T for Tom

2017 Midseason Review on Music

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on June 21, 2017

2017 Midseason Review

Halfway people, let’s talk about all the good music so far.

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1. Beach Fossils – Somersault – Beach Fossils previously made my favorite New York punk record, Clash The Truth, and there’s something in that phrase – “New York punk.” From a guy that’s never been there, there’s a certain amount of clout of what we think New York embodies – cold, cold steel, a life under the thumb. The Strokes and Interpol and have come close in our generation to speak for the youth of overcrowded America, but Somersault truly nails the sense of careless laissez faire for a world that’s got nothing left to offer its children – “All you got / was never had nothin’” is probably the line of the year.

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2. Slowdive – Slowdive – I have so many questions for this band. How do you disappear for nearly 30 years and get back together to make this record? How, if you’re capable of making something so timeless, classic, equally from the past as if from the future, have I never before heard of you, even if it was just one album before the breakup in 1991? What have you been doing in the interim to make these sounds possible? Maybe its best I never know and just enjoy the gift that is Slowdive. Viva.

 

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3. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy – It takes a couple listens to get through the writing that is so thick and so dense that at first its comedy upon itself – the metaphors so direct and the satire so clean that it’s almost aggravating that a major label artist can get away with writing something that on its surface seems so juvenile: an hour long ballad of angst toward the human race and its conniving modern existence, written mostly in the abstract. But, after a thorough couple spins, it’s really nothing short of magnanimous. Where it fails to show nuance, it breathes with guilt, and eventually Tillman tips his hand – he’s in this with us, and this is his suffering. Sincerely a wonderful piece of work from a genuine artist.

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4. Joey Bada$$ – All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$ – I’ve never heard something both so gentile and violent at the same time. This is a New York rapper in the tradition of Nas, but somehow more poignant in a time of need. Where Nas and other rappers before may have been (rightfully) timid and spoken in generalities, Bada$$ isn’t beholden to such subtleties in world that he (rightfully) guesses need none. Where Father John Misty works around the problem with humor, Bada$$ goes straight home: “Start a Civil War within the USA amongst black and white and those alike / They are simply pushin’ us to our limit so that we can all get together and get with it / They want us to rebel, so that it makes easier for them to kill us and put us in jails / Alton Sterlings are happenin’ every day in this country and around the world.”

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5. Sylvan Esso – What Now – When I saw them this past spring their DJ table had “FtheNCGOP” in electric tape across the front, which read Fuck the North Carolina Grand Old Party (becauase Fuck the North Carolina Grand Old Party, among others). Sylvan Esso (Amelia and Nick) seem to be in tune with the feeling I hope we all have, at least those I know well among my age – what now? No matter what we say or do or shout or try to teach others, hate persists. And as I danced in the crowd of kids like me all jumping and singing to the music that filled us, I remember looking at the charge taped on that DJ table and thinking “the kids will be all right.”

 

Songs:

“Leaving LA” – Father John Misty – not a question in my mind this is the greatest song of the year – a “15-minute chorus-less diatribe” in the vein of Bob Dylan. Bereft of all but voice, guitar, and three strings, it’s the ballad for the ages.

“Land of the Free” – Joey Bada$$ – “The land of the free is for the free loaders, leave us dead in the street to be your organ donors. They disorganized my people, made us all loners. Still got the names of our slave owners.”

“Thinking of a Place” – The War on Drugs – you know that feeling of nostalgia and longing you get when you think of the best moments in your life? This is the soundtrack to that feeling, written about that feeling.

“The Glow” – Sylvan Esso

“Ascension” – Gorillaz – Vince Staples leads the British response to Joey Bada$$. “I’m just playing, baby, this the land of the free, Where you can get a Glock and a gram for the cheap, Where you can live your dreams long as you don’t look like me: Be a puppet on a string, hanging from a fucking tree.”

“Tangerine” – Beach Fossils

“Do I Have To Talk You Into It” – Spoon

“Prisoner” – Ryan Adams – this man is ageless.

