Thursday, August 25, 2011

HoG25 Addendum: The Top 25 Bob Dylan Studio Albums, Part I

On Tuesday, I offered an outline regarding the House of Georges Bob Dylan project, and yesterday it launched, featuring the albums that did not make the top 25. Today, we'll dig into the actual meat and potatoes of the list, and tomorrow we'll wrap it up. Here's to hoping you enjoy it, and if you don't, perhaps you'll find yourself inspired to fire up some Dylan at work, or when you get home, or perhaps in between.

25. Down in the Groove
release date: 05/31/88
cover: first cover-art live shot of Dylan on stage
sales note: n/a
AllMusic stars: 2/5
lyric to love: “You never miss your water til your well runs dry.” -– from “Let’s Stick Together”

notes: “Let’s Stick Together” is a great way to begin the album. Big energy and one of the rockinest cuts BD had put together in some time. It’s followed by “When Did You Leave Heaven?” which makes the pair of cuts one of the weirdest song-to-song transitions in the entire Dylan discography. It does, though, have some nice, twangy guitar work in it.

For this recording session, some three dozen people were brought in, notables include: Eric Clapton, Sly and Robbie, Jerry Garcia, Knopfler, Bob Weir, and (Editor’s Note: I hate this phrase. Maybe more than I hate “just sayin’.” But…) wait for it…: Kip Winger. Strangely -– or maybe not considering excessive documentation regarding the difficulties of recording with Dylan/how many outtakes didn’t make final cuts -- it turned out to be one of his shortest records, clocking in around the 31-minute mark. For those counting at home, some 20-plus tracks were nixed from Groove’s listing.

“Death Is Not the End” is an absolutely haunting number with different layers of backup vocals. Next is “Had a Dream about You, Baby,” which is bland, but with nice organ work. “Ugliest Girl in the World” matches the rockiness of “Let’s Stick Together,” and adds backing singers. There’s the upbeat, decent energy of “Silvio,” and then there’s the passionate Dylan at the mic for “Ninety Miles an Hour (Down a Dead End Street).” It features a very bass-y background vocal, some clamoring piano, and an overall great feel to the track.

Next is the soothing western feel, at least in the beginning of “Shenandoah.” It takes me back to Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid some, and features a bouncing warmth to the guitar, while the backup vocals give the song a Slow Train/Saved feel. “Rank Strangers to Me” brings it all back home with a stripped-down feel that’s soothing and enjoyable.

Regarding the effort I’ve tried to make in keeping popular criticism of particular albums at a distance, I find myself thinking that many critics that have given bad reviews to BD albums either haven’t given them a shot or are comparing them strictly to the Dylan of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Thus, they expect a mind-blowing production every time, set an impossible-to-meet expectation, position themselves for disappointment. This album was far from the spectacular Dylan has delivered. That said, compare it to some of the other music released in 1988, and it’s really not bad at all.

grade: 6.5

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24. Street Legal
release date: 06/15/78
cover: an unsure BD looking to find his way who knows where
sales note: gold
AllMusic stars: 3/5
lyric to love: “Warlords of sorrow and queens of tomorrow/Will offer their heads for a prayer.” -– from “No Time to Think”

notes: Street Legal opens with “Changing of the Guard,” which delivers a great harmony between the vocals and the organ. It’s got some festive horns reminiscent of early E Street Band sounds. A good all-around sound for this outfit, which makes one wonder why Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue ensemble was so short-lived. “New Pony” has nice percussion, and a big-band sound begins to come out in these first two tracks. “No Time to Think” offers the combination of horn, backup vocals, sprinkling piano, and a return to social commentary, all of which generate a variety of auditory and mental stimulus.

“Baby, Stop Crying” has a somewhat generic feel to it, which is a funny thing to say considering that I’ve always found the massive criticism of Dylan’s body of work -– a representation of an artist that seeks change and growth in his musical repertoire while hashing out the pain and change of personal life within his work -– baffling.

