Friday, August 26, 2011

HoG Addendum: The Top 25 Bob Dylan Studio Albums, Part II

Like Kenny Loggins said, "This is it/The waiting is over."

Wait a minute. Time out. Start over. We can't move into the Bob Dylan top 10 with a Kenny Loggins quote. And as tempted as I am to say something long-strange trip-y, I'm not gonna. That song blows. The only appropriate quote that comes to mind follows, and if you missed yesterday's part one, you can find it here:

"’Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood,
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud,
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form."

10. Self Portrait
release date: 06/08/70
cover: something hanging in the art-room hallway of a middle school
sales note: gold
AllMusic stars: 2/5
lyric to love: “All the tired horses in the sun/How’m I s’posed to get any riding done? Mmmmm…MMMMM….mm-mmmmm.” -- from "All the Tired Horses"

notes: “All the Tired Horses” chills the spine with opening female vocals, and I will, to the end of time, sing that refrain over til the song’s end. “Alberta #1” has a fat, froggy bass and conjures memories of the Eric Clapton version. Dylan continues to boggle with wonderful musicianship on “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” while “Days of 49” makes one expect chants of “Hi-Yooooh, Hi-Yay!” to erupt. The track has a fat-necked, low-icy horn that sounds like a gangster kazoo. Dylan, in this number, returns to an earlier version of his voice.

Albeit overstated, there’s a tempo-appreciation thing happening in “Early Mornin’ Dew,” and it’s still worth noting. The combination of bass, piano, and mandolin-like strumming is remarkable. Next are the soothing “In Search of Little Sadie” and “Let It Be Me.” “Little Sadie,” however, possesses a moving tranquility of joy and release that compensate for the void left by the album’s previous track. It’s a better version of “In Search of Little Sadie,” has the addition of mandolin and percussion, plus a higher tempo, all of which make the song really enjoyable. The late appearance of the bass line, as well as some Jerry Garcia-sounding acoustic guitar riffs complete the cut.

“Woogie Boogie,” while a foolish title, has a nice blues intro with horn accompaniment. It sounds like a rockin’ swing party aboard a 3 a.m. cruise ship. Picture poofy dresses, broads twirlin’ and sliding through their partners’ legs. Tobacco’s in the air and Jack Kerouac’s taking photographic-memory mental notes in the corner. It’s followed by the admirable string arrangements of “Bellie Isle.”

There’s a steel ax, played in nice moderation in “Living the Blues.” Some tranquil female backup vocals flavor the number, painting a picture of gals in green strapless dresses and white platform heels with one side of their hair pinned back. Their flawless complexions, intoxicating smiles, and shoulder shuffles accentuate their song.

The inclusion of “Like a Rolling Stone” confuses, while the composition “Copper Kettle” is nice, but not search-worthy. From the files of redundancy, “Gotta Travel On” dips into that jam-band-influence vat. It’s got a Widespread Panic-y, Phish-y feel to it with some digable female vocals in the refrain.

Scrutiny associated with the inclusion of “Blue Moon” is outweighed by the velvet flow it delivers. It’s like a chocolate fountain you never have to clean, a simple source of imaginary stimulus. Also from the speculation department comes the suggestion that “The Boxer” cover attempts to mock Paul Simon, to which I ask, wouldn’t it have to be a shitty cover to substantiate such a claim? Further revealing my jam-band affinity, I have to thank BD for writing “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)" as Phish absolutely crushes it when they cover it live.

“Take Me As I Am” acts as a calming bedtime number, while “Take a Message to Mary” has some backing vocals, guitar (sounds like Charlie McCoy again) that’re right on the money. Lyrical suggestions that Dylan is still inspired by the country motif inhabit this track. Notes of the random: Really? Fifty-two musicians collaborated on this release? I’m not complaining. Very impressive.

More jam-band love: always dig a good version of “It Hurts Me, Too.” And, in “Minstrel Boy,” there’s some strange lyrical theme occurring, one that’s fleshed out by bubbly bass and scratchy guitar licks. A nice gospel-rock feel to the track.

I’ve always loved “Wigwam,” but never knew its name before this project. It’s got a nice theoretical answer to countless questions surrounding criticism of BD’s work, and the tendency to compare current work to that of the previous. It’s as though he said, If I want, I’ll bring in four dozen artists, record a double album with minimal linear theme strings, and yes, one track will be a horn-driven instrumental in which I “la-dee-day” for the vocals. And yes, I’ll name it after a Native American dwelling.

“Alberta #2” closes it out and leaves one with the feeling of a fine, fine meal’s conclusion, a meal shared with seldom-seen friends, a feeling of security, warmth. Not sure I came across more scrutiny for any particular album greater than the seeming demise that exists for this one. It's covers, it's not deep, it's not genuine. It's a joke, a spit in the face of critics, a sham, and a letdown. Know what I thought it was? Real damn good.

grade: 9


9. Highway 61 Revisited
release date: 08/30/65
cover: a color version of a jaded-yet-rejuvenated Dylan seen previously on the album’s predecessor
sales note: platinum
AllMusic stars: 5/5
lyric to love: “The sun’s not yellow/It’s chicken” –- from “Tombstone Blues”

notes: Every album ever recorded in the history of music will take second place in one regard: beginning an album with as powerful a track as this one. Naturally you get BD’s vocals and harmonica with titanic lyrics, but the organ, the peak-and-valley climbs of the bass line, the ragtime piano all make “Like a Rolling Stone: one of the most omnipotent cuts of all time. “Tombstone Blues” then, has an impossible act to follow, but with it does so successfully since the album genre hops into the blues and picks up the organ pace where “Stone” left off. Dylan, as this record gets rolling, develops themes of social commentary via peculiar characters, the importance of their presence self-evident, the absurdity of their actions a critique of certain elements of human value.

Track three, “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” shows us more potential influence later seen in Led Zeppelin, specifically “Boogie with Stu” from Physical Graffiti. “From a Buick 6” piggybacks on that motif with an even-more-upbeat bouncy ragtime feel, and then we get the haunting sounds of “Ballad of a Thin Man,” wherein auditory foreshadowing of offspring-yet-to-be-born Jakob can be heard; there’s something similar to the vocals directed at Mr. Jones and the bellowing heard in The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight.”

The recurring power of the organ embeds this album in an essence of old-time heroism that recorded American music had never known until Highway barged into its living room with a welcomed exuberance and “Queen Jane Approximately” is a perfect example of how. The title track offers a slide-whistle sound effect, a rhythm, and vocals that combined evoke next to nothing save for an appreciation of the chunk of the United States it inhabits: a Mississippi River frontage road.

