Friday, October 01, 2010

A Thing That I Am Doing: My Top 25 Albums

So hey! Where have I been this past month, you might want to ask? Well, I can tell you in one word, friends: TUMBLRRRRR.

No, I'm not moving there or anything. In a rare fit of sportsmanship, I have decided to take on a challenge proposed by my good Chicago buddy Rick and compile a list of my top 25 favorite albums of all time. ALL. TIME. Quite a challenge, I must say.

I have no hesitation in admitting that when Rick first asked me to do this I really, really, REALLY didn't want to. At all. I'm just not a "list" guy, you see. I don't understand your average music nerd's obsession with taking these nice things and numbering them and putting them in a sequence. It just seems like an empty, pointless enterprise. I know a lot of people are AWARE of the fact that it's empty and pointless, and they still have the compulsion to do it, and that's fine. But it's just - it's not me.

That is - it WASN'T me, until I actually started COMPILING the list itself and realized that it was a whole lot of fun! No WONDER these silly nerds like doing this so much. You get to sit around and think about your favorite music a lot! Who doesn't like doing that! Not to mention that I was assured by Rick and a handful of some other friends of mine (making lists of their own) that most of the rankings were arbitrary, anyway. So that made things a lot easier, for me, especially knowing that my friends kinda-sorta felt the same way about making the list as I did.

I've decided to post them on Tumblr instead of here because I feel like the format fits them better, really. I'm doing small write-ups on each record individually, counting up from 25, embedding mp3s and Youtube videos along the way. Each writeup, I feel, is significantly more off-the-cuff and instinctive that most of my reviews here (if you can believe that), so I feel the more circumstantial and immediate nature of Tumblr fits them better.

So! There you go!! If you wanna follow my list, you can either follow my tumblr or check out the "Top 25 Albums" tag to filter out all the other stupid stuff I post. I would also recommend following my good buddies Jason, Krystle, Steve, and Dave, who are all compiling their own lists. I forgot to mention it before, but I feel like my favorite thing about this whole thing has been checking out my friend's lists, seeing what music shaped them growing up, where they're coming from. It gives me a chance to understand my friends a lil better, while examining and strengthening my own connections with my favorite music. It has been much more rewarding than I expected it to be.

I'm already about to hit #10, though, so you'd better get readin' and catch up! I could be done tomorrow! And then how will you feel!!

(Also, despite the fact that Rick was the one to push me into making this thing, he hasn't made one HIMSELF yet. That stupid dope.)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Album Review: "Shout It Out" by Hanson

sorry, ladies. they're taken.

Well here's the thing: even if Hanson's newest record was a piece of garbage, what would you do? Get mad about it? Get mad at the Hansons? As if the Hansons owed you anything? Who are you, huh? Who?

Who are you??

The Brothers Hanson don't need to keep releasing music records. They have little or nothing to gain, artistically or financially. They started their career with "MMMBop," maybe the best pop song to come out of the 90s, and made enough money from it to last them a lifetime. They come from well-to-do families. They all have wives and kids. They are all relatively good looking, clean cut young men. They seem exceptionally good natured. The reason they keep putting out records is because they like to. They like music. They are never going to be superstars again, but they have a small and dedicated fanbase who go to their shows and support them. They seem to like their fans. As long as they continue to put out records they will be the constant butt of "LOL THEY LOOK LIKE GIRLS" jokes, but it doesn't seem to bother them. They just like doing what they're doing.

Good for them! They're doing just fine. If you have a problem with them, ignore them. Just know that they are probably leading more fulfilling lives than you are, full of music and joy. Who are you? Who??

Thankfully, the music on Shout It Out is actually pretty good. If you are like any other red-blooded American male and have been keeping a constant eye on Hanson's career since Middle Of Nowhere, you might have noticed that their last couple records (2004's Underneath and 2007's The Walk) were semi-decent adult-pop affairs that often pushed too far into Jack Johnson/Jason Mraz acoustic blandness while mostly ignoring the fizzy pop goodness that is still their strongest asset. Shout It Out brings that goodness back in full effect, making for their most pleasant collection of tunes since This Time Around - "Waiting For This", "Thinkin 'Bout Somethin," "Kiss Me When You Come Home", and "Give A Little" will fill your heart with sweet tuneful joy. There are some slow piano ballads that don't do anything, but I would be lying if I said I didn't like "Carry You There" and "These Walls."

There are songs with titles like "Musical Ride" and "Voice In The Chorus." Most of the lyrics are cliche-ridden and not worth mulling over, but who gives a shit? This isn't a Tom Waits album. Nothing on this record is going to change your life, but it may fill you with sweet good vibes. That is all I ask for from Hanson.

It's musical comfort food. Happy goodtime kinda-sorta-retro pop from a bunch of nice men who want you to feel good. Who are you to refuse them? Who??

An addendum: please don't be misled into thinking that it took me almost a month to write this review. It didn't. It took me about an hour. I'm an exceptionally lazy man, you understand.

The lead guy from LFO died a few days ago and it affected me in the weirdest way possible. I can't even describe it. The guy was 35. When "Summer Girls" was all over the radio, he was only a year older than I am right now. I did make a comic about it, if that sort of thing interests you at all.

So, for next time: Jordan Knight, Nick Carter, or a tribute to our dear departed Rich Cronin with a review of LFO's "Life Is Good"? Take your pick.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Album Review: "The Suburbs" by the Arcade Fire

yeah, eight different covers, but not in a "cool" way

Yes, it's been out for a while. Yes, I was going to review it around the time it came out. Yes, I didn't.

We, as a nation, must move on.

There are so many things I could write about the new Arcade Fire record. And so many things I could write about the Arcade Fire! For the past five years or so they have been one of those "IT" bands, for me. For a few years there they were "that one indie rock band I LIKE", a distinction I have thankfully gotten over. But I can't blame myself for feeling that way; I fell in love with the Arcade Fire because they sounded like they gave a shit, like they had some fucking blood pumping through their veins. They were a band unafraid to embrace passion and heartache without irony, to put everything they had into their music, to scream and yelp at the top of their lungs until their voices cracked. And, thank God, they knew how to write melodies worthy of that passion.

But things are a little different, now. Here's a fun game: play each of the Arcade Fire's opening album tracks back to back (all THREE of them) for comparison's sake, and prepare to be disoriented. "Neighborhood #1" and especially "Black Mirror" are so gigantic they're almost deafening, but "The Suburbs"? What the fuck is this? Paul McCartney circa 1970's McCartney? There's nothing "epic" about this song in the slightest! Where's the anguish? Where's the Win Butler screams? Why aren't there any voices shouting "WHOAA-AOOO" in unison? Why, this isn't the Arcade Fire at all!!

This may be your reaction to most of The Suburbs. Upon first listen, at least. But eventually you will realize what a solid, well-constructed record this is, I promise you. As I was telling my buddy Adam last week, I like to think of it this way: you remember that constant feeling of dread Neon Bible evoked? That premonition that some horrible event was just around the corner, and there was nothing we could do but sit on our hands and let it swallow us whole? Well, if The Suburbs is any indication, it didn't happen. If it did, we didn't notice it. If Funeral was about loss and Neon Bible was about fear, then The Suburbs is about apathy.

That's not to say the music here is apathetic - quite the contrary - but The Suburbs evokes that uncanny feeling of boredom, sitting alone in your parents' basement waiting for something to happen. Sometimes something does; most of the time, nothing. As such, it might be the most relatable Aracde Fire record yet released, at least to me. I'm not going to nitpick lyrics here (because I hate doing that), but the key line of the record is right there at the beginning: "Sometimes I can't believe it / I'm moving past the feeling." They don't say what that "feeling" is, because they don't have to. You know what that feeling is, that one feeling you start to lose as you grow a bit older. It's almost a more defeated take on that line in "Wake Up" ("our bodies get bigger / but our hearts get torn up"), only written after that feeling is already gone.

But I won't dig too deep into these themes. What I appreciate most about The Suburbs is its willingness to ditch the gigantic choral sound of classic Arcade Fire and find power in a more down-to-earth approach. "Modern Man" is a pop-rock song, featuring one of Win Butler's most restrained vocal performances; "Month Of May" is some kind of twisted mock punk-rock thing; "Wasted Hours" is a casual, understated bit of folk; "City With No Children" is an handclap-laden slice of Caribbean joy. I can safely say that none of these songs sound like anything the Arcade Fire has done before. And even The Suburbs' big, emotional songs (which, contrary to everything else I have written here, there are plenty of) don't sound a whit like you would expect them to. Again, compare "Sprawl II" to "Wake Up" or "No Cars Go" and you will be surprised: not only is it just Regine singing, it almost sounds like a "Heart Of Glass" knockoff, or something! How could this possibly be the emotional centerpiece of the record?? But oh ho, it is. It works. Synths and all, it works! And unlike "In The Backseat," it manages to be danceable at the same time! Incredible!!

