New Single: Springsteen’s “Letter To You,” The 1st Track From New LP & A Look At His 1st Singles ’80-’20

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As I’ve often documented in these pages, before I heard the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls the only time I turned on the radio was to hear a Royals’ baseball game. Then I heard “Miss You,” and later “Shattered” and then “Beast of Burden” and suddenly I wanted a stereo for Christmas. I consider that moment when I first heard the Stones on the car radio, riding with my mother no less, as my rock and roll awakening. It was late 1978 when all this happened and by then rock and roll was a good 20 years along. When you step into the middle of something, it’s really hard to catch up. 

Most of the rock and roll acts I dig (by 1978) were deep into their careers. There had been a lot of great music released in the previous 10 years, let alone the previous 20 years. I was newly into my teens and on a weekly allowance of $10 it’s really hard to purchase the entire back catalogs of rock bands/artists (especially with the constant refrain of, “You didn’t clean your room son, no allowance this week…”). In high school, my fledgling vinyl collection – and I was all vinyl, don’t give me those 8-tracks or cassettes – consisted of the albums that were being released at the time, the current stuff. My first Who album was Face Dances. My first Zeppelin album was In Through the Out Door. And while many of you rock aficionados may hold your nose for those records, they will always have a place in my heart (B&V’s True Confessions: The Dirty Dozen – 12 Albums That Only I Love… Time to Re-Evaluate?). 

While Springsteen’s landmark album Darkness On The Edge Of Town also came out in 1978, some how I missed it. I lived in Kansas City and it was never a huge Springsteen town. I did hear “Prove It All Night” and “Badlands” on the radio but I’m not sure I even knew they were both by Springsteen. There was just so much to absorb it was hard to keep track. All of that changed in late 1980 with the release of The River. I remember the first single “Hungry Heart” caught my attention. It was pure ear candy. Bruce had originally written it for the Ramones but his manager told him he best keep that one. I didn’t rush out and buy The River however because its was a double-album. Twice the music but alas, at twice the price. That was a major financial commitment on my allowance. I hadn’t even bought The Wall yet due to similar financial constraints and it had been out a year by then… Plus I didn’t know much about Springsteen… was he cool? did he rock? You had to be sure you didn’t buy any lame artists and I was always cautious. I had seen too many of my friends buy Kiss albums and I considered them suspect at the time. I feared history would not treat them well… naturally I was wrong. I was 13, what did I know?

Luckily, the local rock radio station started playing more deep cuts from the album. After hearing the title track, “Point Blank” and “Out In the Street” I knew Springsteen delivered the goods. He was a special kind of artist. I plunked down the hard earned dough and bought it. I nervously dropped the needle on side 1 of the first album not knowing what to expect. I can still remember the rush I felt when “The Ties That Bind” burst out of the speakers. It hit me in my lower-brain stem and I knew I wanted more rock and roll… nay, I knew I needed more rock and roll. It was that moment I knew I was bonded with this artist. Sadly, he came to KC in February ’80 and played Kemper Arena. They say more people slept out in line for tickets than had seen him on the Darkness tour but how would they measure that?The Kansas City Star described it as “the concert of the year” and again… it was only February. My dear friend Brewster had also secretly gotten into Springsteen and assuming I wouldn’t like him, after buying two tickets… took someone else. After all these years… yes, I have forgiven him… I haven’t forgotten… some wounds don’t heal completely. 

Even though I was a newly minted Springsteen fan, I didn’t go crashing through his back catalog. I’d heard “Born To Run,” “Jungleland,” and “Rosalita” – those were about the only older tracks they played in KC – but I didn’t even know what albums to look for. I thought “Blinded By The Light” was a Manfred Mann tune. About a year after I bought The River a friend of mine and I met two older, senior girls in our Study Hall. Somehow these fetching young women ended up sitting with us and on the surface, seemed to enjoy our geeky-ness. They invited my friend and I to meet them at that year’s Senior Skip Day party. It was where all the seniors blew off school and someone had a keg of beer, insanity ensued. We weren’t seniors but oh yes, we were in. I remember drinking a beer and talking to one of these beautiful girls and it was going great, at least I think it was… when I heard over the speakers propped up on the back deck…”The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves…” I was mesmerized…”Is this Springsteen?” Nothing happened with the girls and it may have been my utter distraction from hearing the masterpiece Born To Run for the first time. I was gobsmacked. I bought that record the next day. Who thought Springsteen could “cock block” me?

I’ve been a big Springsteen fan ever since. I’ve followed him from big, anthemic albums with the E-Street band to acoustic, introspective solo records to detours like Western Stars (LP Review: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Western Stars’ – Born To Bacharach?). I have live albums and official live bootlegs. I’ve seen him a number of times in concert. I’ve even gotten the Rock Chick slightly into him…she’ll never be counted amongst the converted but she does have a ‘Bruce’ playlist she likes to crank up. I was thrilled to hear during this awful year, that Springsteen had a brand new album coming out. God, how we need new music! I was even more thrilled to hear the E Street Band would be on the album. I figured the new LP, Letter To You, would probably come out around Christmas. Thankfully I was wrong. I was pumped to see that the first single dropped last Friday with the album coming October 23rd.

I have to admit to you, and this will be no surprise, I really like “Letter To You.” The E Street Band is such a sympathetic medium for Springsteen to bring his songs to life. The song finds Springsteen looking back and writing a letter to his first band, the Castiles. Living in isolation, who doesn’t welcome a letter or an email from an old friend. After all these years, the sound of Bruce and the E Street band still gives me chills. It’s like an unexpected call from someone you’d like hear from but haven’t. It’s an upbeat track but I might call it mid tempo. Springsteen’s vocal is particularly inspired. The entire album was recorded live in the studio over five days, supposedly without any overdubs. This is their classic sound, dripping with earnestness and strength. When the band kicks in during the early part of the song, goose bumps, baby. It only lacks a sax solo from the Big Man’s nephew, Jake Clemons. The song is catchy and it sticks with me. It’s not a big anthemic thing like “Born To Run” or “Dancing In the Dark” but it will seep into your brain. 

I reflected on what this might mean for the new album. As I did I found my mind wandering back to 1980 and “Hungry Heart.” Eventually I found myself mulling over every Springsteen first single since The River in an effort to predict what the new LP might be like. I thought I’d share my thoughts on this music travelogue through those singles and my experiences with them… what it means for the new album – probably nothing but it was a fun thing to keep me occupied in mind-numbing times…I skipped the Pete Seeger thing because I despise Pete Seeger and struggle to even acknowledge that Bruce recorded that thing. 

  • The River, “Hungry Heart” – One of Bruce’s signature songs. It was very pop oriented but it heralded one of his greatest albums ever. It’s still a fun sing-a-long at concerts if you’re into that sort of thing. 
  • Nebraska, “Atlantic City” – I was home for Christmas break during my very awful freshman year of college. I was walking past the record store when I spotted a display with Nebraska albums stacked up to the ceiling. I left my then girlfriend standing there and went lunging into the store. I didn’t even know Springsteen had a new album out. I bought it and went home immediately. I was stunned at the difference between the sound of this dour album compared to The River. It’s one of the most grim listens ever (B&V’s 10 Favorite Grim And Sad Albums). Even the video for “Atlantic City,” which does not feature Bruce is grainy and black and white. No sunshine to be found here… However, the single, “Atlantic City” will always be one of my favorite Bruce tracks. The Band did a nice little cover of it as well. 
  • Born In The U.S.A., “Dancing In the Dark” – The song that made Springsteen a superstar. I can still remember how starved, after the grim Nebraska, we all were for a new rock album from Bruce. We were all so thrilled that we might get to see an actual concert vs listening to bootlegs. I remember partying all night and sitting  up at dawn just to see the video. 
  • Tunnel of Love, “Brilliant Disguise” – By this time I was living in Ft Smith, Arkansas. I can remember the first time I heard this track, driving into the office on a cold, winter morning. I knew he’d gone back to the more introspective Nebraska style. This album featured more instrumentation and remains a favorite of mine. One of his greatest songs. 
  • Human Touch/Lucky Town, “Human Touch”/”Better Days” – Two Springsteen albums released on the same day. We’d been waiting for what seemed like forever. He’d disbanded the E Street Band and we didn’t know what to expect. “Human Touch,” at six and a half minutes is a big epic track. It’s much maligned but I still like it. “Better Days” is grittier, more immediate. It remains a favorite from a rather discounted period of Bruce’s career. 
  • The Ghost of Tom Joad, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” – Another from Springsteen’s grim solo projects. This is my least favorite Springsteen album but the title track remains one of my favorites of his. Rage Against the Machine have redone this track as well. It’s a perfect song even today. 
  • The Rising, “The Rising” – The title track from the 911-centric album that saw the return of the E Street Band. I got tears in my eyes the first time I heard this epic title track. It ranks up there with “This Land Is Your Land” as a populist anthem. This song and the album it came from are American treasures. 
  • Devils And Dust, “Devils And Dust” – I’ve noticed that Springsteen likes to release the title track as the first single of most of his albums. Good marketing if you think about it. This album is ripped from the headlines. It sounds like an update from the front lines. One of Springsteen’s best solo tracks and albums. 
  • Magic, “Radio Nowhere” – One of the more rocking first singles of Springsteen’s career. I really liked Magic but I think many critics were divided on it. It’s a great, late-period E Street album. And who could argue with the theme on this song of radio slowly dying (Playlist: Memories of and A Requiem For Rock And Roll Radio). 
  • Working On A Dream, “Working On A Dream” – Another title track! This song has an irresistible melody. It’s as catchy as the old Motown singles. While the album itself was uneven, this single ranks amongst Bruce’s best. 
  • Wrecking Ball, “We Take Care of Our Own” – Another great rocking song with a spectacular message. Springsteen is the quintessential American artist. I remember he played this song on the Grammys. That night I had an old friend who I’ll call, “The Bat Cat” who had dropped by with his family. His daughter wanted to watch the Grammys. When Springsteen came on, Bat Cat paused and said, “Hey, I like that, it sounds like Darkness. Indeed it does. Classic Springsteen. 
  • High Hopes, “High Hopes” – The only cover song Springsteen has released as a single. He’d done it once before on an EP but I like this version best. High Hopes was a reimagining of songs Springsteen had previously written for earlier projects. I think critics discounted it for that reason but there are great songs on this album and I include the title track in that number. 
  • Western Stars, “Hello Sunshine” – The rare ballad as a first single. It was a true harbinger of what the album was like. This beautiful song quickly became one of my all time favorites (LP Review: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Western Stars’ – Born To Bacharach?). 