“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” shares a comforting level of piano that’s almost outdone by exhausted vocals and a harmonica solo that wonders whether or not, in this instance, less is more. “Desolation Row” brings it all back home with some of BD’s most powerful mashing of historical figures into modern-day societal situations, an epic that features some stunning guitar work by Charlie McCoy, leaving the listener with the kind of sense that inquires, After this, what next?

grade: 9


8. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
release date: 05/27/63
cover: a walk every cold-weather-dwelling western human has taken at least once
sales note: platinum
AllMusic stars: 5/5
lyric to love: “…I catch dinosaurs, make love to Elizabeth Taylor, catch hell from Richard Burton…” -– from “I Shall Be Free”

notes: It’s hard to strip away pop culture from things 65 or younger, and it’s hard to remove the Forrest Gump from “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but the beauty of the entire composition, the messages to humanity that rival quotes of some of our greatest leaders demand that you appreciate this number for what it is, regardless of where and how often you’ve heard it.

The senseless thing to say about “Girl from the North Country” is that it’s a number about a lass from up yonder. What it makes me think of, though, is a man driving with his dog across the two-lane highways of the west. When we get to “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” we’re officially one and-a-half albums into the 34-title selection. That’s about four percent of the way through, and the lyrical mastery this early lies deep with the BD. That gem’s followed by another: “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” a song with a title so great in its simplicity, a sound accented by dancing hammer-ons.

It’s a bit of an oddity to have your name appear in the titles of your first two albums, and again in two song titles on your second release, and that’s all I have to say about “Bob Dylan’s Dream.” In “Talking WWII Blues” BD drops a serious notion that play-fights with humor, a theme ensconced in classic harmonica. It’s followed by a great folk-riddled ballad in “Corrina, Corrina.” I prefer the Leo Kottke version myself, but as is the case with covers, you wouldn’t have your favorite rendition without the original, another theme that has followed Dylan for decades.

Once we arrive at “I Shall Be Free” we’re given more humor, politico, and a man’s man kind of songwriting. This is the kind of song that instills a smile at the very core of being: “greasy kids stuff” wound up being the title of a Frank Zappa ditty; we see “humdinger” dotted across the pop-culture spectrum; phrases like “eatin’ bagels…and pizza,” “the daughter of Mr. Clean” admit to us the Americanness of Bob Dylan, even if he, at such a young age, was displeased by much of what American meant.

grade: 9.25


7. Bringin' It All Back Home
release date: 03/22/65
cover: the life-loving essence of the beats, a transition, perhaps, of the folk-rooted BD to an avant-garde psychedelic
sales note: platinum
AllMusic stars: 5/5
lyric to love: “Just then the whole kitchen exploded/From boilin’ fat/Food was flying everywhere/And I left without my hat” –- from “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”

notes: This wild, electric-band party gets underway with “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” a shock to the chronologically tuned ear that, to this point, had heard nothing but vocals, six-string strum, and harmonica for four albums. Two years and change later, Dylan comes out swingin’ and goes swiftly away. “Look out, kid.” That packed punch precedes “She Belongs to Me,” a sort of floating staccato riff atop some bass and high hat. It’s got a tropical sound meshed with the railroad-track/campfire vocals, and of course, some harmonica.

I’d rather not say anything about “Maggie’s Farm,” but I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the somewhat customary blues and guitar of BD have a pop in this track, a nice spice to fit the new-yet-familiar flavor profile known as lyrics of rebellion*. In “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” Dylan gives us something of a down-home feeling, and from here it’s clear that the album is building off of itself. The self-development continues with “Outlaw Blues,” where toe tapping morphs into heel stomping, vocals once mildly nurtured on previous tracks sent forth with confidence into the cold world.

There’s no Willie Nelson in this “On the Road Again.” In fact, his version wouldn’t surface for another 15 years, but in Dylan’s cut of the same name, the development of Bringin’ continues, this time with blues roots that are taken back down a notch, settling into a mellower blues-rock route, a sound joined with vocals and harmonica familiar from previous albums.

“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” toys with takes and laughter, yet there’s still more development. This build-while-refining approach continues to astonish, this time with a retreat from calm blues rock, instead selecting a ragtime-blues thoroughfare that evokes images of bustling bar crowds and dancing, care-free, young Americans. “Dream” moves and jumps with a zest greater than any of its predecessors, and, without taking anything away from previous lyrics: The essence of this song is really special. I’d go so far as to say there’re some possible early jam-band roots in this ditty.

As mentioned, it’s always bizarre to hear the stripped-down original versions of songs written by Dylan, made famous later via juiced-up covers, in this case, the Byrds. At this point in the album the electric feel backing Dylan has been reduced to the electric-guitar riff, suggesting that the development has regressed in favor of advancement, another path of experimentation chosen. This is not, for a minute, to suggest that the order of song appearance on an album mirrors its chronological place in the recording-spectrum session, but attention to song-placement detail must’ve been considered, if only for whim.

There could be some powerful allegory twisting within the lyrics of “Gates of Eden,” but overall, the flat vocals and uninspired harmonica, coupled with a basic chord progression leaves this track an auditory dud. “It’s Alright” suggests another track with potential for later evident influence on rock, i.e. Led Zeppelin’s folk-rock tracks. There’s some efficacious preaching in the lyrics, lyrics that deliver a living-life-to-its-fullest message via disenchantment with politics, the suggestion of value in family, a discredit to some social values, and a hint of passion-flushed life. Such a hint is delivered vis-à-vis a line we see years later in The Shawshank Redemption. In this song, however, the original says, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” And since I’ve already used one form of a word twice to discuss one song, why not throw in a third and forth: “It’s Alright” poses the question of the devaluing of things the world has suggested we deem valuable.

“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” To close out Bringin’, Dylan, having abandoned the trek out/return to base/select new path progression of the album two tracks ago, gives us a number that has a popping bass line to accompany his usual trinity. A motif of departure dances circles around the B side of this album, leaving a wide-open curiosity unanswered, especially considering the album’s name.

grade: 9.25

* In Dylan's Chronicles, Volume I, he discusses the notion of rebellion:

"I tried to explain later that I didn't think I was a protest singer, that there'd been a screwup...The rebellion songs were a really serious thing. The language was flashy and provocative -- a lot of action in the words, all sung with great gusto."


6. Bob Dylan
release date: 03/09/62
cover: BD looks like a character out of A Christmas Story
sales note: n/a
AllMusic stars: 3/5
lyric to love: “A lot of people don’t have much food on their table/But they got a lot of forks ‘n’ knives/And they gotta cut somethin’” –- from “Talkin’ New York”

notes: Running through some of the tracks on this self-titled debut, an element of rawness exists in “She’s No Good.” “Freight Train Blues” delivers daring vocals, energetic strumming, and a childlike enthusiasm. We get a rendition of “In My time of Dyin’” that perhaps inspired some future songsmanship via Led Zeppelin. “Man of Constant Sorrow” leaves the listener wondering whether or not BD’s fertilizing the roots of the man he’ll become or the one that’d already arrived. It’s got a campfire feel of an old soul that let’s you know it’s always been here, even if you’re only discovering it for the first time.

