52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK ELEVEN

Week 11: You Made Me Realize

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life? Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.


“Only Shallow”
My Bloody Valentine

Album: Loveless

Creation Records

1991

The opening track of My Bloody Valentine’s masterpiece, Loveless is an explosion of guitar wizardry. It’s a track that stops you cold in your feet. Its thunderous waves of sound swirl around your head for days. It’s an assault on your senses–a truly remarkable feast for the ears that sounds powerful through headphones and, when played live through monster amplifiers, produces sounds that tickle the nostrils.

Loveless’ opener, “Only Shallow” perches high above the rest on the short list of great album openers. Read as: while the phrase often comes off as cliche, this song literally blew my mind the first time I heard it, an appropriate response that I’m sure many others can relate to.

Shoegazers, distortion wizards, or heavy guitar rockers, pick your label of choice. In my opinion the music of My Bloody Valentine can be best described as the closest thing to flying through space.

To date, My Bloody Valentine only released two studio albums, with Loveless being its current swan song. But what a way to clear the stage.

Besides being the band’s masterpiece, Loveless is also one of the truly remarkable “studio” albums of all time. Its notoriety is unprecedented. Recorded over two long years, in 19 different recording studios, Loveless was the painstakingly-realized brain child of Valentine frontman, Kevin Shields. The album nearly bankrupted the bands label, Creation Records; was selfishly worked and reworked by Shields alone, with the other band members serving more as studio session musicians than as part of a creative congress; and was crafted in various mental states, often aided by a sampling of certain mind-altering substances, mainly ecstasy. While he might deny rumors of drug abuse during the long two-year stretch, it is widely rumored that Shields was rarely sober during its recording.

The album’s signature swirling guitars and waves of distortion required hours of over-dubbing and contemplation. Shields, and self-professed control freak played almost all instruments featured and recorded much of the album on little to no sleep.

The result is an album that was truly unprecedented back in 1991 and since its release will probably never be matched in terms of its shear brilliance and ambitions of creating an ethereal sound.

While often heralded as an essential album in rock and roll (Pitchfork Media’s pick it as the Best Album of the 1990s, and then bumped it down to a silver medal pedestal to make way for Radiohead’s Ok Computer), I was turned on to My Bloody Valentine late in the game. To put it bluntly: my university introduced me to Loveless.

I remember my father’s response when I told him that I would be filling some senior year elective credits with a music course covering the history of rock and roll during the 1970s and 1980s.

“So what are those tests gonna be like?” he would say. “An exam on how to play the air guitar?”

The truth is Andy Hollinden’s fascinating Z301 course opened my eyes to a plethora of new music, first and foremost among these musical revelations, a detailed and appreciated, albeit overdue, window into punk music.

Mr. Hollinden never played “Only Shallow” in class, in fact his lecture on the “90s Alternative” sub-genre breezed past My Bloody Valentine completely. Instead, “Only Shallow” remained a mysterious “extra track” on the courses listening syllabus (which was accessible online as either an MP3 stream or download. Tuition well-spent!). I happened upon the track late one night with my headphones snugly comforting my ears, the song’s true modus operandi for preferred listening experience.

Extreme moments of musical revelation are harder to come by in the digital age. We as listeners inhale copious amounts of music of all varieties and as consumers have access to everything at all times. As a result the discovery of a true gem, the kind of sound that makes you pause to speculate on what you just heard, ends up becoming the fix music aficionados pine for.

“Only Shallow” opens with four tight snare drum hits, immediately followed by an onslaught of menacing guitar riffs–calculated fuzz delivered with the kind of perfection seldom found in rock. What follows is a symphony of distortion that pierces the ear drums (My Bloody Valentine’s music beckons to be heard on speakers turned to eleven) followed by band member, Bilinda Butcher’s dreamlike, non-sensical lyrics cooling the raging fire.

It’s a hell of a way to open a record. A no-holds-barred exploration of what sounds can be unearthed with a guitar, a tremolo bar and a carefully executed recording process. It required an immediate repeat, followed by another, and eventually another.

The day after exposure, I bought Loveless and listened to the album’s song cycle as the ambient waves merged in and out of each other, never allowing for a break.

Loveless is an album that must be listened to in its entirety. The songs unfold as a kaleidoscope of sounds that push the limits on what a guitar is capable of. What’s most striking about the record is that despite the layered sound, the majority of Loveless was recorded using very basic equipment tuned and performed in a certain way, and rehearsed over and over again in order to secure that one-of-a-kind sound. The album was recorded pre-Pro Tools leaving much of the studio wizardry to basic techniques pushed to the edge. It’s as if Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” manifesto was digested alongside a couple doses of ecstasy and the music of Sonic Youth.

My Bloody Valentine disappeared completely from music after Loveless and its short-lived tour that followed its release. Shields lent his talents to a handful of side projects, most notably new songs for the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” and an experimental ambient/spoken-word record with Patti Smith.

Then came the brief reunion tour in 2008.

When it was announced that My Bloody Valentine would play a number of shows in the states, including one at Chicago’s Aragon ballroom, I was ecstatic. I had to get a ticket. I had to go. I had to see how this intriguing record might transfer to a live setting. Would it carry the same weight as the album I’ve played over and over again? Would “Only Shallow” pack the same punch as it does kicking off Loveless? Will the band even sound good 15 years later? My eager anticipation curbed any concerns. After all, it was My Bloody Valentine!

The show at the Aragon Ballroom, an admittedly lousy auditorium (if acoustics matter to you), remains the loudest concert I have ever attended. I scoffed when ear plugs were handed out at the entrance but was glad I took a pair once the band kicked off its set with the mesmerizing, “I Only Said.” That the band’s set was closed with its standard encore, “You Made You Realise” stretched to a twenty minute assault on the senses that literally made one concert goer standing nearby hold his ears, as if surrendering to the sonic chaos that filled the auditorium.