What does this tell us about the new Bruce album? “Letter To You” is another title track as first single for Bruce, but other than that, we’ll just have to anxiously await late October. 

Be safe out there! 

 

Review: Smashing Pumpkins Release 2 New Songs, “Cyr,” “The Colour of Love”

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I was recently writing about a difficult period in my life, 1994-1995 and some of the great music that got me through those rough times (Tom Petty: New Vault Song, “There Goes Angela” From The Upcoming ‘Wildflowers’ Box). When I think about that rough patch in my life one of the bands that I think about, who got me through it, is the Smashing Pumpkins. In 1994 I had one of those milestone birthdays that make you start to ponder your life and the direction you’re heading. My good friend Doug flew in for that birthday celebration at a live-music bar down in Westport, the Hurricane. It was indeed epic but those records are sealed. As a gift Doug brought me 2 CDs. While Doug grew up in KC like me, he was living in Chicago at the time and had adopted that city so thoroughly that we referred to him as “Mr. Chicago.” Naturally this led him to gift me two CDs from Chicago-based groups. The first was from singer/songwriter Ralph Covert who eventually started recording music for children. The second CD was from this group I hadn’t really heard of named the Smashing Pumpkins.

The album he gifted me on that difficult birthday was the Pumpkins’ masterpiece second album Siamese Dream which had come out less than a year prior. I have to admit that Doug, despite not owning a stereo, has turned me onto some great music over the years. I’m trying to talk Doug into buying a turntable so we can disguise our beer drinking jaunts as trips to the used record store and yet he resists the idea, but I’m getting off topic here. The Smashing Pumpkins hadn’t really broken through on KC radio yet in 1994. Their debut Gish was so broadly ignored here that I have to admit I thought Siamese Dream was their debut (at least I did in ’94). It was years before I picked up or even listened to Gish, which I love. In 1994 I had vaguely heard of the Smashing Pumpkins. I was aware they had a video involving an ice cream truck (“Today”) but that was about all I knew.

Well it’s no surprise but Siamese Dream knocked me out. Not only the big songs like “Today,” “Cherub Rock” and “Rocket” drew me in, but some of the deeper album tracks grabbed me too – “Mayonnaise,” “Space Boy,” and “Hummer.” Needless to say, I was on the bandwagon despite still being blissfully unaware of Gish. A year and half later, the Pumpkins – Billy Corgan,  vocals/guitar/bass/keyboards/mastermind; James Iha, guitar; D’Arcy (Wretzky), bass; and Jimmy Chamberlin, drums – exploded when they released the 1995 guitar magnum opus Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. After that album everyone was on the bandwagon. Tracks like “Zero” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” were everywhere. That was the first tour I saw the Pumpkins and I was extremely impressed. Some friends and I were on the floor – there were no chairs – and we got up close to the band and they were on fire. It was scorched earth with guitars. 

Alas, toward the end of that tour the wheels came off. Jimmy Chamberlin’s heroin addiction got the best of him and he and their touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin both O.D.ed. Melvoin died and Chamberlin was subsequently fired from the band. And I thought I was having a rough time? On their next LP, 1998’s Adore, the band took a stylistic left turn and adopted a more electronica based sound. I always thought it was symbolic of how pissed Corgan was at Jimmy (who he described as his “musical soulmate,” the two had roomed together on the road in the early days) that they’d choose a musical direction that didn’t really require a drummer. A lot of people were put off by the new Pumpkins’ sound on Adore. My friend’s wife, when we saw them on that tour, turned to me and said “What is this shit?” How Greil Marcus of her! I dug that album and that tour. I was especially impressed with James Iha at that show, he was coaxing wild, bizarre notes out of his guitar. He reminded me of the Edge from U2.

Unfortunately, Chamberlin’s departure from the band began what has continued to be an almost constant churn in the line-up of the band. Chamberlin came back for Machina and a more rocking sound but then D’Arcy left. The band finally broke up in 2000 only to reform in 2007 with only Corgan and Chamberlin as members. Before I knew what was happening Chamberlin was out. The band was down to just Corgan and a guitarist named Jeff Schroeder for a while. They actually brought in Tommy Lee of Motley Crue fame to drum on 2014’s Monuments To An Elegy, an album I really dug. So it was a big deal when it was announced that both Chamberlin and to my delight Iha were returning to the fold in 2018 for Shiny And Oh So Bright. I liked that record – LP Review: Smashing Pumpkins, Iha’s Surprisingly Tentative Return ‘Shiny And Oh So Bright’ – although I have to admit, it was not the guitar assault I was hoping Iha’s return would have suggested. The line up at the time was Corgan, Iha, Chamberlin and guitarist Jeff Schroeder so you do the math – 3 guitarists and 1 drummer – I just thought it would rock harder. 

I’ve been waiting with great anticipation for what I assume will be called  “Shiny And Oh So Bright Vol 2.” I was delighted last week when I saw that the Pumpkins had released two new songs, the mysteriously titled “Cyr” and “The Colour Of Your Love.” And I have to say, like the last album, only Billy Corgan can have a band with three guitarists and record two songs that are keyboard based. “Cyr” is all keyboards and what sounds like drum machines. It sounds like what U2 has been grasping for lately, a current sounding song. I played it for the Rock Chick trying to find a modern equivalent in terms of sound – I was thinking the Killers, Imagine Dragons or someone like that. When she heard “Cyr” she said, “That sounds like hopped-up Coldplay.” Withering criticism at least in this house. I despise Coldplay. To me, it sounds like a song that would have fit nicely on Adore. Yes, I’d like more guitar but this song has such a great beat (something I never thought I’d write) and melody it drills into my brain. It’s very poppy. “Cyr” signals to me that Corgan is going to do whatever the Hell he wants to do. 

The better of the two tracks to me, is the second track, “The Colour Of Your Love.” On this track I can at least discern Chamberlin’s drumming. Again it’s not the guitar-assault you’d expect or hope for when Iha and Corgan are on guitar… It’s got a lot of keyboards. It’s of the same smooth, polished music that Corgan has been doing since Oceania. It doesn’t seem to matter whose in the band. There isn’t even a guitar solo on this track which is disappointing. It is a hooky song and again an infectious melody. These aren’t bad songs they’re just not what I expect when I think of the classic Smashing Pumpkins. 

For any of you hoping for “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” these tracks aren’t for you. If “Daphne Descends” from Adore is your thing, then you’ll really dig these songs. Again, they’re not bad, they just aren’t songs I’d recommend to anybody who isn’t a die-hard Pumpkins fan like me. One has to wonder how involved Iha really is with this new music or really with the last album if I’m being honest. I’m starting to wonder if they’re just paying him to be in the publicity photos. While I am still greatly looking forward to whatever these guys do next, I’m the last person to predict what the next album will sound like…I guess it’ll be whatever the Hell Billy Corgan wants to do. 

Be safe out there, Cheers! 

 

LP Review: Pretenders ‘Hate For Sale’ – A Late Career Classic With Attitude!

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“He’s got a curly tongue and a curly tail, but mostly he’s got hate for sale” – Pretenders, “Hate For Sale”

Could any of us expected, this far down the line, this gift of a fabulous Pretenders’ album? I, for one, needed this record!

I was an early adopter on the Pretenders. Their seminal debut album Pretenders came out when I was in high school and I bought it immediately. I think of the album cover as iconic. I have always considered the Pretenders to be a punk band, but since their first record didn’t come out until 1979 in the UK and 1980 in the US (and I’ll admit I thought it was 1978) perhaps they were post-punk or even New Wave or Next Wave? Labels be damned in this case. Ohioan guitarist/singer/songwriter Chrissie Hynde was living in London in the 70s immersed in the punk scene when she formed the original Pretenders’ with James Honeyman-Scott (guitar), Pete Farndon (bass) and her once and future drummer Martin Chambers (if I can sneak in a T.H. White reference).

The songs on that first album still blow me away. The Kinks’ cover, “Stop Your Sobbing” was the first single, but that isn’t the track that sticks out in my mind – although it is great. The opening salvo “Precious” was a call to arms. When she sang in “Tattooed Love Boys” the lyric “I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for…” I was smitten. “Kid” and “Mystery Achievement” remain favorites today. Although I’m going to admit – with a touch of embarrassment – the song that drew me in was the big hit single, “Brass In Pocket,” an admittedly “pop” tune.

There’s a reason that song hooked me. I was a sophomore in high school and in my Study Hall (aka “free period”) there was a girl who was a senior. She was tall with long legs and dirty blonde hair that always seemed to be in a fashionable mess. As a lowly sophomore I never had the temerity to even look her in the eye let alone speak to her, she was a vaunted senior, high above me socially – such is the fear and inexperience of youth. There were two sides of Study Hall, the silent side for well, studying, and then the social side. I know this can’t be true but I have this memory that they played music on the social side of Study Hall. While it may be apocryphal, I have this memory of her walking toward me in an angora sweater, to her gaggle of friends – who I viewed with a mix of awe and fear – while that song played in the background…its like the whole world slowed down… My memory is like a scene from Fast Times At Ridgemont High. There’s just something about a strong woman like Chrissie Hynde singing and that senior who was also pretty damn strong that stuck in my psyche. Paging Dr. Freud.