The Suburbs isn't going to reach through your throat and rip out your still beating heart like the last couple records did. But that's OK; it's not trying to. This is a new approach for the Arcade Fire. Some may complain that they sound "just like any other band" now, or something. Or maybe nobody will. Maybe I am arguing with a strawman. That is most likely the case. But either way, if you're not sure about this record on first listen, listen again! Your mind might change. I am just happy to know that this band I like so much is not content to rest on their laurels, and that they can be just as effective with normal pop-rock as they were with epic emotional orchestra-rock. That is comforting.

But what do you care? It's #1 on the Billboard charts, so chances are you've already given these bastards your money, or at least downloaded the thing illegally. If you enjoyed it, I have been honored to reinforce your opinion. If you didn't, then fuckk YOuuUUUUU

OK, readers, get ready to vote on what my next review will be!! Here are your choices:

1) Hanson's Shout It Out
2) Nick Carter's Now Or Never
3) Jordan Knight's Jordan Knight

Vote now! Vote! Vote! Vote now!!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Album Review: "Aphrodite" by Kylie Minogue


A memo to 90% of modern indie bands making feeble, "post-ironic" attempts at dance-pop: Kylie Minogue has you beat. By a long shot. This is everything pop music should be - over-the-top synths, insistent beats, cliched lyrics, and overwhelmingly catchy hooks. With Minogue there's no hint of the obnoxious self-awareness that poisons so many wannabe dance bands circa 2010. No painful falsettos, no "hilariously quirky" 8-bit sound effects, no pointlessly wordy lyrics - just simple, fun pop music. Minogue isn't putting on an act, here; this is what she does, what she's always done. And she does it well.

Kylie Minogue has been recording pop music for a solid two decades, and she is somehow recording music in her 40s that is substantially better than anything she did in her 20s. Which is kind of ridiculous, when you think about it; she's like a bizarro Madonna, or something. Before this year's Aphrodite, I had only (VERY recently) heard a couple of Minogue's other records: 2000's Light Years and 2001's Fever, both chock-full of fantastic millennial disco-pop that I felt guilty having missed out on for so many years (as a self-proclaimed connoisseur of early 2000s pop, this was especially hurtful). These records made two things abundantly clear: one, Kylie Minogue knows good pop music; two, Kylie Minogue cares about making her records consistent, which isn't even necessary. She could've just put out a bunch of great singles and filled the rest of her records with filler pap like every other teen pop act out there, but instead Light Years and Fever are so impressive front-to-back that even the lesser tracks feel like they belong.

Aphrodite continues this trend, but things are a little different. As great as Light Years and Fever were, they indulged in over-the-top campiness so thoroughly that they came perilously close to ironic jokiness (Light Years especially). I don't get that vibe from Aphrodite; it sounds more forceful, more committed. Not to mention that it's less of a disco record and more of a synth-pop one, which I guess is emblematic of the year it was recorded. Where Light Years came out during the "DISCO IS COOL AGAIN!" era, Aphrodite is here in the midst of the "80s DANCE IS COOL AGAIN!" era, so it treads dangerous ground. A cynic might accuse Minogue of playing catch-up with the likes of Lady GaGa and La Roux, and they may be right. But it doesn't matter, 'cause Aphrodite is better than both.

Oh ho, I could prattle on and on about the songs this record. I could! So I will. I love Aphrodite because it does not waste a second. The first word you hear is "DANCE," and it does not let up from there. "All The Lovers," "Get Outta My Way," "Put Your Hands Up (If You Feel Love)" - impossible not to dance to. You will dance to them. If you think you won't, you are wrong! "Everything Is Beautiful" you might not dance to, though, because it is a ballad. But you might anyway. "Better Than Today" is a great pop song. Even if a couple tracks during the second half aren't as good as the rest, the record ends with "Looking For An Angel" and "Can't Beat The Feeling," two of the best tracks here. It's 43 minutes long and nearly flawless. You can't ask for anything more from a pop album.

Honestly, Aphrodite is nothing new or shockingly original. It probably could have been recorded a decade ago. And nobody's saying Kylie Minogue is a fantastic vocalist or anything - I imagine her cutesy cooing is probably really annoying to some people - but she knows how to deliver these songs, and that's all that matters. I won't deny for a second that my intense love of this record isn't completely personal; Aphrodite embodies all of the great dance music I grew up with, delivered without apology or condescension. It gives off that irresistible feeling of the perfect all-night party, one that could never possibly exist. In layman's terms, I feel like this record was made just for me, and that is a feeling that cannot be taken for granted.

OK, I feel like I'm losing myself here, so how's this for a comparison: Aphrodite is like if the Backstreet Boys' last record didn't completely suck after the first four songs. Because I know all of you out there spent $19.99 on a copy of that record immediately upon its release, and as such know exactly what I'm talking about.

Right? Right! Wasn't "PDA" such a stupid fucking song?? I knowww.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Album Review: "Fables Of The Reconstruction" by R.E.M.


Oho, so here I am, writing about R.E.M. again. I have been listening to so SO much new music recently, and yet all I have to show for it is a review of an album - and a band - that I have loved since the beginning of time. Way to work outside of your comfort zone, Rose.

But I have an excuse! Today's record, 1985's Fables Of The Reconstruction, was just recently re-released - and, thankfully, it is getting a whole slew of long-deserved positive press. This is good news, considering that Fables tends to be the one early R.E.M. record that is continually ignored, even by diehard fans; not only was it sandwiched uncomfortably between Reckoning and Lifes Rich Pageant, but the band was not at all happy with the record by most accounts, and fans decided to follow their lead by not even bothering to hear it. Which is pretty dumb, when you think about it. Didn't XTC hate Skylarking for a while? Like, their most celebrated and beloved album? Yeah.

Bands are stupid.

Guess R.E.M. got over it, though, considering that they perform Fables tracks in concert all the time now. So we can all stop being so dumb. Fables holds a unique position in R.E.M.'s discography for a few reasons: one, it's the band's first concept album, with a set of songs exploring legends of the rural South; two, it's the last album of R.E.M.'s elliptical early years, before Lifes Rich Pageant turned them into an arena-rock band; and third, it's possibly their darkest album, the inverse of Reckoning's summertime-fun college rock. The latter point is probably the main reason so many people have trouble with Fables - it takes the least accessible traits of R.E.M.'s first two albums and magnifies them, pushing Michael Stipe's vocals even further back into the mix and drenching every track in moody guitar murk. Just a comparison of opening tracks makes these differences clear: where Murmur and Reckoning kicked off with radio-friendly college rock anthems, Fables opens with the clangy guitars of "Feeling Gravitys Pull," a song so unfriendly it sounds almost like it was designed to push the listener away.

This was my Fables dilemma, for a while. Lifes Rich Pageant has long been my favorite 80s R.E.M. record, and Fables is almost its exact opposite in every conceivable way; I just didn't know how to approach it. But Fables is a record that rewards (or, in some cases, requires) multiple listens, revealing itself to be possibly R.E.M.'s finest exercise in establishing mood and drawing the listener in. Individual tracks might not be as catchy or ingratiating as Murmur's and Reckoning's, but neither of those records could boast a sound as all-engulfing as "Maps And Legends"'s foreboding jangle, or "Auctioneer (Another Engine)"'s disarming chorus. If Reckoning felt like a lovely drive through the neighborhood, Fables feels like a dirt-road slog in the dead of night, where everything is obscured and nothing is certain.

But despite all that murkiness, this is still an early-period R.E.M. record through and through, full of gorgeous melodies, Peter Buck guitar jangling and Mike Mills/Bill Berry harmonies. Most fans probably already know "Driver 8," even if they haven't heard Fables - it's one of their best and most popular early singles - but there are so many worthy album tracks here it's ridiculous. My personal favorite, "Green Grow The Rushes," is one of Peter Buck's finest moments, a winding tapestry of folk-rock guitar beauty. It's got an environmental message, but one so thoroughly packaged in melodious songcraft that it never comes across as preachy or obnoxious - it's a should-be R.E.M. classic, is what I'm trying to say. The dramatic echo of tracks like "Life And How To Live It" and "Good Advices" give the record a palpable sense of energy (the latter featuring the immortal Stipe lyric "When you meet a stranger / look at his shoes / keep your money in your shoes"), while "Kohoutek" and "Old Man Kensey" revel in that creepy Old South vibe. And, of course, there are the two great tracks that are completely at odds with the mood of the record: the goofy horn-driven "Can't Get There From Here," the earliest inkling that R.E.M. actually had a sense of humor, and the understated country ballad of "Wendell Gee" that closes the album on an unusually friendly note.

Oh, also worth noting: if you love Mike Mills counterpoint harmony vocals, Fables is going to make you a very happy man. They are all over this fucking thing. "Can't Get There From Here" is maybe the best example, but "Maps And Legends" and "Wendell Gee" benefit greatly from his presence. God, I love that guy.

Man, there is no better time to get into Fables. It is an excellent portrait of a band at the peak of their powers, delivering one more moody masterpiece before diving headlong into the mainstream. I wouldn't recommend it for newbie R.E.M. fans - it's a little too uninviting - but dedicated listeners have no excuses. Give in.