The show remains a highlight amongst many incredible concerts I have experienced in my life to date. The show was not exactly what I expected but it had enough surprises to keep it unique. Sure the beautiful melodies that make listening to Loveless a religious experience for anyone who finds spiritualism in rock and roll were replaced by ear-piercing noise, but the energy that exploded from the massive stacked speakers was unlike anything I had ever been a part of.

My Bloody Valentine took its name from an obscure 80s slasher film (the original was actually remade not too long ago) and it invokes an image of a metal band, the kind of music that takes its cues from skeletons and the color black. Summed up: before I actually heard “Only Shallow” I had no idea what to expect from the band’s oeuvre.

Loveless is an album that will be studied and listened to for years. Whether or not My Bloody Valentine comes through with new material remains to be seen and is irrelevant. Some bands get a pass for birthing a singular masterpiece and then clearing the stage. Mission of Burma is a definite candidate, as is The Stone Roses with My Bloody Valentine joining the ranks.

Like all the music covered in this humble project of mine, Loveless is a record that I cherish and return to constantly, though arguably one that comes with its own decorum, strict guidelines that must be obeyed.

1) It must be listened to on ear smothering headphones.
2) It must be listened to at night.
3) It must be listened to in its entirety.
4) An irresponsible volume level is understood.

52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK NINE

Week 9: Got Me This Song, Ha Ha Ha Ho
Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today



“Ana”
Pixies

Album: Bossanova

1990

4AD


She’s my fave

Undressing in the sun

Return to sea – bye

Forgetting everyone

Eleven high

Ride a wave

–”Ana” Pixies


With Bossanova the Pixies made what might be the best modern day surf record. Considering the band hails from Boston, Mass. this feat is all the more impressive.


My appreciation of the Pixies maturated in waves. When I was younger my father passed on to me a cassette rip of Doolittle that his friend had given him. Up until high school, this was my only window into the band. I didn’t appreciate everything on Doolittle at that young age. Lead singer Black Francis’ exercises in primal scream found on tracks like “Tame” or the frightening lyrics on “I Bleed” warranted pushing the fast-forward button on my Walkman.


As for the rest of Doolittle, however, I liked what I heard.


The Pixies are masters at producing seemingly cool sounds. “Monkey Gone To Heaven” was catchy enough to make me utilize the rewind button, “Silver” was eerie, in an intriguing way, and “Mr. Grieves” was just plain weird with Francis’ menacing laughs opening the fast-paced chaos of the song.


Doolittle was unlike anything I had ever heard at the time, and was almost too much to take in. The album is non-sensical at times–pairing familiar pastime musical genres–surf rock, bubble gum pop, traditional hymns–with bizarre, often terrifying surreal lyrics (read: “Got me a movie / I want you to know / Slicing up eyeballs” from the rip-roaring opener “Debaser,” which, as I would later discover in college, brilliantly pairs Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel with rock and roll).


Francis’ words aside, the adornment I have for the Pixies and Doolittle has always been attributed to guitarist Joey Santiago’s masterful blending of sound assaulting guitar shredding with Beach Boys era surf rock. While present on all of the band’s records, this style was best put to use on 1990’s Bossanova.


I uncovered the Pixies short, but sweet discography over a long stretch of time. For a long time Doolittle was all I knew (and maybe all I wanted to know). The release of David Fincher’s film Fight Club shed new light on the superb track, “Where Is My Mind,” which ultimately encouraged me to check out both song’s album of origin, 1988‘s Surfer Rosa and also The Pixies debut EP, 1987‘s Come on Pilgrim.


For one reason or another it took another four years, well-into my stint at University, for me to explore Pixies’ latter two efforts, Bossanova and 1991’s Trompe le Monde. Why, you ask? Not sure. Perhaps a band like this should be examined over time.


Attention was first turned to
Bossanova one summer towards the end of University after I raided my cousin’s iTunes music library, which happened to have a handful of random Pixies tunes, including “Ana.”


I remember vividly the moment I first heard the song when it came on while my stereo shuffled through my newly acquired library. I didn’t know at first that it was, in fact, Pixies and Black Francis. The song is a rarity in the band’s canon in that it is the epitome of sleepy beach sounds. If the Beach Boys had ever had a truly menacing trip, they might issued something like this.


Opening with a quick drum crash and build, Santiago’s melodic guitar harmonies come in to set the mood. Enter Francis‘ whispering lyrics as he runs through an acrostic poem about a dreamy surfer girl riding an eleven-foot high wave. Carry the groove on for over two minutes and that’s all she wrote.


The song is dark, fairly simple in its music and lyrics, but intoxicating.


It’s safe to say that before I even ventured through the rest of the tracks on Bossanova I was obsessed with “Ana.” It was like a fix for the addict in me. The song was on damn near every mix CD made during my Junior and Senior year of college, and more often than not when it was played, one singular listening was never enough.


Eventually I bought Bossanova and was blown away, yet again by its offerings. The album’s opener, “Celia Ann,” an obscure cover of a Finnish instrumental surf rock band (?!?!?!) called The Surftones, is perhaps Pixies best album opener, besting Doolittle’s “Debaser” and Surfer Rosa’s “Bone Machine,” respectively, in terms of setting the proper mood for the songs that follow. Bossanova is surf rock, stripped down, run through a wave of distortion and taken to some dark places. It’s surfer rock on peyote.


The album is twisted yet brilliant. Loud and jarring at times, then suddenly and without warning, cool and melodic. Its “girlfriend” series of songs–starting with “Cecilia Ann,” followed by the epic “Velouria,” then the concise, angry “Allison,” and finally ending with “Ana–remain four of the band’s greatest songs.