“Star Roving” – Slowdive –  ROCK N FUCKING ROLL.

“On Hold” – The XX

“Conrad” – SOHN – this man’s voice, man.

 

Albums:

Ryan Adams – Prisoner – **** – Truly challenges as his best record ever.

Alt-J – Relaxer – ** – Eight tracks so empty you’ll fall asleep.

At the Drive-In – Interalia – * – It’s not 2000 anymore.

Beach Fossils – Somersault – ****

Michelle Branch – Hopeless Romantic – **

Molly Burch – Please Be Mine – ***

Cold War Kids – LA Divine – **

Day Wave – The Days We Had – ***

Drake – More Life – ***

Bob Dylan – Triplicate – ***

Justine Townes Earle – Kids in the Street – **** – He’s at his best when he’s cheerful.

The Early November – Fifteen Years – ***

Elbow – Little Fictions – ***

Father John Misty – Pure Comedy – ****

Feist – Pleasure – ???

Gorillaz – Humanz – *** – Everything about this album is great except for Damon Alborn’s own contributions.

Aldous Harding – Party – ***

Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life – **

Joey Bada$$ – All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$ – ****

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. – *** – It’s safe, and that’s not what Kendrick should be.

The Lulls in Traffic – Rabbit in the Snare – **

John Mayer – The Search for Everything – **

James Vincent McMorrow – True Care – ***

Methyl Ethel – Everything is Forgotten – ***

M.I.L.K. – A Memory of a Memory of a Photograph – ***

PJ Morton – Gumbo – ***

Phoenix – Ti Amo – *** – So fun, like always.

Real Estate – In Mind – **

Sampha – Process – ***

The Shins – Heartworms – ***

Slowdive – Slowdive – ****

SOHN – Rennen – **** – What a voice.

Sufjan Stevens et al – Planetarium – *** – This is actually, really an opera.

Chris Stapleton – From A Room, Pt I – ***

Sylvan Esso – What Now – ****

The XX – I See You – **** – Their best record, and one that finally soars.

Looking Back On Bob Dylan

Posted in A Dylan A Day, Prose by johnsontoms on August 2, 2016

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If we just look at the man’s best work, we can easily ascribe him the traits of a Titan. Like legends, myths, and even gods, they transcend above the level of relation to become superhuman. These are the immediate significations of Bob Dylan’s greatest work, and surely are deserved.

But looking back at it all, if you can find the time to go through every one of the pieces of work, the artist is reduced to their human qualities. Bob Dylan, like Picasso or Michelangelo or Da Vinci or Newton or Einstein or Plato or Johnny Cash, is a human being; he experiences the same range of love, hate, bitterness, regret, happiness, success, and learning that should be welcome to any modern human being lucky enough to live a full life. It’s what they do with those emotions, spread out over time, that separates the legends from the men. But we are all surely men.

  1. Bringing It All Back Home – 1965
  2. Blood On The Tracks – 1975
  3. Blonde On Blonde – 1963
  4. Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – 1966
  5. Modern Times – 2006
  6. The Basement Tapes – 1975
  7. Highway 61 Revisited – 1965
  8. Another Side of Bob Dylan – 1964
  9. John Wesley Harding – 1967
  10. Tempest – 2012

Bob Dylan’s greatest albums stand alone above the rest of the crowd. They are the works of genius that will live on forever, and for their greatness the remainder of his output will succeed in longevity as well. Ranging from the direct to the surreal, Dylan finds a way to syphon from life its truest and most mysterious meanings, leaving us with a direction that can be found in Guernica or the Mona Lisa or Newton’s Laws.

And like the best, his work is symbolic and derivative of his own life. Henry Miller wrote the best essays and novels I’ve ever read, because they are subtracted from his own life. And his most cherished, Creative Death, succeeds in discussing the merits of the greatest works of art: that those who create for us the finest pieces of beauty are utter disciples of the balance of life and death, together – “that life leads only to death cannot be avoided…” that “to seize all of life we must seize all of death.” This can be found by working with the experiences that are befallen to us as individuals.