To close things out, here's a fun live performance that answers the eternal question: "What if R.E.M.'s classic, outspoken anthem 'Fall On Me' sounded like a track from Chronic Town?" Here is your answer:

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Album Review: "Broken Bells" by Broken Bells

ring them belles

I have always been a Danger Mouse fan. I have never been a Shins fan. So when I heard that Danger Mouse recorded an album with the Shins guy, I was all like "ehhh I dunno, man" and decided not to listen to it.

But then I listened to it and realized that, hey, it's pretty good and I like it! Man, what a twist.

See now, I was embellishing a bit when I said "I have never been a Shins fan." What I meant to say was "I heard a few of their songs here and there, wasn't crazy about them, and made a concerted effort to not bother with any of their studio releases as a result. Also, fucking Garden State, jesus christ." Which, you know, is a completely unfair judgment. And now I'm thinking - if James Mercer is just as bearable on all those Shins albums as he is here, maybe I should give them a chance? Yes. Maybe I should.

I mean, I could say Danger Mouse is the only reason I like this record, but that wouldn't be right either. Mercer's voice is all over this thing, for one. I always pinned Mercer's vocals as too introverted and dull for my tastes ("New Slang," for one, which features one of the most bored vocal deliveries I have ever heard), but on Broken Bells he really sounds like he cares, which is a definite plus. He and Danger Mouse make for a surprisingly compatible duo: Mercer writes a bunch of pretty, mournful low-key tunes, and Danger Mouse bathes them in the atmospheric electronics that are his signature. The best thing I can say about Broken Bells is that it reminds me of my personal favorite DM production, Gorillaz' Demon Days; like that album, it indulges in a sweet electronic haze, but doesn't sound meandering or self-indulgent.

At least, for the most part. Some of the songs on Broken Bells' second half don't thrill me too much (a little too Shins-y, I guess?). But there are a lot of cool things going on here. My personal favorite track would have to be "Your Head Is On Fire," which somehow manages to evoke all the splendor of a Pet Sounds instrumental without being completely obnoxious, a nearly impossible feat nowadays. There's also the cool dark electronics of "Vaporize" and "October," the expansively pretty opener "The High Road," and "The Mall & Misery" which manages to beat Phoenix at their own sordid little pop-rock game.

I would also like to take this opportunity to apologize to Broken Bells' big hit single, "The Ghost Inside," which I was not fond of upon first listen but I now accept as a decently funky track. Here is my thing: I have a real problem with indie rock white dudes trying to be funky. I think it is a stupid, obnoxious trend that needs to end as soon as possible. Not that I don't think white dudes can be funky - if the Bee Gees can, who can't? - but in recent years it sounds to me like a mocking, self-important stab at relevance by a bunch of clueless white-boy Prince fetishists. It's silly, empty posturing. So when I first heard Mercer's over-the-top falsetto on "The Ghost Inside," my immediate reaction was to pause the track, rest my face in my hands and squeeze until I went numb. But soon I realized, hey! It's pretty much a Gorillaz song! And that falsetto, Damon Albarn does that a whole lot, doesn't he? So it would be pretty hypocritical of me to demonize "The Ghost Inside." It's good, and it's the only song on here featuring Mercer's funkmaster highvoice, so I can't get too mad at him.

So there you are. I like Broken Bells. You will, too, if you like Danger Mouse. And the Shins, I guess. I wouldn't know.

As for the "I hate funky indie rock dudes," that is a subject that will pop up again in the near future, I can assure you. Whether you like it or not.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Album Review: "The ArchAndroid" by Janelle Monae

"MetPOPolis" is more like it! heyyyy

As a concerned citizen, I hope I'm not the first person to notice the curious similarities between Janelle Monae's new hit concept record The ArchAndroid and Styx's commercial magnum opus, 1983's Kilroy Was Here. Because they are blatant.

How so?? Well, just THINK about it:

1) Both take place in the future.
2) Both are about robots.
3) Both feature a song entitled "Cold War".

Surely, this is undeniable proof that Ms. Monae is a complete and utter ripoff artist and owes the 80s' finest rock vocalist, Mr. Dennis DeYoung, a hefty sum of dollars. How could so many venerable rock critics miss this one??

...ohoho. Jokes. No, really, The ArchAndroid is probably the furthest thing from a Styx album that I could imagine. Y'know - it doesn't suck.

Aha! Ha. No, that's also not fair. I have never sat down and listened to any Styx record, let alone Kilroy Was Here, and I most likely never will. But considering that Styx were a late 70s/early 80s progressive rock band, I can only assume they took their "robots in the future" storyline very seriously - a mistake that, thankfully, The ArchAndroid does not repeat. Like any decent concept album, the concept itself is just window dressing, an excuse to give a bunch of well-crafted pop/rock songs a sense of cohesion. Sure, Monae herself seems to have put a lot of thought into the "story" here (considering that she wants to turn it into a graphic novel and a Broadway show I guess that isn't too surprising), but the songs themselves are just so good that you don't need to follow along with the libretto to enjoy yourself. Thank God.

From the outset, you might mistake The ArchAndroid for a hip-hip/R&B/dance-pop record. Like I did! Monae is a protege of Puff Daddy and Outkast's Big Boi, after all, and the record's first single "Tightrope" is a funky, half-rapped modern dance track. But 'tis a ruse. Sure, a 70-minute modern R&B futuristic concept album would be a pretty cool idea on its own, but rap and R&B make up only a small part of Monae's anything-goes pop vision. Epic rock? Jazz? Disco? Goofy whiteboy indie-dance? Late 60s-esque psychadelic folk? Heavily-orchestrated movie soundtracks?? Man, it's all here, and it all works. Somehow.

In most ArchAndroid reviews I've read, comparisons to Michael Jackson and Prince abound, and, well... yeah, I guess that's fair. But she's never derivative of them. Sure, "Locked Inside" sounds like an Off The Wall outtake (right down to nicking "Rock With You"'s opening drumfill - you can't fool me, Janelle!!), but it's so gosh-darned well-executed that I can't help but enjoy it. As for Prince, well, just a cursory glance over the tracklisting will give that one away ("Neon Valley Street", "Wondaland," and "57821" come to mind). But it's also worth mentioning that the most obviously Prince-inspired track here, the gorgeously epic "Mushrooms & Roses," is easily my favorite song on the album, reaching the dizzily romantic heights of Purple Rain's best tracks.

Yes. And there are many other impressive songs here. "Tightrope" might not be representative of the rest of the record, but it's a great single anyway, featuring a welcome guest rap from Big Boi himself. Other highlights include the relentlessly catchy, surprisingly dramatic "Cold War" (featuring a fierce guitar solo in its closing moments); the completely adorable singalong folk-pop of "Oh, Maker"; and the manic, fast-paced bebop of "Come Alive (The War Of The Roses)," featuring maybe Monae's most intense vocal performance on the entire album. But still, that's only a sampling of what you're gonna find here.

Now I only mentioned it in passing before, but yes, this record is a full 70 minutes long. Anybody familiar with this blog - and with me - knows that I can't stand bloated, unnecessarily long records, even by bands that I love. But I give Monae a free pass here, for two reasons: one, these songs are so good that I never get tired of them (no small feat); two, Monae had the good sense to divide the record up into two distinct halves, dubbed "Suite II" and "Suite III". As such, you could think of The ArchAndroid as two records in one. By that criteria, "Suite II" is definitely the better record, containing most of The ArchAndroid's best tracks and ending with the aforementioned zenith of "Mushrooms & Roses"; "Suite III", while still excellent, slows things down a bit with longer, more atmospheric songs. Sure, it's got the warped-pop glory of "Wondaland" and the eerie dark folk of "57821," but it's also got my least favorite track on the record: "Make The Bus," featuring Of Montreal. It's not just a guest appearance - Kevin Barnes wrote it and sings lead vocal. It's pretty much an Of Montreal track, kinda-sorta featuring Janelle Monae. Of Montreal fans might like it, but man, I like Monae a lot more than Kevin Barnes; hearing her disappear in the middle of her own record is pretty jarring. It's like someone switched CDs on me, all the sudden! Yeesh!! (Also, it's kind of an annoying song.)

But hey. I'm nitpicking. Even if I'm not crazy about the Of Montreal track, the very fact that it's here should give you an impression of how far Monae is willing to reach. To put it bluntly, The ArchAndroid is a record that has made me very happy. It is a pop record in the very best sense of the term - catchy, well-produced, and playful, incorporating a whole bunch of styles without sounding silly or gimmicky. And it only came out, like, a month ago! Man! That's got me excited!!

My memo to Ms. Monae: please continue doing whatever the fuck you want to do for future releases. Just... don't let the bright lights of Broadway get to your head. We don't need another Starlight Express.