Deeper cuts like the album’s beautiful closer, “Havalina,” the haunting “Down to the Well” or the insanely-energized cluster fuck of sound that is “Rock Music,” don’t require much adornment but get some nonetheless.


Still if I had to pick a favorite on Bossanova and really, in Pixies’ oeuvre, it would have to be “Ana.” The song is simple but musically packs a lot. It’s a song to unwind to. A song best heard at night. It’s on a short list of my favorite driving songs, and has a truly mesmerizing guitar riff.


When listening to Pixies my ranking of which album is the best slides in direct proportion with Joey Santiago’s guitar meanderings. When I discovered Bossanova it was, for a time, number one. Eventually the ridiculous title undoubtedly returned to Doolittle. When I finally got around to uncovering Trompe le Monde, it was a surprising victor, thanks in large part to its standout masterpiece, “Motorway to Roswell,” a moving tale of an alien visitor’s capture and eventual tomb of experimentation told in a way that only the Pixies could.


Sure both Bossanova and Trompe le Monde showed signs of cracks in the band’s infrastructure, most notably the tenuous relationship between Francis and co-singer/songwriter and bass player, Kim Deal. Many are quick to tag the latter two records, primarily when referring to Monde, as essentially Black Francis AKA Frank Black solo albums. While Deal isn’t as present during these records, they’re very much Pixies efforts, especially when you consider Santiago as an essential part of the band’s unique sound.


In the pantheon of rock and roll the Pixies doesn’t demand much more praise than it already receives. The band influenced an entire genre of music. Its blending of music and surrealism is ingenious and Black Francis is a masterful wordsmith. His songs are dark, violent, funny, bizarre, lovely, and, as the cunning linguist recently said in an interview on NPR’s rock and roll radio show, Sound Opinions, he “likes words for word’s sake.”


“Ana” never ceases to blow my mind. It’s a song that I can always turn to if I want to cap a long night. If I smoked cigarettes I’m guessing it would be my favorite smoking song, especially on a beach with the sound of waves crashing in the background. I’m still waiting for someone to utilize the song in a film soundtrack since, like many Pixies tunes, it feels like a score to a “surf noir” film, if such a genre ever came to life. I can always fall back on a Pixies album to take me away from reality for a bit, even if it’s to a dark, dark place full of “Stormy Weather” or “ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey.”


Summed up: if, according to Pixies reasoning, “man is 5, the devil is 6, and God is 7” then Pixies is just shy of a perfect 10.


Top Albums of 2009

Animal Collective

Merriweather Post Pavilion

Domino Records

The true test of a great album is longevity–can the record be revisited a year after year and still pack the same punch that you get during its initial run? Merriweather Post Pavilion was released just six days into 2009 and has been the one album all year that has given listeners more than ample time to soak up what it has to offer. As Collective’s eighth studio album, the hype surrounding the album’s release was high. In the end the group delivered.

The music seems to be the culmination of the band’s musical progression, which in the past featured records with moments of brilliance, sandwiched between harder to handle filler. The past albums, while excellent, never sufficed as being singular masterpieces (the group’s 2004 album, Sung Tongs comes closest to perfection but suffers from carrying on for too long with not as much deviation).

Post Pavilion’s “My Girls” was the perfect first single and easily one of the top tracks of the decade. “Summertime Clothes” floats along on a sea of processed sounds but manages to be the album’s most catchy and fun tune. On “Daily Routine,” rising vocalist/multi instrumentalist in the group, Panda Bear, muses on the daily grind of being a father set to sprinkles of keyboard swirls and pounding drum and bass rhythms. The record’s closer, “Brother Sport” is the one arena rocker on the disc that could truly bring the house down at the real Merriweather Post Pavilion outdoor arena in Maryland. The dreamy “Bluish” may be the band’s most beautifully lush song to date, overtaking Sung Tongs’ spine chilling opener, “Leaf House.” Comparisons to The Beach Boys have been made when discussing Animal Collective and in particular Panda Bear’s solo endeavors, however, the band has gone beyond mere imitation.

Through its impressive career thus far (eight studio albums, four EPs in ten years!) the group has continued to create a sound that is entirely their own. With Merriweather Post Pavilion their importance in the lexicon of modern music is completely realized. Now we wait for what’s next.

St. Vincent

Actor

4AD Records

Rising from the cult shadow of Polyphonic Spree, a fairly kitchy group that never managed to find their relevance in my humble opinion, Annie Clark put out one hell of a twisted record. Actor is at times truly like the Disney movie soundtracks she quoted as being influential. At the other end of the spectrum the album has moments that are truly frightening, both lyrically and with her use of screeching distortion and eerie background vocal walls. The music is puzzling at time. The lyrics range from tender, “I lick the ice cubes from your empty glass” to the macabre, “We’re sleeping underneath the bed / To scare the monsters out / With our dear daddy’s Smith and Wesson / We’ve got to teach them all a lesson.” The album may be the prettiest dark album of the year or the darkest pretty album of the year. Clark leaves you to decide.

Songs like “Save Me From What I Want” open with a suspenseful crescendo of electro string notes which then burst into a steady and terribly catchy back beat set to Clark’s ethereal pipes. “The Neighbors” finishes her musings on “psychotropic Capricorns” with a mighty closing stanza that could serve as the album’s unofficial manifesto on who Clark is, where she fits in the arena of indie rock, and what this album is all about.

