gold

Only after all the hubbub of the third CSNY album did Neil’s simple yet sublime Silver & Gold arrive. Many of the songs had been recorded solo, with subsequent contributions from the band (a couple of Stray Gators plus Donald “Duck” Dunn and Jim Keltner). The result was even quieter than Harvest Moon.

“Good To See You” is a nice way to start things off, a lovely hello to his wife who only occasionally toured with him. The title track had been around since the “country” days; after several tries this version was worth the wait. “Daddy Went Walkin’” is a near-bluegrass nursery rhyme, a wild-eyed child’s view of home and hearth with the cat and dog. “Buffalo Springfield Again” is exactly what it sounds like. The music doesn’t sound like them, but the lyrics are factual, as he states outright that he’d like to play with them again just for the fun they had, and isn’t that the point? “The Great Divide” has a pleasant melody holding together some ambiguously dangerous words.

“Horseshoe Man” takes him back to the piano to sing about love. (He could probably do a full-fledged kids album and folks of all ages would enjoy it.) Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt add their voices to “Red Sun” to make the whole piece sound like Tucson. “Distant Camera” is another spooky love song, followed by the long but fascinating “Razor Love”. About as old as the title track and held back till it was ready, it has two chords all the way through, except for the “greedy hand” section. “Without Rings” seems to be another stream-of-consciousness tune in common with “Music Arcade” from Broken Arrow. Performed completely solo, it ends the album—ten songs in 40 minutes—with a sigh.

In a time when “artists” took twice the time he took (whether he’d wait nine months or 39 months), Neil consistently managed to turn up with quality. Dylan learned that lesson at the end of the century too—just wait till you have something to say, and don’t speak up sooner. There’s nary a clunker on Silver & Gold, and his tracks from Looking Forward are the missing pieces.

Neil Young Silver & Gold (2000)—

Monday, July 13, 2009

CSN 11: Looking Forward

Neil took the better part of a year off, amid rumblings of an imminent solo acoustic album that kept getting delayed. He got a call from Stephen Stills to discuss the upcoming Buffalo Springfield box set, which wouldn’t surface for a few years. (It would appear, much sooner than the Archives box, but we don’t feel like talking about that right now.) Stills mentioned that he plus Crosby and Nash were doing their own album even though they didn’t have a label. So Neil helped out on a few tracks, gave them three choice tunes from his own embryonic project, the whole thing turned into a full-fledged CSNY album and tour, and his old buddies made a mint. He’s pretty generous, Neil is.

Needless to say, his songs are easily the best on Looking Forward. The title track is nice, except for the chirpy harmonies. “Slowpoke” was heralded as the son of “Heart Of Gold”, but we get a little concerned when Neil doesn’t seem to realize he’s rewritten James Taylor’s version of “Handyman”. “Out Of Control” takes him back to the piano for a few poignant minutes, but by the middle he sounds like Kermit the Frog. “Queen Of Them All” is the only Neil song recorded amidst the project (as opposed to being imported from his stockpile) and it has a lively jawbone appeal.

On their own these tunes are fair to middling, whereas in the album context they illuminate the rest. Stills’ songs are hideous, Nash hadn’t written anything decent in over twenty years, and Crosby was saving his best songs for his CPR side-project. It’s a lot better than American Dream, or any other CSN project since 1977. (At least the resultant tour made the concept of CSNY2K a reality.)

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Looking Forward (1999)—2

Friday, July 10, 2009

Bob Dylan 21: Hard Rain

Released to coincide with a live-concert TV special, Hard Rain was recorded at the end of the Rolling Thunder era, when Bob and band alike were arguably burnt out from performing. By the time they’d reached these final shows, whatever fun had permeated the first leg of the tour hadn’t lasted.

The overall sound of the album is abrasive and chaotic; “Maggie’s Farm” in particular stops and starts too many times. Some tracks feature as many as five guitars, a sawing violin and ragged harmonies. “Lay Lady Lay” gets a startling makeover, a seduction without any romance, and the “songs about marriage” on side two—three of which come from Blood On The Tracks—are even more agitated than their originals. (“Idiot Wind” is especially nasty.)

As a last gasp of sorts, Hard Rain is not the best representative of the Rolling Thunder era—that was still a ways away—but certain moments rise up. This one has certainly improved with age, especially taken in the context of his other live albums. (In typically perverse tradition, the album includes songs not on the broadcast, and vice versa. Perhaps an official CD/DVD/Blu-Ray revamp would raise its stature even higher?)

Bob Dylan Hard Rain (1976)—3

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Bob Dylan 20: Desire

Having regained both self-confidence and critical approval, Bob spent the summer of 1975 trying to assemble a band that would best deliver the sounds he heard in his head. In another departure, he actively collaborated with another writer (New York theater fixture Jacques Levy) on his lyrics for the first time. By the time Desire was released, he had been playing the songs on a caravan-style tour dubbed the Rolling Thunder Revue. (Fueled by ego and cocaine, the tour’s participants included old friends like Joan Baez and Roger McGuinn and new friends like T Bone Burnett and Scarlet Rivera, whose violin is all over Desire.)