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Bob Dylan took his life as an insignificant Midwesterner and established a prose for the whole of the country, and eventually the world. If he had a more succinct set of experiences, or a more stressful existence, his art might have been more pointed. And for it he was able to speak to the general mass, and tackle the significant issues at large. It wasn’t until he himself had struggles, those of being famous and in demand, that his music lingered into the abstract. But even still, his music progressed and changed and bettered itself – the mark of a genius is his ability to practice and improve. Nothing more.

  1. Oh Mercy – 1989
  2. Shadows In The Night – 2015
  3. Saved – 1980
  4. Infidels – 1983
  5. The Times They Are A-Changin’ – 1964
  6. Desire – 1976
  7. Self-Portrait – 1970
  8. Time Out of Mind – 1997
  9. Before The Flood – 1974
  10. Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid – 1973

He was never the greatest instrumentalist, and never mastered his guitar or his harmonica. But he knew that it wasn’t important, so long as he continued to say and be the person that could stand on higher ground, even if he was misunderstood. For all the mystery he presented, it was his confidence and assuredness that brought about our affection and zeal. Even as he struggled with his fame, he never struggled with his release, manifested through his music.

As his personal hardships increased relative to his fame, the music became the focus. But like those masters before him, he couldn’t forego his strongest subject – himself. Even as he moved onto Nashville Skyline and New Morning and into the gospel years, we saw Blood On The Tracks and Desire. The only thing he knew how to do and to do well, was speak from the heart.

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His progression as a human being worked to expel the things he could devote his attention to, moving from the world while a hopeful and impassioned youth on into the personal issues of middle age and fatherhood. And even while the public demanded for works that spoke to them when it meant they needed a savior, we found out over the years that what we needed most, was music that described the things we all went through – heartbreak.

It could be heartbreak from love, or heartbreak from life, but the recognition that this life will not serve you your dreams, is the source for all our troubles. And so it is that “Simple Twist of Fate” can make most anyone with a heart cry. Again: life and death cannot be separated.

  1. Hard Rain – 1976
  2. New Morning – 1970
  3. Love and Theft – 2001
  4. Nashville Skyline – 1969
  5. MTV Unplugged – 1995
  6. Planet Waves – 1974
  7. Fallen Angels – 2016
  8. Together Through Life – 2009
  9. Bob Dylan – 1962
  10. Street Legal – 1978

For as much as he changed, I can say that one thing remained constant – he never really wrote a bad song. I’ve put together a full order of the albums, by my liking, and I can say with absolute assurance that anything above 30 is a great record and worth a listening. Those ranked 31-40 aren’t even horrible, but simply don’t measure up to this otherworldly standard.

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You’ll notice that those albums at the bottom all came between 1970 and 2000, with none before or after those dates. Most even, from 1980 to 2000. It was the only period that Dylan didn’t write music for himself. Having come out of his divorce, losing his children, and losing the faith of his fanbase, he tried to write music that people could like. This, of course, was a complete contradiction to everything before, and proved to be his weakest material. Bob Dylan never did anything because people liked it. In fact, quite the opposite.

  1. Real Live – 1984
  2. Slow Train Coming – 1979
  3. Empire Burlesque – 1985
  4. Good As I Been To You – 1992
  5. World Gone Wrong – 1993
  6. Under The Red Sky – 1990
  7. Shot of Love – 1981
  8. Knocked Out Loaded – 1986
  9. Down In The Groove – 1988
  10. Dylan – 1973

In his late age, he resurrected like a phoenix because he tapped into death – there was nothing left for him, in old age, except his music. And somewhere, though I don’t know the circumstances, he set about to keep the ideas together. Most of those records from 1997 on are near the top of this list, and some within the top 10 and top 5. By then, his heart had been broken. And he knew that only life could exist because it would end on down the line.