The Pretenders’ success continued on their strong sophomore effort, creatively named Pretenders II, in 1981. “Message Of Love” and “The Adultress” continued the riff rocking theme established on the first album. Especially commendable is the guitar playing of James Honeyman-Scott. Then tragedy struck. The band fired Pete Farndon because of his drug addiction…namely heroin. I read somewhere that Honeyman-Scott was the one who insisted on Farndon’s dismissal but who really knows outside the band? Ironically, two days after sacking Farndon, Honeyman-Scott died from what Wikipedia calls “cocaine-intolerance,” which sounds like an O.D. Less than a year later Farndon drowned in his own bathtub. That’s Allman Brothers level tragedy. And then, as the saying goes, there were two – Chrissie Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers.

Somehow, Hynde and Chambers were able to shoulder on. It took three years, but the follow up, 1984’s Learning To Crawl with Robbie McIntosh manning the guitar and Malcolm Foster on bass may have been their biggest album. It had the huge songs “Back On the Chain Gang,” and “Middle of the Road.” The latter song finds Chrissie confessing, “I’m going home, I’m tired as Hell, I’m not the cat I used to be, I’ve gotta kid I’m thirty-three.” I have to admit, after that stunning success, I sort of lost track of the Pretenders. I was always aware they were out there. I’d hear the occasional hit on the radio like “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” but I wasn’t paying the same level of attention to them. I also knew that there had been numerous line-up changes, including Chambers coming and going. When they were inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame – Chambers thanked the “drummers who’d been keeping my seat warm” and Chrissie quickly jumped to the mic and said, “I had to remain true to the music.”

It would be easy to describe Hate For Sale as the Pretender’s best album since Learning to Crawl or quite possibly since Pretenders II. Its really that good – in this case, believe the hype. However, that does discount some of the fine music the Pretenders have put out since the early, salad days. Their last album, 2016’s Alone produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach felt more like a Chrissie Hynde solo project. The record companies like to press artists into “staying with the brand” and force people like Billy Corgan or Chrissie Hynde into putting out solo albums under the moniker of the old band. However, if you go back to 2006’s Breaking Up the Concrete you’ll discover a great Pretenders’ record. Despite Chambers being replaced by famous session drummer Jim Keltner, Concrete felt more like a “band” record.

That band feel carries the day on Hate For Sale. It’s really nice to see Martin Chambers back on the drum kit for the first time in ages – although he does play drums on tour, its nice to see him back in the studio with Hynde. I think they have a chemistry that can’t be duplicated. Joining Hynde and Chambers are James Walbourne on guitar, Nick Wilkinson on bass with Carwyn Ellis on keyboards. Hynde’s wit and wisdom are fully present in these lyrics. What I really like is that she cowrote all the songs with Walbourne which again, gives this more of a full band feel. The rockers are energetic and punchy. The ballads are beautiful and wistful. This is truly a complete Pretenders’ record without a dud on it.

The title track opens the record. They actually have a false start that they kept on the song. It sounds like a band jamming, losing the thread but being tight enough to pull it back together. I thought it was kinda cool. “Hate For Sale” is punky, energetic with a great riff. It’s the perfect kick off to this album… and even has some nice harmonica. “Turf Accountant Daddy” is another strong rocker with a big riff and galloping gait. “I Didn’t Know When To Stop,” with crashing drums and guitars (and again, harmonica) has a great guitar solo and simply rocks. I also liked the atmospheric “Junkie Walk,” with its fuzzed out guitars and heavy riff. I actually added that one to our Heroin playlist, B&V Playlist: Chasing the Dragon – Songs About Heroin.

“The Buzz” was the first single from the album and it’s a great pop-rock tune. Hynde provides us with her typical great vocal on the track. The woman is a legend. It’s their best single in a long, long while. “Lightning Man” is a great reggae tune. I saw the Pretenders open for the Stones in Chicago years ago and Hynde said on stage, “The Stones have brought us a lot of great things but one of the best was spreading reggae to a bigger audience.” The Pretenders certainly deliver on this track – I put it on my Rockers Playing Reggae list, B&V Playlist: Rockers Playing Reggae: It’s Not Just For Vacation Any More. “Didn’t Want to Be This Lonely” may be my favorite track here. It just sticks in my head. It’s got a great rockabilly feel and Bo Diddley beat. I find myself mumbling “I didn’t want to be this lonely but losing you was a relief…” Ah, mixed emotions. “Maybe Love Is In NYC” is another bang up track. With all of these great songs, this record should be as big as Learning to Crawl. 

There are the classic, Chrissie Hynde ballads, sung with full emotion. “You Can’t Hurt A Fool” has another great Hynde vocal. “Crying In Public” is a heart wrenching track with Hynde singing over piano. Ballads aren’t for everybody, but I dig these two. The Pretenders do everything they do well perfectly on this album.

Hate For Sale is the kind of late-career gem that B&V was created to extoll. It’s just so great to hear a classic band pull it together and release something this vital and alive this far into their career. I’d love to see some of this played live, but alas, pandemic. I urge every rock fan out there – or Pretenders’ fans out there – to check out this rewarding album.

Be Safe!

 

 

 

Review: Bob Dylan, ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’ – The Spell-Binding 1st LP of All Originals In Eight Years

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“I fuss with my hair and I fight blood feuds…” – Bob Dylan summing up my life on “I Contain Multitudes”

What a week it’s been for music fans or perhaps more accurately for classic rock music fans. Not only did Neil Young pull Homegrown his “lost album” from 1975 out of the vaults (Review: Neil Young’s ‘Homegrown’ – The Lost Masterpiece, In The Vaults 45 Years), but Bob Dylan also released his first album of all originals in eight years. I read somewhere that Dylan and Young are number 1 & 2 on the UK charts right now. Those Brits have always had better taste in rock n roll than anybody else, cheers mates! I locked myself down in the B&V labs and have been blissed out on this great music for about a week now… it might be time to take a shower… maybe eat something.

I’m on record as being a huge Dylan fan. One of my first posts was about Dylan’s Bootleg Series, Dylan’s Bootleg Series – A User’s Guide. It’s hard to believe there’s been three or four new Bootleg releases since I wrote that guide. Looking back on my Dylan fandom, it is perhaps odd that I became so enamored with his work. I always had a sense that he was “important.” And truth be told, I’ve always been intensely focused on lyrics. But when I had my rock and roll awakening, it was the late 70s. I actually discovered Dylan when he was in his Christian period. I thought “Blowing In The Wind” was a Peter, Paul and Mary song. Those were the “Puff The Magic Dragon” group for fucks sake. The first Dylan album I ever purchased was Slow Train Coming. I had no idea it was religious music. I just thought “Gotta Serve Somebody” was a great track with a lot of wisdom. Because in the end, everybody does have to serve somebody…”and it may be the Devil, and it may be the Lord…” although in my case it’s probably the Rock Chick. I’m not a religious person. At best I could be described as a hippy pagan dancing naked in deserted fields in the moonlight. But that album just clicked for me… well, maybe not “Man Gave Names to All the Animals.” How that led me to a lifelong love of Dylan is a mystery.

From Slow Train Coming (the title track is just as relevant today if you push out the religious implications), once I got to college and became “serious,” I started working backward through Dylan’s catalog. I bought the iconic Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits the single album compilation… as if his “hits” could be contained on one thin volume. After working backwards through his catalog I eventually sold that album because I didn’t realize “Positively 4th Street” wasn’t on Blonde On Blonde. Youth, sigh. It’s probably good that I was so backward focused in my collecting because the late 80’s and early 90s were perhaps Dylan’s weakest period. I was just getting into him and pretty much everything after Empire Burlesque was… terrible. I bought and actually still have a fondness for Knocked Out Loaded, his album released to try and cash in on his tour with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers backing him up. “You Wanna Ramble” is a great bluesy cover. I bought and promptly sold Down In the Groove. Other than “Silvio” cowritten by Robert Hunter and played with the Grateful Dead, that album was aaaaawful. Other than Oh Mercy there weren’t many albums that caught my interest in those dark Dylan days. And yet despite weathering a Christian period and Dylan’s creative nadir, I remained a devoted fan. I even told someone in the late 80s that only Dylan could save music. That might’ve been the vodka talking.

At that point I just figured Dylan’s career was over. He was one of those catalog guys, like the Beatles, whose old LPs would have to suffice. I completely lost track of Dylan. But then an interesting thing happened. Dylan recorded two albums of traditional folk tunes, Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong. When things get weird for Bob he always goes back to his folky roots. Jimi Hendrix was the same way but with the blues. Folk was Dylan’s foundation. That reconnection with his roots sparked something in Dylan. His next LP was the Daniel Lanois produced Time Out of Mind. After almost 10 years in the wilderness Dylan pulls off the biggest comeback in rock n roll history (with the exception of perhaps the King, Review: Elvis Presley – ‘The Complete ’68 Comeback Special: 50th Anniversary Edition’ – The Return Of The King). “Love Sick” from that album ended up on a Victoria Secrets’ ad which caused a lot of heartburn for some people. I just thought he was lucky to be there…

Dylan put out a string of phenomenal records in what can only be described as a late career renaissance. Time Out of Mind (97), Love & Theft (01), and Modern Times (06) were the best trio of albums he’d released since the late 60s. Together Through Life incorporated Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo’s accordion and Heartbreaker Mike Campbell’s guitar to wonderful effect. I particularly like the bluesy “My Wife’s Hometown.” In 2012 Dylan released Tempest another triumph but it was rumored to be his last LP. ‘The Tempest’ was Shakespeare’s last play. People have been reading stuff into Dylan’s stuff since The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. 