P.S.: The missing part here, "Suite I," was an EP Monae released a couple years before the album called Metropolis: The Chase Suite. It lacks the intoxicating pull of ArchAndroid, but it's still got some great tracks, and if you're really into the concept here it's essential listening.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Everything Is Broken: Bob Dylan In The 80s - The Playlist


So here it is! The playlist. The whole point of this endeavor.

Two things of note:
- Songs are in chronological order. I wanted to give the listener an impression of how Dylan's sound evolved over the decade, and I figured this was the best way to do it. As such, I kinda threw the songs together without worrying about "flow" or anything like that. It might be a little jarring.
- Some of the songs exemplify the album they're pulled from pretty well (Saved and Oh Mercy come to mind); some don't, at all. That wasn't really my intention, here. I just wanted to highlight the good songs.
- I wrote a lot more about these songs than I expected to. So. Sorry.

Well, that's all, I guess. So, without further adieu...

1) "Saved" (from Saved, 1980)
Saved feels like little more than a novelty record today, a trifling artifact of an awkward transitional period in Dylan's career. But hearing the album all the way through - specifically its gospel-laden title track, which kicks the record into high gear - it's easy to see why Dylan fans may have been angered, even devastated, at the time. For a songwriter like Dylan - who rejected ideology and dogma outright in the 60s, even including the left-wing folk stalwarts who he was apparently catering towards all along - to release a record so morally monochromatic, generic, and (literally) holier-than-thou just seemed wildly out of character, if not entirely offensive. And this isn't just in comparison to his 60's works; records like Blood On The Tracks and Desire (and even Street Legal, depending on your tastes), all released only a few years before Saved, found Dylan in full control of his faculties. Hell, even Slow Train Coming had that unusual, funky production that twisted the fire and brimstone just enough; Saved is just straight-ahead Christian moralism, unencumbered by any sort of artistic innovation. It's a tough pill to swallow.

Yes, Dylan had used religious - often Biblical - imagery in his music plenty of times before (most of John Wesley Harding, for one). But there's nothing allegorical about "Saved"; lyrically, it could have come straight from a Jack Chick tract: "By His grace I have been touched / By His word I have been healed / By His hand I have been delivered / By His spirit I Have been sealed / I've been saved!" Now, I'm not going to sit here and mock another man's religious beliefs - whatever was between Dylan and God at the time is none of my business, and I'm sure he believed fully in what he was singing - but really, it sounds like the guy had been brainwashed. Do those sound like Dylan lyrics to you??

At the same time, there is a reason (believe it or not!) that I chose Saved's title track to kick off this playlist - as upsetting as it may be, it is an effective piece of gospel-rock, one that sums up this entire period of his career quickly and effectively. Sure, it's kind of generic and doesn't sound like a Dylan song at all, but the guy is singing with some real conviction, and it's catchy and energetic enough. If you don't take Dylan too seriously and are willing to play along with this goofy Christian carnival, then I'm sure you'll have a good time.

Just... don't think about it too much. It'll only depress you.

2) "Pressing On" (from Saved, 1980)
My previous schpiel about "Saved" applies here, so I'll keep this brief. "Pressing On" is, really, just "Saved" slowed down - gospel singers, dogmatic lyrics, the works. What interests me most about "Pressing On," though, is its personal focus, something that's missing almost entirely from the rest of Saved; specifically, the lyrics in the first verse: "Many try to stop me, shake me up in my mind / Say, "Prove to me that He is Lord, show me a sign" / What kind of sign do they need when it all comes from within / When what's lost has been found, what's to come has already been?" It's not exactly a revelatory statement, but it's one of the few moments in Saved where Dylan addresses his detractors directly and answers them in the only way he knows how.

Not that he's very convincing. That one line, "it all comes from within," doesn't work in the context of Saved considering how preachy and obnoxious the whole affair is. However, for what it's worth, it ever-so-slightly foreshadows Dylan's more reasonable, confessional Christian songs near the end of Shot Of Love. Maybe I'm reading too far into this, but it's nice to hear Dylan recognize an outside voice once in a while, even if it is kind of petty.

But really, "Pressing On" is just an agreeable, well-made piece of gospel-rock, not unlike "Saved." Again, if you can ignore the obvious Christian themes, you might get a kick out of it. It's worth mentioning that the song popped up in I'm Not There, covered effectively by John Doe - and makes a lot more sense when it's not being sung by Dylan himself.

3) "In The Summertime" (from Shot Of Love, 1981)
Shot Of Love is one awkward, awkward piece of work. Its first side has to be one of the most scattershot affairs in Dylan's entire catalog, including the bizarre "Lenny Bruce" and maybe the worst Christian song he ever recorded, "Property Of Jesus." It's a miracle, then, that the second side finds Dylan exploring his newfound faith in a much more relatable and down-to-earth fashion, both lyrically and musically. Heck, he even found the the time to write some songs that weren't entirely Christian-themed, if you can believe that!!

"In The Summertime" isn't a major piece of work, but it is an adorable, sweet-natured tune in an album that is hurting for them. Badly. Just hearing Dylan taking a step back, playing a nice little song with his guitar and harmonica (the latter of which had been MIA for most of his Christian records) is a breath of fresh air. But it's also worth noting that, while lyrically it still deals with overtly Christian themes, they feel much less intrusive and didactic; in fact, if you weren't listening closely enough, it might almost sound like a love song (although the opening line "I was in your presence for an hour or so" makes it clear who the song is directed towards). It could be said, though, that the lyrics feel breezier because the song itself is breezier - unlike so many of Dylan's Christian songs, the music is good enough that its run-of-the-mill lyrics don't really matter.

It's also worth noting that, unlike so so many songs from Dylan's 80s records, "In The Summertime"'s production is shockingly understated. That's an accomplishment in and of itself.

4) "Every Grain Of Sand" (from Shot Of Love, 1981)
A lot has been written about Shot Of Love's closing track; it's been cited by many people as being THE hidden gem in Dylan's 80s catalog, and indeed one of his finest songs by any measure. Personally, I'm not sure if I would rate "Every Grain Of Sand" among Dylan's absolutely greatest works, but it is a beautiful song, and inarguably the most significant song of his Christian period.

While Dylan has gone on record claiming that he doesn't write "confessional songs," the opening lines of "Every Grain Of Sand" would seem to contradict this ("In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need..."); it's a song that takes the Christian imagery of his last three records and turns them directly inward, resulting in one of Dylan's most personal songs, and one of the few moments in his 80s catalog where he seems to have a distinct understanding of where his career - and his faith - have led him. The fact that Dylan chose "Every Grain Of Sand" as the last song of his last overtly Christian record can't be a coincidence - and if it is, it's a very convenient one.

I'm not going to say that the song is Dylan apologizing for his Christian period; I doubt he really gave a shit what anybody else thought about him. But it still finds him wracked with doubt over his faith and self-worth (the lines "There's a dying voice within me reaching out somewhere / toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair" are so prescient they're almost frightening). And while, in usual Dylan fashion, he tries not to dwell on the past ("Don't have the inclination to look back on any mistake / Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break"), he still finds himself in dire straits, attempting to reach out to a God that doesn't always hear him ("I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea / sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other time it's only me"). But despite all this doubt, Dylan's faith deepens at the end of each verse ("Then onward in my journey I come to understand / That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand").

Accompanied by a lovely chiming guitar figure and some tasteful backup vocals, Dylan's lyrics are accentuated well, and despite clocking in at over 6 minutes the song never wears out its welcome. Really, the fact that such an honest, down-to-earth Christian song shares album space with "Property of Jesus" is kind of astonishing - they're almost diametrically opposed. "Every Grain Of Sand" is an important moment of empathy, finally giving us a clear understanding of why Dylan chose the path he did without a trace of condescension, something that was a long time coming. And - thankfully - it finds Dylan writing heartfelt and honest lyrics, rather than just spouting out dull Born Again platitudes. Nice to hear.

5) "Jokerman" (from Infidels, 1983)
As Infidels's opening track, "Jokerman" is a fine example of that record's (relatively) significant increase in quality over its immediate predecessors. It's his first 80s studio LP that sounds like genuine consideration was put into making the entire thing listenable, which is more than you can say for most of his Christian period. Stacked up against his 60s/70s classics, it's a minor entry in his catalog, but works fine on its own terms; Mark Knopfler's production is restrained and laid-back, Dylan's vocals and harmonica work are once again center-stage, and lyrically he's made good on the promise of "Every Grain of Sand."

"Jokerman" exemplifies all these qualities admirably; it's well-crafted, relaxing, and utilizes a reggae rhythm without sounding gimmicky. While Dylan's attempts to incorporate reggae into his sound before Infidels were, well, questionable at best (the less said about Budokan's reggae-ified "Don't Think Twice," the better), "Jokerman" manages to make it feel like a natural extension of Dylan's sound. It's an admirable accomplishment, and a bold experiment on Dylan's part in the middle of a decade with very few of them.