Across the Dylan discography, a consistency of highway and train imagery pops up, a theme apropos of an album like this one in which the start-to-finish feel hints at the artist having plowed through the tracks during the recording sessions. Somewhere at the midway point is “Gospel Plow,” an awesome title for a song that feels like a steamroller. In the era of modern music, the ability to record a record at a young age is no new trick. How many, though, were dropping their first LP a few months shy of turning 20 50 years ago, and doing so with to-be-famous cuts like “House of the Rising Sun”? I was not aware that the most famous version, by The Animals,” was not the first. BD’s version doesn’t quite equal it in prowess, but rivals it in passion.

“Talkin’ New York” makes me feel as though, prior to it, never had a song been recorded with the combination of musical integrity and the ability to make, via lyrical comedy, a man smile. Men and women, young and old must love it.

Where does the history of odes begin? In poetry, it’s decades and centuries ago, but who was the first in music? Bobbie Gentry’s “Billie Joe” came five years after BD’s “Song to Woody,” leaving me feeling like a gambling man: This was the first, and it remains one of the best.

Regarding the closer, I don’t know how one logistically keeps a grave clean. A headstone I can see. More importantly, how does one ponder death (“See That My Grave is Kept Clean”) with such vigor, intensity, and seriousness at 19?

grade: 9.5


5. Nashville Skyline
release date: 04/09/69
cover: a Howdy-Doodyish salute
sales note: platinum
AllMusic stars: 5/5
lyric to love: “His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean/And you’re the best thing that he’s ever seen.” –- from “Lay Lady Lay”

notes: The album-starting duet with Johnny Cash is smooth like a perfect Hollandaise. Great strumming, gorgeous vocals. Track two has an uber-fun start. It’s got fat, bumpin’ Charlie Daniels bass, delicious steel guitar work of Pete Drake and Charlie McCoy is of course in on the work. The foresight and creativity of Dylan to drop an instrumental at this juncture was pure genius. The quick pulse of the number carried over into “To Be Alone with You, as track three is spiced with ragtime piano and Dylan vocals. It’s a brief cut, but it’s tight. “I Threw It All Away” gets back to the wavelike rolls of the organ. It’s a soft, soothing kind of picking happening on the guitar, a beautiful composition.

There’s a country twang to “Peggy Day,” and it’s 10 times better than anything contemporary. The song closes with a nice tempo change and vocal outro. Exquisite craftsmanship. I never noticed the percussion in “Lay Lady Lay” before now, and I’m embarrassed to admit it. Ken Buttrey’s story about this song pretty much rules:

"I went over to Dylan and said, 'I'm having a little trouble thinking of something to play. Do you have any ideas on ['Lay Lady Lay']?'... He said, 'Bongos'... I immediately disregarded that, I couldn't hear bongos in this thing at all... So I walked into the control room and said, 'Bob [Johnston], what do you hear as regards [to] drums on this thing?'... [He] said, 'Cowbells.'... Kris Kristofferson was working at Columbia Studios at the time as a janitor and he had just emptied my ashtray at the drums and I said, 'Kris, do me a favor, here, hold these two things... hold these bongos in one hand and the cowbells in the other,' and I swung this mike over to the cowbells and the bongos... I had no pattern or anything worked out. I just told Kris, 'This is one of those spite deals. I'm gonna show 'em how bad their ideas're gonna sound.'... We started playing the tune and I was just doodling around on these bongos and the cowbells and it was kinda working out pretty cool... Come chorus time I'd go to the set of drums. Next time you hear that [cut], listen how far off-mike the drums sound. There were no mikes on the drums, it was just leakage... But it worked out pretty good... To this day it's one of the best drum patterns I ever came up with."

One of Dylan’s best songs from start to finish, and the steel riff at the chorus couldn’t get much better.

“Tell Me That It Isn’t True” is a rosy composition that radiates in your ears like sun beams through your window the morning of a day you’ve really been looking forward to. “Country Pie” is cute, and “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” equates to a subtle retract from the country feel of the album, a shift toward blues, even a sprinkle of calypso jazz. An alluring ditty.

grade: 9.5


4. The Times They Are a-Changin'
release date: 01/13/64
cover: a street fighter to whom you do not wanna step
sales note: gold
AllMusic stars: 4/5
lyric to love: “When the Second World War/Came to an end/We forgave the Germans/And then we were friends.” –- from “With God on Our Side”

notes: The title track is a great follow-up, if you will, to “Blowin’ in the Wind” in terms of both its lead track, and Freewheelin's as well. Hard to say if there’s a more token BD track in the archives. The “Ballad of Hollis Brown” is a point-blank disturbing folk tale about starvation, death, and ultimately, rebirth. The murderous lyrics are prettied up by Dylan’s guitar playing, and it's this notion -- the marriage of the serious, important theme to splendid, unique audio craftsmanship -- that really puts Dylan above all other icons. With Elvis, it was dancing, love, and heartbreak. Michael Jackson and Madonna were meta -- they frequently wrote songs about pop culture from within pop culture itself. Dylan wrote about war and love and strife and humanity, the common man, the common woman, the politician, the celebrity.

“With God on Our Side” is absolutely stunning. The crisp audibility of the pickwork and strumming is amazingly clean. One of his best tracks, if not the best, through three albums. It’s amazing how much this album grew on my from listen one to two, and “God” was a huge hook.

Next is an introspective composition called “One Too Many Mornings.” It consists of calm pickwork and mild harmonica, channels visions of Dylan staring out a rainy window while writing and recording it. A switch in perspective follows with “North Country Blues,” the jarring tale of a woman’s loss that boasts the same clean, crisp sound as “God.”

Sticking with an historical thread, “Only a Pawn in Their Game” might contain the origin of the modern derogative use of the word “tool.” More importantly, this is a heavy civil-rights track about the murder of Medgar Evel, and it’s literally impossible to gauge the impact the number must’ve had. Very powerful. “Boots of Spanish Leather” is a dusk-time-sounding love ballad of loneliness. Envision a calm breeze by a dock, the rolling out of a few quiet ships pointed toward the horizon.

Speaking of ships, “When the Ship Comes in” props the album’s tempo back up, and has some lively harmonica. A great tune. Dylan offers more of the historical with “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and this one -– not to take away from “God” or “Pawn” is worthy of the overused wow-just-wow sentence combo. It’s a shocking tale, and the antagonist made news again two years ago when he died, after a mostly quiet life not devoid of further legal problems. The tempo of the album, though, mellows out with “Restless Farewell” as closer.

grade: 9.75


3. Time Out of Mind
release date: 09/30/97
cover: It may be a blurry me, a blurry me that matches the sound of this record -– but it’s me, and I’m back, bitches.
sales note: platinum
AllMusic stars: 4/5
lyric to love: “Sometimes the silence can be like thunder.” –- from “Love Sick”

notes: I spent the second half of the ‘90s living in Durango, CO. I matriculated at THE Fort Lewis College, and logged countless hours in the classroom and on the job. For most of five years, any spare funds I had went to a small main-strip business called Southwest Sounds. It was owned by the road-bike egotist Hal, and his main employee was a gal who my roommate and I unaffectionately referred to as Peppermint Patty.