After Tempest, Dylan took another left turn in a career of left turns. He released Shadows In the Night, a collection of pre-rock tracks that are all associated with Frank Sinatra. I bought and really liked that album. It was like listening to a bar band at 2 a.m. in a seedy joint down by the border in Laredo or maybe El Paso. This wasn’t a Rod Stewart Great American Songbook exercise. Sinatra always had a boozy, late night, heartbreak group of tracks and Dylan fully inhabited those songs. But then he put out a second Sinatra-themed LP, Fallen Angel. And then another – a three disc album – Triplicate. I have to admit, I got off the train after the first one. I dig it, but not literally four discs worth.

I had begun to wonder if we’d ever get any original stuff from Dylan. Van Morrison has had quite a run doing mostly blues and jazz covers over the last few years. He finally put out an LP of originals last year to great success, LP Review: Van Morrison’s New, All Originals, ‘Three Chords & The Truth’ – A Laid Back Groove. A month or so ago, Dylan dropped a surprise almost 17-minute masterpiece, “Murder Most Foul” (Bob Dylan: The Dark, Mesmerizing 17- Minute New Single, “Murder Most Foul” My antennae immediately shot up. I quickly found out a new album was coming!

Rough And Rowdy Ways dropped last Friday and I’m simply blown away by Dylan’s continued late career genius. One can only compare him to perhaps Bowie for great music this far down the line. I read Jagger say in an interview once that the Stones’ latter work will never “acquire the patina” of their older stuff… and sadly he’s right. Although I think music fans will be talking about this album in 50 years. Dylan is backed by his road band and I was thrilled to see that guitarist Charlie Sexton has returned… he’s perhaps Dylan’s most sympathetic guitarist since Robbie Robertson. With Sexton in the band: drummer Matt Chamberlin, longtime bassist Tony Garnier, multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, and Bob Britt on guitar. Listed under the “additional musicians” list were among others, Heartbreaker keyboardist Benmont Tench, jazz pianist Alan Pasqua and Fiona Apple (!) who must be playing piano as we don’t hear her voice on the LP… seems like a squandered opportunity. I loved her duet with Johnny Cash on the American Recordings box.

The album’s first track “I Contain Multitudes” is a hushed affair. I get the vibe of a village elder sitting down to drop wisdom on me. The title is drawn from a Walt Whitman poem and it has the feeling of literary genius to it. The song, like the album is overflowing with cultural references. I found the track hypnotic… “I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones and those British bad boys the Rolling Stones.” He goes on in the same stanza to name-drop William Blake. Every song on this album is like an onion… so many layers.

The soul of this album – and I don’t mean the musical genre soul, I mean the soul – are two epic tracks. “Murder Most Foul” has been reviewed here. I won’t go back into that but it’s just grown and grown in my estimation. It’s one of the most important tracks Dylan has ever done and that says a lot. The other “epic” track is “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” a nine and half minute deep rumination on death. Key West seems to be a metaphor for the end of the road. You can’t go any farther. “Key West is fine and fair,
If you lost your mind, you will find it there, Key West is on the horizon line.” As we all get older, death appears on the horizon line… As a side note, I’ve been to Key West and uh, I’ve lost my mind there, but never really found it. Both tracks, “Murder Most Foul” and “Key West” are pretty amazing statements by Dylan.

If those two tracks are the “soul” of the album, the beating heart of this thing are a trio of blues based tracks that I loved immediately. “False Prophet” is a blues stomper that has been stuck in my head since I heard it. Dylan was so different from most folk artists in the 60s who were all doing “We Shall Overcome.” Dylan was doing acoustic country blues… on his first album he did “In My Time of Dying.” “False Prophet” is one of his best blues tunes to date. “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” is a great tribute to the blues artist. It’s the most rocking moment on the album. “I can’t play the record ‘cuz my needle got stuck,” is maybe my favorite lyric here… “Crossing the Rubicon” is a wonderful snarling blues number and statement of purpose.

The other tracks here are all knockouts. “My Own Version of You” is a ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ treatise on love. He references gangster characters of Brando and Pacino (The Godfather and Scarface) all the way to Freud and Karl Marx. It’s a great lilting track. “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You” is a lovely track that may have been influenced by eight years of singing Sinatra covers. “Black Rider” is a hidden little gem here…

This is another in a string of great original LPs from Dylan. At this stage of the game this all feels like hard won wisdom gained and now shared. The album, like the first single “Murder Most Foul,” is brimming with cultural references. It’s got elements that feel like commentary on the American situation and experience. Mortality is all over this record. “Black Rider” sounds like an argument with Death itself. This is a great, great album at a time when the world needed a great Bob Dylan album.

Perhaps, back in the 80s, sitting a bar called Auntie Mae’s, I was right when I said only Dylan can save music… “Black rider, black rider, all dressed in black, I’m walkin’ away, try and make me look back.” It’s a dark ride. Take care of each other out there…

Review: Neil Young’s ‘Homegrown’ – The Lost Masterpiece, In The Vaults 45 Years

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It was a little too personal…it scared me.” – Neil Young on not releasing Homegrown

While I’m like most of you out there – a huge music fan – there is something about the inner music geek in me that gets really pumped for the release of a “lost album.” By lost album I mean a record that an artist has recorded and for whatever reason decided to keep in the vault instead of release to the public. There’s a lot of reasons for shelving an album that’s already “in the can,” as the saying goes. Usually it’s the record company… the dreaded suits. It almost always gives the unreleased record an enormous amount of mystique. Ryan Adams completed Love Is Hell and when his record company refused to release it the word on the street was that it was “too dark.” Naturally that led the music geeks and Ryan Adams’ fans to clamor for its release…too dark, yes please! The record company finally relented and it was released. It’s a really good record… but uh, I’ve heard darker albums. Put on Big Star’s third album if you want bleak.

Typically an artist (or a band) will gather to write and record a group of songs. When they have enough tunes or perhaps better said, a cohesive group of songs, they release an album and go on tour. Rinse, repeat. There are those artists who are so prolific they record more than enough songs for the album. They record until the creative well is dry before stopping and going on tour. They pick the best tracks and leave the rest in the vault or save them for the next album. The aforementioned Ryan Adams is merely one of those type of artists. There are several others like Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Neil Young who had such an overflowing creative font that they have vast amounts of unreleased music. All of that unheard music leaves the music geek in me wondering… what’s going on in that vault and how do I get in there to listen? I’ll bring my own beer… These deep and full vaults are what bootleggers live for.

While there are many artists with a ton of unreleased tracks in their vaults it’s still a bit more rare for an artist to go through the entire creative process to record a full album – finished production and completed down to the track listing – and then rescind the record. Springsteen sent a single disc version of The River to the record company and changed his mind and pulled it back. While most of those songs got on the final 2-LP album, the original single disc version was still of interest because of the unreleased track “Cindy” and the rockabilly version of “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch).” Prince pulled The Black Album and released the tepid Lovesexy. The Black Album, which was eventually released, was purportedly too X-rated to be released. It was widely bootlegged and finally saw release.

While pulling back an entire LP is rare, I would have to say the king of recording an entire album only to put it on the shelf is Neil Young. He’s got more unreleased full albums than any artist you can name: Chrome Dreams, Toast with Crazy Horse, Homefires, and Oceanside Countryside to mention but a few. Finally, through his superb Neil Young Archives, he’s started releasing some of these albums. The famous Hitchhiker recorded in 1976 just came out in 2017 (LP Review: Neil Young’s Album From His Vault, ‘Hitchhiker’). It seems at long last one of Neil’s most famous unreleased albums, 1975’s Homegrown has been released after 45 years of sitting in the vault. It was worth the wait.

Now as a “warning label” I have to echo a comment I got a few weeks ago on my post on the first single “Try” (New Single: Neil Young’s “Try” From the Long Awaited Vault LP, ‘Homegrown’), from a reader, “Introgroove.” Neil is about to release his second box set of vault material, Archives, Vol. 2 in late summer/early fall. He’s teased the release of this follow-up to 2009’s Archives, Vol 1 for quite a while, so we’ll see if it comes out… As a warning, some of these archival releases are probably going to be included in Archive Vol 2. During the build up to Vol 1, Neil released a series of previously unreleased live LPs which I snapped up. When Vol 1 came out I was crestfallen to find that all 3 LPs I’d purchased (including Live At Massey Hall, Live At the Fillmore East with Crazy Horse, and Sugar Mountain: Live At Canterbury Hall) were all in there. I wasn’t going to buy them twice. We’re 11 years down the line and I’m willing to take the leap for the studio stuff, but I wanted everyone to know these will probably be in the box set if you want to wait. The inner music geek in me won this current argument and I’ve been turning up Homegrown since last Thursday.

Homegrown has a storied history. It was recorded toward the end of Young’s darkest period marked by the three albums known as “the Ditch Trilogy.” Hearing Homegrown makes me wonder if we’re going to need to recalibrate that to The Ditch Foursome. Neil became a world wide superstar after the release of his landmark country-rock album Harvest. Neil didn’t react very well to his new found fame. He hired a band of mostly session musicians who he didn’t get along with, took them on the road, turned it up loud and recorded his next album, the first of the Ditch Trilogy, Time Fades Away (Neil Young: The Elusive 1973 “Time Fades Away” LP). Prior to the tour, he had to fire guitarist Danny Whitten, his only friend in the band, because Whitten’s drug use was out of control. A day later, Whitten was dead from a lethal combination of drugs and booze. Young was guilt-ridden and depressed… and he did what artists do, he turned his grief and anger into music… while drinking a ton of tequila. I avoid tequila. I’m either gonna fight you or kiss you when I’m on tequila… and possibly both at the same time…

It’s been said that the Ditch Trilogy was a reaction to his new found fame and his inability to deal with that success. It was certainly also a chronicle of the personal problems he was going through including but not exclusive to Whitten’s death. In many ways the music could also be seen as a metaphor for the angst felt by the 60s generation as they watched their ideals and idealism slowly die away as the greed and narcissism of the 70s took over. The greatest artists always seem to be an antenna for what’s going on in the world (subconsciously or not) and one has to wonder if Young was just overly tuned into that.