“Is Your Love in Vain?” is not a bad tune at all, but there’s nothing spectacular about it. “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power),” however, has some kind of dark isolation happening musically and BD appears to be going back six or seven years vocally while incorporating big-band sound. The percussion layer adds a full fill to the quiet piano, horns, and backup vocals. In “True Love Tends to Forget” we have the proverbial ballad slot, and a good spot to bring the organ back in as well.

Nothing to say regarding “We Better Talk This Over,” and “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heart)” is a nice long, full jam to close out the album.

grade: 7

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23. Good As I Been to You
release date: 10/27/92
cover: look of disappointment apropos of the title
sales note: n/a
AllMusic stars: 3/5
lyric to love: “What should the wedding supper be?/Fried mosquito and a black-eyed pea, uh-huh.” -– from “Froggie Went A-Courtin’”

notes: This first of two traditional-folk-song-cover albums kicks off with “Frankie & Albert,” which has some lively guitar. It’s followed up with some similar six-string work in “Jim Jones,” and has brighter vocals than the lead track. “Blackjack Davey” picks up where the pirate-ship theme of “Jones” leaves off, an impressive number. “Canadee-I-O” is one of my favorites: It features some subtle guitar intricacies.

Track five, “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” boasts a dusty blues-funk intro with harmonica. The beginning of the refrain sounds like “Hurts Me Too.” Good energy from this track. Later in the album is the pretty “Hard Times” and “Step It up and Go,” which makes one think that if this –- as has been alleged -– a contractual-obligation release, Dylan’s just killing these songs.

“Tomorrow Night” has some beautiful harmonica work while “Arthur McBride” makes you wanna holler, “Show me the shillelagh!” A noteworthy segment:

“And Arthur and I, we soon drew our hogs/And we scarce gave them the time to draw their own blades/When a trusty shillelagh came over their head/And bid them take that as fair warning.”

The album features three more cuts, the closer of which is the delightful tale/limerick “Froggie Went A-Courtin’.”

grade: 7

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22. Planet Waves
release date: 1/17/74
cover: some kind of odd Picasso twist
sales note: gold
AllMusic stars: 3/5
lyric to love: “May you always know truth/And see the lights surrounding you” –- from “Forever Young”

notes: Fiery start to the album with the upbeat tempo of “On a Night Like This.” Only mediocre vocals, however. “Going, Going, Gone” boasts some sharp electric guitar, and acts as a bridge from his old self to the self he’d become in the ‘90s.

Note of interest: This was Dylan’s first album to land at number one in the U.S. charts.

Track three, “Tough Mama,” has some popcorn bass with noteworthy guitar harmony, while “Hazel” has a great feel from the start and some of the better harmonica playing heard from BD in some time. There’re two versions of “Forever Young” on the album. Like so many of the tracks already discussed, this one was made famous by someone else (Rod Stewart) later covering it. The initial, slower version is breathtaking. The second, however, is confusing. That is, it’s a good version, but doesn’t even touch the original. It cooks a little in parts, but still…

Note of interest: The idea for the album came from chats between Dylan and Robbie Robertson, chats that took place after Summer Jam, the 30-year precedent to Phish’s Super Ball IX festival at the same location, Watkins Glen.

As the album draws to a close, the musicians offer a cryptic piano intro in “Dirge,” interesting guitar effects in “Something There Is About You,” and a relaxing, floating feeling courtesy of “Never Say Goodbye.” It does, however, have some choppy waves in it. “Wedding Song,” the album’s final cut, reminds us that BD has always recorded tracks with passion, but this number, with its directives, is a first in terms of its powerful, humble, and honest approach.

A lot of good bits of music on this album but even hardcore Dylan fans will likely continue to only bust it out on occasion.

grade: 7

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21. New Morning
release date: 10/21/70
cover: I’ve shed those Blonde on Blonde layers of psychedelia
sales note: gold
AllMusic stars: 4/5
lyric to love: “The man standin’ next to, his head was explodin’/Well, I was prayin’ the pieces wouldn’t fall on me.” -- from "Day of the Locusts"

notes: New Morning gets underway with some wicked organ effects and perhaps a xylophone on “If Not for You.” It’s followed by “Day of the Locusts” -– a creepy title –- that has some monster organ and high energy. With “Time Passes” the production offers an interesting delay of drum intro, and three tracks in I’m forced to comment on criticism: The AllMusic guys gave this album four stars, while only two to Self Portrait. To quote Wallace Shawn’s character Vizzini, “Inconceivable.”