Lyrically, Dylan fleshes out some of "Every Grain Of Sand"'s religious imagery, but leavens that song's darker themes with a sense of humor sorely missing from his last few records (my favorite line: "You’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah / But what do you care? / Ain’t nobody there would want to marry your sister!"); but even then, he finds time to recognize the Bible ("Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy / The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers") and a little doom and gloom ("Fools rush in where angels fear to tread / Both of their futures, so full of dread..."). But like Dylan's best work, it feels elliptical and playful, rather than bland and preachy.

"Jokerman" is a fine song, but I have to admit some bias - part of me included it here solely based on Dylan's performance of the song on Letterman, roughly a year after Infidels was released. Armed with members of the LA-based Chicano punk band the Plugz, Dylan performed an entirely different rendition of the song, replacing its gradual reggae vibes with immediate, catchy pop-rock. It marks perhaps the only moment in the 80s where Dylan took a stab at a modern sound without looking like a sad old man; rather, he sounds invigorated and confident, managing to appear in control even when he screws up the harmonica solo at the end of the song. (Sadly, I can't find the performance online anywhere - the Youtube clip I linked to in my Real Live review was taken down shortly afterwards - but if you can find it anywhere, you've really gotta see it.)

Dylan's decision to work with a group of twenty-something punk musicians was inspired, and gives me ample room to speculate with fanboy glee - I mean, jeez, if he had re-recorded the entirety of Infidels with these guys, we might've had a classic on our hands! - but it wouldn't last for long. The band's Letterman performance would be their last; Dylan would break them up in favor of a group of faceless classic rock session men, and his subsequent tour would result in the entirely bland Real Live. Dylan's brief moment of inspiration would only further highlight his ineptitude at this point in his career; maybe he somehow considered the Letterman performance a failure, or maybe he felt his younger band was incompatible with his image, I don't know. But after the debacle of his early 80s period, a dash of young blood is exactly what he needed to get his career back on track, and it's a shame he would toss it aside so quickly. He just didn't know a good thing when he saw it.

I'm sorry. This is supposed to be about "Jokerman," right? "Jokerman"'s fine. Let's move on.

(Oh, something worth mentioning: I decided not to include a similar track from Infidels, "License To Kill," in this playlist simply because its Letterman rendition is so much better than the studio version it's almost embarrassing.)

6) "Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight" (from Infidels, 1983)
Another cute song. I'm sorry.

Looking over this playlist, I realized something pretty quickly - in terms of sonic diversity, it is sorely lacking. Way, way too many of the songs I've picked are sweet-natured, unassuming little ditties - besides "Every Grain Of Sand" and a few tracks coming up later, I feel like I haven't picked anything of serious weight, and for this I apologize.

Then again, I don't feel like blaming myself. So I won't! See, most of the more energetic, "rockin'" songs in Dylan's 80s catalog are pathetic and silly, and he seemed to deliberately avoid songs with a darker edge. Take, for example, the Infidels outtake "Blind Willie McTell" - one of his most foreboding, stripped-down tracks of his 80s period, it would have definitely made this list had Dylan not inexplicably removed it from Infidels's tracklisting shortly before its release. To be fair, I could have also gone with "I and I" instead of this one, but that song never really... compelled me.

So we have "Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight," the closing track to Infidels and maybe its sweetest track. I think I like it just because it reminds me of Tom Petty (actually, a lot of Dylan's 80s period feels like an attempt to appropriate the Heartbreakers' feel-good retro-rock, with much worse results). There's a lot of harmonica, it's not as sexist as "Sweetheart Like You," and, umm. I like it?

Yeah. I like it. And you'll like it too, honest.

God, I wish I could just write about fucking "Blind Willie McTell." But there are RULES. Damnable RULES.

7) "Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love?)" (from Empire Burlesque, 1985)
I love this stupid fucking song. I do! Why, why, I do not know.

"Tight Connection To My Heart" is easily Dylan's most successful attempt at writing a pure pop song; sure, "Like A Rolling Stone" hit #2 on the charts, but could anybody call it a pop song without looking a little silly? Of course not. "Connection," on the other hand, fulfills every requirement: it's deliberately lightweight, employs a number of modern-at-the-time production tricks, and features a chorus so naggingly catchy that it practically burrows itself into your brain. If none of this sounds like a typical Dylan song to you, you'd be right - in fact, it would be hard to pin "Connection" as a Dylan song at all if he didn't actually sing on the track. Heck, the main vocal hook of the song isn't even sung by him; his backup singers take care of that, and he just kinda talk-sings over it. Which I guess isn't surprising.

Still, despite its lack of personality - and its relative datedness - "Tight Connection To My Heart" is too ingratiating for me to resist. For one, there is no way I can't like that "I-don't-know! Has aany-boody seen my looove?" vocal hook; secondly, I'm happy to hear Mr. Dylan singing lyrics that make him sound like a complete asshole, something he hasn't done much of since the 60s. Opening lines: "Well, I had to move fast / And I couldn't with you around my neck / I said I'd send for you and I did / What did you expect?" It's a little deceptive, in a way; Dylan's lyrics are so dickish and condescending, but the song itself is so gosh-darn adorable that he somehow comes across as goofy rather than just plain mean. "Tight Connection" could be about the Kent State shootings and still sound cute.

But why even bother analyzing the lyrics to a song like this? Sure, it's Dylan, but it's "Tight Connection To My Heart" Dylan. It's immaterial. There's a reference to "Madame Butterfly" in there somewhere, and something about a guy with a powder blue wig. I don't know. It's a pop song!

If you wanna get a real idea of where Dylan was at around the time this song was released, check out its music video. Not only is it practically as adorable as the song itself, it also manages to say more about Dylan in the 80s than I ever could. (God, look at him try to lipsynch! Poor guy.)

8) "Dark Eyes" (from Empire Burlesque, 1985)
Empire Burlesque doesn't deserve "Dark Eyes." Seriously. One of the loveliest acoustic songs in his entire catalog, tacked onto the end of one of his schlockiest albums as if it were an afterthought. For shaaame.

...although, from what I've heard, "Dark Eyes" was an afterthought. It was the last song recorded for Empire Burlesque, recorded live to tape by Dylan with only guitar and harmonica, and placed at the very end of the album without a single edit. And he'd only written it a few days before recording! If this is indeed true, I imagine Dylan could have written/recorded a dozen more songs in a similar fashion and the resulting record would have been a thousand times better than anything on the horrendously overproduced Empire Burlesque. "Dark Eyes" is ample proof that Dylan's lousy 80s records were less about Dylan losing his gifts as a songwriter, and more about him forgetting how to use those gifts.

"Dark Eyes", despite its endearing melody, is really a song about resignation - perhaps one of his earliest songs about settling into middle-age, stepping aside and letting the young folk go about their business. Acting as a casual observer, he describes a series of people that feel more like literary characters than real human beings ("Oh, the gentlemen are talking and the midnight moon is on the riverside"; "Oh, the French girl, she’s in paradise and a drunken man is at the wheel"); but after the beginning of each verse, these people are politely dismissed, as Dylan can't even relate to them ("I live in another world / where life and death are memorized"). Most tellingly, there's a verse where Dylan rejects a cynical viewpoint ("They tell me revenge is sweet / and from where they stand, I’m sure it is / But I feel nothing for their game / where beauty goes unrecognized"); to me, it almost sounds like a rejection of his snarkier 60s persona and an acceptance of his old age, a graceful bow-out. If you want to stretch things a little bit, you could say "Dark Eyes" is one of the Dylan earliest "old man" songs.

But maybe that's a bit much. "Dark Eyes" is really just a sweet little burst of joy after the unconscionable slog that is Empire Burlesque. Sounds better in the context of the record, I guess, but it's just as lovely on its own.

9) "Brownsville Girl" (from Knocked Out Loaded, 1986)
I'll be honest with you here - if it were up to me, Knocked Out Loaded wouldn't have a single entry on this list. It is such a consistently unpleasant experience that I don't want to recognize it, to be reminded of it, in any way. But rules are rules - at least one track from each album, that's what Benzo said - so my hands are tied, here.

So the prize goes to "Brownsville Girl," a bizarre one-off collaboration between Dylan and Sam Shepherd. A lot of people consider it to be Knocked Out Loaded's sole redeeming factor, and I assume it must be (I don't know what else would qualify). But that could just be the Stockholm Syndrome talking; as it stands, it's kind of a funny, goofy tale, but it's also just as ridiculously overproduced as anything else on Loaded. Oh, and it's also eleven fucking minutes long. That, alone, makes me kind of hate it - mostly because it makes this playlist about eleven minutes longer than it needs to be. It's unseemly.

There are some funny lines but I can't say I remember them? You might like it more than I do. It's the worst song on this list, but it's not bad.

I just... don't want to talk about it.

10) "Death Is Not The End" (from Down In The Groove, 1988)
I like this song a whole lot, but I feel like Dylan might have recorded it at the wrong time. If he had kept it in the vaults 'till the late 90s, maybe, he could have sang it with his newfound low growl, which would've given it a lot more soul and grit. But sadly, this is the late 80s we're talking about, the dying days of Dylan's high-pitched whine; as such, "Death Is Not The End" is a little more awkward than it should be.