Peppermint Patty liked three things: 1) to talk about her ink, 2) to talk about her knowledge of music, and 3) to use any opportunity possible to note when an artist or an album had won a Grammy. She was an odd duck, to say the least. I think she was a stoner, but she was one of those weird stoners that had excess energy when she was baked. I was not that kind of stoner. I was the more commonplace stoner that gets real mellow (,man) when high, the kind of stoner that gets easily wigged out by the energy of the Peppermint Pattys of the pot community. She would pace behind the counter (while talking), walk awkwardly quick in and out of the aisles when her assistance was requested, and she would also frequently say awkward things, like the time she told my roommate and I how great this Miles Davis album was to have sex to. She was also built like an inside linebacker if that accents the picture at all.

Anyway, she used to chat me up a lot because, if memory serves, she (like myself) hosted a radio show at the college station, and so we had two spots in town where we might bump into each other. She knew my purchasing tendencies, and one afternoon in late September, I came into the shop and she threw a verbal sack full of paragraphs at my face before I’d even removed my sunglasses. She wanted to know when I would be purchasing my own copy of Time out of Mind, and she wanted to let me know that Dylan was back with Daniel Lanois on this album, that it was a shoe-in for a Grammy.

I didn’t know then who Daniel Lanois was, and mistakenly told her as much. I also, at the time couldn’t keep Grammys and Emmys and Oscars straight, but whatever. She bombarded me with facts about Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel and U2, and though I’d intended to buy the album already, I couldn’t purchase it and exit quick enough. Part of me wanted Peppermint Patty to be wrong. Part of me wanted her information to be inaccurate, for Daniel Lanois’ production efforts to be atrocious, for this album to tank. Well, not really, but it was one of those embarrassing moments where you felt, beforehand, like you were the expert on this subject, and afterwards, you humbly realize the degree to which you’d been served.

I will always associate the release of this album with Peppermint Patty, namely because this album blew my mind, and because, yes –- it won a damn Grammy.

It starts with “Love Sick” and frankly I can’t think of a better way to open an album than with the cryptic keyboard bounces that bleed into a Fisher King creek bed. Unreal. “Dirt Road Blues” storms out with popcorn ax riffs, bee-boppin’ bass, and quiet gospel keys, while “Standing in the Doorway” is a return to the curious obsession Dylan has with the ringing of bells (in this case church) and for whom they ring.

“Million Miles” revisits the keys from the “Love Sick” intro, and this is as good a time as any to note that yes, the return of Lanois to produce was a phenomenal choice. Good things happen when artists do this, i.e. Phish with Steve Lillywhite when they hired him to produce Billy Breathes in 1996, having worked with him on Rift a few years earlier.

It seems that critics have lumped Time in with “Love and Theft” and Modern Times, done everything shy of call them a trilogy. I disagree, see the trilogy, if you will, to be Good As I Been to You, then World Gone Wrong, and finally Time. Using Good and World, BD was able, in my opinion, to get back to his folk roots and be at peace with the simplicity of recording songs again. With Time he was re-energized, ready to hammer out new material, material that wouldn’t disappoint, a theme that would carry through the following trilogy of "Theft," Modern, and Together Through Life.

Anyway, “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” is magnificent. It has inspired keys, a great theme, some skankin’ rhythm guitar, and a tucked-in harmonica solo halfway through that’s quietly powerful. It’s also repeated after the last verse: “Gonna sleep down in the parlor/And relive my dreams/I’ll close my eyes and I wonder/If everything is as hollow as it seems.”

“’Til I Fell in Love with You” seems an unprecedented mix of ragtime, blues, rock, and soul. If you listen to this cut and don’t dance, or at least bounce and swivel in your chair, see a shrink: “Tomorrow night before the sun goes down/If I’m still living, I’ll be Dixie bound.”

“Not Dark Yet” has an exquisite tribal feel of mortality, a strange and humble peace with everything in the world, at least in the music: “Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb/I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from.”

Dylan and company offer another cryptic intro with “Cold Irons Bound.” The composition features some out-of-this-world bass, ripping electric guitar. Leading into the refrain is like the music spectrum is swirling around the sink drain. There’s a crooked-scowl feel to the thing; it’s the best display of musicianship on a BD track since Oh Mercy’s “Man in the Long Black Coat.” It’s so rockin’ that I had to keep tightening my headphones to keep them from flying off: “Up over my head nothing but clouds of blood…Reality has always had too many heads…” Straight shredding after the last verse closes it out strong.

Every album, we could argue, needs the token ballad spot. “Make You Feel My Love” fits this role, albeit it’s an odd feel compared to the rest of the record. It’s less produced, like Lanois stepped out for a smoke. At least it’s short.

Hey, Bart Scott! Check out the creepy guitar loop in “Can’t Wait.” This number feels like it was recorded laying down in the parlor from “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.” It’s got a pitter pat of drum playing, some see-saw organ, and guitar chords that stream out at you and disappear like a haunted-house ghost. The way the cut resounds and trails off after the last verse is a great finish.

“Highlands” begins with a dusty-saloon keyboard intro and features some nice drum rim shots that add to the western feel. Wicked guitar patterns give the thing a sparse fluid motion and just when the return-home feel couldn’t get any cooler, BD drops a Neil Young reference. I also love the vagueness to the track, a vagueness that vanishes when the narrator finds himself in a Boston diner and we get seven verses of some epic dialogue with a waitress. The album’s liner notes detail which musician plays what on what track, but it’s too complicated to get into. Lanois’s listing, however, is worth noting, suitably bizarre: guitar, mando-guitar, firebird, Martin 0018, Gretch gold top, rhythm and lead.

No Dylan album has given me such joy since his mid-‘70s material, granted the preceding two folk albums do, but in a less energetic fashion. Put this one up there with (Note: SPOILER ALERT) Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks. An undisputable home run.

grade: 10


2. Blonde on Blonde
release date: 06/20/66
cover: BD has exploded into an essence none can mirror
sales note: platinum x2
AllMusic stars: 5/5
lyric to love: “And he just smoked my eyelids/And punched my cigarette” -– from “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”

notes: What’s left to be said about “Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35”? It’s maniacal-sounding, provocative, something everyone wants to shout, a clever title that spurns radio heads from temptations to omit it from airplay.

BD gives us a return, perhaps, to fundamental blues with “Pledging My Time.” It’s got sustain, jamming, some of his most lucid harmonica work and an irony in that the vocals in this track might have launched the disdain some have for the sound of his voice.

If anyone were to utter that “One of Us Must Know” does nothing for them, then that person should be reported to the feds for fear that they are an extra-terrestrial being. This is not to suppose that aliens do not have souls, but most humans, it would appear, do, and this track is a spiritual knockout. It’s got down-home keyboard work mixed in with marching-marine-corps drum hits –- all with the guitar toned down to an appropriate level –- and molds a relationship (without actually being one) song out of it all.

