Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

Song(s) of the Day: Desert Trip Edition

There have been plenty of jokes about Desert Trip being called “Oldchella”. And while all the acts are certainly older, let’s not forget that they are rock royalty and all of them in some way or another have contributed to some of the greatest albums and songs ever made. So, today’s Song of the Day is a six-pack of awesomeness in honor of Desert Trip.

“I’ve Just Seen a Face” – The Beatles 

I’m not particularly fond of McCartney’s solo works, so I’m cheating a bit here and going with The Beatles. “I’ve Just Seen a Face” is probably one of my favorite Beatles’ songs and in my opinion it’s severely under-rated. It’s got one of McCartney’s best melodies and chord progressions.

“One of These Days” – Pink Floyd

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll note I wrote about this song several months ago. “One of These Days” is Pink Floyd at their best: dark, mysterious and menacing all at once. As with most classic Floyd, David Gilmour conjures up some wild sounds with his guitar, but the real highlight is the double-tracked bass played both Gilmour and Roger Waters.

“Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” – Neil Young

For me, Neil Young is the weakest link in Desert Trip’s line up. He’s an old curmudgeon like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison but without the catalogue to really back it up. That said, he does have some great songs and the country-rock of  “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” would have been the best song he ever wrote, if he hadn’t recorded “Rocking in the Free World”.

“Long Live Rock” – The Who

One of the things that a lot of people often forget about The Who’s music is that they actually have a lot of funny songs. That side of them went to the wayside, when Pete Townshend decided to write “important” musical pieces. “Long Live Rock” is one of the few examples where The Who marry the muscular rock they forged in the ’70s, with the witticism of their early days. Best line: “We were the first band to vomit in the bar.”

“19th Nervous Breakdown” – The Rolling Stones

One of Keith Richards’ classic riffs – and lord know he’s got a shitload of them. But there’s something about the intro that just pulls you in and pummels you over the head. And Jagger is at his frantic best, barely able to keep up with Richards and Charlie Watts’ steady drumming. “19th Nervous Breakdown” is also somewhat famous for inspiring Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore to pick up the guitar and for that we should all be thankful.

“It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” – Bob Dylan

I get chills every time I listen to this song. On this monumental track, Dylan takes on society as a whole and takes down everyone within earshot. The most disturbing part about it, is that it seems to grow more pertinent with each passing year. There are tons of memorable lines, but for me the best is, “it is not he or she or them or it that you belong to.”

 

Song of the Day: “If Not For You” – George Harrison

Fall is the perfect time to break out George Harrison’s triple-album masterpiece, All Things Must Pass. Thanks in no small part to Phil Spector’s “Wall-Of-Sound” production, Harrison’s songs are given are a ethereal treatment that feels like a crisp morning walk in the woods.

Perhaps the best example of this, is Harrison’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not For You”.  For what it’s worth, this is probably the greatest Dylan cover besides Hendrix’ immortal reading of “All Along the Watchtower”.  And like Hendrix, Harrison not only turns the song inside out  – giving it a more melancholic treatment than the original – but completely makes it his own, despite having played it in a similar fashion with Dylan in an out-take that was left unreleased for decades.

The most recognized part of the song is Harrison’s famed slide guitar work which acts as a sort of second melody to his vocals. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful progression that never ceases to amaze.

Song of the Day: “Under the Pressure” – The War on Drugs

The War on Drugs’ “Under the Pressure” is one of those songs that sounds best during a late night drive. Its warm and layered texture captures the heat of a late summer evening when the humid night air is actually worse than the day’s hot sun.

At the heart of the song is a hypnotic piano chord that repeats throughout the song. It’s the anchor of the song, but it’s not the driving force. There’s enough space between the repeating notes for the drums and bass to weave their way through. Over this, lead singer Adam Granduciel gives a vocal performance that is reminiscent of Bob Dylan circa Infidels ala “Jokerman”. Listen to the way he twists his voice the word “wasted” around when he sings, “but a dream like this gets wasted with you.”

To me “Under the Pressure” sounds like what would come if you mixed Dire Straits and Dylan up in a blender. If that’s the sound that Granduciel was going for, I’m almost certain that the Dylan-esque voice wasn’t coincidental. After all, Mark Knopfler was the producer of Infidels which included “Jokerman”.