Having said that, it's still an effective song. A lot of its power comes from its spare, somewhat haunting production; for a song that's supposed to be comforting and encouraging, "Death Is Not The End" brings to mind a funeral procession, with its hushed vocals and mournful "no, no!" chants in the middle of each chorus. I like to think of the song from the perspective of somebody trying to cheer up a dying friend or family member - telling them what they know they want to hear, but struggling to believe their own words. Its lyrics are simple enough that they almost sound like they're being sung to a child ("When you're sad and when you're lonely / And you haven't got a friend / Just remember that death is not the end"), making it even more unsettling.

But, let's get real here, there's only two things you need to know about this song:
1) R&B vocal group Full Force sing backup vocals. They would go on to write this song.
2) Nick Cave covered it! Neat.

11) "Silvio" (from Down In The Groove, 1988)
Here's another song that, for whatever reason, I don't have much to say about. But it's a fun one! Probably the track that best exemplifies Down In The Groove, sans the mediocrity - it's silly, energetic, and over with in three minutes. It displays the best of Groove's stripped-down, rootsy production, and somehow manages to use backup vocalists that enhance the song rather than overstuff it.

I guess it's mostly notable for being one of Dylan's earliest collaborations with Grateful Dead lyricist Rob Hunter (the other one here, "The Ugliest Girl In the World," is pretty OK but nowhere near as good). But "Silvio" jumps in and out of my consciousness so quickly that I've never even bothered to stop and pay attention to its lyrics; looking back, there's some entertaining lines here ("Since ev'ry pleasure's got an edge of pain / Pay for your ticket and don't complain" is a favorite) and some that playfully acknowledge his career ("Ain't complaining about what I got / Seen better times, but who has not?"), but overall "Silvio" isn't about its lyrical content. Most of its appeal comes from Dylan's biting vocals, brisk guitarwork, and the "woo woo!" and "uh huh!"s coming from his backup singers.

Unlike most of the other "cute" songs I've covered here, "Silvio" is almost deliberately lightweight, a three-minute serotonin jolt. Nothing more, nothing less. And after a track like "Brownsville Girl," that's really what we need, isn't it??

12) "Where Teardrops Fall" (from Oh Mercy, 1989)
Of all of Dylan's 80s works, Oh Mercy is the clear outlier, the first real foreshadowing of his eventual resurgence in the 90s and 2000s. And while it has its share of weighty, personal songs - among Dylan's most personal since "Every Grain Of Sand" - there's also "Where Teardrops Fall," a romantic gem that exemplifies all of Oh Mercy's considerable charms in only two and a half minutes.

A couple things I love about this song: for one, Dylan's finally discovered his "old man" voice, that lower-register bluesman's growl that has to be one of my personal favorite Dylan voices. It's just so expressive and characteristic - gruff and foreboding when it needs to be, but also very warm and soulful. Sure, it's not fully developed yet here (and wouldn't be until '97's Time Out Of Mind), but it still gives "Where Teardrops Fall" a level of affability it wouldn't have had otherwise.

There's also that lovely guitar line, and Daniel Laonis's appropriately hazy production, making the whole song feel like a sweet dream. Melodically, I don't doubt that a song like this would fit right in on a record like Love And Theft (for the record, one of my absolute favorite Dylan albums of any era); it's got that same 40s-50s classic pop feel to it. Good, good feelings.

Not unlike "Silvio," "Where Teardrops Fall" is over with so quickly that its lyrical content is almost immaterial. If you think I've just been making excuses so I don't have to write another couple paragraphs deciphering these lyrics, well jeez, you'd be wrong! They mean nothing!! Leave me alone.

13) "Most Of The Time" (from Oh Mercy, 1989)
I could be wrong, but I'm guessing that this track was responsible for most of Oh Mercy's critical comparisons to Blood On The Tracks upon it's release - it is a breakup song, after all, so comparing it to one of the most celebrated breakup albums of all time only seems natural. Of course, that comparison doesn't really hold water - they're two very, very different records - but "Most Of The Time" remains one of Dylan's best songs about lost love, and could be Oh Mercy's most notable achievement.

Calling "Most Of The Time" a breakup song might be a little to broad; it's more a song about repressing emotion. Dylan takes the role of man who's been separated from his lover for what seems like a long time, to the point where he doesn't even remember her - or, at least, that's what he tries to convince himself. I like how the structure of the lyrics mirror Dylan's feelings; he spends most of each verse maintaining his resilience in the face of an unnamed problem ("Most of the time / I'm clear focused all around / Most of the time / I can keep both feet on the ground"), only slipping in a reference to "her" in the last line ("I can survive and I can endure / And I don't even think about her"). The denial and self-delusion is palpable, here, which gives the song an extra bite; Dylan is obviously lying to himself, and he knows it. Unlike Blood On The Tracks's mournful, direct approach, "Most Of The Time" finds Dylan as an older man trying to "hide from the feelings that are buried inside" by pretending he never felt them in the first place. It's a different perspective, but one that's just as relatable - and heartbreaking - as anything he's ever recorded.

"Most Of The Time" also stands as one of the best marriages of Dylan's songwriting and Laonis's production; he envelops the song in a warm, comforting soundscape, one that complements the song's sense of loneliness very well. It gives off that unmistakable feeling of waking up early in the morning, making a pot of coffee and letting stray memories drift through your mind as you stare out the window; that weird, uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability. It could be argued that other songs on Oh Mercy are kind of overloaded with standard Laonis 80s production tricks, but there's no denying that it works wonders here.

Good song. Perfect way to end the playlist. And it was in "High Fidelity," too, so I guess it's accrued some film cred. And why not?


Saved: "Covenant Woman," "Solid Rock"
Shot Of Love: "The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar"
Infidels: "License To Kill," "I And I"
Empire Burlesque: ...nothing
Knocked Out Loaded: ...still nothing'
Down In The Groove: "Shenandoah"
Oh Mercy: "Ring Them Bells," "Man In The Long Black Coat"


- "Blind Willie McTell," an excellent outtake that should have been on Infidels, and the original rockin' version of "When The Night Comes Fallin' From The Sky" that is about a thousand times better than the disco-rock version on Empire Burlesque (and features memebers of the E Street Band! yowza!!). Both can be found on The Bootleg Series Vol. 3.

- A reinterpreted live version of "Tangled Up In Blue," from Real Live. Lyrics are shuffled around a whole bunch. Worth it, if you like the song (and you should).

- Dylan's Letterman performance, the whole thing. FIND IT YOURSELF 'CAUSE I SURE CAN'T.

Well, that about wraps things up. I'll finish this atypically long blog post with a simple question: does ANYBODY know a good way to compile an online playlist, so that I can post it here for easy listening? I wanted to use 8tracks but they only allow you two songs by the same artist. Ugh!! What good is a playlist like this if you can't hear the songs? Man.

Either way, I have to thank Mr. Ben Vigeant for encouraging me to take this on. It's been such a fun exercise for me, and any excuse to further explore and understand one of my favorite musicians is a good one in my book. Having said that, I am completely sick of writing about Bob Dylan and am excited to start writing about any other band in the near future. Yes, yes.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Everything Is Broken: Bob Dylan in the 80's, Part 1


Oh my! What an adventure the past few weeks have been. In case you have not been following the blog at all in that time period (and who could blame you), I recently decided to take up a long-standing challenge from blogfriend Ben Vigeant to listen through every single Bob Dylan studio album released in the 1980s and somehow, by the grace of God, compile a "Best Of" playlist, taking at least one track from each album. This, in essence, was one of my favorite blog requests from anybody, for two distinct reasons: one, I love Bob Dylan and always have, and relish in the opportunity to dig deeper into his eccentricities; and two, I love rooting for the underdog, and how many records out there have taken the nearly-unanimous critical lashing that Dylan's 80s records have - let alone record released by an artist of Dylan's considerable stature?

Then again, to be fair, the conservative Reagan years were not kind to many 60s rock icons: besides starting ominously with John Lennon's murder, Paul McCartney and George Harrison's solo careers faded into irrelevancy, the Stones released a record with this fucking album cover while on the verge of a breakup, and even Neil Young - known for surviving the punk era with fearless tenacity - succumbed to 80s fever with Trans and didn't recover 'till the decade was over. For 60s icons, the cold-blooded 80s represented a painful, awkward middle age, where they watched their legacies fade away in the shadow of new wave and dance-pop. And no 60s artist represented that generational gap better than Bob Dylan, for better or for worse.