Later in the album, “Winterlude” provides some exquisite waltz sound with a polka beat and bluegrass pickins. Not gonna get that combination many places. “If Dogs Run Free” beckons my Colorado-town college mentality, the notion of being oppressed by the man, as it were. There’re some female scat vocal parts that come across as both silly and sexy, while some waterfall piano and drip-tick guitar work fills the sound.

The title track has BD vocals again returning to an earlier version of themselves. That coupled with simple six-string strumming and organ hint at a possible rebirth. “Sign on the Window” comes next, and it’s always admirable when Dylan composes a track entirely different of anything prior. The song title exists as a suggestion of a life metaphor, i.e. everyone’s seen a sign in a window that feels like a representation of their life at that moment.

We get some down-home blues with “One More Weekend,” and they’re a style of blues married to jazz rock, the old-fashioned toe-tappin’ and foot-slappin’. “The Man in Me” has sparse verse work while the chorus blasts with fullness, accentuated by backup vocals, and a delightful piano outro. This pretty much sums up the release as the duo of “Three Angels” and “Father of Night” seems an odd conclusion.

grade: 7.5

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20. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid
release date: 07/13/73
cover: a billboard advertising the movie
sales note: gold
AllMusic stars: 2/5
lyric to love: “That long black cloud is comin’ down” –- from -- C’mon. You know what it’s from.

notes: I’d be lying if I said this album didn’t have its weaknesses. It does. For the most part, though, it’s pretty damn cool. The “Main Title Theme (Billy)” is gorgeous, while “Cantina Theme (Workin’ for the Law)" has an incredible feel with great percussion. “Billy 1” has some decent guitar work, but also some sloppy harmonica and unattractive vocals. “Bunkhouse Theme” has some soothing picking. If you’re not a sucker for some banjo (courtesy of Jolly Roger) and fiddle, then there’s probably a hole in your head. “Turkey Chase” gives us some fine musicianship in that regard. The notoriety of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” speaks for itself as both Eric Clapton and Guns N’ Roses really made it famous. Interesting tidbit, though: Dylan had a number called “Goodbye Holly” that he allegedly thought a good fit for the motion-picture soundtrack. His adviser thought otherwise and Dylan composed “Knockin’” for a different scene, the one in which Sheriff Baker dies.

There’s a tranquil feel to “Final Theme,” inflated by the flute, recorder playing of Gary Foster. The track also has a nice bass line. Other tidbits regarding the recording of the album: Booker T. Jones of Booker T and the MGs fame plays some bass; Roger McGuinn plays some guitar. Also, lots of immediate dissing of the album followed its release, while it was later revered. It’s bizarre to imagine why it wasn’t appreciated for its compositional integrity in the first place.

grade: 7.5

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19. Together Through Life
release date: 04/28/09
cover: Git some!
sales note: n/a
AllMusic stars: 4/5
lyric to love: “I just want to say that Hell’s my wife’s home town.” –- from “My Wife’s Home Town”

notes: Album number 33 opens with “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” a fairly high energy cut again for a release lead. It’s perhaps a notch down -- in comparison to the previous two -- in tempo, but the addition of the accordion is a nice touch. “Life is Hard” has nice mandolin work, but is early on the album for the mellow-tune slot.

Later we get “If You Ever Go to Houston,” which is solid. The accordion continues to make appearances, and it might be at its strongest here. Also, screw Texas. “Forgetful Heart” has a Time Out of Mind feel, heavy on the dirty cowboy, courtesy of the banjo and accordion. “Jolene” is a return to traditional blues, a decent track, but the lead guitar lick is repetitive.

The accordion motif continues in “This Dream of You,” and the cut, thanks to some violin action, has a Desire feel to it. Some good pauses in this number, and the composition almost coaxes the aroma of an Italian cafĂ© to waft through the speakers.