Album of the Week: “My Aim is True” – Elvis Costello

 

Elvis+Costello+-+My+Aim+Is+True+-+CD+ALBUM-257442

Has there ever been a better debut album than Elvis Costello’s My Aim is True?

Overall a band’s debut tends to be a little better – see The Clash, R.E.M., The Stooges etc.  But for songwriters, it’s a different story. Bob Dylan and Greetings From Ashbury Park aren’t nearly half as good as My Aim is True.  Even Neil Young’s first record is a little underwhelming-  he didn’t really get going until he picked up Crazy Horse and recorded Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.

Like all of Costello’s album the songs are the focus here. Unlike other songwriters who relied on either covers (see Dylan) or capturing a specific sound (see Ashbury Park – I like it but let’s be honest it sounds too much like a boardwalk) while they honed their songwriting skills, Costello busted through the door right away. There’s a reason why the album the opens with the one-minute rush of “Welcome to the Working Week”.  By the time you’ve caught your breath and realized how great it is, Costello has already moved on.

Costello actually pulls this same trick another time throughout the record and does it brilliantly. Just when the listener thinks there might be a slight lull (and who would think that?) Costello follow it up with a quick blast of rockabilly punk.  The Jerry Lee Lewis on speed track “Mystery Dance” follows the wordy “Less than Zero”.  In other words, Costello isn’t going to let the listener or anybody else for that matter off the hook very easily.

That much should be evident from “Welcome to the Working Week” when Costello muses that sometimes “I wonder if we’re living in the same land”.  With that line, Costello is drawing a line in the sand. He’s setting himself from his contemporaries right then and there. Though his songs were played with a punk edge, he drew inspiration from 1950s rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly, while the punks declared older acts to be obsolete.  And though The Police wouldn’t release their debut album until the next year, Costello out-did them at their own game with “Watching the Detectives”.

Until Costello came along, Bob Dylan was the king of the lyrical put-down. Dylan’s nastiness was clouded in mystery, metaphors and bizarre images. His lyrics while certainly wordy and intricate were much more direct than Dylan’s. Costello takes no prisoners on this album and he’s not taking any blame for anything. And he’s also smart enough to realize that no matter how hard he tries, it’s not going to matter anyway, as evident in “Miracle Man”.

Perhaps it’s this reason that the line “my aim is true” from “Alison” has been misinterpreted for years. It’s not that hard to believe that the Costello found on My Aim is True – the same guy who sneaks up takes pictures of his ex-girlfriend sleeping with another dude and then brags about it – would shoot down a former love.  This isn’t to say that the song isn’t fucked up (it is), but the line is much closer to the irony found in “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (which Costello would later cover on King of America).

Any write-up of My Aim is True can’t go without mentioning Clover. Huey Lewis or not, their backing of Costello here is still the best thing the group ever did. Their pub-rock with a bit of ’50 swing suits Costello perfectly. You could argue that the addition of the Attractions might have made for a better record, and maybe they would have energized a few songs even more. If the Attractions were the backing band, My Aim is True and This Year’s Model would essentially be the same record. And what separates the two is that the Attractions gave Costello’s nasty lyrics even more of an edge that wasn’t present before.

Costello would of course, go on and incorporate almost every single musical style into his own. Get Happy!!Imperial Bedroom and Trust might find Costello more fearless musically, but My Aim is True remains his most focused and tightly constructed record.

Americanarama Tour: Merriweather Post Pavilion (7/23/13)

 

At one point during My Morning Jacket’s set, Jim James appeared to be wearing a black cloak. Dude has got to be hot, I thought. My friends and I were seated on the lawn and could barely see the crowd, so we were left with James’ image on the video-screen to be our guide.  And from the video, it certainly looked like he was in a cloak. The fact that  Jim James decided to look like a Jedi on a hot July night at out-door venue didn’t really faze me. Dude is a bit odd, for sure.

As it turns out, the cloak wasn’t a cloak but a towel. Okay, I understand that a little bit better. A towel certainly makes more sense than a fucking cloak on a hot summer night.  But wearing a towel over your head is still a bit odd.