(Reminder: Until this project reached the current century in terms of record-release dates, track listings are coming from cassette and vinyl, which may not match compact-disc listing.)

“I Want You” takes the goof of the Monkees, the pop-rock of the Beatles, whittles out the nonsense and replaces it with a crisp display of spot-on musicianship BD contemporaries could perhaps envision but not execute, then or ever. It’s got a bold sense of honesty in lyrics woven into a sound spectrum that defines perfect.

“Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” gives me the chills two seconds in every time I hear it. Inside the story of this track are historical figures placed with improved subtlety, and as has been mentioned on many occasions, the organ play sings the songs mountain ridges hum when the human ear is out of reach. Also, some astute textbook drumming happening inside this gem.

When a cadence is laid down, nurtured and tinkered with to the point of near perfection, that accomplishment is seldom repeated. Dylan and his personnel in these recording sessions are the exception, sequential asterisks adorn each track, and “You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” is no different.

It should be noted that the piano/keyboard work of Al Kooper and Hargus “Pig” Robbins on this album deserve a gush-heavy segment all their own. Their play is phenomenally inspiring.

BD throws a total change-up o the church-funk organ work and goes back to a blues-roots-based piano roll in “Temporary Like Achilles.” It’s a sound that billows the vocals of pain via lost love. Next is “4th Time Around” which features the delicate guitar work of Robbie Robertson placed in a bed of simple drum patterns. Together, they make this cut swim through a clear river of lust.

“Visions of Johanna” is a seemingly broken, individuated cut that resembles remolded clips of musicianship pieced together with a cadence that suggest a mythical consummation of blues and rock. “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat” is, and will always be, a fun song, while “Just Like a Woman” gives us that Jakob Dylan/Wallflowers sound again. It’s a timeless track embedded in beauty.

And speaking of overstated redundancy, “Absolutely Sweet Marie” reminds me that the musicianship on this album set the bar for tempo changes and scale fidelity. With “Obviously 5 Believers,” we get a decent track, and on an album with so many high-caliber cuts, it’s nice to have the occasional decent track, and in the department of honesty, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is nothing to scoff at, but the troubles-with-the-wife cuts are only getting started.

grade: 10


1. Blood on the Tracks
release date: 01/17/75
cover: Billy Joel at the piano with Elton John’s shades, and some “Welcome Back, Kotter” hair
sales note: platinum x2
AllMusic stars: 5/5
lyric to love: “People see me all the time/And they just can’t remember how to act.” –- from “Idiot Wind”

notes: I’d be remiss to not say anything about “Tangled up in Blue,” but perhaps more remiss to attempt to say anything substantial about it. Track two, “Simple Twist of Fate” goes back to that notion of relationships with songs. I’d like to think that even if I didn’t have such a deep bond with this track, it’d still give my skin bumps and make my eyes water two notes in. A work of magic. The only thing bigger than it is “You’re a Big Girl Now,” which forces me to literally have to sing through tears.

Continuing with that theme: “Idiot Wind” is my Jerry Maguire “Free Falling” moment. This cut has to be one of the best songs ever recorded in a studio. As I write this, I’m unsure of the total number of Dylan songs I’ve listened to, or for that matter, the hours spent listening to them, but this one trumps them all, the one I wake up with in my head more often than perhaps the rest of them combined.

“Buckets of Rain” is a nice, mellow recovery-period song to come down from the highs of “Idiot Wind,” and “Meet Me in the Morning” contains some phenomenal musicianship. The guitar picking is like the strut of the rooster in the track, the hum of the cut a churning motorcycle rumbling down the highway before dusk, before the sinking-ship sun vanishes.

“Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” remains one of the more difficult Dylan compositions to wrap one’s head around. It’s not that its complexity is overwhelming, rather that it’s, well, complex. It’s an odd number, though a very enjoyable one. And quite the story. Regarding the tale’s plot, an uncertainty hovers over it, an ambiguity of sorts, but it’s one of the few foot-stomping tracks in which you stomp gently so as not to disturb your astute ears that attempt to follow the tale’s twists. It’d be amazing to see either of the two screenplays allegedly based on it become film.

I’m not a song composer, but I recognize the need for a spot, be it live or in the studio, for the slow song, and in this instance, the placement of “If You See Her, Say Hello” is perfect. Oddly, if I owned this album on CD, I might be tempted to skip this track from time to time, but I’m glad I don’t; the cassette gives me the full-album feel. Also, it’s a nice segueway from “Lily” to “Shelter from the Storm.”

“Shelter,” “Tangled,” and “Simple Twist” beg to be addressed together as a trio. These tracks are ridiculously invaluable, and that they came from the same album is preposterous. I can’t remember back far enough to think about the time in which I didn’t know them so attempting to analyze further feels weird and pointless.

On one end, the sentiment of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” has been captured in the rest of the album. In another, it gives the author a voice that says he’ll be okay.

grade: 10


And there it is. Project complete. Here's to hoping you enjoyed, even if you disagree with parts or all of what was said. You know the catchphrases: It's a matter of opinion, one man's trash, etc. Now dust off all of your basement tapes, crank some Dylan, and enjoy your Friday. And if you're on the east coast bracing for Irene: "I ran into the fortune teller, who said beware of lightnin' that might striiiiiike!"
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Taking Pictures of Food: Test Kitchen Kansas City's Vagabond

If you’ve never participated in one of Jenny Vergara’s Test Kitchen events, put it on the calendar. Her most recent endeavor –- a pop-up –restaurant concept called Vagabond -- has already closed the business door on day two of its five-day run, and, as of Wednesday’s grand opening, seats were still available. There’s only one way to make a reservation, though, and that’s through the Test Kitchen Web site. The wife and I were goofily eager for our Thursday-evening dinner date for almost two weeks, even before our reservation request was accepted.

Having seen and heard the pub –- a Kansas City Star front-page article and an NPR interview (Editor's Note: This isn't the one I heard, but you catch my drift.) –- I knew we were in for something special and Vergara’s front-of-the-house team, paired with Chef Alex Pope’s culinary crew, did not disappoint. We opted for the second seating (you can request 5:30 or 8:30 availability for Sunday) Thursday night, and got there a few minutes early in order to select a great two top, even though there really isn’t a bad seat in the house.

Vagabond is taking place at the Orange Event Space at 1815 Grand in downtown Kansas City, but don’t show up expecting to be squeezed in. Your reservation includes your food, drink, and gratuity, and it's the only way in, which, for my money, is the perfect way to organize a dining event.

“Yeah, I don’t want to deal with money,” Vergara said, as she made her mid-evening rounds.

My wife and I couldn’t have agreed more. Show up, check in, enjoy.

I’ve never noticed the building before last night, but you’d never guess that Vagabond was a temporary installment. Vivid colors of paint coat the walls, and newly hung artwork gives the room personality. There’s a bar, a prep/execution areas, nicely spaced tables, a comfortable temperature, and a fluid setlist of appropriate-volume tunes coming from someone’s iPod.