At some point, I came across a review of this album that started something like, I hate to admit it folks, but Bob Dylan sounds old. I found this remarkably dumb, as he would’ve been fixin’ to turn 68 when this record dropped. And, um, that is old. His voice has been hampered, but he still rips it up and this album is no slouch.

“Shake Shake Mama” is good fun, some blues-rock with a taste of libido, while “I Feel a Change Comin’ On” really ups the ante. Listening to it, I picture myself beach-side, the proverbial umbrella drink in hand (Note: This is not an accurate representation of how I lounge, as the sun is my nemesis.), on vacation, the feel of wanting to do better in life upon return home. That underbelly of time-is-always-fleeting really fingers the human experience.

“It’s All Good.” Yo, Bob –- the Fort Lewis College Independent beat you to that one by a decade-plus. Seriously, though -– grab that accordion and jump in the jalopy. We’re outta here on this one.

grade: 7.75

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18. John Wesley Harding
release date: 12/27/67
cover: a bizarre pose for some kind of Thanksgiving photo shoot
sales note: platinum
AllMusic stars: 5/5
lyric to love: “So when you see your neighbor carrying something/Help him with his load/And don’t go mistaking paradise/For that home across the road.” -– from “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”

notes: The title track kicks it off with a sense that we’re getting serious with things, it would seem. “As I Went Out One Morning” has bumping bass, some weak harmonica work. I think, in that vein of relationships with songs, and in the artery of artist infiltration, I liked John Wesley Harding in my college years because I felt I was supposed to, because it wasn’t -– I’d decided –- a massively known album to my generation, because it was Dylan, because he was the composer of “Watchtower,” a song of immeasurable importance we’d all associated with Hendrix.

But, “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” is possibly the best song on the album. “Watchtower” get the nod for staying power, but it, at least, is a bit raw. The irony in that, of course, is that that that’s usually a good thing for Dylan. In this case, “Ballad” is a more complete, more Dylanesque composition.

Definitely identified with “Dear Landlord” in college. It’s a track with an interesting soul twist, a vocal variation, and a passion not heard in such a succinct way, not to mention rolling piano scales. What follows is a good western feel with “I Am a Lonesome Hobo,” a cut with fluid movement. In “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” we learn that the speaker “passionately hates his life and likewise fears his death,” reminding us of the beauty of Dylan’s lyrics oftentimes comes in the form of a pervading authenticity.

A couple of songs later, there’s some smooth volume mixing in the jazz-rock number called “Down Along the Cove,” and in “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” we’re graced with some steel guitar riffs that could land the cut, as a single, on a country shelf.

grade: 7.75

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17. Modern Times
release date: 08/29/06
cover: It’s a side view of a mixing board, turntables in front of stacks of dice, a shot of microphones on stands blurred in development, the sheen of nighttime New York distorted. It’s UFOs. I don’t know what it is.
sales note: platinum
AllMusic stars: 5/5
lyric to love: “I’m so hard pressed, my mind tied up in knots/I keep recycling the same old thoughts.” -- from "Someday Baby"

notes: “Thunder on the Mountain,” like "Love and Theft"’s “Tweedle Dee” kicks off the album with a face-slap tempo. The difference between the two is that “Thunder” says, “eat your heart out, Chuck Berry.” “Spirit on the Water” has something special about its vocals. They remind me of a gravelly throated Martin Sexton scatting on “Diggin’ Me” from his album The American. There’s a tranquil waltz feel to the drum and guitar, accented by a softly sweeping harmonica solo at song’s end.

“Rollin’ and Tumblin’” takes me back to garage-sale cleanup at Casa Bank a few weeks ago. The wife was putting knick knacks in a box when this track came on. She stopped, spund around, and said, “Holy shit, is this Bob Dylan?” I strutted past with a nod that could not be distinguished from my air-guitar chicken walk.

“Wow,” she said. “I can hear him, but I can’t.”

I’m not sure what that anecdote means, but the flat-out ass kicking of the song must’ve caught her off guard in some surprisingly diversified-artist fashion. There’s pretty much not one second of this song, though, that doesn’t kick all the ass: “Sooner or later, you too…shall…buuuuuuurrrn!”