Oddness was front and center at the Americanarama Festival, and not just from James. The three headliners – My Morning Jacket, Wilco and Bob Dylan are all in their own way a bit strange and left of center.  They each exist out of the mainstream and each have a dedicated and rabid fan-base.  They have their own ideas of constitutes American music and continually push the boundaries of that genre to dizzying heights.

Dylan fits this category the most – he’s been blazing a trail of the most bizarre lyrical images put to wax since the 1960’s. Musically, he switches up his set-lists so frequently – in song selection and arrangement – that in order to truly appreciate one of his shows you have to know his catalogue inside and out.

Such was the case at this particular show.  Most of the songs were given a slow jazzy arrangement, completely different from the original studio versions. And rather than focus on his most well-known songs, Dylan opted for more obscure material such as “Blind Willie McTell” (a fucking masterpiece of a song from The Bootleg Series), “She Belongs To Me” and “Things Have Changed”.  Those wishing for his “protest” songs got in a piano-based version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”.   Only “All Along the Watchtower” was saved from a new viewpoint – though he’s been playing closer to the Jimi Hendrix version than his own for decades.

As for Wilco, they don’t make it easy for fans to love them which makes them odd too. I don’t mean that as a slight, but their songs take time to sink your teeth into.  Once you really get the songs, the rewards are plenty.  Wisely, much of Wilco’s set-list focused on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – after all these years it’s still their best album.  Wilco’s not-so secret weapon has always been juxtaposing beauty with avant-garde noise and wild sonic elements. “The Art of Almost” off of 2011’s The Whole Love was a clear example of this with its spaced out groove first-half.  For the second half, the band exploded into a wall of noise that was only hinted at on the album version with guitarist Nels Cline leading a super-charged freak out guitar solo.

The Americanarama Tour has been labeled as the most dad-rock show of all dad-rock shows.  By having Dylan on the bill, perhaps there’s a certain invitation for that label.  But he isn’t coasting.  But usually when I think of “dad-rock”, I think of bands like Dawes, Coldplay and The National- ones who are arena-ready but kind of boring and bland.  My Morning Jacket might be the closest to the dad-rock out of any of the artists on this bill with their leanings towards ’70s rock. But still, they’re a little too out there for a a large mainstream audience.

Part of My Morning Jacket’s charm is their lack of identity or perhaps their willingness to tackle a variety of genres. They can out-jam most jam-bands, and are way more interesting musically than Phish.  They can play roots-rock, but also attack with a bit of soul and groove. They’re a trippy band but can also play a straight-forward version of Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t You Do It” – the fact that it was popularized by The Band gives you a good indication of the group’s influences.

“Americana” as a musical term is a bit over-played.  Perhaps that’s why the tour was billed as “Ameircanarama” to show these artists aren’t stuck in the past even as they borrow from it.  In age where festivals are the rage – with many of them focusing on the big names acts – it’s nice to see a traveling festival where music remains the focus. Apart from James’ towel of course.

11 Albums For the Summer

 

TheByrdsSweetheartoftheRodeo

Choosing a list like this proved to be quite daunting. I didn’t want to go to the obvious route and include an album by The Beach Boys or one with direct references to summer. I was looking for albums with an overall feeling of summer – whether it be laid-back or general feelings of heat and exhaustion.

“Sweetheart of the Rodeo” – The Byrds

For all intents and purposes alt-country starts here. It’s well-known The Byrds had already dabbled in country music prior to Sweetheart and helped usher in folk-rock.  Led by Gram Parsons their country leanings now sounded authentic with a  song selection included two originals mixed traditional C&W songs and covers of Dylan, Merle Haggard and the Carter Family tunes. It’s the perfect album for lazy days out in the sun with a cold beer in hand. Its easy and laid-back, but exciting enough not to induce a sleep which could cause an un-wanted sunburn.

“Victim of Love” – Charles Bradley

The first time I heard Bradley’s version of “Heart of Gold”(off of No Time for Dreaming) , I was convinced I had missed out on a gem from 1973.  So I decided to check out his latest album, Victim of LoveVictim of Love is classicist Soul at its best: tight drums, thick bass-lines, heavenly background vocals, and full-throated singing.  Bradley commands Victim of Love with his booming voice, but his stellar band is the ace in the hole. Victim of Love is the type of album you put on when you want everyone to be in a good mood.  If they’re not in one when this is on, you probably don’t want them around anyway.