But Dylan's 80s period, to me, always felt a little different than everyone else's. The Beatles, specifically George, just didn't seem to give a shit about pop music anymore (funny, considering Harrison's inexplicable #1 hit in 1988); the Stones were still riding high from the success of "Start Me Up," and almost immediately dovetailed; and Young, in constant dispute with Geffen Records, seemed to make intentionally shitty albums out of spite. Dylan's failures, however, feel a little more personal; by the time 1980's Saved was released, he had already undergone a painful divorce, a critically loathed Vegas-esque 1978 tour, and a baffling conversion to Christianity. The critical and commercial goodwill afforded by Blood On The Tracks and the Rolling Thunder Revue had long since faded, and Dylan - once viewed as a keen, modern social observer - now just looked like a kooky old man who had no idea what he was doing. Listening through Dylan's 80s records, you get the impression that he just didn't have a sure hand in the creation of his own records, often writing songs that were horribly at odds with the sound of the record itself (especially the shlocky 80s production that popped up in his mid-80s work). This, not to mention a string of unusual and often baffling collaborations (Sam Shepherd? Full Force? The Grateful Dead??) confirm that perhaps he had lost faith in his own songwriting skills. But despite his lingering cultural confusion and songwriting troubles, the man just kept making records, transforming a series of mediocre albums into bizarre chronicle of one of the 60's finest songwriters undergoing a state of incalculable writer's block. It gives them a sense of nobility and tragedy lacking in many similar artists' 80s failures.

There is no way I can hate these records. Even the worst of them. I just love Dylan too much, and he is all over this music, personality-wise - even the worst Bob Dylan record you can think of is still a Bob Dylan record, after all. He's there, he's singing, he's wheezing, and ultimately he's revealing another goofy facet of his personality that maybe you've never heard before. For me, it's worth it, especially considering Dylan's eventual comeback with 1997's Time Out Of Mind; I haven't heard Dylan's 90s records yet, but I am looking forward to it. In that regard, you could even think of Dylan's 80s period as the story of a down-and-out former champion, fighting for what was once his and, years later, finally winning back his title - isn't that exciting??

Well, to me it is.

So before we get to the actual "Best Of" playlist itself - which will come in the second part of this post, coming shortly after this one - I feel that a brief review of each record is in order. Because, really, as awful as some of these albums are, a lot of them are genuinely worth hearing if you are a Dylan fan. And some, you know, aren't. At all.

Well! Either way! Let's get the ball rolling!!

Saved (1980)
Absolutely the most Christian album this man ever recorded. It's not all bad. Doesn't have any of the artful weirdness of Slow Train Coming - no funky "Gotta Serve Somebody"s to be found here - but Dylan's flirtations with gospel are surprisingly enjoyable. You might remember "Pressing On" from Christian Bale's appearance in I'm Not There - it's a pretty effective song! Sadly, it's still a painfully samey, preachy record. I can't imagine it converting anybody. Not sure if that was really the point, but still.

Shot Of Love (1981)
I am so mixed about this one. The first side is arguably even more annoying and slipshod than the entirety of Saved, including the weirdest and dumbest tribute song he ever recorded, "Lenny Bruce". The second half has some serious flashes of brilliance, though, especially the last few tracks. Finally Dylan drops the fire-and-brimstone attitude and starts writing songs that, while obviously Christian-themed, are more personal, universal, and empathetic (including the well-regarded "Every Grain Of Sand") than anything else he recorded at time. And he finally brings back that fucking harmonica.

Infidels (1983)
Pretty good! Maybe not great, but a definite improvement. Dire Straitsman Mark Knopfler produces, and he gives the record a more subtle, laid-back, reggae-tinged sort of feel. It works! "Jokerman," "License To Kill," "I And I," "Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight," and even the blatantly sexist "Sweetheart Like You" - good songs all. Might not hold your attention all the way through, I understand that. But a Bob Dylan 80s record that isn't drenched with awful schlocky production is rare enough to warrant some merit.

Empire Burlesque (1985)
Begins and ends with two of the most adorable, lovable songs in the man's oeuvre; everything in the middle is gross, gross, gross. Horrible 80s production tricks, corny female backup vocalists, synth horns, etc. etc. There could be some salvagable songs here (besides the ones already mentioned), but GOD that PRODUCTION - I just can't stand it!! So many critics champion this one, even today. No idea why. Rob Christgau called "Clean Cut Kid" "the toughest Vietnam-vet song yet." He's a foolish fool.

Knocked Out Loaded (1986)
A tough one to listen to. Painful. I would say this is his worst record. It's just a confused, sad, horribly recorded piece of work. "They Killed Him" is embarrassing. There's a song with the Heartbreakers that should really be a lot better than it is. A lot of people love the Sam Shepherd collaboration "Brownsville Girl," and I kind of like it too, but it's not NEARLY enough to save the record (and definitely not as good as Empire Burlesque's highlights). Watch out for this one - all the critical hate is totally deserved.

Down In The Groove (1988)
I don't think it's that bad! Really!! It's roots-rock. Production is much cleaner and more direct than the last two records, the covers are kind of fun in a goofy way, and a handful of songs here are genuinely good. Great, even. The tracks he co-wrote with Rob Hunter are surprisingly funny, and "Silvio" is wonderful. The "Shenandoah" cover feels like a precursor to his early 90s folk covers albums, maybe? I haven't heard them yet, so I can't say. I think I am a little more defensive of this one 'cause so many critics consider it to be his absolute worst studio record, but god, there's no WAY that's true. Especially not with Knocked Out Loaded sitting right there! Come on!! Then again, it's pretty poorly paced and has a lot of mediocre tracks, but it's at least worth a listen.

Oh Mercy (1989)
His first Dan Laonis-produced record, considered a comeback after a tough decade. I like it! It's kind of slow, and some of the songs don't go anywhere, but Dylan sounds like he's finally settling into old age. In an appealing way! People complain about Laonis's hazy, commercial production, but for the love of God - have those people heard Empire Burlesque?? I think Laonis's atmospheric work here compliments Dylan's songs well enough. Pleasing to the ear. "Most Of The Time" was in High Fidelity for good reason. It's pretty! If you're gonna spend your time/money on a Dylan 80s record, it might as well be this one.

So there. You. Go. I know I didn't dig very deep with these reviews, but for good reason; I'm planning on doing that with the "best of" playlist. Then I can decipher some lyrics and talk about where Dylan's head was at the time and all that. Man, that'll be a good time!!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Album Review: "Dylan & The Dead" by Bob Dylan

this picture is a LOT MORE INTERESTING than the actual record.

The idea of sitting through a record like Dylan & The Dead more than once is a painful one. I am not going to lie to you. The moment I started the record up a second time, I felt uncomfortable and dizzy and unable to function. By the time I hit the 9-minute "Joey" I had to turn it off, for fear of my own well-being. I'm surprised I managed to get that far.

Now, don't get me wrong. Dylan & The Dead is not a terrible record, at least not nearly as bad as you have heard. I am sure that if you are a diehard Deadhead then it may be essential listening for you, and if you love Dylan just enough it may be worth a listen. In fact, upon first listen, I had trouble figuring out where all the hate was coming from. It's not a particularly good live record, to be sure - Dylan doesn't sound particularly "into" anything he's singing, and the Dead sleepwalk their way through some okay-but-not-that-interesting arrangements - but it's hardly unlistenable. Reports of it being "the worst record released by Dylan AND the Dead" felt a little unwarranted.

But, of course, then I tried to listen to it a second time. Man, it is a slog. It's worse than just being terrible - it's boring. Boring boring boring. Dull as dishwater. Why are you listening to this again again. Why put yourself through this?? These were my thoughts, at the time. I was sweating.

A track from Real Live might sneak its way into my eventual Dylan 80s playlist. But not Dylan & The Dead. I can't even remember which songs they performed! Jeez!! I realize maybe it is not very fair for me to review a record after only listening to it one-and-a-half times, but trust me, listen to the record for yourself and you will understand.

Or don't! Don't. You don't have to understand. It's not worth it.

Here is one thing I will say in Dylan & The Dead's favor: there are no Dead songs. I know very little about the Grateful Dead and I do not care to know much about them. When I listen to a Bob Dylan live record, I want there to be Bob Dylan songs and Bob Dylan songs only, and this is what Dylan & The Dead provides for me (dull, overly-long jam-band versions of Dylan songs, but Dylan songs nonetheless). Compare this to, say, Before The Flood, which was pretty much half a Band live album. Jeez! Not that I hate the Band or anything, just that I would have preferred more Dylan songs. I don't need to hear "The Weight" again. But that's just me.

Anyway. I can't hate this record; it is a non-entity, essentially. At least it's not as bad as Knocked Out Loaded.

But that I will get to later! Enough preview posts! The Dylan 80s revue will begin with my next post, whenever that will be. Hopefully soon. In the meantime, feel free to slowly forget about this record's existence so that it has been entirely removed from your mind by the time my next post rolls around. I know I will be!!

P.S.: It is worth noting that on-again-off-again Dead lyricist Robert Hunter has co-written a few songs with Dylan that are not horrible, including a few Down in the Groove tracks and the entirety of last year's Together Through Life. So, uhh, yeah.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Album Review: "Real Live" by Bob Dylan

the wrinklesss

It's another Bob Dylan live album. Nothing more, nothing less.

I realize that maybe it's pointless to review a record like Real Live when I haven't even covered Dylan's 80's studio records yet. There's no context! Why would you care??