That’s the lesson to take from a full retrospective of a man’s work. Like studying all the paintings of Rembrandt, it takes a full read on his life and his habits and the circumstances that the artist goes through. What you’ll see is that no one is any different than you and I.

But the greats – they find the time to be great. Bob Dylan used his time only in that way.

I am extremely glad that I spent this time studying and listening to a true inspiration. Where others failed before him to represent the entirety of life, Bob Dylan never failed to discuss life as whole – one of success and tragedy, both. There was never anything to hide with him. I can only hope that I might show the good and the bad. Anything more fantastic is false, but anything more negative isn’t hopeful enough.


Epilogue

There’s a lot to say about spending 40 days listening to a single record by a single artist, chronologically until complete. But I won’t spend all the time in discussion of the act, and simply relate a few things.

It’s at first exciting, then overwhelming, meddlesome, exhausting, and rewarding, in that order. I started out looking forward to what I would learn, before realizing how it would impact my habits every day, until I let my daily habits get in the way of my goal, before sticking to my guns and dealing with the trouble I’d awarded myself, only to become extremely pleased and thankful to myself for having done something creative, if not important.

Even more, I think I’ve learned more about myself than I could have Bob Dylan. That’s something I can recommend, if you can deal with the rest.

Day 38 – Tempest – 2012

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 29, 2016

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Another bit of speculation led to people thinking that Tempest might be Bob Dylan’s last record, because Shakespeare’s last play was titled “The Tempest.” Bobby struck this down saying emphatically, “Shakespeare’s last play was called The Tempest. It wasn’t called just plain “Tempest”. The name of my record is just plain Tempest. It’s two different titles.” Whatever, man.

Of course he’s written more records since, but Tempest comes as a charge, a dark reach into the ether. Furthermore, I can say that it’s the strongest collection of stories he’s written since the start of his career.

Chief among them is the title-track, a thirteen-minute screed on watching people react to the sinking of the Titanic, “some nobly, some horribly, when put to the ultimate test.” It can rightly be called an allegory for today’s fate, as it sings and swims over the waltzing melody, like a carnival eulogy for fools. There are other great stories among the songs, and it feels again like he’s gotten hold of that chord inside him whereabout he wrote such classics as “Bear Mountain Picnic” and the “The John Birch Society Blues.”

For the strength inherent in tapping into his best work, we’re given a surprisingly great album. The split opinion of all the critics ranges from “among his best work” to the “best album of his late career.” I can see both sides of the argument.

Like Modern Times, the sound is direct and on point – the voice comes through strong, even though it sounds like leather these days. Where Together Through Life had just a bit too much arrangement going on, there’s only the sweeping dancehall tunes to greet us on this harrowing record.

It’s another achievement in art and sound, as well, as the duotone photograph on the cover depicts the face of the Moldau goddess of the Pallas-Athene Fountain in front of the Vienna congressional hall. More interestingly, it’s an edit of a photograph he found on someone’s personal Shutterstock, and not a professionally contracted work of photography. Nonetheless, the striking cursive TEMPEST across the top with a beautiful, subtle yellow script of his name in a simple Times New Roman font. It carries that fateful feeling, like the stories within.

And that’s the summary of life, according to Bob Dylan. Storms and shelters.


Song: “Pay In Blood”

I had put “Duquesne Whistle” here because it gets me dancing, but “Pay In Blood” is the best track that symbolizes Tempest, and it’s a damn good song. The drop groove heading into the chorus gets me every time.

Day 35 – Love and Theft – 2001

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 27, 2016

 

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Love and Theft came out on 9/11, for what it’s worth. It doesn’t actually mean anything, but it’s always a piece of trivia. Using the pseudonym Jack Frost, Bob Dylan produced his 31st studio album on his own. It was released to universal praise and acclaim, and this is the first time I’ve ever listened to it.