In ’73 Young recorded the masterpiece Tonight’s the Night but the record company didn’t want to release it. It is a truly bleak record but I love it. In early 1974 he released On the Beach which isn’t much more cheerful. That summer he went on tour with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young for a stadium reunion tour. At the end of ’74 and early ’75 he recorded what would become Homegrown. The album is all about the end of his relationship with Carrie Snodgress who’d inspired many of his great songs including “A Man Needs A Maid.” They’d had a child together, Zeke. But things had finally ended and Neil recorded Homegrown to chronicle his heartbreak. At the last minute, Young pulled Homegrown and decided to release Tonight’s the Night instead. I’ve heard two stories on why he made that decision: a) he had a listening party and people liked Tonight’s the Night better or b) Rick Danko of the Band told him he should release Tonight’s the Night instead of Homegrown. I can’t imagine a group of people at a listening party picking the former so my money is on the Danko story. Neil has always said Homegrown was “too personal” to be released.

Homegrown then sat in the vaults for 45 years. For once we can say that Neil was holding on to a true masterpiece. Even on the first listen this record had the feeling of an instant classic. That may be because we’ve heard some of these tracks before as Neil put many of them out on other records “as is” or slightly altered. “Homegrown” rerecorded with Crazy Horse and “Star of Bethlehem” (as is) both came out on American Stars N Bars. “Love Is a Rose” came out on the compilation album Decade. “Little Wing” came out on Hawks And Doves. I really like hearing these songs in this album setting which is what Neil originally intended. Making Homegrown, for me, an essential Neil Young album.

The break up theme is established immediately on the opening track “Separate Ways.” It’s a mellow, acoustic track that reminds me of “Out On the Weekend.” Levon Helm of the Band plays drums on this track and he’s just extraordinary. “We go our separate ways lookin’ for better days sharin’ our little boy who grew from joy back then…” Heartrending stuff. The next track, “Try” strikes a more hopeful tone and has quotes from Snodgress’ quirky mother throughout. “Mexico” is a stark ballad set to piano, where Neil tells his son goodbye as now he’s a “travelin’ man.” “Love Is A Rose” sounds like a sweet ballad but really is a “swearing off love” song. “Little Wing” and “Star of Bethlehem” make more sense as the last two tracks on this album vs the way they were sort of tossed onto other LPs. “Kansas” is a short, acoustic song where Neil seems to be singing to a groupie with whom he’s sought some comfort. As someone who was a fool for love and suffered through more than what I consider my fair share of breakups, I’m knocked out that Neil could put almost a full album worth of heartbreak together and make it so emotionally affecting. (Or is it effecting? I never know…)

There are lighter moments. The title track, an ode to growing your own pot isn’t as heavy as the version on Stars N Bars and has a more rustic feel here. “We Don’t Smoke It” is a bluesy vamp of a track… I’m sure it’s fun to hear live. “Vacancy” is probably the heaviest rockin’ tune on the album but it does carry that break up theme. It’s the one angry moment in a collection of classic Neil laments. “I look in your eyes and I don’t know what’s there.” He goes on to sing, “You come through in the weirdest ways.” True frustration seeps into the core of that song. “White Line” a track that was rerecorded with electric guitars by Crazy Horse is acoustic here with a fantastic bit of guitar work by the Band’s Robbie Robertson. You forget how virtuoso all those guys in the Band were. I love this quieter version of the track.

The only track here that should have been left off is “Florida.” It’s a weird fever dream of a song. Its a spoken word piece where Neil rambles about hang gliders in a downtown area of a city in Florida… maybe Miami? As he’s speaking someone is dragging a wet finger over the rim of a glass. While I don’t dig it, my wife’s cat got up, meowed at me and left the room when it came on… I think he hates it and he’s pretty open-minded. I can’t imagine dogs liking that track either. Including “Florida” here just gives us a snapshot of where Neil’s head was at back then. He would soon come out of his funk with the release of Zuma in 1975. Although with tracks like “Stupid Girl” and “Drive Back” perhaps by Zuma his grief had merely morphed to anger.

I’m certainly glad we got this important document from one of Neil’s darkest and yet most interesting periods. Somehow as we all face these current heavy times, it makes me feel better to get this dark little postcard from Neil…like the post office just discovered it and finally all these years later delivered it. It’s as if it’s saying to me, it was dark back then but it got better. It always gets better… it can’t get worse?

Be safe out there. Wear your masks. Cheers!

 

 

Review: Norah Jones ‘Pick Me Up Off The Floor’ – Yet Another Brilliant LP

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“I sing my songs, I hope someone sings along…” – Norah Jones, “I’m Alive”

When I was just beginning my rock and roll journey as a middle-teenager, maybe all of thirteen years old, it was sort of an unwritten rule that you didn’t buy music that didn’t “rock.” It was all Zeppelin, Sabbath, Rush and Van Halen back then. Anything outside of that was considered weak. It was all about the power and majesty of the guitar solo. Guys my age wouldn’t even admit to liking Elton John back then because he played piano. You didn’t want to appear “soft” or a worse fate, to be branded as an admitted pop music fan. It was all about street “cred” back then. And sadly, I don’t know if it was some sort of nascent sexism but as a young teenage boy you generally didn’t buy music by women artists.

By the 70s there were plenty of cool women artists out there. Janis certainly was cool but other than “Mercedes Benz” you didn’t hear much of her on the radio, which was odd because you heard plenty of Hendrix and Doors from that same era on rock stations. Pat Benetar had some credibility in the rock and roll circles. I bought one of her albums at the mall but I had to wear a fake mustache and glasses to feel comfortable doing so. Fleetwood Mac was cool and by extension Stevie Nicks won us over with Bella Donna. Of course with Stevie there may have been more… visceral reasons we were drawn to her, one can never tell about teenage boys. Of course in middle America you never heard of Patti Smith or the Runaways… well, not when you were in high school at least. Nobody knew what to make of Blondie.

It wasn’t until college that any of us had the confidence to walk into the record store and come out with Horses or a Joni Mitchell album. Naturally, we were all still buying Stevie Nicks albums… I think as you grow from, literally, boys to men you just become more confident in who you are and what you like. As a friend once said to me, “Fuck ’em.” From college I’ve branched out in all sorts of different directions and to different artists. I’ve even discovered (and really like) jazz. I’m not sure what 13 year old me would say about my music collection these days… I think jazz would have made my 13-year old head explode. If I know my teenage self, I’d probably call me a lurid name. I was not a nice kid.

As many long time readers here now know, I am past that teen-machismo-angst and openly embrace a lot of music and artists, including (yes, 13-year old me) women (Women In Rock: My Search For Female Singers Leads to the Rock Chick’s Top 10). Almost from the earliest days of B&V I’ve been on the record as a Norah Jones fan. Her voice is, in my opinion, an all time great. She’s up there with Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday or Joni Mitchell in my opinion. One of our earliest pieces was to laud her great 2016 LP Day Breaks, LP Review: Norah Jones’ “Day Breaks,” The Piano Strikes Back!I was thrilled to see last Friday her new album was out, Pick Me Up Off The Floor. 

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to have a career like Norah Jones? Her first album was an immediate classic and sold 11 million copies in the U.S. alone… I think it sold over 27 million copies world wide (per Wikipedia). Many established bands struggle with success like that (Artists Who Changed Their Music to Escape Fame). The massive success of Hotel California or Rumours fundamentally knocked the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac off their trajectories. It’s hard to be that big. But for Norah, it was on her first album! One could argue the same thing happened to Guns N Roses, and that didn’t turn out exactly great. Of course, Norah was a solo artist vs a band with all the egos that entails.

Norah has responded by simply putting out a string of superb albums. Instead of trying to please people she clearly took the momentous early success for what it was: Freedom. She’s often experimented and has taken her music in different directions. She’s collaborated with a lot of different artists and really done it her way. But her way ended up being a perfect course for her. She branched out and changed to a more “pop” sound on The Fall. From there, she really expanded upon that pop direction on the Danger Mouse produced …Little Broken Hearts. She’s formed a country-rock side project with other liked minded musicians called the Little Willies (apparently named for Willie Nelson, in case you’re wondering). I especially loved her duets album of Everly Brothers’ covers with Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day fame, Foreverly. Well, in truth I’ve followed her through all the twists and turns. In the middle of it all is that spectacular voice.

After all of that, in 2016 she released the aforementioned Day Breaks. That album was a return to the rootsy, jazz-based, piano driven sound of her first couple of albums. After the tour for that album I read that Norah was going to collaborate with other artists and just put out singles. Those were finally collected on the EP, Begin Again (EP Review: Back On The Mellow End With Norah Jones’ New ‘Begin Again’). I loved that she was taking a more spontaneous approach, releasing singles as she recorded them. I will say the EP left me wanting a whole album. Apparently during those sessions there were a number of songs that were “left over,” or perhaps, “left on the floor,” so to speak. Norah has collected those songs and fashioned another in a string of superb albums.

I put this album on the first time with the Rock Chick. I wanted her to hear it with me. She does not share my devotion to Norah, although she likes her. This music and this album is a return to that early jazz-based sound from Come Away With Me that Norah returned to so successfully on Day Breaks. The music on this album transports me. I feel like its late at night and I’m on an avenue, perhaps in Paris. This music could be coming out of a cafe where cigarette smoke still fills the air and the ashtrays crowd the tables with empty glasses and bottles. There’s no doubt I’d loosen my tie while listening. There’s an immediate sensual aspect to Norah’s music on this album.