And Chef Pope’s seven courses flirt with perfection.

First was a salad that featured late summer nightshades (foodie code for baby eggplants?) with olive oil and tofu. It was a very seasonal first course that contained a crisp mix of local ingredients, some grape tomatoes, sweet-potato chips, two different flavors of tofu, and a puree or two. A 2009 Hirsch Gruner Veltliner from Austria made it delightful.

Up next was a sashimi-style scallop that came with celery leaves, a buttermilk-rosemary sauce, truffle, and popcorn. It also had some sliced, de-seeded raw jalapeno, of which the wife said, “There are fewer better combos than jalapeno and popcorn.” I said that putting raw jalapeno on the plate was a bold move. Course two came with a Bridalwood Chardonnay, another 2009, but from California.

(Note: Oops. We were too eager to eat.)

In the three-hole was wild salmon. It appeared to be baked, perhaps griddled, but it was in cake (like crab) form, atop a fresh pork rind, and accompanied by some delicious fennel, Bing cherries, a cardamom sauce, and finished with some country ham. This round’s wine was a year younger, and hailed from France, a Colombelle Rose to be exact.

Batting cleanup was lamb cheeks. Or, as Vergara said, “Lamb cheeks…awesome.” Some pungent mint was either in the fresh garbanzo beans or the coconut gelato. They shared a plate with an incredible slice of heirloom tomato, which tasted of bacon. Vergara checked with Pope, and reported back:

"There's bacon in everything," she said.

A black sesame paste underscored the dish, and it was a fascinating touch, appearing to be a powder, and tasting almost of mole. Its partner was also three years old: Idolee e Olena Chianti Classico from Tuscany.

Round five was a whole hog confit, which looked like a chunk of bratwurst, but ate like no pig you’ve ever tasted. Someone showed off their mandolin skills by flanking the protein with some beautifully thin slices of fresh beet. Also in the mix were figs, masa chips, corn, and a Maytag sauce that might’ve been the nicest accent of the evening. This plate, though, was blasted with a paintball pellet made of beet juice. Righteous. The whole thing was paired with a wine that perhaps bears my favorite name of all time: Writer’s Block Syrah. Another ’08, this one comes from Kelseyville, CA.

After five flavors of awesome, it’s time to mellow it out a bit. Not in flavor or profile, don’t get me wrong. Course six contained some arousing slices of manchego cheese, cantaloupe slivers, pistachios, Phyllo dough crisps, and a hops puree. Yeah, as in the stuff they use to brew beer. It was a smash success, a delightful reminder of how wonderful it is to eat clean food. This wine had us curious. The Manzanilla Sherry (Hidalgo, Spain) probably doesn’t rock by itself. Paired with this course, however, I could roll with it all night.

Bringing up the rear was an Horchata, which had me skeptical. In my culinary days, the Mexicans used to love to brew up Horchata on a hot day, which, to the best of my recollection, had heaping scoops of coconut milk and rice in it. It was like their lemonade. It was also not for me. Pope, however, made a panna cotta out of his Horchata, and dressed it up in hearty servings with peaches, a bourbon-cream sauce, sprinkled Rice Krispies, and bands of lime zest. It came with a four-year-old Two Hands Semillion out of Australia, and was a really nice ending to a fantastic meal.

Mad props to Vergara, Pope,

and the entire crew. May I ask for their forgiveness regarding any verbiage errors as their execution was error-free. They left no detail unthunk, but don’t take my word for it; make your reservations before Vagabond vanishes.

Oh, and when you sign up for Test Kitchen, read the rules, people. No jeans. I'm looking at you, three dudes that rocked the denim last night.
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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


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


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


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


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


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


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 café 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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


There you have it. Do come back tomorrow for the top 10.
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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

HoG25 Addendum: The Top 25 Bob Dylan Studio Albums: Not Making the Cut

If you missed yesterday's preview, the gig that's been going on around here for the past couple of months has been to spend some quality time with each of the 34 Bob Dylan studio releases, and assemble a top-25 list. Today we won't dive into those that made it, but rather the nine that did not?


Because Bob Dylan rules. That's why. And even in some of his so-deemed lesser production efforts, his stuff is better than a lot of the other music being cobbled together. Anyway, I used the most scientific methods around to compile this ranking: After the appropriate number of listens per album, I assigned a 1-10 grade to each, and in the event of a tie, had a listen-off. Let's have a look.

34. Empire Burlesque
release date: 06/08/85
cover: swallowed by the ‘80s while being slowly eaten by the reel of a Dire Straits video
sales note: n/a
AllMusic stars: 4/5
lyric to love: A cock is crowing far and away and another soldier’s deep in prayer/Some mother’s child has gone astray, she can’t find him anywhere.” -– from “Dark Eyes”

notes: I mentioned yesterday that this was one of three albums that was difficult to procure on a limited budget. In this record's case, I think it's because not that many copies were pressed. But I opened my e-mail this morning, and what's ready for me at the library? A compact-disc copy of Empire Burlesque. Thanks, inter-library loan. Nine weeks later. Anyway...

“Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)” is the opening track, and I struggled to find something positive to say about the song. It’s got a decent staccato picking, and the backup vocals aren’t bad, but the harmonica is atrocious, and is grounds for some mockery (1:22 mark). The cheese level on this song in general is way high. It’s followed by “Seeing the Real You at Last” which, I’m afraid, is just awful.

Track three is called “I’ll Remember You,” which is a ballad that’s not horrible. I read some praise for “Clean-cut Kid” and understand it was a live staple for a minute. I mean, I get it if it’s about Vietnam, but it’s mostly about how to write atrocious music. A couple of songs later, “Trust Yourself,” has some decent organ riffs. Initially it sounds like a familiar Dylan, but a bad fake-drum thing comes in and Dylan, in the refrain, is bad.

“Emotionally Yours” has the feel of an authentic composition that no other track (to this point) on the album does. It doesn’t matter what happens in “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky,” it simply cannot be taken seriously with the synthetic drum rolls. I also read some allegations of Dylan producing this album himself. If those are true, let’s hope he never has that thought ever again.

The next-to-last track is called “Something’s Burning, Baby. It’s got odd military-sounding drums in the beginning but the song moves into quite the respectable tune. Criticism suggests that the number hints at the apocalyptic, but I see the song more as a metaphor for a relationship on the rocks. “Dark Eyes” closes it out, and there’s no debate to be had: It’s the album’s best cut.

grade: 3


33. Saved
release date: 06/20/80
cover: repeats Slow Train motif with precise image that reflects the title
sales note: n/a
AllMusic stars: 2/5
lyric to love: “You know that we are strangers in a land we’re passing through/I’ll always be right by your side, I’ve got a covenant, too.” -- from "Covenant Woman"

notes: Things get underway with a gospel feel, right out of the gate with “A Satisfied Mind.” The title track is kind of what you’d expect from a song called “Saved.” Picture a congregation of enormous musical talent. Picture them rooted in an affluent portion of the south. Picture them rehearsing four nights a week in anticipation of the Sabbath. Now picture them glistening with a whiskey sweat and a cocaine-fueled flux capacitor.