The token ballad spot is served by “When the Deal Goes Down,” and “Someday Baby” has some jump-jivin’ blues. As many times as I’ve heard “Workingman’s Blues #2,” I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why the narrator needs his boots and his shoes. Pretty song, though. “Beyond the Horizon” is definitely not a bad song, but following “Workingman’s” begins to give the album that coming-down-from-high feel.

“The Levee’s Gonna Break” brings the tempo back up a couple tunes later. It’s a fun rendition of the classic blues number, while “Ain’t Talkin’” offers some of the eerie from Time folded into the old-style BD tale, yet spiced with the new BD heard in “Theft” and on this album as well.

grade: 8

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16. Oh Mercy
release date: 09/22/89
cover: the first non-hipster hipster painting
sales note: gold
AllMusic stars: 3/5
lyric to love: “Oh, it’s rush hour now/On the wheel and the plow/And the sun is going down/Upon the sacred cow.” –- from “Ring Them Bells”

notes: There’s some nice percussion and tempo in “Political World,” and it’s got a good guitar crunch, too. I appreciate the meaning behind the lyrical content but there’s something paltry about its delivery. “Where Teardrops Fall” has some excellent lap steel riffs in it, and it’s a much more cohesive track than the album’s opener. A fascinating choice to include the sax solo of John Hart to close the track. “Everything Is Broken” contains cool percussion and the mix of musicians already present in the album is impressive. This one features some healthy harmonica and some funky guitar reverb.

“Man in the Long Black Coat” possesses an unimaginable soundscape that touches every corner of potential. Here the effort to not compare Dylan’s work to itself continues, but the irony of this exercise is, in a sense, to do precisely that. In this case, there’s an element of the musical personality that harbors the leftovers of BD’s early songwriting, and holds on to them for the personality still to come. I’m far from a production expert, but Daniel Lanois’ work on this album is stunning, even to my untrained ear. This tale and its soundtrack mix the country, the electric, the dark, the mysterious, and knead them into the perfect dough, a dough that rises from a Johnny Cash-ish yeast.

After that one, I would’ve been content with duds. Well, not really, but it’s that good. In “Most of the Time” a cool electric feel, coupled with some impeccable guitar playing and underwater bass blend with coasting drums and whale-call backup six string. Specifically, the rhythm guitar licks have crispness, yet a low volume mix that makes them stand out more than had they been amped. Pardon my French here, but great fucking cut that rounds out with a gritty-mouthed western feel of electronica.

Those two monsters lead us into “What Good Am I?” Also a superb number, and it has some words to live by: “What good am I if I know and don’t do?” Up next is “Disease of Conceit.” Cool concept, but an odd song. “What Was It You Wanted” is next-to-last and the use of different guitarists in it is an impressive choice. Not that BD hasn’t done it before, but with this groundbreaking production style, it’s smart. “Shooting Star” is a serene way to close it out, especially with the harmonica ending.

grade: 8

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15. World Gone Wrong
release date: 10/28/93
cover: dinner for one
sales note: n/a
AllMusic stars: 3/5
lyric to love: “The same hand that led me through seas most severe/Has kindly assisted me home.” –- from “Lone Pilgrim”

notes: The title track leads World off and has some handsome, admirable honesty. I can’t put my finger on what so marvelous about “Love Henry,” but I literally marvel at it. With “Blood in My Eyes” I’m reminded that these incredible albums have been sitting around in my various basements for years. The sadness of “Delia” is overwhelming, yet really pretty, while “Stack A Lee” is a trip down the Bob Dylan-of-old lane. It’s a phenomenal story with brisk strumming and vibrant harmonica work.

