Wednesday, August 29, 2007

"Heroes" (1977)

With this, his second release of 1977, it became evident how good Berlin and Brian Eno were turning out to be for David Bowie. Arguably the weakest of the Germany-based trilogy, with a meandering, often unfocused second side of experimental soundscapes, and a not wholly stellar first side of essays at the pop song, somehow none of those points matter. Operating on pure instinct, the whole here simply transcends the sum of its parts and it's hard to be much more articulate about it than that. "Beauty and the Beast" is a perfectly overwrought confection that sets the tone for the first side; ditto "V-2 Schneider" for the second; and whoever thought of hauling in Robert Fripp (drunk, according to some reports) for guitar honors on the title song – itself a perfectly overwrought confection – deserves a medal. As does Fripp. As do Bowie and Eno. So medals all around – always appropriate for "heroes." Don't miss the prescience of the album closer, "The Secret Life of Arabia."

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Labour of Lust (1979)

"American Squirm" Nick Lowe's one and only U.S. chart hit comes from this, but nothing here, not even that hit "Cruel to Be Kind," is really up to any of the coulda woulda shoulda gems on his audacious debut, at least not in terms of technicolor pop chutzpah. Still, I think I might like this album more. The country influences that led him in part to temporarily become Johnny Cash's stepson-in-law are more pronounced, the songs generally quirkier, more subtle, and dare I say sensitive. "Big Kick, Plain Scrap" is a showcase for drummer Terry Williams, "Switchboard Susan" all groaner puns, "You Make Me" tender as a bruise. Personnel on most of the songs here amounts to Rockpile, the band Lowe formed with Dave Edmunds. "American Squirm" features the Attractions and Declan MacManus himself singing background. A nice set.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Jesus of Cool (1978)

In the U.S., where sensibilities are infinitely more tender, this was released with a different cover and slightly altered track listing under the name Pure Pop for Now People, probably the more apt title though not nearly as, you know, cool. (On the other hand, Nick Lowe is hardly the kind of martyr that could ever be tagged as a "Jesus." But whatever. It was just about being funny and basically it still is.) What you have here is a collection of pure pop songs bristling with hooks (remember hooks?), energy, and confidence. Known at the time more as a producer-in-demand of new wave standard-bearers – Elvis Costello, Pretenders, Damned, so on and so forth – Nick Lowe already had a well-deserved reputation as a student of the pop districts of roots rock 'n' roll and that's where he dwells here. From the grotesqueries of "Marie Provost" (who dies alone with her lapdog in her lonely apartment, you can guess the rest) to the mocking mythologizing of "They Called It Rock" and "Music for Money," this collection of songs remains as fresh and rocks as neatly as the day it was released. If you've never heard it, it could well become your latest infatuation.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Rato Records Blog

Visit Rato Records Blog
Rato has been operating this blog for something like two years. It's a good one. Lately he's been offering period wallpaper images, mixed in with his numerous homemade anthologies (adorned with Vargas-type illustrations of diaphanous-clad Hefner babes) and classic albums of the late '60s and early '70s. Nice and often surprising offerings. Full albums available indefinitely, but get them while you can. Recurring trouble with trolls has unfortunately thinned out the archives considerably.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

John Lee Hooker

008 John Lee Hooker
There has always been something slightly suspect about John Lee Hooker – he was no virtuoso of any kind, his voice was only deep and not particularly evocative, he didn't exactly carry tunes, and his approach leaned more toward the seductive than the assaultive. It works and it works well, but it's a little sleazy. And with a creep factor rarely absent, the whole thing seems just a few gestures shy of entirely consensual. "Teachin' the Blues" may be the place to start. That's where he explains his lone man approach, from stomping foot to plucking bass string, and along the way makes a show of his lack of sincerity. "Now you're cookin'," he says. "With gas." Yeah, right.

John Lee Hooker, "Back Biters & Syndicators" (1968) (2:52)
John Lee Hooker, "Big Legs Tight Skirt" (1965) For R. Crumb. (2:20)
John Lee Hooker, "Boogie Chillen'" (1948) Ground zero, more or less. (3:10)
John Lee Hooker, "Boogie With the Hook" (1972) "Do the boogie, babe, with your hot pants on." (6:29)
John Lee Hooker, "Bottle Up & Go" (1966) (2:26)
John Lee Hooker, "Burning Hell" (1971) (3:58)
John Lee Hooker, "Crawlin' King Snake" (1959) Another signature song. (3:02)
John Lee Hooker, "Frisco Blues" (1963) Prescience. Left his heart in San Francisco, approximately four years ahead of time. (2:45)

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

"Love and Theft" (2001)

"Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum" Just to make sure there weren't any questions about the last one, there's this one (and then the one after that). Bob Dylan may be 60+ (and currently looking down the barrel of 70) but he's enjoying arguably the peak of an illustrious and storied career. How is he doing this? The brilliant assembly of side players doesn't hurt. Ditto the immaculate production. But, fact is, the loopy, loony sensibility that's always been at the heart of the best Dylan is simply at the heart of this too. It's often funny. It's always deeply rooted in American experience, down deep in the subconscious where you can only feel it, and feel how giant and imposing it is indeed. Sometimes it's so beautiful it makes you want to cry – not for the sentiments, which again like the best of his stuff were mostly cauterized away before anything was ever recorded, but just for being so damn well done. P.S. Don't make too much of the release date, September 11, 2001. Tuesdays and Septembers are known quantities in the industry in the first place. And then the signifying album in that category anyway is more likely Slayer's God Hates Us All. Don't you think? I mean, what's love got to do with it, right? Nothing and we all know that. In this album, by contrast, it's at least half of everything, hence the title.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Time Out of Mind (1997)

"Highlands" For those following along (many of us not exactly, admittedly), this one didn't entirely come out of nowhere. There is the '60s catalog, obviously enough. Bits and pieces of the meditative squawk here can be heard as early as Infidels. On Oh Mercy Bob Dylan and Daniel Lanois first collaborated and began to experiment with the soundscapes that here open into majestic vistas of rugged planets. And on the two albums immediately before this – World Gone Wrong and Good As I Been to You – Dylan reaffirmed his most profound connections, with the folk music of Harry Smith's "old, weird America." A brush with death no doubt contributes to the overarching sound of eternity put on display in every song here – the crucible, like. Whatever it was, Bob Dylan came roaring back to form at every level: musical, visionary, unblinking, and overflowing with love. The above-mentioned "Highlands" plods along for 16:31 with perfect doomy aplomb. At some point, it never misses a beat and becomes an hysterical comedy scene. That's the level he's operating on here. "Desolation Row" levels, we're talking. And beyond.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Infidels (1983)

Aiyiyi. What to make of this. The Jewish Minnesotan Bob Dylan, in his early 40s, embraces Christianity, along with a penchant for fundamentalist religious language: Satan, martyrs, shame, doom, the names of the books of the Old Testament Bible, and such-like frequent his lyrical drone all too depressingly often. With this album the story at the time was that he was stepping away from that, and there's proof enough in the grooves – "Sweetheart Like You" is practically bawdy, "Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight" could not possibly be addressed to the Messiah, and "Union Sundown" is a lament for the labor movement that is remarkably, affectingly bitter. But it's clumy and self-righteous too. Painful political allegories populate this landscape like cactus in the desert and the cant of a religious zealot remains unmistakable. In spite of a good band – a great band, in fact: Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Mick Taylor, Mark Knopfler, and Alan Clark, with production by Knopfler – the fundamentalist impulse often goes front and center. Or maybe that's just the sound of an insecure man having a mid-life crisis? Happens even to the best of us. Case in point. So sure, of course, you have to forgive the guy such lapses. How could you not? It's just, that language and its many vile biases are still hard to hear, now that we know his one-time pals have not been joking about their apocalypse and whatnot. "Oh, man has invented his doom First step was touching the moon." Again, good grief.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Slow Train Coming (1979)

As a secular humanist witnessing the coming to power of Republicans in the U.S., having made their deal with fundamentalist religious forces, and with arguably the first shot across the bow of a modern religious war when fundamentalist Shias in Iran took American diplomats hostage, I found this album almost unbearably discouraging at the time of its release. Not to mention dumb as hell. Bob Dylan's greatest expressions of faith, hope, and courage lay behind and, even more so, ahead of him. This was a time of weakness; he lost his way for a period that lasted nearly a decade or more. Defenders of this album point to the clean production work and Mark Knopfler's fine contributions. Or, of course, they talk about Dylan's newfound "faith" approvingly (not so many of them left, really). This is certainly listenable enough, but the best I think can be said for it is that it's better than the two that followed: Saved and Shot of Love, respectively. Good grief.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Before the Flood (1974)

I think of this as coming after the flood and so remembering its title often induces cognitive dissonance. More pity me. OK, it's basically a decent collection of Dylan songs, performed live by the man with The Band, but it doesn't seem to me to live up to much of its advance billing. As example, see what Robert Christgau wrote about it at the time. Needless to say, perhaps, YMMV.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Telhados do Mundo

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Yet another hard disk adequacy warning. Whoever blackbird is, he/she knows and has access to a tremendous amount of '50s/'60s jazz, psychedelic rock, Brazilian pop, blues, and more. The stuff seems mostly to come in batches by artist. Currently there are handfuls of albums by Wayne Shorter, Roland Kirk, Young-Holt Unlimited, B.B. King, and more. That will change soon – it always does. Full albums available indefinitely. Archives worth browsing.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

John Wesley Harding (1968)

"Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" To most of those in the '60s "on the ground" (how we love to use that phrase now), this is the first that was heard from Bob Dylan after Blonde on Blonde and the LMA (legendary motorcycle accident). In fairness, it's not easy to hear The Basement Tapes as any kind of clarifying transition between the two. Something clearly broke in between – or maybe I should be more delicate and say something zigged when we all thought it would zag. And I'm not talking about the LMA, or maybe I am. This is practically funereal by comparison to either Blonde or Basement, focused but so hushed you almost feel like you can't turn it up without defeating the purpose. (Compare Nebraska.) It took Jimi Hendrix to really tease out the power Dylan is playing with here with his cover of "All Along the Watchtower" (one of the very few Dylan covers that is actually a match for the Bob Dylan version). This one's full of weak points, absurd turns of phrase, meandering tuneless exercises, and all too easy targets, viz., "Dear Landlord." But in its best moments – aforementioned "Watchtower," above-mentioned "Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," and "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" – it ranks with his best.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Basement Tapes (1967)

In which we plunge into the deepest swamps of rock mythology, with Minnesotan shot out of a cannon Bob Dylan holing up post-legendary motorcycle accident with his Canadian buddies, affectedly calling themselves The Band (which I wish so much was "the Bob Dylan Band," but I can't explain why), in a pink upstate New York house, Woodstock County (figuratively if not literally, I'm too lazy at the moment to look it up), its basement – natch – set up as recording studio/performance space. Went to work. Produced all this and more. Tracks from which were subsequently covered and bootlegged and covered again and bootlegged again, until finally it occurred to someone at record company Columbia to, um, like, release it. Chief mythologist Greil Marcus provided liner notes for the inside gate sleeve. We were all suitably stunned, those of us without benefit of intimacy with the bootlegs, not least because Blood on the Tracks was also released in approximately the same timeframe. Things like that seem to happen frequently in the career of Bob Dylan. This double set is raw, woodsheddy, hammered together and sturdy, rollicking in a strangely mellow way, and often very funny. The whole thing is basically good. Not kidding. Every song.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Blonde on Blonde (1966)

"Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" Shortly after release of this a motorcycle accident demonstrated that Bob Dylan, contrary to all evidence indicating otherwise (then and now, come to think of it), was actually a frail mortal like the rest of us. I consider this uneven and a little rickety, mostly I think because my distaste for "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" casts a long shadow over all that follows. Get over it, JPK. A new lushness of emotional depth/access is brought off with a stunning blend of country and blues feel. You can play this one over and over, days on end. The second side of the original package – "I Want You," "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again," "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," and "Just Like a Woman" – is one of the great rock sides. So is the above-mentioned "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," even if it's a bit of a cheat at 11:19. But that's not the point. Why do you have to make it so complicated, JPK? This is one of the greats.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Bringing It All Back Home (1965)

Any year that can produce two albums from one artist (never mind his contemporaries for the moment) in which this is the weaker just has to be operating on the kind of higher plane in which we wish we could spend every waking moment of our lives. Ah, nostalgia. While I appreciate the raw bleat of the first side – "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Maggie's Farm," "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream," all that – it's the second side that still gives me stone chills. As with, oh say, "Blowin' in the Wind," the best version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" is by Bob Dylan. Accept no substitutes. "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," in which even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked, may go over the top at 7:32, but no one can deny it's riveting. Enjoy the cream. That's what it's there for. P.S. Album cover worth studying.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

El Diablo Tun Tun

Visit El Diablo Tun Tun
This blog warrants another hard disk adequacy warning. Specializing in old-time and/or international music in a candystore of varieties – blues, jazz, cajun, New Orleans, Hawaiian, Cuban, all flavors of Texas, gospel, bluegrass, western swing, good old rock 'n' roll, and plenty more where that came from keep it coming please – it just doesn't take long to feel the effect in gigabytes. And here's a point for the record companies: the site makes single (sometimes two) discs available from box sets, meaning if you like it you might as well go buy it. That's called promotion – and I have two of those boxes now on order. Full albums available indefinitely. Archives worth browsing.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)

"A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" The first album was more of a stutter start – maybe a case of stage fright? Christ, he was barely 22. Here he's 23, and it's "acoustic Bob Dylan" in all the glory of his glorious glories. It's the one of his to have pre-1965 if you can only have one. So much here is so familiar that you may be surprised by how fresh these versions are: "Blowin' in the Wind," "Girl from the North Country," "Masters of War," the above-mentioned "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," "Oxford Town," "Talking World War III Blues," "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance." It's Bob Dylan the boy naïf, the caustic wistful joking voice of a generation, all goofy sprightly and expressive in his singing style and strum-a-strum strum all day long on the guitar. The lava flows of words only a gathering stream at this point, but the current unmistakably strong. Quite strong.