“It’s Too Late to Stop Now” – Van Morrison

For a long time, this my “go-to” album during the summer. If I couldn’t think of anything else to listen to, I figured It’s Too Late To Stop Now would make me feel good. Morrison’s patented “Celtic Soul” is never better than it is here. Backed by a 17-piece band, Morrison delivers beautiful renditions of such classics as “Into the Mystic” and “Caravan”.  But it’s the  10-minute version of “Cypress Avenue” that is truly mind-blowing and transcendent complete with several false stops.

“Phrenology” – The Roots

Perhaps I only included this one for nostalgic reasons – I first listened to it the summer between my junior and senior years in college. Most Roots albums are dark – and this one has its moments as well – but the band’s delivery on the songs sound lighter and more retro here than other efforts. The heavy bass of “Rock You” feels like a sweaty night in the city.  The circular guitar riff that propels “The Seed” plays like something out of ’70s.  And if you don’t believe that ?uestlove is a fucking machine – which you should – check out his beat on “Rolling With Heat”.

“The Harder They Come” (Soundtrack) – Jimmy Cliff

For my money, this is the reggae album. It’s got songs from Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytalls and Desmond Decker and they’re all classics. “The Harder They Come” and “You Can Get It If You Really Want” are perhaps the most well-known, but check out the Maytalls’ honey-dripping harmonies on “Sweet and Dandy” and the Slickers groove on “Johnny Too Bad”.  The Harder They Come was another one of my “go-to” albums for the summer.

“Sticky Fingers” – The Rolling Stones 

This album could make the cut solely for the Latin-infused coda that ends “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” – perhaps Mick Taylor’s finest moment on record with the Stones – but the rest of the album plays like a sweat on your forehead that you just can’t shake. Its in the blues rave-up of “Bitch”, the country of “Wild Horses” and “Dead Flowers” and the late night come-down of “Moonlight Mile”.  And then of course, there’s “Brown Sugar” which exudes steamy summer sex with its immortal riff and not so subtle lyrics.

“1999” – Prince

“Little Red Corvette” is the ultimate summer hook-up song. Prince has lots of great songs about the act, but this one is the best. The title track might be the end of the world, but being Prince he decided to turn into a party.  It’s as if Bob Dylan decided that “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” would be better off with some grooves.  “The Minneapolis Sound” is perfected on this record on such songs as “D.M.S.R.” and “Lady Cab Driver”.

“Z”- My Morning Jacket

The secret to “Z” is the open space. Its a very full sounding record, but MMJ were smart enough to let the songs breathe and create the ambiance of a cool summer night. Jim James’ proves himself to be one of rock’s most versatile vocalists on this one. He can be soft and crooning as evident in the slow burn of  “Dondante” and powerful and tuneful on “Anytime”.  But it’s the psychedelic soul of “Into the Woods” where both he and the band create something that sounds so familiar yet is also fresh and original.

“The Basement Tapes” – Bob Dylan & The Band

The Basement Tapes might be the ultimate summer record. Like a good summer night, its full of hilarious moments and captures the sound of friends coming together.  Due to the nature of the recordings, no song is ever forced. Most of the songs are fully formed – others are mere sketches (“Apple Suckling Tree” for instance), but they’re all brilliant.  As Dylan sings in “Odds and Ends”, “you know what I’m saying and you know what I mean.”

“By the Way” – Red Hot Chili Peppers

I miss John Frusciante as a Chili Pepper. Does anyone doubt that they made their best records with him? By the Way finds the group mostly abandoning their rap/funk hybrid, and it’s all the better for it. Frusciante is the mastermind behind this surf-pop inspired record. With a few exceptions, the band never really rocks out, instead opting for laid-back grooves and tasty guitar playing from Frusciante.

“Chronicle” – Creedence Clearwater Revival

This one is technically cheating, since it’s not really an album.  But I’m including it because 1.) this is the only CCR record you need and 2.) these songs were meant to be blasted from open windows during the summer. Like The Band, CCR was a kick in the face to other bands in the late ’60s with their down-home sound. Rock n’ roll rarely gets better than it does on Chronicle.