“Two Soldiers” is a wartime ballad that pierces the heart with sorrow yet warms the soul like the rising sun on a chilly fall morning. “Jack-A-Roe” gives me Grateful Dead goose bumps. It’s another tale of war and love. Finally, with “Lone Pilgrim,” I recall a lot of critical hype about the liner notes. This track’s note is a great one.

grade: 8.5

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14. "Love and Theft"
release date: 09/11/01 (Editor’s Note: No, that’s not a typo.)
cover: gross mustache, Bob
sales note: gold
AllMusic stars: 5/5
lyric to love: “I was raised in the country, I been workin’ in the town/I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down.” –- from “Mississippi”

notes: The fade-in to rockabilly tempo on “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” is impressive. The track’s got quick note picking on the lead(ish) guitar that takes turns at the forefront with crystal strums of rhythm. Some good knee-bouncing energy for a lead track. “Mississippi” is a beautiful composition that has a Jeff Lynne/Tom Petty feel to the guitar-refrain parts. A casual drum role is appropriate for the instrument counterparts on the track: “My clothes are wet, tight on my skin/Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in.”

“Summer Days” slows down the album’s pace, offers some velvety church organs, there’s some peculiar reverb on some of the guitar notes. Just when you think the spunk has been tapped, we get “Lonesome Day Blues” has a door-kickin’-in intro, a guh-chank-guh-chank rhythm guitar that makes you wanna air strum. It offers the feel of a barn with Marshall stacks in it -– it’s hot, the lemonade pitchers sweat as much as the napes of every dancing neck in the joint. It takes us back to the billowing dresses and launched ladies: “You’re gonna need my help sweetheart/You can’t make love all by yourself.”

In “Floater (Too Much to Ask)” Larry Campbell’s violin/mandolin/banjo play give a boisterous twist to a track that fits in with the album in a straightforward fashion. Dylan’s vocals are aggressive on this release but with a good result considering how froggy he’d become. The following cut, “High Water (for Charlie Patton)” has banjo in it and a Kansas City reference in the opening verse. Win, win. Nice rumbling drums, too.

Again with the tolling bells/who are they for in “Moonlight.” This serene number mirrors its title. One of my favorites on the album is “Po’ Boy.” I used to feature that style of sandwich as a lunch special from time to time, but that’s a horse of a different color. I love the dialogue BD’s never too shy to include, and this track’s got plenty of it. It also gets away from the busy studio sound heard in the other cuts on the album. It has the feel of driving down a country road, seeing Dylan on the porch playing this number, sipping some root beer during the pauses. You should read the lyrics to this song. They’re like milk; does a body good.

“Cry a While” gets right back to the crunch. Good bounce. “Sugar Baby” takes me back to the notion of recorded order versus album-appearance order. It’s tough to know the contrast between the two, but this one’s perfectly placed as a farewell song. It’s one of those tracks where the constant-information-absorption tendency of a project like this halts and you just take it in. It’d be interesting to know what percentage of certainty BD felt regarding future studio projects when this one was labeled complete.

grade: 8.5

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13. The Basement Tapes
release date: 6/26/75
cover: old-time saloon feel
sales note: gold
AllMusic stars: 5/5
lyric to love: “What’s it to ya’, Moby Dick? This is chicken town.” -– from “Lo and Behold!”

notes: In studying the entire Dylan discography, I was tempted, for a second, to leave this one off since it was done with The Band. I leaned that way because I’d already decided to leave off Dylan & the Dead. The latter, however, is considered a live album, and The Basement Tapes was born out of not only a studio session, but a lengthy, temporarily shelved one at that. It begins with “Odds and Ends,” a jazz rock bit with hints of what we’d later hear with The Traveling Wilburys. “Orange Juice Blues (Blues for Breakfast)”* stays with the jazz feel, but, obviously, incorporates some blues into a nice cut, equipped with some bright saxophone work from Garth Hudson.

“Million Dollar Bash” reveals a lyrical modernity beginning to evolve for Dylan, an interesting contrast with the still-old-style vocal approach. “Yazoo Street Scandal”* is not a bad cut in that it features some band-saw sliding guitar and squeaky-springs keyboard work. “Katie’s Been Gone”* has a nice twist with Levon Helm on vocals. “Bessie Smith”* delivers vibrant, carnivalesue organ with enough energy to power a two-stroke engine, and having said that, Michael Gray’s quote regarding the eight tracks not written by Dylan (asterisked) -- “The interspersed tracks by The Band alone merely disrupt the unity of Dylan material, much more of which should have been included” -– is something with which I agree, albeit an appreciation of the collaboration is warranted.