It would undergo scrutiny for having lifted lines directly from Diary of a Yakuza, but I don’t understand the point of that line of thinking. Only the people who’ve never written anything or done anything creative can stand back from creation and say, “you can’t take others’ ideas.” And so it goes that the author of Yakuza said he was honored if it was true that Dylan stood on his shoulders a bit.

Which is most of the point of Love and Theft, as Bob Dylan stands heavily on the musical shoulders of those before him. I’d call it Americana rock’n’roll, but I guess the official term is roots rock – whatever it is, this album sounds like the old frontier, or at least the beginnings of rock’n’roll in the age of television. While it’s great, it’s an homage, less a beginning – in order to start over, Bob Dylan has clearly had to go back, back to recreate the sounds of youth.

Coming after Time Out of Mind, it’s exactly what the man needed (or at least sounds like to me, as a listener). He found something good with Time Out of Mind, and the people liked it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned after all these albums and all these songs, Bob Dylan cares deeply about what the people want, even when he purposely contradicts their expectations.

And Love and Theft defers, comes in the fact that for the first time, he’s composing fully arranged tunes based on traditional music, rather than just acoustic guitar tunes. The result is good, but missing slightly on the spirit of the man.

This is a good album, though not quite as ornery as Time Out of Mind. And I know through personal favor and foresight, that it all comes together a few years later. I’ll tell you more about how when that album arrives tomorrow.


Song: “Sugar Baby”

In an otherwise upbeat and rocking record, it’s the stormy lullaby at the end that stands out.

Day 34 – Time Out of Mind – 1997

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 26, 2016

 

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What a breath of fresh air. Time Out of Mind really is the prodigal return that everyone says it is, and it really is from out of this world. But that’s the problem I’m left with, and it validates why, here to now, this was my first time listening to it all the way through.

That reason being that for all its grand achievements, it is artificially Bob Dylan. It’s a great rock’n’roll album for anyone to make, worthy of its Album Of The Year Grammy award, but it somehow isn’t a Bob Dylan record.

Daniel Lanois, the producer behind 1989’s Oh Mercy comeback among many other 80s albums of note, returns with Dylan for this album. And while Dylan approached Lanois, happy that for the first time in a decade he had a book of songs all written, he ceded too much control to Lanois in the studio – looking for an atmospheric sound, Lanois would strategically place the microphones away from the voices and instruments, and the whole thing rings like an echo in space.

On key tracks like “Standing In The Doorway,” “Trying To Get To Heaven,” and “Cold Irons Bound,” Bob Dylan seems perched on a stool in café bar in space, reading from a book while the music drifts and sways behind him. The feeling, the words, and the atmosphere is strong, but it seems more likely to appear on Tom Waits’s Nighthawks At The Diner than on anything Bob Dylan has ever made. Because he never faked anything. Time Out of Mind, so strong and liquid and detailed, is just a bit too much for the man who lived by his words and his words alone.

To channel that fact, Lanois approves the longest song of Bob Dylan’s career, The Highlands, to make the album, all 16-minutes of it. A fan of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” Lanois tries to capture that same feeling, but drops flat. “Highlands” as the closer on this album, falls in line in every mood except for length. Where “Desolation Row” captures an idea (albeit one of absurdity), “Highlands” drifts around, slowly following a sleepy musical backdrop that never much seems to go anywhere. It tells a story of a man going to different places, and doing strange things, but it without a chorus or bridge, becomes the pinning track of a poet reading from a stage. Something I’ve never much envisioned Dylan to be.

We have to thank for that image the sound of Time Out of Mind, which at least thematically is in line with the album’s title. This is a record from somewhere else, out of place, out of time. And it’s legendary, and will live on forever for this.

But it just doesn’t speak for Bob Dylan. He’s said as much himself, and no one except Bob Dylan has served as producer on a Bob Dylan record since.


Song: “Cold Irons Bound”

This song is the embodiment of everything I said above – cold, dark, seething and fast, there’s a monument of rock’n’roll sound going on behind Bob’s voice, and it tumbles and rolls. It won Rock Record of the year, and remains a great song. But have you ever heard a Bob Dylan song like this one before?