The album starts off with a trio of sexy tracks. “How I Weep” starts slowly but its simple vocals, piano, strings arrangement immediately draws me in. “Flame Twin” is a an aptly named torch song with the vocals and piano underscored with an organ. I love the lyrics, “I’m your twin, I’m on fire, come put me out…” Oh indeed! “Hurts To Be Alone” just chugs along keeping the momentum up.

The heart of the album, for me, was the two tracks in the middle, “This Life” and “To Live.” When she sings “This life as we know it is over,” one has to wonder if she’s talking about a break-up or society at large. “Heartbroken, Day After” has a nice pedal steel and sounds like something a country star could have done or perhaps the Little Willies. “Say No More” has a subtle horn section and I completely relate to her lyrics when she sings, “Maybe I’m deranged.” “Were You Watching” is another stand out track with a haunting violin weaving in and out of the piano/vocals. Another stand out is “Stumble On My Way” which could have fit right in on Come Away With Me. Jeff Tweedy collaborated with her on the acoustic strummer “I’m Alive.” A little subtle electric guitar mixes in perfectly on that track.

There’s so much to like on this album. I heard Tom Petty say once the reason the Heartbreakers and he weren’t “bigger” was because they had such a high quality and consistency on the albums they put out. He said people might have taken them for granted somewhat. He wasn’t bitter, just trying to explain his career. I wonder sometimes if people are taking Norah Jones and the high quality of her music for granted. Don’t be like 13-year old me and do that – Pick Me Up Off The Floor is a great album that everyone should hear. It’s sitting on the couch with someone and a tumbler of whiskey good…

Cheers!

 

 

 

Review: Dion, ‘Blues With Friends’ – He Continues His Hot Blues Winning Streak

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I texted a friend of mine last Saturday, Drummer Blake. I wanted to alert him to a new song “Blues Comin’ On” by Dion that features Joe Bonamassa. Blake and I had seen Bonamassa a few years back (Concert Review: Joe Bonamassa & The 4 Horsemen of the Salinapocalypse Slight Return). I knew he’d like Bonamassa’s guitar work on the track. Blake is nothing if not a big guitar fan, he’s seen Yngwie Malmsteen for God’s sake. He responded the same way I did a few years ago when I heard Dion singing “New York Is My Home” with Paul Simon, “Dion is still alive?” Indeed he is, and he’s got the blues.

New York’s (or more specifically the Bronx’s) Dion DiMucci known simply by his first name was a big star in the late 50s/early 60s. He started off with his doo-wop back-up group the Belmonts but later went solo. He had a string of monster big hits including “Run Around Sue” and “The Wanderer.” He was big in that time period between Elvis Presley’s entrance into the Army and the British Invasion. His music occupies that same era as Sam Cooke’s prime. Since he’s from the Bronx the man is a huge influence for  many of the singers from New York who followed after him. Namely, Lou Reed, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen have all cited him as an influence. That’s pretty good company.

The guy has quietly had quite a career. It’s like he’s a smart, singing Forrest Gump. As I mentioned, he was big on the doo-wop, pre-British Invasion scene. His career lost some steam and he returned later in the 60s with earnest protest music like “Abraham, Martin and John.” In the 70s he recorded an album with Phil Spector like Leonard Cohen and John Lennon did. He even had a religious period like Bob Dylan. He may have left the white-hot spotlight of stardom, but he has always been around doing rockstar stuff.

My introduction to Dion came when I was a child. I found out about Dion’s music from the most unlikely of places, my mostly non-musical father. When I was a wee lad in grade school I had to share a room with my little brother. My parents weren’t even cool enough to provide bunk beds. We had two single twin beds crammed into different corners in a small room, like boxers in neutral corners. I think back about that now and about my brother and can’t help but think, that poor bastard had to share a room with me. We had a small black-and-white TV that was my dad’s when he was in the Army with the rabbit ears antenna so we could sort of watch snowy television. My brother also had a record player. And at some point, he rescued a small metal-wire rack of singles that my father had collected before he got married. Apparently marriage ended any infatuation with music that he’d had prior.

There were some amazing gems in that pile. He had Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock.” He had several Ray Charles and Johnny Cash singles. These records didn’t even have the paper dust sleeves on them, just naked vinyl. I don’t know whatever happened to those 45s, they were probably thrown out but there was probably some stuff worth some money in there, but I digress. Hidden in that pile of 45s was none other than Dion’s great song, “The Wanderer.” I don’t remember if dad had “Run Around Sue” but I have a feeling he did. But the song I just fell in love with was “The Wanderer.” I was just a kid but the lyrics just grabbed me, “I’m the type of guy who’ll never settle down, where pretty girls are, you know that I’m around.” Perhaps it was foreshadowing of how I was to live my 20s and early 30s…I should probably have worked that out with a therapist. I mean, I hadn’t even hit puberty and I was dancing around lip-synching “they call me the wanderer, yeah the wanderer, I roam around, around, around.” Emotional gypsies, apply here. Years later as adults my brother bought me that 45 for a birthday present. He had to listen to it every time I did, it was his record player so he knew how much I loved it.

Other than that single my brother bought me, which was placed in the shelves up by my albums, I forgot all about Dion. If asked about him I’d probably have guessed after his career cooled off he’d died of booze and drugs. Or moved back to the Bronx and become an electrician or a contractor or something. Maybe he had some kids and shows up at weddings and nostalgia shows and stuff like that. I figured if alive he probably lived in Florida where he yelled at kids for getting in his yard. I was completely unaware that he’d kept recording and performing music. It wasn’t until approximately four years ago that I rediscovered he was even alive when he released his haunting duet with Paul Simon, “New  York Is My Home.” I figured it was a one-off and never discovered there was an entire album by that name.

A few months ago I started to see advertisements and social media stuff about his upcoming album, Blues With Friends. It’s a guest-star laden album with a who’s who of guitarists and artists joining him. That’s probably why it’s getting the press it does which is great but it’s too bad that as I discovered, starting in 2000, he’s released a string of really great albums, mostly centered on the blues that should have garnered more attention. I really like 2011’s Tank Full of Blues. Its exactly as advertised, laid back blues. When I finally went back and listened to the entire album New York Is My Home I discovered another fabulous album. Hell, I even dug Bronx In Blue where it’s blues stripped down to just acoustic guitar and Dion’s voice, the way Muddy Waters used to play in the early days. I recommend perusing his catalog from Deja Nu forward. Although I will admit his propensity to be photographed w/ a beret on and a guitar in his hand can confuse you as to which album you’re listening to.

As I said this is a guest star laden LP. Usually those can really lack consistency. The guest artists styles tend to overwhelm the guy whose album it is. That’s not the case with Blues With Friends. There’s a couple of reasons this album hangs together so well. First and foremost, is Dion’s voice. He’s in his usual fine vocal form here… the guy has lost nothing vocally. And for the most part Dion is the only one who sings on the record. Since these tracks mostly aren’t duets, the continuity is there. Also, when you stay in the genre of blues you can play with a lot of different people and still maintain a consistent sound throughout.

There’s a ton to like on this record. “Blues Comin’ Down” with Bonamassa kicks things off and it’s great. It has a very tasty guitar solo. I really love the track with Brian Setzer on guitar, “Uptown Number Seven,” it just chugs along like a train and you know how I love train songs, “Playlist: The B&V 50 Favorite Songs About Trains – “that lonesome whistle blows…”). The guy who I’d never heard of who may have my favorite moment on the record is Sonny Landreth the “slydeco” (slide guitar played in the zydeco style) guitar wizard on “I Got the Gun.” Dion vibes on his energy. Dion and Samantha Fish tear the roof off the joint on the most upbeat track here, “What If I Told You.” “Way Down (I Won’t Cry No More)” with Steve Van Zandt on lead guitar is a treat. Van Zandt does so many things it’s easy to forget what a great guitarist he is. Dion conjures additional great moments with John Hammond and Billy Gibbons.

It’s not all electric blues. He does change it up a bit. There’s another duet with Paul Simon that I just loved, “Song For Sam Cooke.” I love Sam and this is a beautiful tribute song, complete with the “Chain Gang” backing vocals. Simon and Dion sing so well together they should form a duo. They could call it Simon and Dion-funkel, they’d make a fortune. “I Got Nothin'” finds Dion duetting with Van Morrison and I love that track too. Van sounds so much more laid back on this track than on his own stuff. Joe Louis Walker plays the lead on that track and it’s just pure blues heaven. “Told You Once In August” is a stripped down acoustic blues number with John Hammond on guitar with Rory Block on a harmony vocal, anther great track. “Hymn To Him” has Springsteen and his wife Patti Scialfa. Springsteen plays acoustic but Scialfa steals the show with her wordless backing vocals. She compliments Dion so well. The track almost has a religious vibe…hence the “Hymn” in the title.

As I’ve confessed before the blues are my Alpha and my Omega. All of the great rock and roll that I love is founded upon the roots of the blues. To see an artist with Dion’s history take up the blues and record yet another in a great string of albums just reaffirms my faith in the blues. Dion has always been a great vocalist. Everyone needs to check this disc out. It’s perfect for all you wanderers out there.

Cheers. Take care of each other!

 

 

New Single: The Rolling Stones’ Great Pandemic Song, “Living In A Ghost Town”

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“If I want a party, it’s a party of one” – The Rolling Stones, “Living In A Ghost Town”

I’ve been under the weather this week. Thankfully it’s not anything COVID related (knock on wood). This is a malady I’ve encountered before. I realized it was happening and quickly got the right meds and am thankfully, on the mend. It is scary to be ill during a pandemic. I managed to talk my doctor into a script without any visits to his office or any hospital, ground zero for COVID. Basically I slept for 48 hours. I’m feeling a little like Rip Van Winkle today… I slept so long the Stones actually released a fabulous new song. If my being unconscious is the price we have to pay for a new Stones tune, I’m certainly willing to take one for the team.