Well, okay. Here is a little context. Real Live covers bits of Dylan's '84 tour, sandwiched between '83's Infidels and '85's Empire Burlesque. The former is a pretty decent record, the latter I haven't even heard yet. His backing band consisted of a smattering of FM rock icons (Mick Taylor on guitar, ex-Face Ian McLagan on the keys, Carlos Santana on guitar here and there), and the disc itself was produced by Glyn Johns if that means anything to you.

The negatives: Dylan sounds pretty haggard here. A little more sprightly than At Budokan, but nowhere near his tour-de-force Rolling Thunder performances. But what would you expect? The guy was over 40 at this point. This record captures him in an awkward transitional phase, between his triumphant mid-70's comeback and his sudden re-emergence in the late 90's, when his new-found "old man wheeze" suddenly became an asset. Here, it just sounds sad.

Also, despite the talent present in Dylan's band, almost every Highway 61 song here sounds incredibly dopey. Lame, "rockin'" versions of each one. Too professional. No heart. Why does "Highway 61 Revisited" sound like T. Rex, for God's sake? Who thought that was a good idea??* And the electrified "Masters of War" robs it of all its haunting allure. Egh.

The positives: "Tangled Up In Blue" is phenomenal. And it's got new lyrics! Hey!! That should warrant an illegal download for this thing, at the very least. It's not the best version of the song by a longshot, but it is a lovely experience, and the new third-person lyrics will keep you hooked. Just as good as the Rolling Thunder version, I would say.

The other solo acoustic songs here are good, as well. "It Ain't Me, Babe" and "Girl From North Country" aren't anything new, but they are nice. Dylan sounds a lot better here than on the electric songs, if you can believe that. Also, the two Infidels songs here - "License To Kill" and "I And I" - sound pretty good, and work better with this band than the Highway 61 tracks.

Overall: a decent experience, but not essential. Only 52 minutes long, so at least it's over with quicker than Budokan (which clocked in at 99 ungodly minutes). Check out "Tangled Up In Blue" if you can find it.

Aww, Bob. If only you had stuck with that band of young L.A. punks you cobbled together for that one time you were on Letterman! That would have been so great!!

I mean, come ON.


...more on that for the big 80's post, I guess. It's coming!! Mark your calendars. If you can predict the date, that is.

* Nothing against T.Rex. Electric Warrior, that was a good one.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Bob Dylan Mini-Reviews: "Bootleg Series 5: Rolling Thunder Revue" and "At Budokan"


So over the past couple weeks it has been a pretty hardcore "Bob Dylan Time" over at the Sean Rose Camp. This can be blamed solely on one Benjamin Vigeant, who not too long ago came to me with a beguiling, yet wonderful request: a "Best Of" playlist picked from Dylan's 80's records, an era long considered to be the absolute nadir of the man's recording career. I loved the idea of this so much that I decided to put any requested reviews on hold for the time being (sorry bros) and seek out not only all seven of his 80's records, but every Dylan record I had ignored before the 80's, going back as far as 1962's Bob Dylan. Considering that Dylan has long been one of my favorite artists, for a multitude of reasons, it has (at least so far) been a thoroughly entertaining and revealing musical trip.

The trouble is, I feel like I'm bound to be disappointed. As it is now, I am standing on the precipice of Dylan's notorious Christian period, considered by many to be the beginning of a serious artistic decline. It worries me a bit, especially considering how much I've enjoyed pretty much his entire 70's output (including lesser-loved gems like Street Legal and Planet Waves). But maybe it shouldn't worry me TOO much - Dylan is Dylan, after all, and even if his 80's records are subpar I imagine they'll at least be interesting. And that's all that really matters, right?

Well. In either case, perhaps to delay the inevitable, I've been padding out my Dylan listening with a few live albums here and there. The Bootleg Series Vol.5, chronicling the early months of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue tour back in '75, was probably the biggest surprise for me in terms of sheer quality; to put it bluntly, it is the best live Dylan record I have heard, and unless I am pleasantly surprised later on (unlikely, considering that I have Real Live and Dylan & The Dead to look forward to) I imagine it will stay that way. Whereas Dylan's 1966 "Royal Albert Hall" concert - often cited as his best live document - captures Dylan at his angriest and most elusive, reinterpreting his older folk classics as brash electric rockers whether his audience liked it or not, The Rolling Thunder Revue is nothing but celebratory. The first six tracks here are, to me, some of the best music this guy's ever created: "Tonight I'm Staying Here With You," previously the sweet, unassuming final track on Nashville Skyline, is recast here as a driving anthem without losing a hint of its intimacy; "It Ain't Me, Babe", beyond all reason, works as a reggae-tinged country song; and "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll" takes a previously dour protest song and intensifies it beyond all measure. Far and away my favorite track here, however, would be "A Hard Rain's-A Gonna Fall," which manages to take one of Dylan's most prophetic standbys and turn it into a boogie-rock hoedown. Just this track alone - featuring one of Dylan's fiercest vocal performances - may be proof that when it comes to reinterpreting Dylan, nobody does it better than the man himself.

The rest of Rolling Thunder isn't nearly as exciting as those first six tracks, but what it lacks in intensity it more than makes up for in intimacy and open-heartedness. For one thing, it features Dylan's first duets with Joan Baez in over a decade, with the two of them performing lovely versions of "Blowin' In The Wind," "Mama You Been On My Mind" and "I Shall Be Released." Dylan's solo acoustic songs are practically as good, with effective takes on "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Love Minus Zero," and then-recent Blood On The Tracks classics "Tangled Up In Blue" and "Simple Twist Of Fate". And while I will admit that most of the live Desire tracks here don't do much for me - they're fine, but not remarkable - the Revue's performance of "Isis" is so great that it almost makes the studio version redundant. The Bootleg Series Vol. 5 succeeds by combining the best of both worlds, leavening Dylan's penchant for defying audience expectations with a sweet sense of nostalgia that never comes off as pandering. Even if it doesn't replicate the exact feel of a Rolling Thunder show, it feels like a complete Dylan experience.

At Budokan isn't nearly as good as Rolling Thunder, but considering that it was recorded during Dylan's Street Legal tour, this isn't much of a surprise. Everybody hated Street Legal, and everybody hated its subsequent tour, in which Dylan littered the stage with female vocal accompaniment, horn and string sections, and more than a few flutes. Mockingly titled his "Vegas Tour" by critics (or his "Alimony Tour," referring to his recent divorce, which just seems downright mean to me), these shows featured even more radical reworkings of old Dylan hits; only here, rather than take these songs into bold new territory, Dylan somehow manages to make a lot of them sound like Jimmy Buffet songs. At Budokan, which chronicles the bulk of the tour's setlist, can be trying for any Dylan diehard - not just for the goofy Neil Diamond-esque arrangements, but for Dylan's wheezy and uncomfortable voice, which can be a little shocking to hear after the intensity of his Rolling Thunder vocals. And it doesn't help that the record is a full 99 minutes long, turning what could have been a brief misstep into a hellish gauntlet of cheese.

Now, I won't sit here and pretend that At Budokan was anything more than a mild, often uncomfortable experience. It wasn't. But at the same time, it didn't disgust or offend me - and, once in a while, I was appealing to the ear. Streamlined versions of "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Blowin' In The Wind", while not matching the originals, are lovely; "I Want You" is surprisingly gorgeous as a slower ballad (perhaps inspired by Bruce Springsteen's live version from a few years before?); a full-band version of "Simple Twist Of Fate" makes it sound deceptively romantic; and there's even a Hendrix-esque electric version of "All Along The Watchtower"! Even a few of the sillier arrangements, like "Mr. Tambourine Man" and a bouncy "All I Really Wanna Do," manage to retain some charm. But on the other side of the coin, you've got awkward reggae versions of both "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" and "Knockin' On Heaven's Door"; obnoxiously leaden versions of of "It's Alright Ma" and "Maggie's Farm"; a painfully forced, chanted "Shelter From The Storm"; and a performance of "Is Your Love In Vain?," not exactly the best possible choice from Street Legal. For a lack of a better term, it is a mixed bag, one that might reward a patient Dylan fan willing to sit through some of the corniest arrangements of his career; for everybody else, it's easy to skip it. Despite some good moments, it is a mostly joyless experience.

(Although I would like to know - in both Rolling Thunder and At Budokan, the last verse of "Simple Twist of Fate" is entirely changed. The original verse might be my favorite Dylan lyric ever, so I'm a little sad to see it changed on more than one occasion. Did he just not like the original version??)

At Budokan's slick professionalism may well foreshadow Dylan's artistic demise in the 80's; it's not horrible, but it is mediocre enough to warrant concern. I wouldn't know, though - I haven't even heard those later records yet! That will be for next time. I will warn you, though - if you are not much of a Dylan fan, the next couple posts or so will be of absolutely no interest to you. (Then again, neither would THIS one, so. Never mind.)

Until then, here is Batman to offer you a brief preview of what is to come!!