Day 33 – MTV Unplugged – 1995

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 24, 2016

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Bob Dylan didn’t want to play his own music, but there appears to be a lot of renewed energy in the concert. Playing on MTV’s Unplugged, he had set out to perform only folk traditionals, but it appears was convinced by MTV to do his own originals instead. I’m not what to take from that.

It could be that he had been doing traditional covers for the last two albums, going on record as saying he was just trying to finish two albums and get out of a contract fast. But it could also be that he thought there was something to be said in those old folk songs, the same way he saw something when he got started.

What was going on in 1995? O.J. was acquitted, we were about to enter a second conflict with Iraq, the Soviet Union had collapsed. Thirty-five years after he first started performing folk tunes to make sense of the world, it appeared that the time to do so never ended. Ironically, this is hero turn in his own originals – when he flipped to pop in the middle-60s, it was to betray the idea he was a protestor, but now in the new millennium we look to those songs of love, losing, and loss as the more clear picture of hope in a hopeless world.

And so Unplugged becomes a master class in the Bob Dylan discography, not in an of itself the best performances ever, but a skillfully selected group of songs to please fans of any Dylan era. Filled with “Tombstone Blues,” “All Along The Watchtower,” Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & #35,” there’s a big hit from ever turn in his career. Even on “Rolling Stone” there’s the same energetic yowl of each word at the end of a phrase, carried further than his vocals allow but stressing the importance of our greatest American song. It’s near to the same way he sang in ’66 when he first performed in London to a chorus of boos, telling the crowd at MTV that he’s doing it his way, just as he had 29 years earlier. And just like those vocals, the band keeps the spirit high, the melodies, sweet, and there’s a genuine sense of appreciation and warmth, rather than eulogy, for each tune unlike we’ve seen in a long time.

The true gems are the appearances of two of his most ambitious epics, “Desolation Row” and “With God On Our Side.” It’s important as the first appearance on either song on a live album (though he’d of course performed them before), and also signifies what might lie closest to his own heart. Remember, he had to be pushed to play original tunes, and among a catalog of hundreds he chose these two.

“With God On Our Side” closes out the record, and would seem a poignant end to a rhapsodic performance. But for whatever reason, and he’s never given any, Dylan omitted the verses about the Germans and the Russians. The easy reading of this could be that he didn’t want to be seen as political at all, or anymore.

But if I had to take a guess, Bob Dylan was still a passionate man with hope for the world. But for the mystery of his life, he couldn’t make it so easy for us to figure out.


Song: “Desolation Row”

I’ve never really appreciated this song, near the longest of his career, even as it closed Highway 61 Revisited. But after hearing it a number of times, on the albums and in the performance videos, I can see why it’s among those that will live forever. This acoustic version cements that.

Day 31 – Good As I Been To You – 1992

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 23, 2016
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By far my least favorite album cover.

A couple things stand out about Good As I Been To You, some things I already knew with a short listen some years ago – it’s the first fully acoustic record since 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan, and it’s composed of nothing but traditionals and covers. This seems to be have been done on purpose, taking the name to mean something literal.

The title is, after all, a conjecture: as good as Bobby’s been to us, he’s probably never felt respected, at least not in the way he wants or needs. It tells me also, that for all the different ways he’s tried (and oh he’s tried so many), there seems to have been only one that ever received universal praise. That being the acoustic one, that being the one he’s coyly returned to 30 years later.

It’s not to say that it isn’t worth a listen. I went to it some years ago, I don’t fully remember, but I recall that my opinion was good – hey, after all this shit, he got good again before we like to recall. Not with Time Out of Mind, not with Modern Times, but seemingly always and even when he’s not trying; for its lack of originality, it’s the master at work. Some of the compositions are right in place with anything from his self-titled debut, and this 1992 version of “Sitting On Top of the World” is one of the best versions of a song that’s been covered by nearly everyone.