Mad Men Finale: 10 Songs from 1968

cast-mad-men-season-6

Mad Men’s 6th Season ends tonight.  I’ll reserve judgment on the entire season until I’ve seen the season finale.  But since this past season took place in 1968 here’s a list of some of my favorite songs from that year.

“Piece of My Heart” – Big Brother & The Holding Company

“Piece of My Heart” is one of the all-time great covers.  It’s raw, bluesy and a perfect showcase for Joplin’s tortured and wild vocals.  Her scream around the 3:30 mark still causes shudders 45 years after its original release.  The song was used perfectly in this season of Mad Men when Pete Campbell – perhaps the show’s most uptight ad man – takes a huge puff of a joint in a moment of frustration and anguish.

“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” – Marvin Gaye

If you grow up in the ’80s like I did, you probably might have first heard this song being song by the California Raisins.  No joke – for a long time I thought it was written specifically for that.  Gaye’s version is dark and ominous especially when the background singers echo in.  Though it’s pure Motown  I’ve always thought of it as a precursor to his magnum opus Whats Going On.

“Madame George” – Van Morrison

“Madame George” is the centerpiece of Morrison’s most acclaimed album, Astral Weeks. It’s not so much a song, but rather a sonic equivalent of an Impressionistic painting.  Morrison’s surrealistic lyrics about a transvestite found by some kids reaches its climax around the 8 minute mark when he implores the listener repeatedly to “say goodbye to Madame George”.

“Tears of Rage” – The Band

The obvious Band pick might be “The Weight” (which is also off of Music From Big Pink), but “Tears of Rage” sounds unlike anything else from that era with a mix of country, Soul New Orleans jazz.  As an album opener, it’s a pretty ballsy move.  The Band had already recorded a version of the song with Dylan a year earlier that eventually wound up on The Basement Tapes.  This arrangement with Richard Manuel’s vocals as the centerpiece, blow the original out of the water.

“Folsom Prison” (Live at Folsom Prison) – Johnny Cash

This is the song that solidified Johnny Cash as a country bad-ass. The version from the Live at Folsom Prison is given an extra charge for obvious reasons. Both the crowd and Cash feed off of each other. The more Cash and his band give, the louder the crowd cheers for more.  An awe-inspiring performance.

“Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” – The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Even for Jimi Hendrix, this song goes into uncharted territory.  The opening riff would be a perfect soundtrack for some kinky sex, but then explodes into a fireball of noise.  It’s the loudest and most radical song Hendrix ever cut, and it still sounds just as wild today.  It’s part heavy-metal, part jazz, part blues part funk, part-garage rock and pure Hendrix.

“Happiness Is a Warm Gun” – The Beatles

The whole song is brilliant, but I really love the hypnotic guitar line that begins the song. Its full of dread and despair – something that the Beatles aren’t really known for.  John Lennon said that the song with its multiple sections was meant to be a musical history of rock and roll.  I’ve listened to the song thousands of times, and I’m not sure I hear it.  But if that was Lennon’s inspiration, who cares?  It’s one of the Beatles’ best.

“You Send Me” – Aretha Franklin

This Sam Cooke cover was the B-side to Franklin’s other 1960’s feminist anthem, “Think”.  As is usual with Franklin, she takes a great song and takes her version straight to heaven.  Her version of the song is more groove-based than Cooke’s, but it’s her trade-mark wails that really set the song apart.

“Sister Ray” – The Velvet Underground

Anyone who thinks that The Doors represented the dark-side of rock and roll in 1968 should take a listen to this song.  If it was sleazy and decadent in 1968, there’s a good chance Lou Reed mentioned it in this 17-minute noise tour de force.  The Velvets had a lot of bad blood in later years, but here they seem to be daring each other to go further and louder than anyone had thought possible at the time.

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” – The Rolling Stones

Without a doubt, the most obvious song on this entire list.  But with the exception of perhaps “Satisfaction”, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” remains the Stones’ most recognizable song. And with good reason – it’s got all the elements of a great Stones song – a riff that cuts like a knife, super-charged vocals from Mick Jagger and a steady beat by Charlie Watts to keep it all together.