The surprising radio hit “Hurricane” opens the proceedings with a tentative acoustic guitar right out of “All Along The Watchtower”. Much of the “facts” presented about imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter have been disputed, but we can’t assume the clunkier lines are Levy’s work. Bob’s piano comes back for “Isis”, and it’s easy to get lost in whatever story he’s telling. “Mozambique” doesn’t do much, but “One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below)” and “Oh Sister” both get a boost from the golden throat of Emmylou Harris.

Apparently one questionable biography wasn’t enough, because “Joey” is eleven minutes of your life you’ll never get back. (Amazingly, Bob still plays this one onstage.) “Romance In Durango” and “Black Diamond Bay” are both enigmatic stories that fail to ignite, while “Sara”, a pretty overt song to his estranged wife, is a tad embarrassing. (One point: we really don’t think the lines about the Chelsea Hotel and writing “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” are meant to be connected.)

It may be considered sacrilege for some ears to hear, but Desire is one of Dylan’s most overrated albums. It starts out strong, then turns to mud. But critics loved it, people bought it, and Bob felt emboldened enough by the experience to stay on the road and even take another shot at making a film.

Bob Dylan Desire (1976)—

Monday, July 6, 2009

Bob Dylan 19: The Basement Tapes

Way back in 1967, when Dylan was hiding from all save his family and closest friends, the world feared he’d stopped writing. As a few bootlegs and constantly surfacing tapes attested, not only was he still writing, but having a ball in the process.

The Basement Tapes was the collective name given to the songs recorded that summer, mostly in the garage of the Band’s shared house near Bob’s own in Woodstock. The boys spent a lot of time working up versions of folk songs and improvisations, along with a couple of dozen new Dylan compositions that were farmed out for others to cover. As his own releases through the rest of the ‘60s and into the ‘70s failed to wow, the mystique of The Basement Tapes grew.

Sure enough, having raked in the bucks from Planet Waves and Before The Flood, Robbie Robertson got Dylan’s blessing in 1975 to compile an official Basement Tapes album. This was not a straight issue of the 14-song demo that had been bootlegged; instead, Robbie sought to rewrite history by overdubbing some parts and including several Bob-less Band recordings, some of which were actually recorded several years after and miles away from Woodstock. Some of those songs are pretty enjoyable, even if they don’t fit the theme of the original sessions. “Katie’s Been Gone” is wonderful, and “Orange Juice Blues” is a nice showcase for Richard Manuel. However, it’s safe to say most would prefer Dylan-sung versions of “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” and “Long Distance Operator”.

That said, Bob’s songs are great. Tracks like “Odds And Ends”, “Million Dollar Bash”, “Please Mrs. Henry” and “Lo And Behold!” are delivered with a grin. “Clothes Line Saga” and “Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread” are just plain absurd, while “Tears Of Rage” and “This Wheel’s On Fire” equally as good as the ones that were on the Band’s debut LP. “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Nothing Was Delivered” had also been highlights of the Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. Even fanatics familiar with the bootlegs got new (to them) surprises: “Goin’ To Acapulco” is full of mystery and longing, while the included take of “Too Much Of Nothing” has an much different chord structure.

This album was a nice gesture at the time, but in this age of archival reissues, a rethinking of The Basement Tapes was long overdue. Ideally we’d get at least one full CD of unadorned mixes of the Bob songs, with the occasional alternate take, the Basement tracks from Biograph and the Bootleg Series box, plus “I’m Not There”, “Sign On The Cross” and any of the other originals they felt like throwing in. Instead, the 2009 remaster merely replicated the original two-record set exactly, on two discs even, adding only a few extraneous photos from the cover shoot. And that, we thought, was that.

Bob Dylan & The Band The Basement Tapes (1975)—4

Friday, July 3, 2009

Bob Dylan 18: Blood On The Tracks

Lester Bangs called it a “crying towel” for people recovering from a breakup. Jakob Dylan says that while Nashville Skyline is the sound of his parents falling in love, this album reminds him of his parents fighting. Even the man himself, shortly after its release, expressed confusion as to how anyone could enjoy listening to something that was so obviously so rooted in pain. The facts are these: Dylan was back home on Columbia, and with an album full of the lyrical twists and turns worthy of a man at the peak of his powers.

To this day Blood On The Tracks still features in arguments over which is Dylan’s best album. It’s up there, certainly; it’s also a good way to convert those who can’t stand Dylan’s voice, since his delivery here isn’t as easily parodied. And if they’re nursing a broken heart, all the better.

A brief rundown of the tunes: “Tangled Up In Blue” is a perfect opener, and “Simple Twist Of Fate” follows nicely in a different atmosphere. “You’re A Big Girl Now” lacks the ache of the New York version (more about that later), but “Idiot Wind” is a nasty epic. “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” turns out to be happier than it seems on the surface.