Also though, and something we’ll see from here on, is that each record seems to be done merely for the sake of doing. I mean, hell, he’s put out two albums inside this most recent calendar year in 2016. It just seems like he’ll never tire of making records, or at least never tire of the idea that he should.

It’s going to be a repeated refrain to the end of this retrospective. Sometimes it’s folk, sometimes its blues, sometimes its heartland, but it’s always Bobby D and it’s always good. And I think that’s the compromise: we shouldn’t expect him to change the world again, but he’s proven enough that everything he’s going to do from this day on is at least worth our time.

As good as he’s been to us, I can settle for that.


Song: “Tomorrow Night”

Man, what a blues tune.

Day 30 – Under the Red Sky – 1990

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 22, 2016

 

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The progression leading to Oh Mercy and followed by Under the Red Sky is something like five steps forward, one step back. We’re still way ahead of the entire previous decade, but it feels like our hopes have been left disappointed.

Released in 1990, Under the Red Sky again features a number of prominent guest appearances from Elton John, Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan, Bruce Hornsby, David Crosby, and even Randy Jackson. The music, in spite of its slick production, still results in a record, which audibly, is worth a full listen. The Vaughan brothers give “Unbelievable” and rocking blues depth that Bob Dylan hasn’t really sunk to before, skirting the distortion lows and swinging rhythms of the drums, Texas style. George Harrison drops a beautiful guitar solo in the middle of the title track, and you can hear Elton John peering over a number of tracks with a soaring organ – so much that at the beginning of “Handy Dandy” it sounds like they’re reprising “Like a Rolling Stone.”

But that summarizes what makes Under the Red Sky so damn confounding – it may be the first time that we can say Bob Dylan’s music outshone his writing. Just hear some of the titles: “Wiggle Wiggle,” “Handy Dandy,” “Cat’s In the Well.” Legend has it that the dedication of the album to “Gabby Goo Goo,” his four-year old daughter, prompted the record that turned out to be nearly all nursery rhymes. Seriously: “Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a bowl of soup / Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a rolling hoop.” It’s nonsense, I’ll even call it dumb. But what I can’t figure out, is why he would make such great music and give it such shit words. I don’t know.

The man is 27 albums into his career at this point, so it could either be running out ideas or just getting bored. He’s three years into his “Never Ending Tour” at this point, playing on average a show every other day (which is still going on today, seriously, look it up), and probably just rushed out a record in between legs of the tour. In fact, that’s exactly what he said at the time.

But George Harrison? Stevie Ray Vaughan? Elton John? These musicians deserved something so much greater, to record with the Bob Dylan. They made a good album. I’ll dance, but I won’t listen.


Song: “God Knows”

What starts as a groovy rock’n’roll ballad builds up to a certifiably anthemic SRV guitar solo. Approved.

Day 29 – Oh Mercy – 1989

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 20, 2016

 

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A couple months ago, shortly before I started this adventure, I turned on some random Bob Dylan records, because it was the seed to the idea. I had forgotten about this particular day until now, because the feeling that swept over me then has come about a second time: what a surprisingly great album is Oh Mercy.

The pits, the falls, the highs and lows, its combination of vocal clarity and sparse, sometimes empty composition muzzled between different ends of groovy, dark alleyway tracks, makes for a story untold by Dylan before. The scuttle is buttin’ from the get-go, and it makes for a story told by ear – the first time in a long time that’s been done.

A key component, and maybe the only component, is that it is the first album since the gospel years to feature only Bob Dylan as a writing credit. It might have something to do with his confidence then that he knew what he was doing, even if took a decade to get there.

“We live in a political world / Love don’t have any place / We’re living in times / Where men commit crimes / And crime don’t have any face,” are the first words greeting the listener, and it’s some of the best he’s nailed down in years, coated over a jangly bar tune befit for a film noir car chase. Down the line we get sullen saxophone solos, and long, weepy harmonicas. Truly everything in its place.