How can Monday be alright

Then on Tuesday lose my mind

Tomorrow’s some kind of stranger

Who I’m not supposed to see

Were it not for Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone and Animal Collectives Merriweather Post Pavilion, Actor would be the clear victor for album of the year. It’s a triumphant sophomore release from an artist to keep an eye on. When she sings on the harrowingly titled, “Laughing With A Mouth of Blood,” “And I can’t see the future / But I know it’s got big plans for me,” one can’t help but think she’s right.


Neko Case

Middle Cyclone

ANTI- Records

To say that Neko Case can do no wrong would be a bit unfair but throughout her solo career she continues to release masterful albums that showcase her lovely voice, which seems to only improve with age. Middle Cyclone, along with most of Case’s past efforts is the perfect album for driving on a warm summer’s night, windows open and the air tickling your dangling hands.

“This Tornado Loves You,” a song that truly swirls into motion like a cyclone, opens the album with a bang. The song showcases a funnier and wilder side to Case until the following stanza brings home the true Case: a poetic lyricist, in the tradition of Joni Mitchell and Carole King who wants nothing more than to write tender love songs.

“Cause I miss, I miss, I miss, I miss

I miss, I miss, I miss, I miss

How you’d sigh yourself to sleep

When I’d rake the springtime

Across your sheets”


“People Got A Lotta of Nerve,” is a masterpiece (joining the ranks of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood’s “Star Witness” as essential Case) and contains a moment that brings Case’s vocal range to the forefront and has the ability to induce a surge of the shivers with every revisit. Even on the record’s two covers, Case manages to add her own touches, with Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” taking an otherwise cautionary tale and fusing it together with bubblegum pop.

“Magpie to the Morning” is an oh-so-tender lullaby with Case’s vocals shining bright. “I’m An Animal” makes best use of the album’s various notable guest musicians, including The Band’s virtuosic organ player, Garth Hudson.

Middle Cyclone has been tagged by Case as an homage to nature and the singer’s fascination with its mysteries and beauty. With any other artist fifteen songs devoted to mother earth (including an unnecessary 31-minute track of birds chirping) might seem silly or predictable but it suits Case. This is Case’s best record to date. It’s funny, beautifully romantic, deeply saddening, but is all together candy to the ears.

Phoenix

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

V2 Records

The feeling you get after listening to a completely awe-inducing record from start to finish for the first time is what music enthusiasts yearn for. It’s what keeps us listening. It’s our drug of choice and is potent enough to make a junkie out of us all. French electronic pop band, Phoenix’s album Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a perfect drug.

The record is short at just over 35-minutes but still manages to assault the ears with a sound that borrows and references damn near every rock genre–pop, prog, synth, rave, Kraut techno, indie. The songs are often of the historical nature with the band alluding to classical music obscurities (“Lisztomania’s” Franz Liszt), but lyrics aside, the must is what counts here.

Make no mistake, this is a pop album, but it’s one with surprises. The back-to-back album changers, “Love Like a Sunset Parts 1 & 2” come at nearly the album’s halfway point and are remarkable exercises crescendo. While lacking lead singer Thomas Mars’ signature squeaks and high notes, the first part is a Kraut rock-inspired groove instrumental that is at times menacing and at times hypnotic as it trudges along. It’s the album’s most surprising moment and easily the one track that sets this album apart from being, “just another French pop effort.”

“Lasso” might be the catchiest pop song of the year, and “Girlfriend” is a tender lament to loosing someone close.

Arising from the same French town that gave us Air, Phoenix is officially on par with its country cousin. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a flawless record, albeit a concise one. It takes the best elements of the aforementioned electronic genres of yesteryear, and sheds a new light on the familiar.

This is an album that begs you to seek out Phoenix’s past efforts and one that has remained timely well into 2010.

The Best of the Rest

Maxwell

BLACKsummers’night

Columbia

The return of neo-soul? How about simply put: the hottest R&B album of the year. “Love You” weaps. “Pretty Wings” channels Prince in his prime. While “Phoenix Rise” brings back the long-honored tradition of featuring one solid synthesizer instrumental track, the “Contusion” to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life.

Sonic Youth

The Eternal

Matador Records

Fans who commented that 2006 Rather Ripped showed a mellower, more conventional side to Sonic Youth were shaken from their lament with The Eternal. Raw, visceral, pounding, loud, and most importantly, laden with the band’s signature guitar butchery, are just a few ways to describe Youth’s newest opus. At 56 Kim Gordon still knows how to bring the sexy with “Anti Orgasm’s” pulsating guitar waves and primordial vocal grunts. By the time you get to The Eternal’s nearly ten minute closer, “Massage the History” the record has taken on through Youth’s lush musical history and back to the present, showing us that these New Yorkers’ sound is eternal.

The Decemberists

The Hazards of Love

Capitol & Rough Trade Records

The return of the truly weird progressive rock record. While its previous album, The Crane Wife, told a similar story, its music tended to be more on the cute side than Love’s hair-raising tracks. With church organs, an accordion, strings swells, and probably a lute or two thrown into the fold, Love’s mythical love story sounds like a joke gone terribly wrong on paper, but is fully realized when listened to thanks to Colin Meloy’s lyrics and notable guest vocal appearances from Becky Stark and Shara Worden, the latter actually stealing the show on the folk rock album’s only arena rocker “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid.”

Moby

Wait For Me

Little Idiot/Mute

Surprised? Yeah, me too. After the breakout hit, Play, it seemed like Moby was on that oh too familiar trajectory into musical irrelevance. His 2008 club album, Last Night was a terrible let down, and past attempts to be the leader of a rock band rather than being the maestro at electronic symphonies that he truly is didn’t pay off. Sure Wait For Me follows the exact formula that Moby used on Play and its underrated follow-up, 18, but it still manages to sound fresh. Moby could be written up as ambient, since Wait For Me is a cool record to leave lingering in the background at the end of a long day, but really the best way to describe this album is: it’s Moby, but done well.