“Convenant Woman” is a nice, down-home jam. It’s got crispy guitar strumming and picking, plus some organ work that’s energetically reserved. “What Can I Do For You” has a repentful groove composed with genuine investment, as if it’s the loaded-Sunday congregation leader thanking his interventionist. Or maybe just a born-again Christian thanking el papa de Jesu Cristo. “Solid Rock” can be summed in two words: pretty terrible.

“Pressing On,” while much better than the previous track makes the God stuff begin to feel a bit too overt. Not a bad composition, though. At album’s end is “Are You Ready.” It features mildly irritating, repetitive vocals, but it makes up for it with some head-bopping blues-guitar rhythm and a passionate organ solo.

grade: 4.5


32. Knocked Out Loaded

cover: bizarre photo animation of fight-breakup-attempt scene
sales note: n/a
AllMusic stars: 2/5
lyric to love: “As I travel down life’s pathway/Know not what the years may hold/As I ponder, hopes grow fonder/Precious memories flood my soul.” -– from “Precious Memories”

notes: As we enter the mid-‘80s, this one opens with “You Wanna Ramble,” which has a gate-bustin’ swing feel to it, and it’s followed by the intense “They Killed Him,” easily the most profound track of the album. “Driftin’ Too Far from Shore” leaves me lukewarm. I suppose the backing vocals are nice, but they’re bland, repetitive, and cut with some fake-sounding drums.

It seems that, for most of a decade at this point, that Dylan continues to grow the number of personnel used in each recording session. This one was no runt: upwards of 60.

There’s an admirable journey within “Precious Memories,” one that explores a mashing of reggae, calypso, and gospel. Unfortunately, it’s followed by the stale rhythm of “Maybe Someday,” which does, however, have a bit of energetic perk from BD and his backup singers. “Brownsville Girl” reminds us that Dylan’s epics always have value, even if it’s hidden. This one falls short of the lesser ones we got from Desire, etc. The album’s final cut, “Under Your Spell,” has fresh rhythm in the refrain not seen elsewhere on Loaded, albeit some good horns almost always liven things up a bit.

grade: 5


31. Christmas in the Heart
release date: 10/13/09
cover: Nice, wholesome sleigh-ride look, but I prefer the inside artwork.
sales note: n/a
AllMusic stars: 3/5
lyric to love: “How’d you like to stay up late like the islanders do? /Wait for Santa to sail in with your presents in a canoe.” -- from "Christmas Island

notes: There are 15 holiday cuts on here. Most are traditional; a couple were first listens for me. Regarding specific tracks, “Little Drummer Boy” is awesome, has always been a favorite of mine, and it’s better here than most anywhere I’ve heard. “The Christmas Blues” was a new tune to me. Dig the harmonica on it. “O’ Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles)” reminds me, as so many random compositions do, of Carolyn Pitts, my fifth-grade music teacher. “Must Be Santa” makes you say, Whoa. High energy. I like the listing of presidents. And “Christmas Island” was also new to me. It’s nice. I can get on board with the idea of 12/25 luau.

I was not aware that Dylan had recorded this album prior to starting this project. At first discovery, I was disappointed. It felt cheap, an easy way to either a) fill an obligation, b) make a few bucks, or c) both. One of my biggest challenges, though, is trying to eliminate that knee-jerk tendency to judge off the bat. In fact, it might actually be my biggest single challenge. I’m not proud of it, but I feel okay about the fact that I chisel away at it, sliver by sliver, each day.

Then I gave the thing a listen, and I felt foolish. I liked it, even though it was literally 106 degrees out upon first spin. Not only did I like it, I immediately felt excited to revisit the album come Christmastime. Then I gave it a couple more listens, and though I was content to be done with it, I liked it even more. Foolish, however, grew to embarrassment when I learned that all royalties from stateside sales of this album go to a hunger project called Feeding America. Overseas they go to the World Food Programme and Crisis in the UK. God, I’m a jerk.

grade: 5.75*

*Given that Dylan assembled his corps of musicians, went into the studio, and followed normal suit to produce this album, it had to be counted. It’s not original material, but that’s not the first (or the second) time he’s done it, so, you know –- grain of salt.


30. Under the Red Sky
release date: 09/11/90
cover: contemplative desolation in a nice (tieless) suit
sales note: n/a
AllMusic stars: 2/5
lyric to love: “On the rising curve/Where the ways of nature will test every nerve/You won’t get anything you don’t deserve.” -– from “Born in Time”

notes: “Wiggle Wiggle” is the album's first cut. It’s got a cool opening blues ax and then the singing starts. Terribly geeky bass riff and kind of a bad song all around, which is too bad because this is the only cut to feature Slash. The title track is second, which also has a good intro, as well as some lively -– albeit confusing in that it sounds like an accordion -- organ. It’s nice having Al Kooper back in the mix, George Harrison on slide. “Unbelievable” is the name of track three. It’s real damn mediocre, Kooper being the only highlight.

The fourth song, “Born in Time,” features David Crosby on backup vocals, Bruce Hornsby on the piano. Paulinho da Costa fills the negative space with some percussion. “TV Talkin’ Song” states, “Your mind is your temple, keep it beautiful and free/Don’t let an egg get laid in it by something you can’t see.” It’s a good social-commentary piece, not a great song.

Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughn appear on “10,000 Men” but you wouldn’t know it if you didn’t read it. Kind of a waste. Waddy Wachtel sounded more like Stevie Ray on the title track. What follows is the very simple “2X2,” which is maybe the album’s best. It features more Crosby, Elton John on piano. The Vaughn brothers return for “God Knows,” and while their sound is more recognizable on this song, it’s pretty uninventive as a whole.

Next is “Handy Dandy,” which opens like an old-school Bob Dylan number. It has some nice backup vocals, it’s upbeat and puts up some good competition with “2X2” for album’s best. Dylan’s piano work is incredible, a reminder that it’s easy to forget how often he’s seated in front of the ivories. To close it out, “Cat’s in the Well” brings back the brothers Vaughn for one more. The accordionesque organ is a nice feature for this track and it has some faint horns as well. The lead guitar offers some nice staccato picking, and all in all, it’s a strong composition for the album, albeit a bit lyrically repetitive.

grade: 6


29. Shot of Love
release date: 08/12/81
cover: something out of one of those ‘80s grocery-store-foyer vending machines, the kind that cost a then-valuable quarter, the contents of which were all prizes housed in a clear, plastic egg. You hope for the parachuting green martian, but instead you get a temporary tattoo of something rotten, like the artwork for this cover
sales note: n/a
AllMusic stars: 2/5
lyric to love: “I rode with him in a taxi once/Only for a mile and-a-half/Seemed like it took a couple of months.” –- from “Lenny Bruce”

notes: A fairly rockin’ title track gets things underway, and it’s followed by “Heart of Mine,” which features inventive open guitar licks, and a appreciable tempo. BD is doing something fresh with his vocal approach, and the piano dances in one of the best numbers recorded in the last three albums.