Produced by Daniel Lanois, it’s an attempt to really stick to what made Bob Dylan great in the first place. This is no more evident in any place than with “Ring Them Bells.” It’s also a bellwether moment in Dylan’s career, as it is clear now the direction his voice is taken. Set over a slow, low piano, the register in his voice gets low, and for the first time (as we know happens ever since) it begins to rumble and scratch, nearly to unintelligible. But for its sincerity, its pause, and its creed, it’s a welcome change.

Strangely enough, these delicate moments seem more close to his own gospel than anything he ever attempted on purpose. The title after all, Oh Mercy, is akin to any cry ever made unto god. And while there is certainly a political, worldly use of the moniker, it can’t be mistaken how holy these songs come off the record.

The solution seems simple now, looking back, and I’m sure he came to the same – after increasing his personnel, his sessions, and his band members ten fold for years, it just took a little bit less.

We could all maybe take a piece from this book: can’t cover up the truth, just be you.


Song: “Most of the Time”

This song fits right in with anything done by Ryan Adams or The National or whoever’s trying to write the latest indie-Americana-folk hit, except it was 1989 and it’s a great song.

“My head is on straight, most of the time.”

Day 28 – Down In The Groove – 1988

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 20, 2016

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My mind went straight to Mighty Ducks 2. Down In The Groove starts off with a cover of Bryan Ferry’s “Let’s Stick Together,” the song made famous during my childhood for bringing together the Team USA Junior Hockey Squad coached by Gordon Bombay. If that isn’t weird enough, it should tell you everything you need to know about Dylan’s 1988 effort.

The thing is, like previous poor efforts, it isn’t outwardly bad. It’s Dylan. But that’s not enough when it comes to the man who made his legend by being so much more. I’ve heard “Let’s Stick Together” in various forms, and I didn’t need another one that wasn’t improving on the original in any way. It’s just Dylan picking a song and playing it. The sound is much better here, and it seems more genuine. But the overall pulse just isn’t engaging at all.

On first listen through the record, “Silvio” stuck out as the most unique track, and I’ve learned in reading since that The Grateful Dead appear as backing band on the track. They appear only on that track, in fact, because Dylan insisted on having completely separate and different recording sessions and completely different musicians for every song that would appear on the record, and the result is somewhat schismatic. It peaks, it valleys, but the wave never seems to crest. It’s just the furthest extreme of what he was trying first with Empire Burlesque and then with Knocked Out Loaded, before reaching the logical conclusion here.

The thing is, I’m running out of things to say. As this retrospective starts to wear on me, I anxiously wait for the records I know to reappear; Modern Times, Together Through Life, so on. What I’m learning and what I can understand, is that only someone as important as Bob Dylan would get the time of day, over the course of many years, to wander around creatively aimless and distracted. He’s allowed, by critics, by record companies, by audiences, to spend this time figuring out who is and who he wants to be, sometimes by looking back at who he was. Even if they disparage his output, he’s allowed to keep going, time and again. We didn’t even give that kind of time to The Rolling Stones, never allowed to write anything new and left to spend their final years just playing the same songs over and over again.

There’s a chance at the end where it attempts at redemption: the final two tracks, first “Shenandoah,” then “Rank Strangers to Me,” are akin to field hymns, the kind sung by those who were stripped of their power by others. The first sweetly gives way to the second, growing in sentiment and somberness. I can feel that there’s an attempt to say something honest. But it shouldn’t come so late, and so by itself.

Bob Dylan was always so much more. He was always greater than what people thought of him, and his legacy in hindsight is stronger than any criticism given to him at the time. He’s the songwriter, and we keep letting him write, hoping that it comes out again, some day.

With the power of foresight, I know it works out. But not on this album.


Song: “Rank Strangers To Me”

This, somehow, on a lost record, might be one of his most personal songs, and his most beautiful singing. “I looked for my friends but I never could find them / I found they were all rank strangers to me.”