I’ve been waiting and hoping for new Stones’ tunes (dare I pray for an album?) since before I started B&V. I’ve freely admitted in these pages that the Stones are my Alpha and Omega when it comes to rock and roll. I can’t believe it’s been since 2005 that their phenomenal late period album A Bigger Bang came out. That album should have got a lot more airplay than it did. They haven’t put out anything new since, except the two bonus tracks on their greatest hits package GRRR! in 2012, “Gloom and Doom,” and “One More Shot.” I think we can all agree, 15 years is too long to have only put out two tracks even though they are great songs. Sure, we lauded their blues album, Blue And Lonesome, but that brilliant LP was all covers (LP Review: The Rolling Stones, The Superb “Blue And Lonesome” – They Come Full Circle). At last, the Stones have put out a new original song, “Living In a Ghost Town,” and it is amazing. Blues-rock in a time of cholera…

People can say what they want about artists, but as I’ve seen in recent pandemic memes, what would you be doing now without movies, television, books and music? Art is indeed important. To paraphrase the famous 80s Michael Douglas’ character, Gordon Gekko from “Wall Street,” “Art, for lack of a better word, is good.” I think our current circumstances have highlighted to all of us how important Art is (and yes, I’m capitalizing the word) in dark times. Picasso’s most famous painting ‘Guernica’ was done in the midst of the Spanish Civil war and is perhaps the greatest indictment of war ever put to canvas.

During America’s horrible nightmare on 9/11, it was Bruce Springsteen who first emerged with his brilliant album The Rising in response to the tragedy. It was a great source of solace for a lot of us. I still can’t hear the title track without a tear in my eye. I saw Springsteen the other night on the ‘Jersey4Jersey’ charity broadcast to raise money for the pandemic… great acoustic versions of “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “Jersey Girl” with his wife Patti Scialfa on harmony vocals. During this current pandemic, it was Bob Dylan who first emerged with his 17-minute epic, “Murder Most Foul,” a brilliant allegory about America’s lost hope and loss of direction as a result of the JFK assassination (Bob Dylan: The Dark, Mesmerizing 17- Minute New Single, “Murder Most Foul”). It appears our older artists are the ones leading the way these days…

I awoke from an awful fever dream yesterday…sweating and confused, like you do when you’re ill. I peaked on social media to see what if anything had changed in my absence due to unconsciousness. Amongst the usual daily futility around the pandemic, I saw what I thought was a hallucination… “The Rolling Stones Release New Song.” I sprang to my feet and after some momentary dizziness, staggered to my computer and immediately downloaded “Living In A Ghost Town.”

On Instagram, Jagger, Richards and Wood all released videos talking about the new song. Charlie Watts is indeed, too cool for social media. Ronnie’s video was the usual, “Hey, check out our new song.” Keith seemed to indicate this track was recorded a year ago in Los Angeles. The basic track may have been, but the lyrics seem to indicate that Mick has tinkered with this more recently. With references to the “lockdown,” this is obviously fresh off the press. The Stones have been working on a new album for what seems like forever and this track was obviously in the mix there. Keith recently said the work they were doing on the new album was “basically like carpentry.” I love when Keith says, “Mick and I decided this one really needed to go to work right now.” Indeed, Keef, indeed.

I don’t typically read other reviews before I write my own, but I saw the Guardian describe this as a reggae tune… I don’t hear that. The bass line is insistent and perhaps a bit funky. It reminds me of the bass line on “Has Anybody Seen My Baby.” It’s a haunting, mid tempo number… Jagger starts off singing, “I’m a ghost, living in a ghost town.” He evokes a once vibrant world where music was everywhere and people were out enjoying themselves, “Once this place was humming, And the air was full of drumming, The sound of cymbals crashing, Glasses were all smashing, Trumpets were all screaming, Saxophones were blaring, Nobody was caring if it’s day or night.” But now all is quiet…”living in a ghost town.”

The sound of this track is vintage Stones. Jagger’s vocal is fantastic. He melds frustration and longing together seamlessly. Keith and Ronnie’s guitars circle each other, weaving together like smoke rising from a fire. There’s even a harmonica solo. I love it when Mick plays harmonica… he’s one of the best on the planet and it seems only Keith Richards realizes it. Charlie’s drums are the heartbeat of the track. I don’t know whose playing bass – whether its Darryl Jones, Keith or Ronnie but whoever is playing is killing it. There’s a great gang backing vocal that pulls the whole thing together. At one point the music falls to hush and only Jagger’s voice carries the tune forward… I got fucking goose bumps.

“Living In A Ghost Town” is what I hope to be the first track from a new stellar Stones album. I think we could all use a kick ass Stones album to get us through this dark time. While I wish this tune arrived under better circumstances, it gives me hope and it makes me grateful for whatever music we can get from these guys. It’s a big fucking deal when the Stones put out new music… and this song is a big fucking deal.

Cheers! Stay safe and healthy out there! I look forward to a time when I want a party and it’s a party of all my friends and loved ones.

 

 

Review: Pearl Jam’s First LP In 7 Years, ‘Gigaton’ – My Conflicted Thoughts

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I have to admit, up front, that I’m a huge Pearl Jam fan. I subscribe to the great man theory of rock and roll and I think Eddie Vedder is one of those great men, so to speak. But it hasn’t always been that way.

In the old days, I was always slow to get into new things. I didn’t buy in on Guns N Roses until I heard their third single, “Paradise City.” In my defense, Appetite For Destruction came out during my Exile Years, when I was living in Arkansas. My exposure to GnR was strictly via MTV and every band sort of looked the same. It was hard to get my attention and besides I was deeply into the Allman Brothers and the Band at the time. It wasn’t until I heard “Paradise City” from the other room – without the visuals – that I thought… wait a minute, these guys are something special.

It was the same with the Grunge era bands. I was always suspicious of these new “movements”… call me paranoid. I always thought the bands that were lumped into this new “Grunge” thing were wrongly characterized. Nirvana was a punk band in my mind… certainly that’s where their influences were. The first time I heard Soundgarden I remarked to a friend, “this is the new version of Black Sabbath…” They were a metal band in flannel. I really didn’t have a description for Alice In Chains, they were perhaps uniquely Grunge.

In the early ’90s I had just returned from my exile in Arkansas. I was living in an apartment by the highway where I’d lay in bed at night listening to the sound of trains in the distance behind the constant buzz of semi’s barreling north and south. It certainly contributed to my feeling of restlessness. My musical tastes were somewhat rootless as well. At the dawn of the ’90s there was a new radio station in town that specialized in “alternative rock” which was, at the time, Grunge bands. I’d tune in to that station looking for something “new” and I kept hearing these songs I liked…”Black” was  especially a favorite. “Even Flow,” “Alive,” and this song “Jeremy” were amongst my favorites as well. I hadn’t realized all of those songs were by the same band until I started dating this woman – whose boyfriend lived out of town – who loaned me Ten. I was listening to it for the first time while I worked out and with every song that played I thought, “Wait, that’s Pearl Jam too?” How could all these kick ass songs be on the same album. I became one of the converted… When we ended the affair I kept that CD for a long time… until the young lady came by and forcibly retrieved it. It was all very friendly but she was having none of my absconding with her Pearl Jam disc. Apparently I’m the only one who loses CDs during a breakup. Remarkably, I danced with her at her wedding, sadly not to Pearl Jam.

I was amongst those who were at the record store the day Vs and later when Vitalogy came out. Pearl Jam was the Grunge band who were so firmly rooted in classic rock, how could I not become a huge fan? They had so many soaring anthems – “Even Flow,” “Jeremy,” “Go,” “Animal,” “Rearview Mirror,” “Better Man,” and “Not For You.” I could go on. They could also go acoustic and just slay it – “Daughter,” or “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town.” Vedder’s vocals were amongst the best I’d ever heard. He conveys so much emotion when he sings, from despair to simmering rage. I thought rock and roll would last forever with these guys. I happened to be lucky enough to see them at Red Rocks on the Vitalogy tour, a personal concert highlight for me. From the machine gun blast of the opening number (fittingly), “Go” until the last strains of “Yellow Ledbetter,” it was an amazing night. They even started the encore with “Leaving Here,” a cover song made famous by the Who.

As inevitably happens, Pearl Jam decided to stretch out in new musical directions by the time No Code came out. I liked that album but for many fans it was a creative stumble. So much so the follow up Yield was seen as a comeback (an album I loved but the critics didn’t). After Yield it seemed that Pearl Jam was content to just record straight-up rock and roll to please themselves rather than connect with their audience. Binaural and Riot Act were grim, mirthless albums. Although I must admit, both albums grew on me over time, especially Binaural. Listening to their archival release Lost Dogs, its clear those albums could have been less… intense. It wasn’t until 2006’s eponymously titled album that they seemed to even want to connect with an audience. For me that album was somewhat overshadowed by the Chili Pepper’s Stadium Arcadium. A friend remarked to me at the time, “If you’d told me 10 years ago I’d be more into a Peppers album than a Pearl Jam album, I’d have told you were crazy.” By then Pearl Jam was considered a premier live act, but there was never a ton of enthusiasm for their studio stuff anymore. Which is a shame because both Backspacer and Lightning Bolt were, in my opinion, exceptional. The ballad “Sirens” on the latter album is one of my all time favorite Pearl Jam tunes. There seem to be two kind of Pearl Jam fans anymore: the fans of their epic early records who have stuck around for the live shows and then fans who stuck around for the latter day studio stuff. I’m kind of both.

It stuns me that Pearl Jam waited seven years to put out another album. Lightning Bolt came out in 2013 which seems like another lifetime. I had heard they were struggling to come up with new material and had a couple of stillborn attempted starts at recording new music. That all might explain why the new album Gigaton sounds well, so different. The title refers to the gigaton of ice lost by the polar ice caps. The theme here is clearly around climate change. You hear a lot about water, oceans, rising oceans, and rivers on this album. If anybody needs something to channel some good ol’ fashion Pearl Jam anger, climate change is as good as any. I think it helps Gigaton hang together. The politics of this record are more subtle than most bands, like say vintage John Lennon. And I will say, there are plenty of songs that sound, dare I say, hopeful.