“Meet Me In The Morning” is a pretty different sound from the others, and is rare for its simpler blues structure. “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” is an enticing story, but the carnival atmosphere can be distracting. “If You See Her, Say Hello” is a sad lament, if a bit overdone. “Shelter From The Storm” takes us back to the stark territory, and it’s welcome by this time. “Buckets Of Rain” is one of the oddest yet most effective ends to any album, much less Dylan’s. Each of the ten parts fits, not quite perfectly—but there’s more to the story.

Dylan recorded the album over four days in New York City, then went to visit his brother in Minnesota for Christmas. There it was suggested that the album was too low-key, that all the songs sounded too much alike, so he hired a local pickup band and redid half of the songs, drastically changing the lyrics of three. So the album as released was a mix of the upbeat sound of the (revised) “Tangled Up In Blue” and the mellower sound of “Simple Twist Of Fate”.

That would be fine, except a test pressing of the original lineup made the rounds, leading to countless bootlegs and speculation on what should have been released. Indeed, when the authorized Bootleg Series box came out in 1991, it included four tracks from the New York sessions, but three of those were different takes from the ones on the acetate. Luckily, the original “You’re A Big Girl Now” had already appeared on Biograph, alongside the outtake “Up To Me”, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. To hear these after you’ve inhaled the album proper is a revelation; in the New York versions of these forlorn songs of unrequited or lost love, the hurt is more subdued, yet just as real.

During the crowdsourcing era, Columbia’s reissue division teased fans that Blood On The Tracks was due for a “Legacy Edition”, suggesting a double-disc expansion that would contain “both” versions of this album. Many years later, after a series of truly revelatory Bootleg Series volumes, prayers were pretty much answered.

The worst thing about More Blood, More Tracks was its title, which sounded like it had to be an April Fool’s joke. In keeping with all-or-nothing attitude of the times, it was available as a single-disc “alternate” album of all the songs plus “Up To Me”, or a limited six-CD set offering every single take from the New York sessions, and remastered versions of the five Minnesota remakes. That would be the way most fanatics would go, though hearing multiple takes of the same eleven songs spread over four days’ is a lesson in endurance. Now we finally have clean versions of the original “Lily, Rosemary” and “Idiot Wind”, the latter delivered more like the aftermath of the argument instead of the midst of it. We can hear him start the sessions solo, then a band arrives, to frankly limited success, before he pares it back to just him and a bass player. (Early discarded takes of “Simple Twist Of Fate” veer too close to ‘70s MOR territory, or at least the following year’s Paul Simon album, while a slow burn through “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome” has potential.) It can be fascinating to hear him try further takes on songs he’d already nailed, and to learn that it’s his heavy hands on the Hammond for the album version of “Idiot Wind”. And what Bootleg Series would be complete without yet another stab at “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue”?

Bob Dylan Blood On The Tracks (1975)—
Bob Dylan
More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Vol. 14 (2018)—4

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Bob Dylan 17: Before The Flood

The music industry reached the era of the arena tour, which was usually followed in turn by the double live album. And since Bob’s 1966 performances with the Band had become the stuff of legend (and bootleg), it only made sense to capitalize on the interest in his first major tour in eight years. And capitalize they did, with Before The Flood.

After nearly a minute of expectant crowd noise, “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” gallops in, and we hear Bob’s new vocal technique of yelling the last syllable of each line in his songs. There are a few changes from the records we knew and loved, such as the new lyrics to “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and the rockin’ “It Ain’t Me Babe”. “All Along The Watchtower” is still close to its John Wesley Harding tempo, but there’s more than a hint of Hendrix in the delivery. The acoustic songs are probably the highlight, and you get to hear the first of many audiences who have been cheering every harmonica blast to this day. (And the top-speed run through “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is still exciting to those of us who don’t swoon at the Nixon connotations.)

Seeing as they got co-billing, there are also a side and a half of performances by just the Band, who’d released their own live album only two years before. The curious listener pulled in by their songs would be best advised to seek out their first two albums, as these renditions don’t add much to their oeuvre.

This was not the definitive live Dylan album—that was still a long way off after several attempts over the coming years. And even though the sequence doesn’t represent a typical night on Tour ’74, Before The Flood is a sharp snapshot in time, summed up well by the cover photo of an arena full of lighters held aloft. Oddly, the album included none of the songs from Planet Waves, the album it was promoting, nor any of the otherwise unreleased songs that turned up in setlists, like “Hero Blues” or “Nobody ‘Cept You”. Perhaps his new label wanted to stick with the obvious tracks. (Originally released on Asylum, this too was reissued by Columbia in 1982. Undoubtedly, there are plenty of punters hoping that a future Bootleg Series volume will explore this period.)

Bob Dylan/The Band Before The Flood (1974)—2