“Property of Jesus” is the only track with a title that gets Christian. Not a bad little rockabilly number. “Lenny Bruce” maybe the oddest, sincerest tribute I’ve ever heard. “Watered-Down Love” is sort of cheesy, musically, definitely cheesy by title. Interesting guitar-picking teases. “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” makes for consecutive dorky titles but it’s not without some rockin’.

Next is a haunting reggae sort of rhythm right out of the gate in “Dead Man, Dead Man.” It features organ beds and phantom sax blasts that come in to further the jam, while the piano and organ solos build to a great climax. Coupled with “Heart of Mine,” these tracks push the album quality up in the direction of Street Legal.

By the time we get “In the Summertime,” Dylan performs some of his first harmonica work in some time, perhaps hinting at something, perhaps at a shift away from his B.A.C.dom. “Trouble” is a little sloppy, yet rockin’. It’s kinda like some of those lesser-known AC/DC songs from the Bon Scott era. “Every Grain of Sand” makes Shot a wrap, and it starts off ugly, but finishes gorgeously, almost Neil Young-like.

grade: 6


28. Dylan
release date: 11/16/73
cover: something out of a seventh-grade Social Studies textbook chapter on evolution
sales note: gold
AllMusic stars: 1/5
lyric to love: “I stepped up to my rival, dagger in my hand/I seized him by the collar, boldly made him stand.” -- from "Lily of the West"

notes: “Lily of the West” leads off, and it’s a traditional folk song about love and betrayal. It has some adequate backup vocals. A rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” is second. It has some nice organ, guitar, harmonica, and as I write this, Mental Floss tweeted this. That factoid was noteworthy considering the timeliness of it, as well as the always-fleeting contrasts and comparisons of Dylan and Presley.

The third track is called “Sarah Jane,” and it may be the only Dylan original in this mix. It has a “Friend of the Devil”-like start to it, especially on the bass guitar. The backup vocals and lyrics, though, are repetitive and annoying. “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” is a Peter La Farge original made famous by Johnny Cash, and rightfully so: Cash’s version is 100 times better than Dylan’s. Being a moderate Cash fan, I’ve always loved that tune, and honestly, I never knew that Hayes was one of the Iwo Jima flag raisers from the famous photograph. Turns out there’s a ton of Hayes biographical history out there, and his demise appears to have been painful and sad.

Another cover follows, and this time it’s Dylan doing the Jerry Jeff Walker number “Mr. Bojangles.” Made famous by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, this number always reminds me of grade-school roller skating parties. “Mary Ann” follows it. It’s not bad, but not remarkable other than the fact that, lyrically, it sounds like “Brokedown Palace” at the onset.

Still more covers: “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell draws us near the end, and all I can say about this song is that I have always hated it and will hate it forever thanks to the Counting Crows ruining what might’ve been a decent cut at one point. After that it’s “A Fool Such As I,” which features Dylan doing his Nashville Skyline voice, which is thumbs up in my book. Track’s got a good rhythm, too. “Spanish is the Loving Tongue” wraps it up. It’s an interesting composition that features a tempo change halfway through. Really dig the high-pitch, flamenco-style guitar playing, however, I could to without the “la-la-la” backing vocal.

This album was incredibly difficult to get a hold of if you’re working on a tight budget, which I was. It was allegedly released by Columbia after BD switched labels, and is comprised of outtakes from the Self Portrait and New Morning sessions. In trying to obtain it, I was denied by inter-library loan in two states, as well as the Web Cat(alog). I finally wrangled up a copy of it on vinyl –- the only non-compilation Dylan album never released on compact disc. It has a real authentic feel to it but since they’re almost all covers, and historians have documented Dylan’s rigidity regarding what makes cuts post-recording sessions, it’s no wonder he (allegedly) didn’t want them to put it out. AllMusic’s assessment of it as “Dylan’s worst” is far from true.

grade: 6


27. Infidels
release date: 11/01/83
cover: looking ‘80s. Very ‘80s.
sales note: gold
AllMusic stars: 3/5
lyric to love: “You know, capitalism is above the law/It say, ‘It don’t count ‘less it sells.” –- from “Union Sundown”

notes: I really dig “Jokerman.” It opens the album with swift, rolling bass, and BD’s voice is beginning to take the shape of the sound it’s been frequently mocked for over the years. Also, it’s clear from the start that Knopfler’s back, and this, of course, is a good thing. A few tracks later, it’s clear that each song has a good sound to it, but there’s nothing necessarily special about any of them, like in “License to Kill,” where the nice, relaxed harmonica playing is about the only thing noteworthy.

These compositions, at times, seem to want to get into a reggae rhythm, not so much on “Man of Peace,” which has a rockin’ feel and interesting subject matter considering this religious stretch. “Union Sundown” doesn’t do it, either, but it bears mentioning that Dylan, in this cut, delivers a harsh return to social criticism. Where the sun splash, if you will, gets off the ground is in “I & I,” which is nothing shy of an actual reggae/rock hybrid. Some cool experimentation in that genre, which was exploding at the time. It would appear, however, that this was BD’s only exploration of it.

grade: 6.5


26. Slow Train Coming
release date: 08/20/79
cover: exactly what you’d expect
sales note: platinum
AllMusic stars: 3/5
lyric to love: “Might like to wear cotton/Might like to wear silk/Might like to drink whiskey/Might like to drink milk." -- "From Gotta Serve Somebody"

notes: The title track is one of the strongest on the album. It’s got heavy organs and quaint guitar work. “Precious Angel” is where the ear recognizes Mark Knopfler on the six-string, and at this point I should mention that I had no idea that Dylan had this born-again Christian phase. I mean, the “Serve Somebody” cut followed by an album called “Saved” always left me curious, but that’s where it ended.

“I Believe in You” is a mellow, feel-good tune with nothing too heavy or forced. “Slow Train” has a badass groovefunkery that suggests getting the album out of the mud, and a foreshadowing of steam building. Great crunch to it. “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” however, follows it up. Survey says: sleepy and uninventive. Unfortunately, “Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others)” is equally boring.

“When You Gonna Wake Up” offers some bounce via the organ, some snare to Dylan’s vocals, and a bit of punch with horns. Next is “Man Gave Name to All the Animals,” which I don’t hate. It’s not a bad cut, just odd in a fascinating way. “When He Returns” is nothing shy of Mariano Rivera: a lackluster closer at best. But, considering the newfound faith of BD, it’s not surprising. It’s too bad, though, that the album didn’t grow in the direction of “Slow Train” as was suspected.

grade: 6.5


And there you go. Stop back by tomorrow as we'll be getting into the meat an' potatoes of Dylan's discography. Well, maybe just the potatoes. Okay, they're not exactly potatoes, but they're still vegetables. C'mon. They're good for you.
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