Song of the Week: “Shelter From the Storm” – Bob Dylan

 

On album that is filled with bitterness, regret, put-downs, betrayals and even murder on the surface “Shelter From the Storm” comes off as the easiest song to digest.  The verses are certainly complicated and filled with apocalyptic and Biblical imagery.  But it’s the repeated line – “‘Come in’, she said.  ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm” – at the end of each verse that seems to offer hope and redemption to the characters who are running away and suffering throughout the rest of Blood on the Tracks.

I’ve had arguments with friends over the meaning and context of the song.  I tend to lean towards its irony, while they view it as sincere.   You could view it as sincere based on the song’s simple refrain (it’s not really a chorus).  An un-named woman offers the narrator shelter from a storm.  Within the context of the rest of Blood on the Tracks, this woman is the only one who hasn’t done him wrong or left him feeling sorry for himself.  She’s willing to help him out.  Or you could view it the other way: everyone else has either left or done damage to him.  So why should this person, in spite of her offering be trusted?

But like most Dylan songs, it’s a lot more complicated than that.  The way that Dylan sings that phrase that reveals something darker and even mysterious. As the song progresses the line becomes something different each time.  Sometimes Dylan sings the line with scorn and disgust.  Other times it’s comforting and sympathetic.  The un-named woman who opens her door to him can been seen as sincere in some verses, and occasionally ironic.

To those who suggest that Dylan isn’t much of a singer, take a good listen to this song.  The way he sings those lines is just as important to the song as the lyrics.  Notice that he never sings the word “you” as it’s supposed to be pronounced.  Instead he offers the slang variant: “ya” as in: “I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.”  That subtle change alters the meaning of the woman’s offer.  And as the narrator’s story becomes wilder and full of suffering Dylan even switches up the way he sings the word.  When the woman takes his crown of thorns, it becomes a sort of “yuuuuuuuuh”.  It’s almost like the woman is baiting  the narrator: sure you can come in, but it’ll cost you.  Now this mysterious woman with “silver bracelets and flowers in her hair” doesn’t seem so inviting does she?

Incidentally, the electric arrangement found on Hard Rain finds the woman more sympathetic and inviting to my ears.  Which of course, is even more ironic considering the circumstances surrounding that particular show.

2012’s Top 10 Albums of the Year

(In no particular order.)

Frank Ocean – Channel Orange

Just when you thought R&B was done, Frank Ocean comes along and blows the whole damn thing up.  Make no mistake though, this isn’t a straight-up R&B album.  Instead of focusing on smooth melodies and songs about trying to get laid, Ocean pulls you in with his atmospheric arrangements, spoken/sung vocals and surrealistic lyrics not normally found in R&B.  When was the last time that an R&B star released an album with a 10-minute song with lyrics about Cleopatra?  Channel Orange is to R&B what The College Drop-Out was to rap 8 years ago: a complete game-changer.

Jack White – Blunderbuss

Blunderbuss is Jack White’s best musical outing since The White Stripes’ Elephant.  Blunderbuss is full of all the things that make Jack White one of the best musicians of his generation: crunching blues with spit-fire solos (“Sixteen Saltines”, “Freedom at 21”) odd folk detours (“Love Interruption”, “Blunderbuss”) and awesome covers (“I’m Shaking”).  Perhaps freed from (the self-imposed) binds of The White Stripes, White gives a tight and focused record that reveals much with each listening.  Blunderbuss is proof that in the right hand, the blues still are vital in the 21st Century.

Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball

Wrecking Ball is Springsteen’s best album since The Rising.  But more than that, it’s the first album since Darkness on the Edge of Town where Springsteen acted like everything around him was at stake. That attitude gives Wrecking Ball a fire that flows through every song. Musically, it’s also his most adventurous – hip-hop, gospel and Irish tin whistles all collide (sometimes in the same song).  “Send the robber baron’s straight to hell,” Springsteen commands because “the greedy thieves that came around, ate the flesh of everything they’ve found.”