Bob Dylan Album #8, John Wesley Harding


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #8, John Wesley Harding
Columbia Records, 1967


After a life changing motorcycle accident and a series of underground recordings with The Band, Dylan went to work on his follow up to the rock world altering, Blonde On Blonde. Seven albums into what was already a prolific recording career, and 18 months since the bombshell release of Blonde, it’s safe to say expectations for Dylan were high. 

The motorcycle mishap and sudden rush of fame had left Dylan jaded with his notoriety. He was tired of his constant need to appease the masses–critics especially–and his “voice of the people” label was more of a burden than a luxury. He was tired of being in the spotlight. Tired of the constant nagging of fans, many of which would take pilgrimages to his home in upstate New York. He had a family to be with and the desire to be nothing more than a musician and songwriter.

Taking into account the work on The Basement Tapes (which it should be noted were recorded months prior to the work on John Wesley Harding but was not “officially” released until the mid 1970s) and his newfound outlook on life, it comes as no surprise that Harding is more stripped down and less stylistic than its überhit predecessor.

For fans still grinding their teeth over Dylan’s electric period, John Wesley Harding must have also been a pleasant return to the simpler days of Dylan, his guitar, and his poetry. While folkier on the surface, the music on this album is equally as complex as the electric predecessor. The energy, however, is restrained. 

The record kicks off with its title track, a story-ballad recalling the tale of real-life outlaw John Wesley Hardin. The instrumentation is sparse with a focus on Dylan’s harmonica while Dylan’s croons through the fairly straightforward lyrics. In many ways the song is a return to the Americana country folk of his early years, absent, however, of the blatant protest lyrics. 

“As I Went Out One Morning” features one of the most memorable, albeit simple bass lines in rock and roll–a rubber band twang courtesy of one Charlie McCoy, who previously lent his guitar talents to “Desolation Row.” The song itself follows suit by weaving a tale from history, possibly referencing Tom Paine, an 18th century American revolutionary. When Dylan/narrator opens by singing, “to breath the air around Tom Paine’s” the metaphor could be a slight reference to political protest however many of deemed this song (and subsequently this album) an allegory for Christianity. The story of a damsel in chains wanting to escape and the narrator seeing danger (possibly the temptation of sin) only to be saved by Paine, the song’s savior like figure. 

The trio of songs that follow–“I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”–are openly pious with references to biblical figures (Bishop St. Augustine who fell to an angry mob), temptations (Judas Priest) and possibly in “Watchtower,” the Tower of Babylon and the city’s demise. 

“Watchtower” is undoubtedly John Wesley Harding’s most significant song, one that has been immortalized through countless covers, and continues to leave interpreters puzzled to its meaning. Some believe it references modern day musicians struggling with fame (Dylan being the Joker character needing to break away from the spotlight), others believe it to be a precursor to Dylan’s eventual converting from Judaism to Christianity in the mid-70s, as seen in his born-again period. 

What’s most striking about the “Watchtower” of this album is how understated the song is compared to the roaring live anthem renditions that others, including Dylan, would flesh out further down the road. That the true songwriting origins of the song are still up for debate only adds to the song’s allure and easily warrant an entire column based on the song’s controversy. 

John Wesley Harding’s second half is truly Dylan’s first foray into country music. There is a notably voice change on tracks like “Drifter’s Escape” and “Dear Landlord,” and the steel guitar notes on the album’s closers, “Down Along the Cover” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” are in-the-moment reflections of the Nashville setting, a sound that would come full circle on the radical departure of Nashville Skyline.

Musically speaking, “The Wicked Messenger” is the album’s stand out track, a fiery blues number that is a lot more complex than it appears. From the piercing harmonica trills to the falling guitar licks and jagged rhythm, the song is the one moment on the album in which Dylan truly lets loose. The song snuck into Dylan’s live sets in recent years taking on a new, more timely fierce blues incarnation that perfectly compliments his touring band of recent. 

If “The Wicked Messenger” is John Wesley Harding’s understated masterpiece, the aforementioned “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” may the one track on the record that is most out of place. Dylan has said that the album’s two closers were the only full songs written and imagined in Nashville. While musically “Baby Tonight” exudes all the sounds of Dylan’s new stomping grounds, it’s blatantly romantic lyrics would have been more welcomed on say Another Side of Bob Dylan. Ultimately the song feels like an after thought tacked onto the album at last minute. The fact that UB40 would later release a cover single of the song doesn’t bode well for its standings in Dylan’s oeuvre. 

John Wesley Harding may be one of Dylan’s most underappreciated albums to date. The average Joe is familiar with the immortal “All Along the Watchtower,” however it’s safe to say most people, light “Greatest Hits” Dylan fans included, couldn’t tell you the album the song resides on, or any of the Harding’s other memorable moments. 

What’s striking is that besides the notoriety of the album’s surprise hit, this is an unexpected and ambitious offering from Dylan during a time when the artist could have very well attempted to blow listeners away, yet again. Unlike his contemporaries at the time who were experimenting with psychedelia (The Beatles unleashed Sgt. Peppers) and budding art rock (Pink Floyd released Piper At The Gates Of Dawn), Dylan once again chose to go back to his roots, while also exploring historical and non-secular motifs throughout his lyrics. It’s classic Dylan without the grandiosity of his prior ascent to mega-stardom. Simply put the album is a concise collection of stripped down country folk songs that paved the way for future musical transformations, some welcomed, others not so much.