I will say, at the outset of my comments about the album, this one is a grower. My first taste was the first single, “Dance of the Clairvoyants,” which I reviewed (Pearl Jam: New Song, ‘Dance of the Clairvoyants.’ Old Dog With New Tricks?). That track was like nothing I’d ever heard from Pearl Jam. I won’t go back into it as I’ve written about it before, but it sounds so much like the Talking Heads that David Byrne must be drawing royalty checks. That made me think, “Mmm, this might be a tad more experimental than I’m emotionally prepared for.” The next track I heard on satellite radio was “Superblood Wolfmoon.” That track, at first, sounded like the Vedder barking vocal style that he adopted after befriending the late Johnny Ramone in an attempt to sound “punk” (“Mind Your Manners” or “Can’t Deny Me” for example). After my first listen to the entire album, I will tell you, I hated it. After seven years I wanted a big, epic, arena-rock album. The Rock Chick rejected the album immediately. I wasn’t even going to post about it. But there were a couple of tracks that had stuck with me… I couldn’t leave it alone. I’ve spent the last week with this album, giving it repeated spins and I’ll tell you, I like this record. It’s not going to change the top of a “Pearl Jam Albums Ranked Best To Worst” list but it’s a damn fine rock and roll record. We all want that endorphin hit we got when we first dropped the needle into the groove and “Once” burst out of the speakers and went right to our lower brain stem…it just doesn’t happen that often any more.

The album kicks off with one of my favorites, the rocking “Who Ever Said.” It’s an old fashion, Pearl Jam, turn it up rocker. That leads to the aforementioned “Superblood Wolfmoon” that has grown on me. I will say that Mike McCready is an all-star lead guitarist. He should be mentioned more often in the great guitarist conversations. His solo’ing is exceptional on this album, like always. “Never Destination” is another great rocker about climate change denial. It hits hard and again McCready shines. “Quick Escape” is another great rock tune but it’s guitars and vocals are distorted. The song is about an immigrant’s journey away from his home. Rather than singing a song about immigration, Vedder narrates the song from the personal perspective of the immigrant and it hits so much harder. It’s always best to make a political point by making it personal. The distortion of the vocals and guitar almost generate the feeling of fear and being upended that the lyrics depict. “Take The Long Way” was written by drummer Matt Cameron and it sounds like Soundgarden (in a good way). I can’t help it, that’s what I hear.

For me, Pearl Jam has always done exceptional ballads. If I have a complaint about Gigaton, it’s that the last four tracks are ballads. The back end just mellows out. My favorite of the mellow tracks is “Seven O’Clock” the most political track here. He gives the current occupant of the White House his Native American name, “Sitting Bullshit.” The song penned by bassist Jeff Ament, “Alright” is also a highlight. Rhythm guitarist extraordinaire, Stone Gossard’s penned “Buckle Up” almost sounds like a lilting children’s tune until Vedder, over loping drums and acoustic guitar, sings the first line, “I got blood, blood on my hands…” Happy music delivering disturbing words… Tom Waits would be proud. “Comes Then Goes” is a simple vocals over acoustic guitar track. Who does that any more? Vedder plays an old time pump organ on the closing track, “River Cross.” “Retrograde” is a lament about how the world is falling apart.

If you’re a fan of the early, early Pearl Jam, you might want to skip this one and just buy the concert ticket, if concerts ever happen again. But for those of us who have been along for the whole ride, this is an exciting, mature effort by one of the world’s greatest bands. I’ve never faulted any artist who wants to expand the aperture on what and how they create – I’ve always loved David Bowie and latter day Paul Simon, just to name a few examples. Simon’s last album (Review (Full LP): Paul Simon’s “Stranger To Stranger”) was as far away as you can get from “Still Crazy After All These Years.” I hope this new found experimental mood sparks some creative burst from these guys and we don’t have to wait until 2027 for the next Pearl Jam album. It may not be what everybody wanted, but it’s great to have a rock and roll album to be excited about in 2020, arguably the suckiest year in my lifetime.

Cheers!

 

 

Bob Dylan: The Dark, Mesmerizing 17- Minute New Single, “Murder Most Foul”

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“It was a dark day in Dallas, November ’63…” – Bob Dylan, “Murder Most Foul”

I always look forward to Fridays for all the usual reasons, mostly bourbon. But beyond the end of the workweek and the free time the weekend brings, I look forward to Friday because that’s when all the new music gets released. In the old days albums came out on Tuesdays in an attempt to game the charts. Charts came out on Mondays so labels wanted the max amount of time for an album to rack up sales before that next chart ranking came out. Last night I went to bed like I do on every other Thursday night, looking forward to whatever new music was going to be released today. Actually last night, I was specifically thinking about Pearl Jam and their new album Gigaton. Leave it to Bob Dylan to completely derail my listening…

Much to my surprise, Bob Dylan has released a new single today, “Murder Most Foul.” I had heard rumors that Dylan might be putting out a new album this year and if this song is a hint, I hope that’s true. On his website and several social media platforms Dylan released the following message: “Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years. This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you. Bob Dylan”

Might find interesting? Hell, yes!

I’ve been a Dylan fan since I began listening to rock and roll. My rock and roll awakening took place in the late 70s, so I was a little late to the game, but the first Dylan album I bought was the first of his Christian trilogy Slow Train Coming, and I’m not religious. From there I went to his iconic, first Greatest Hits with the photo of him shot closeup from the side, playing the harmonica. Slow Train was full of apocalyptic, wrath of God like songs (the title track, “Change My Way of Thinking”) and I’ve always considered its a good introduction to Bob’s darker visions of the world. In college I found myself purchasing all of his great, great, classic records: Blonde On Blonde, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Desire. Hell I even have Knocked Out Loaded on vinyl…I’ve stayed with Dylan up through his last studio album of original material, 2012’s Tempest. Since then, he’s been doing albums of Sinatra tunes as done by a border town bar band. I am thrilled to see a new Dylan original.

After I got over my first shock at seeing the Dylan release, I was equally surprised when I saw the song was just shy of seventeen minutes at 16:55. There are very few tracks in my collection that last that long. Well, studio tracks. Sure the Allman Brothers clocked in at over thirty minutes on “Mountain Jam.” Neil Young has “Driftin’ Back” at over twenty-seven minutes or “Ordinary People” over eighteen minutes. Those longer songs tend to be jam-oriented tracks. This is not that. Although Dylan is no stranger to longer epics. Time Out of Mind had a track “Highlands” that lasted over 16 minutes. And that last album of originals, Tempest had the title track that clocked in at almost fourteen minutes.  All I know is the Rock Chick is not going to like this one…

The track itself is mesmerizing. I can’t stop listening to this and have been doing so since I got up. The music is hushed. It’s a piano being quietly played over (very) muted percussion. Doug Herron’s violin plays along as a beautiful accent. There’s no jam or big guitar solo that tears up 10 minutes like CCR playing “Heard It Through the Grapevine.” The focus is all on Dylan’s voice – which sounds much less gravelly here than he’s sounded on his latter day albums. He’s singing in a less fierce, more melancholy way so maybe that’s why it isn’t so scratchy. He’s not whispering but it’s like a secret being murmured. The music is almost ethereal. It reminds me, like it will many, of something from Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, or “Listen To the Lion.” There’s an almost spiritual or holy vibe.

The focus on Dylan’s vocals are key because the lyrics of this song are mind blowing. The theme, on the surface at least, is the assassination of JFK in November of ’63. Leave it to Bob Dylan to write a song about one of the darkest chapters of America’s history during the current dark period of America’s history. This will fill up at least a few days of quarantine for me, analyzing these lyrics. They’re like an onion… so many layers. Its poetry set to music… it feels like I’m hearing ‘The Iliad’ recited in the original Greek by a campfire on Crete while my flock lays down for the night. The title, “Murder Most Foul” is from Shakespeare, no stranger to telling epic historical tragedies. One thread is a surreal, fever-dream imagining of JFK’s thoughts/conversation after he’s shot. There are mentions of the “grassy knoll,” the “three tramps” and to Governor Connally’s wife saying “Don’t say Dallas don’t love you, Mr. President” right before he was shot. I got goose bumps, man.

But the lyrics seem to point to a bigger story than just JFK’s assassination. When he sings “The day they killed him someone said to me, “The Age of the Antichrist has just only begun,” we get the feeling there’s more to this song. The song plays more like a travelogue through the last fifty years of culture… It’s more a commentary of how things were never quite right in America after JFK was killed… “For the last fifty years they’ve been searchin’ for that, Freedom, oh freedom, freedom over me, I hate to tell you, mister, but only dead men are free” Heavy!!

As Dylan sings, in what seems to be a stream-of-consciousness way, he makes so many cultural references. From movies “Nightmare on Elm St” (believe it or not!) to “Play Misty For Me.” Every line has a reference to some other cultural touchpoint. “Gower Street” seems to point to Warren Zevon. He mentions many songs by their titles or artists’ by name including Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Billy Joel and Lindsey and Stevie Nicks. Is this a darker, better written “We Didn’t Start the Fire?” Not hardly. I’m guessing there are already playlists on Spotify generated simply from the list of tracks in this song. You could almost suggest that Dylan is painting a picture here that JFK wasn’t the only one who died on that grim November day in Dallas.

This one is a stone-cold classic. I know a lot of people use Dylan’s vocal decline as an excuse to dismiss his music, but this is a reason to continue to listen to the man. It’s wonderful when rock and roll transcends the format and becomes art. Dylan’s music has always had the power to move me. This song is no exception.

Cheers!