Bob Dylan – Tempest

Tempest is a full album of the twisted tales found in Dylan classics like “Romance in Durango” and “Idiot Wind”.  Like Springsteen, Dylan offers a dark album for a dark time.  Where Springsteen honed his anger at the “greedy thieves” and capitalism, Dylan’s album is filled with murder and blood abound. There’s a triple murder-suicide, a fictionalized version of the Titanic’s sinking where passengers violently attack each other for life-boats and Dylan’s declaration where he’ll pay in blood but not his own.

Santigold – Master of My Make-Believe

Master of My Make-Believe continues the genre-busting experiments of Santogold and takes them even further. Left-field ideas are the core of this album. There’s weird buzzing  guitars (courtesy of Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah  Yeah’s) over dark atmospheric beats.  Though there are a lot of producers on the album (including Diplo and TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek) it sounds complete.  Much of Master of My Make-Believe recalls the sonic sound 80’s pop, but it sounds totally fresh and exciting.

Passion Pit – Gossamer

Unlike a lot of electronic-rock albums, Passion Pit’s Gossamer bursts with ideas and urgency. Underneath all the synths it also seems extremely human.  The off-kilter beats and samples seem to mimic lead singer Michael Angelako’s Bi-polar Disorder. The trippy sounds and upbeat nature of the music make Angelako’s angst and frustration all the more apparent evident on “Carried Away” and “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy.”  Gossamer might be a vehicle for Angelako to keep his demons in check, but for the rest of us it’s a glorious treat.

Gary Clark Jr. – Blak & Blu

In the past couple years, Gary Clark has been touted as the 21st Century’s version of Jimi Hendrix.  Jack White aside, it’s been awhile since a guitar hero has caused this much commotion and accolades. While Blak & Blu doesn’t quite live up to Clark’s live shows or conjure up the ghost of Are You Experienced? it’s a fascinating listen.  By incorporating neo-soul and hip-hop beats into his mix, Clark has found a way to update blues rock without feeling redundant.

The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten

Prior to Handwritten’s release, The Gaslight Anthem put out a cover of Pearl Jam’s “State of Love and Trust”.  It shouldn’t come as a shock that the Gaslight Anthem would cover Pearl Jam, as both bands wear their hearts on their sleeves without a trace of irony.  But that’s always been a part of The Gaslight Anthem’s appeal.  While their influences are still part of their sound, Handwritten finds The Gaslight Anthem finding their own sound in a bid for America’s “most important band”.

Alicia Keys – Girl on Fire

“I’ve changed! I’m grown-up! This is a breakthrough!” That’s more or less what Alicia Keys has been shouting from the roof-tops in album promos and interviews for Girl on Fire. Still, it’s always nice to hear a mainstream woman artist who isn’t afraid to put her personal struggles at the forefront. But the real seller for the album is how Keys manages to convey her own personal revelations through her music as well whether its the retro-soul of “Tears Always Win” or the fuzzy and killer beats found on “When It’s Over”.

Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas

Leonard Cohen has been on a roll in recent years. His recent tours have seen him invigorated and that attitude permeates throughout Old Ideas.  Cohen’s usual themes of love, redemption and Biblical allusions are all present, but there’s also some good-natured (and self-depricating) humor thrown in for good measure. The songs themselves open up slowly – the female backing vocals are wonderful especially on “Amen” and “Lullaby”- pulling the listener further into Cohen’s soul and mind.  Cohen may think these are Old Ideas, but his music sounds as vital as ever.

 

When Did Christmas Music Start to Suck?

 

Out of sheer curiosity, earlier today I took a quick listen to Rod Stewart’s new holiday album, Merry Christmas Baby. I shouldn’t have bothered, because it sounded pretty much exactly like I thought it would be: over-produced pseudo-jazz.  There’s pianos and strings abound to recreate the feeling of sitting by a fire.  Good ol’ Rod even gives his best Louis Armstrong impression during “Have Yourself A Merry Christmas”.

I’m no Rod hater – dude was great in Faces and “Do You Think I’m Sexy” has its own kitschy appeal –  but Merry Christmas Baby is a great example of “The Christmas-Album-Suck”.  Almost every single Christmas album since the early 1990s has been layered in slick production with arrangements as big as the Christmas Tree in Rockefeller Center.