9/10

Essential Tracks: “As I Went Out One Morning,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Drifter’s Escape,” “The Wicked Messenger”

Bob Dylan Album #7, Blonde on Blonde


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #7, Blonde on Blonde
Columbia Records, 1966

Blonde on Blonde has often been called the first truly great double LP. The album (and its subsequent tour) marked the arrival of Robbie Robertson and The Hawks, later to be appropriately named The Band, Dylan’s most fruitful backing band. It also was the culmination of an incredible progression of records in Dylan’s career before his infamous motorcycle accident triggered change, once again.

Still while it’s widely considered one of the greatest albums of all time it is hindered by quite possibly the most jaded and out of place opening tracks in rock and roll history.

“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” with its funeral procession horns, mournful piano rolls, silly background shrieks and tired “Stone You” chorus, might have worked well tacked on towards the end of Highway 61 Revisited or merely as a B-Side or single but on Blonde feels terribly misplaced. For an album showcasing some of Dylan’s finest moments of musical genius, it’s a shame that this remains one of his easiest to skip over.

Musically the song is straightforward blues, in the same vein as many of the other tracks on Blonde. Lyrically the song was controversial for its intentional and fairly playful embracement of drug use. Add to this background laughs and Dylan’s giggling interruptions, and “Rainy Day Women” is a bizarre departure from the tightly woven songs that follow.

“Pledging My Time” features a funkier side to Dylan’s ever-improving harmonica chops (he’s always been a terribly understated harp player) and is a more refined blues ode to drug use than its predecessor, detailing the hangover aftermath, meeting with the dealer and an eventual overdose.

“Visions of Johanna” belongs on the short list of Dylan’s greatest songs. It’s a forlorn tribute to true love and the pains of knowing that these feeling are no longer mutual. It’s difficult to say who or what the song is referencing, however, its surreal lyrics and mysterious duo of lovers–tempting Louise; absent Johanna–are Dylan at his poetic best. Despite all temptations and desires to rid the mind of a past love, “these visions of Johanna are now all that remain.”

Side one of Blonde on Blonde is closed out with “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” a fairly literal open letter to a former fling (once again, quite possibly addressed to Edie Sedgwick of “Like A Rolling Stone” fame). Lyrically the song doesn’t leave many mysteries to ponder but musically the song is one of few on Blonde recorded with The Band, the troupe that would help take Dylan in a different direction musically during the Basement Tape years. Robbie Robertson taking helm of lead guitar is one of the great musical collaborations and is rooted in this album.

The back-to-back duo of “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat” and “Just Like a Woman” are also allegedly aimed at Edie Sedgwick and on a grander scale, the materialistic and shallow New York City socialite scene. The former remains one of Dylan’s finest live tunes and continues in set rotations to this day. The latter’s infamous line, “You break just like a little girl,” set to lulling classical guitar picking and Dylan’s almost satirical crooning vocal style, is one hell of a sting from a former lover. When Dylan later sings, “Till she sees finally that she’s like all the rest” it can be assumed that “Just Like A Woman” also aims to debunk the notion that the elite is any different than the majority. Without her “her ribbons and her bows” the starlit at hand is a naïve child, alone in the world.

The up-tempo, organ drenched “Absolutely Sweet Marie” and the blues ramblings of “Obviously 5 Believers” are snippets of the type of musical arrangements that Dylan would later craft with The Band. Sandwiched between the aforementioned tracks is “4th Time Around,” the unofficial ode to The Beatles (inferred from its similarities to “Norwegian Wood”), which could just as easily be viewed as a satirical parody to Dylan’s Liverpool contemporaries. Genius.

Along with “Visions of Johanna,” “Sad Eyed Lady from the Lowlands” is Dylan at the pinnacle of his songwriting. Covering the entirety of side four upon its original LP release and clocking in at 11:20 this is one of Dylan’s epic compositions, a love song waltz for the ages. It is also the perfect closing track.

During this time few of Dylan’s songs were referencing his then wife Sara, the woman who would truly give Dylan a glimpse into heartbreak and who would ultimately trigger the recording of his other masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks. “Sad Eyed of the Lowlands” is far too surreal to be officially about Sara, however, Dylan hints later in the remorseful breakup song “Sara” that he was: Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel / Writin’ “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for you.

Whoever the song is intended for, the song’s beautiful imagery idolizes the subject at hand. It does so in an appropriately unsappy manner, paying homage to the complexities of his adoration for her. The details, it’s all about the details in this song. 

You don’t get much more romantic than: “your silhouette when the sunlight dims / Into your eyes where the moonlight swims” and “your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes.”

Blonde on Blonde is a near flawless album. If you take into account its length it’s hands down one of Dylan’s most ambitious LPs. Even the outtakes during its recording–most notably “I Wanna Be Your Lover”–remain highlights in his massive bootleg catalogue.

As a single “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” is not a horrible song but as the opener to one of Dylan’s finest albums it falls short of properly setting the stage. Controversy sells but it doesn’t always warrant praise. The whimsical side of Dylan has always been present throughout his records and Blonde is hardly the exception, however, there’s a fine line between whimsical (see “All I Really Want To Do”) and stoner stupid.

In a perfect world “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” which opens side three and would later be used to open Dylan’s legendary tour with The Band (see Before the Flood), would have trumped “Rainy Day Women” as the album’s true opener. Still it’s unfair to fault Dylan for something as simple as a mediocre opening track since the collection of songs featured on Blonde on Blonde are among the best in rock and roll history. There is a short, short list of ambitious double albums that truly work and this towers above the rest.

The album completed one of finest recording runs, ever (unprecedented at the time, save The Beatles), and its musical diversity sums up perfectly the breadth of Dylan’s career thus far. Its Nashville roots (the album was recorded in the musically rich city) would enable Dylan to later branch out to the country realm (see John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline). It gave listeners the first glimpse at his musical possibilities with The Band. To bring it all back home, Blonde on Blonde, along with Highway 61 Revisited, The Basement Tapes, and Blood on the Tracks, is a must own album for anyone even remotely interested in Dylan or rock and roll in general.

