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.


Greg D Metz said...

Not surprisingly you have now covered the portion of Dylan's studio catalog with which I have no experience. This is a good thing I guess. Looking forward to the rest.

Cecil said...

Yeah, kinda figured that most of his '80s output and the Christian albums would make it in here.