“Clothes Line Saga” is a number in which I enjoy the topic of choice and everyday honesty. “Apple Suckling Tree” has a rich, rockabilly air of an old-time saloon, a pop-n’-bop organ that gives a swaying-Baptist-church feel to an otherwise-rural setting. “Please Mrs. Henry” enhances the regular-guy American feel to the album courtesy of it vocals, while “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” employs the use of the literal as a vehicle for the figurative roots of an authentic American musician.

“Nothing Was Delivered” has bouncing piano, swaying bass, and an underbed of guitar licks that go well with the barnyard vocals of the song, which has a vibe of honesty about it similar to that of a barber-shop afternoon. There’s something early-‘60s Dylan about “Open the Door, Homer.” Had it been just BD and his guitar, though, it might’ve been a fraction of the song as the presence of The Band made it magnificent.

The second half of the album’s tracks has a steam-engine aura to them that would energize a sweaty old man’s back-porch whittling operation. See, for example: “Long Distance Operator.” “This Wheel’s on Fire”* says that, even inside a song of lament, there is an embedded fuel that perhaps pushed the sessions, the careers of both Dylan and The Band, as well as the broadening advancement of American music. “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread” has peculiar lyrics, sprinkling piano, and a fun rhythm, while “Ain’t No More Cane” offers a different sound with Helm on vocals, Hudson on accordion, and some quiet mandolin work lining the song’s underbelly.

“Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)” develops the interesting motif explored by Johnny Cash, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin and others. After “Ruben Remus”* comes “Tiny Montgomery,” which invokes visions of washboards strapped to chests, whiskey handles being carried.

grade: 8.75

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12. Desire
release date: 01/17/76
cover: a free-wheelin’, avant-garde Bob Dylan
sales note: platinum x2
AllMusic stars: 4/5
lyric to love: “She said, ‘You gonna stay?’ I said, If you want me to, Yeeeeesss!’” -- from "Isis"

notes: I can’t say I recall any radio play of “Hurricane” as a kid. Did it get any? Was it banned because of controversy and profanity? Obviously, we all know the epic status this song holds. The all-time protest song. “Isis,” however, is the best song on the album, and near the top of his BD’s top 20 ever recorded. I’ve talked a lot about relationships with songs in recent months, and it is this notion that inspired this post. I think initial listens to Desire left me so blown away with the opening combo of “Hurricane” and “Isis” that I decided it must’ve been Dylan’s best album of all time. It was as if the rest of the album could do no harm, that it had to receive equal love.

Of course it didn’t help matters that I was just beginning to drink coffee and living in one of the world’s three Durangos at the time. Conversations with my old pal Gerard Portmanteau, however, prompted me to get the kindling ablaze on this project, which of course afforded revisits to all the old Dylan staples. In the end, I’m still passionate about many of the tracks, but now I realize the lack of cohesiveness Desire has compared to much of what was released prior.

There are times when my inclination to give an album a high rating is thwarted due to only one or two tracks of massive staying power. There are times, though, when a track (or two) is so powerful on a personal level that that theory is shelved. Desire, via the aforementioned tandem is one of the latter, wherein the best example of the former comes in the form of Highway 61 Revisited.

Anyway, the violin work by Scarlet Rivera on “One More Cup of Coffee” has been present through the first four tracks, but it is w/ “Cup” that it takes on a new, eerie, persona, and in some kind of Kill Bill fashion, seems set on accompanying the song’s subject (if there is one) “to the valley below” of death and decay. Haunting sound, and the Emmy Lou Harris vocals only boost that.

The somber sounds of “Sara” salt the streams of any man’s tears, and though the mid-‘70s gave us plenty of relationship songs, this one’s nothing to scoff at, equipped with some top-notch harmonica parts, and striking lyrics like “glamorous nymph with an arrow and bow.” “Joey has thundering drums, quaint violin, and Dominic Cortese on mandolin/accordion gives the cut more of a mobster-like flair than perhaps the lyrics. Again, vocals from Harris flavor the soothing sounds of the ballad, but it’s a long one.