9.7/10

Essential Tracks: “Visions of Johanna,” “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later),” “Just Like a Woman,” “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”

Bob Dylan Album #6, Highway 61 Revisited


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #6, Highway 61 Revisited
Columbia Records, 1965

And with the single snare drum stroke, Bob Dylan finished his metamorphosis and released one of two flawless masterpieces. He also managed to change the face of rock and roll. 

Highway 61 Revisited is another example of how history and reputation can get in the way of just how brilliant a song or album really is. It’s easy to take a song like “Like a Rolling Stone” for granted, knowing now how important it is viewed in the history of contemporary music. It’s one of those songs and moments in times that I truly envy those buying the record upon its release, dropping the needle, and getting blown away by the eruption of organ and drums for the first time. 

Enough has been said about “Like a Rolling Stone” to warrant further dissection. It should be noted however, that while this remains one of those immortal anthems that most people know the lyrics to by heart, few take the time to realize how scathing a song it really is. To this end it’s also brilliant. Dylan unleashes his usual piercing lyrics set this time to uplifting, guitar and organ heavy rock and roll. Gone are the straightforward, spoon-fed lyrics of his folk messiah days. Enter Dylan, the rock and roll messiah. 

While Dylan belts out the song as if trying to bring down the house, the story being told is very much a nasty commentary on the privileged, the spoiled, and the ignorant, basically yet another wagging of the finger at society. From riches to rags, top of the world to scum of the earth, Dylan projects. It’s the kind of anger the punks would later embrace, the kind of anger to open your eyes.

Written during or right after Dylan’s soirée with Andy Warhol’s muse/socialite Edie Sedgwick, the song has also been viewed as an unrelenting jab at his former fling. That this troubled starlit would eventually succumb to drug addiction and later die an intoxicated death only adds to the song’s darker side.

Opening an album with a song as audacious “Like a Rolling Stone” sets the bar high for what follows. With Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan delivers.

“Tombstone Blues” is a hodgepodge of nonsensical images set to the kind of hard-hitting blues Dylan had been working towards. Written from a surrealist’s point of view, Dylan takes a simple blues formula, deconstructs it, adds a dose of wild west iconography and creates something completely his own, a world “where Ma Raney and Beethoven once unwrapped their bed roll” and “the sun is not yellow it’s chicken.”

“Ballad of a Thin Man” has garnered a wide-range of interpretations, each holding merit. In the broadest sense the song is yet another chapter in Dylan’s anti-establishment catalogue. It may be the finest scolding of elitist know-it-alls of the world. Possibly aimed at a journalist, easily suited towards crooked politicians, the song alludes to the capitalist machine Dylan lamented about previously on “It’s Alright Ma.” Others view the song as a comment on a closeted homosexual coming to grips with his own identity and society’s intolerance–“one eyed midget,” “sword swallower,” and “give me some milk” all back this analysis. Whatever one infers, the song remains one of his most puzzling.

On the album’s title track, a rip-roaring piece of Americana blues-rock, Dylan makes quite possibly the best use of the slide, penny whistle, while at the same time name dropping biblical passages, alluding to incest (“But the second mother was with the seventh son”), and a final verse that is a frighteningly similar story to the former Bush administration’s “selling of the war,” not to mention the financial gamble of certain timely banks.

“Just Like Tomb Thumb’s Blues” is a return to the more whimsical side of Dylan. Featuring a funky electric Pianet, a bit more of the honky-tonk last found on “Black Crow Blues,” and Dylan’s first Southwest themed offerings.

At over 11 minutes, “Desolation Row” tends to stand out like a sore thumb in Dylan’s repertoire. It’s also the perfect closer to a flawless record, matching the intensity of “Like a Rolling Stone” with some of the finest lyrical storytelling he’s ever crafted.

For starters the acoustic guitar work on “Desolation Row” is a welcomed departure from the record’s previous electric compositions.  And musically the classical guitar picking chops featured on the song (played by country-blues guitarist Charlie McCoy) are breathtaking, in many ways setting the stage for the more refined songs on Blonde on Blonde and the country exercises soon to come on John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline.

Lyrically “Desolation Row” is a pastiche of little stories and character studies that is at times surreal but also is on point when referencing a number of Dylan’s literary idols (“Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot Fighting in the captain’s tower”).  Of all of Dylan’s songs this remains one of the few truly puzzling pieces, making it all the more intriguing to close your eyes and get whisked away to.

Highway 61 Revisited is one of the great records in the pantheon of rock and roll. The hype surrounding songs like “Like a Rolling Stone” is warranted and this album’s notoriety is safe. Like all truly complete LPs, it should be listened to in one sitting either through a vintage pair of ear muff size headphones or blaring from the speakers of a fast car driving through the back roads of America, this album’s proper setting.

10/10

Essential Tracks: “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Tombstone Blues,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Desolation Row” 

Bob Dylan Album #5, Bringing It All Back Home


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #5, Bringing It All Back Home
Columbia Records, 1965

Then came the alienation. A kind of reverse protest from fans when Dylan “went electric.” To be fair to his dissidents one couldn’t of asked for a more elegant transition from one style to another than with Bringing It All Back Home.

With two radically different sides–the first electric, the latter a return to the acoustic/harmonica formula that so many adored–the though the songs were stark reminders of the end of an era–Dylan proudly proposed to listeners, and now for something completely different. A brilliantly conceived concept that was years ahead of those living in Dylan’s then tired past. Still for those naysayers who cringed at the opening electric blues lick of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Dylan went ahead and turned in three of his finest acoustic tracks to date on side two of Bringing It All Back Home’s.