Every year around this time, we’re bombarded with Holiday-themed albums from major artists.  Neo-crooners like Michael Buble, Harry Connick, Jr. and Josh Groban have certainly attempted to capture the singing styles of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby over the years. They seem so intent on paying homage to the days of old, but the music itself doesn’t suggest this. It’s as like if John Coltrane had played with Kenny G: they both technically play same genre (I’m saying this very loosely), but only one pushed boundaries and changed musical history.

There a few exceptions to this trend.  A Very She & Him Christmas is charming and delightful in its retro feel and Zooey Deschanel’s soulful singing.  Then there’s Bob Dylan’s bizarrely traditional Christmas in the Heart and Cee-Lo’s Magic Moment. Yet, both of those albums still manage to get pulled into the Christmas-Album-Suck albeit in different ways.  Dylan’s venture into Christmas land (mostly) sounds it came from the 1920s. When was the last time you heard anyone sing the Latin verse of “O Come All Ye Faithful” outside of a Christmas Eve Mass?  (Of course, I’m not entirely convinced that this album wasn’t some sort of weird joke by Dylan and meant to be listened to ironically.)  As for Cee-Lo, he attempts to conjure up the Ghosts of Christmas Soul, but once again the production makes the album feel a lifeless like the Christmas trees tossed on the curb-side around New Year’s.

I blame the downfall of Christmas music on Mariah Carey and her horrid “All I Want for Christmas”.  Some may suggest that it’s the quintessential Christmas song and it’s certainly the most popular Holiday song of the past 20 years.  Sure, we all know Mariah can sing but the song itself is so over-the-top and so sugary-sweet like that nasty candied fruit, it makes me want to vomit.  All I want for Christmas is to escape this song whenever I go to a retail store.

It wasn’t always this way, though. In the mid-1950s as Tin Pan Ally faded out of fashion and crooners like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby lost some of their steam, the next generation of musicians were coming of age and prominence capturing the attention of the youth of America. And with a new-form of popular music came a new sound to traditional and popular Christmas songs.

Elvis gave a rockabilly spin on Christmas classics with Elvis’ Christmas Album. For what its worth, Elvis’ version of “Blue Christmas” is probably the definitive version of that song. Ray Charles put his trademark piano and vocals on The Spirit of Christmas.  “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was portrayed as a  “funky reindeer” while the usually awful “Little Drummer Boy” was given a soulful treatment complete with horns.  And let’s not forget Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” which proved that Christmas music could rock and also swing.  (Check out Keith Richard’s version of the song – it’s also pretty good.) And to prove that this new sound was taking over the airwaves and culture, Berry asked Santa for an electric guitar. Other songs released during that era included perennial favorites such as Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas”, The Drifters’s version of “White Christmas” and Bobby Helm’s “Jingle Bell Rock”.

But it wasn’t until 1963 that rock and roll had its first Christmas masterpiece.  The Phil Spector produced A Christmas Gift For You showed Spector’s “Wall of Sound” in full-force. (This is how you do layered production, in case you were wondering.)  Traditional songs were given a vamped-up treatment and the album was bursting with imagination and creativity.  Hal Blaine’s drums pushed “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Winter Wonderland” to new sonic heights. With the Crystals, the Ronettes and Darlene Love at the helm, Christmas music never sounded so exciting or sexy.  (The only downside to the album is Spector’s creepy speech over a string-laden version of “Silent Night”.)

As the 60’s ended and the 70’s dawned, both the Jackson 5 and James Brown gave holiday cheer some much-needed funk. The Jackson 5’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” might be Michael Jackson’s vocal performance as kid (I’d say his entire career, but that’s just me).  Brown’s “Go Power at Christmas Time” shows the master of funk in full-flight.  He pushes his band, and demands the listener to “get down”.  The mid-song spoken section also might be the only case of a holiday song containing the word “bullshit”.  (Brown like John Lennon also used Christmas as a time for social awareness with his song “Christmas in the Ghetto”.)

Somewhere along the line, artists (or the labels) lost their faith in Christmas Music as forward-thinking music that lined-up with the artists’ credibility and creativity.  Instead, over the past few decades what we’ve gotten is the Christmas-Album-Suck that is void of any sort of imagination and is just seen as a cash-grab for the music industry.  They may sound comforting, but they lack the spark that fueled so many of the great holiday songs.