“Hot chili peppers in the blistering sun” has to be the best opening line in music history. The bouzouki’s beauty, the trumpet blasts, the sun rays of accordion, the Harris vocals, and the fading in and out of all the instruments make "Romance in Durango" the most underrated gem of the entire album. “Black Diamond Bay”’s odd drum beat and quick downward vocal slopes at the end of each line are a unique approach. I love how the occasional line of lyrics began with sparse snare hits and rippling bass line (Editor’s Note: Why the Harris vocals across the album didn’t make liner-note credits has always been a mystery to me.).

The whole song, though, yields an urbane sense of polishedness to the album. Gotta love a Cronkite reference, and it’s got a decent running time, too. “Oh, Sister,” as a brother to three sisters and as a young, upon early listens, human being trying to find his way in the world, this cut had a special place for me even if, on cassette, it s a sappy way to end a powerful album. In the end, it didn’t turn out to have much staying power for me, but not a bad song.

grade: 9

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11. Another Side of Bob Dylan
release date: 08/08/64
cover: a stoic black-and-white pose suggesting an early hardening of the musician
sales note: gold
AllMusic stars: 5/5
lyric to love: “Aw, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.” –- from “My Back Pages”

notes: Release number four kicks off with “All I Really Wanted to Do.” Such a basic song, yet if performed by anybody else, it would suck. The power of Dylan. Among the trio of “Black Crow Blues,” “Spanish Harlem Incident,” and “Chimes of Freedom” is some serious story-telling that would not be done justice without giving them a listen, so please: Do so.

“I Shall Be Free No. 10” reminds me in a curious fashion that I have never spent a ton of time with this album, but I love that he has variations of this original. It reminds me of my Ode(s) to the Untouchable Poet, a series of terrible poetry I penned for BD in my youth. The rhyming of this track is so care-free it’s profound. “He’s a weird monkey/Very Funky….I’m a poet/I didn’t know it/ Hope I don’t blow it.” How many times did you hear those poet lines in grade school and know that they were Dylan? None if you’re my age.

Next is an interesting examination of a depressed persona. “To Ramona” gazes in on pain and lost love that seem to come out as background vocals and are propped up the unusually calm strumming. And because it’s such great advice: “Everything passes/Everything changes/Just do what you think you should do.” What follows is the clean and crisp, intelligent and funny fresh mix of pop culture, politics, social norms, and deviations, all courtesy of a number called “Motorpsycho Nightmare.”

After this selection's "lyric to love" comes the comforting simplicity of “I Don’t Believe You,” then the admirably titled “Ballad in Plain D,” which, by nature, may be written and composed in a plain chord or progression, but it’s a gorgeous piece of music topped with some of BD’s most patient lyrical work, some of his heartiest harmonica riffs yet. And the album closes with “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” a tune most know, but perhaps few recognize its inherent sorrow.

grade: 9

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There you have it. Do come back tomorrow for the top 10.

7 comments:

Cecil said...

OK, before I read the whole thing, "Death is Not the End" is also covered in unbelievable amaze fashion by Nick Cave and, I think, PJ Harvey (?), but definitely Blixa Bargeld. Back up top.

Cecil said...

More: I don't give a flying shit what anyone says, "Forever Young" is a killer song and the slow arrangement is heartbreaking.

Cecil said...

"Album number 33."

Motherfucker.

Cecil said...

Crazy that "My Back Pages," one of my all-time favorites, was written when he was like 12.

Cecil said...

Also, dunno if it beats up your structure, here, but pretty sure The Band was his backing outfit for Blonde on Blonde at least...

Cecil said...

AND HOLY FUCK I missed that you put John Wesley Harding at 18. Craziness.

"I Pity the Poor Immigrant" should also be seen through the gaze of those who honored it with a cover, particularly one Christy Moore. Rebel music, indeed.

And to my mind, the best song on the album is "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine."

bankmeister said...

Yeah. The Hawks were his band for a bit there. Where would you've put JWH?