Knowing now the direction that Dylan was going with his music, Bringing It All Back Home’s is a perfect transitional album and a worthy precursor to the bombshell of Highway 61 Revisited. Even the record’s cover, the first truly iconic image in Dylan’s career, alludes to tossing out the old, bringing in the new. Dylan is framed within a distorted lens surrounded by remnants of his older self–record sleeves from influences like Robert Johnson, a magazine cover featuring a new President, Lyndon Johnson, and even a copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan hiding in the corner.

Upon its release, however, the twangy guitar riff that erupts into “Subterranean Homesick Blues” must have been somewhat of a shock to the anxious listener placing the needle on the groove of record number five.

It could be wishful thinking to link the free form rants on “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with that of early rap music, however, it’s safe to say that both R.E.M (with “End of the World”) and Billy Joel (with “We Didn’t Start the Fire”) owe a great deal to this firecracker of an opener.

“Look out kid / You gonna get hit,” is a punch-to-face commencement of Dylan’s radical new direction. For the first time in his recording career Dylan’s songs went from musically simple to fast, crowded, and loud with the addition of an electric rock band. Still beneath the garage rock is still Dylan, the poet.

“She Belongs to Me,” which rightfully follows “Subterranean,” couldn’t be more different from its brethren on side one but is key for showing the more tender side of Dylan’s instrumentation choices. It’s been said that the song is a loving ode to his contemporary (and sometime musical partner) Joan Baez, and what a loving homage it is. When Dylan sings in his harmonious voice (an early sign of where his vocals were headed on the crooning of Nashville Skyline) “She can take the dark out of the nighttime
 / And paint the daytime black” it’s a startling reminder of what a stunning wordsmith he is how even an electric guitar can radiate beauty.

Of course Dylan carries on with “Maggie’s Farm,” a protest anthem set to electric blues guitars and swinging cymbal crashes. Much has been written about the lyrics to this song, which remains another of Dylan’s immortals. His repetition of certain verses throughout is in synch with traditional blues structures and it is widely agreed that Maggie’s farm is a reference to Dylan’s old persona as the protest poster child. In the opening stanza Dylan sings: “I got a head full of ideas
 / That are drivin’ me insane / 
It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor” possibly referencing a fire inside of him to stir things up and tear down the house with his music but a public facade holding him back. The song could be viewed as his official departure from the folk/protest scene.

“Love Minus Zero/No Limit” floats along on guitar harmonics, Dylan’s whimsical vocals and lyrics like, “she’s true, like ice, like fire,” and is on the short list of Dylan’s most ga-ga romantic songs.

The latter side of Bringing It All Back Home opens with “Mr. Tambourine Man,” a decent song later made immortal (like many of his songs) by Roger McGuinn and The Byrds. The surreal song references Dylan’s experimentation with drugs (though he often says he never wrote “drug songs”) and the escapism that comes with it. “With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves, / 
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.” Since the song is more recognized from its covers–both The Byrds and Sonny and Cher–the original is easy to overlook but Dylan is at his most abstract in its lyrics.

The real gem on side two is “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” a magnum opus of poetry and a true sign of the times. The song features some of Dylan’s most puzzling and philosophical verses of any of his songs, with fifteen verses dissecting society’s ills in America and, in reference to the now infamous line “That he not busy being born / 
Is busy dying,” Dylan’s views on Capitalism’s hold over our lives.

An entire column could be written about this song’s breadth of lyrical brilliance and its links to future dissident genres–punk for example, or how about socially conscious rap–and each verse could be studied and pondered over. And people do.

Throughout the song Dylan wags his finger at the pitfalls of materialism (“toy guns that spark
/ To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark”), media manipulation (“Advertising signs that con you
/ Into thinking you’re the one”), the immoral marriage of church and state (“principles baptized
/ To strict party platform ties
/ Social clubs in drag disguise”) and the money line on greed (“money doesn’t talk, it swears”). Dylan later closes:

And if my thought-dreams could be seen

They’d probably put my head in a guillotine

But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only

There is some hope buried between the fleshed out maladies. His notion that life needs to be lived, despite the temptation to get lost in suction of the political and social machine that is capitalism., offers a bit of solace in an otherwise desolate song.

In a 2004 interview with 60 Minutes’ Ed Bradley, Dylan commented on the magic that occurred while writing “It’s Alright Ma” and how that magic is gone. It’s one of those songs that’s so hypnotic, so well-written it amazes even Dylan himself, who, after 500+ songs in the bank, still marvels at it.  

It’s crucial to note the song order on Bringing It All Back Home. Besides the obvious separation between side one and side two, Dylan carefully follows an A-B-A-B formula on the electric half. The surreal lyrics and barn dance guitar work of “Subterranean” are followed by the gentler jazz guitar of “She Belongs to Me,” while the traditional blues found on “Maggie’s Farm” are followed with “Love Minus Zero/No Limit’s” soft guitar and tender lyrics. As if Dylan intends to blow your mind then take things down a notch. It’s one of Dylan’s more angry records disguised as an exercise in rock and roll. “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is the nail in the coffin, a harsh blow to the psyche that is then followed with another warm sounding ballad, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

While on it’s surface the song could be perceived as another breakup song, referencing the end of a passionless love affair, however, the song, like all of its predecessors on the album, is about moving on. It’s as big as F-U to the critics and disgruntled fans of the electric change as “Maggie’s Farm:”

“The vagabond who’s rapping at your door

Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.

Strike another match, go start anew”

 Carefully positioned as the albums closer it really heralds the message of ending one era and starting something new, truly bringing it all back home.

9.5/10

Essential Songs: “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Maggie’s Farm,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”