CK Retro Review: Down In The Groove by Bob DylanPosted: July 5, 2013
For many Bob Dylan aficionados, 1988’s Down In The Groove represents a continuation of the alarming indifference Bob showed on his previous effort, Knocked Out Loaded. There is no doubt that the “Groove” was more like a rut in terms of Dylan’s songwriting; only two songs on the record were true originals, and they were far from top-notch. Yet the album’s sound was a vast improvement on its predecessor, there are no complete travesties to be found, and some of the cover versions have a sneaky resonance to them. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “When You Did Leave Heaven?”- Dylan was at least trying to do something interesting here, using an atmospheric arrangement to try and imbue a little ambiguity in the sticky sweet lyrics. It doesn’t quite come off, in part because Bob’s vocals are wooden and the arrangement sort of falls apart by the end.
9. “Ugliest Girl In The World”- It is not as objectionable nor as brazenly humorous as its title might imply. Co-written by Robert Hunter of Grateful Dead fame, it turns out to be a pretty pedestrian rocker with lyrics that don’t rise to the level of the funny songs, like those from Chuck Berry or The Coasters, it wants to emulate.
8. “Let’s Stick Together”- As the first thing on Down In The Groove, you immediately notice how much better the thing sounds than so much of the half-baked, synthesizer-splashed stuff from Knocked Out Loaded. Still, Bob’s interpretation doesn’t add much at all to either Wilbert Harrison’s fun original or subsequent cover versions.
7. “Death Is Not The End”- A leftover original from the Infidels sessions, this ode to the afterlife plods along amiably even when it portends apocalyptic consequences for the Earth. Backing vocals Full Force aren’t really utilized to their full potential. The song does stand out from other religious material in the way Bob sings it, with a quiet confidence that dovetails nicely with the promise of eternity that the song makes.
6. “Sally Sue Brown”- Dylan gets some help from punk legends Steve Jones and Paul Simonon on this rollicking recording of the great Arthur Alexander’s ode to a girl who’s so irresistible it’s almost worth it to let her break your heart. Good fun.
5. “Shenandoah”- The song is a folk evergreen for a reason, so it’s hard to mess it up. Dylan’s arrangement is a bit quirky, and raising the key a bit might have allowed him to sing it better. Still, the power of the song wins out in the end.
4. “Had A Dream About You, Baby”- You don’t hear Dylan writing too many flat-out rockers, but this one qualifies. The lyrics aren’t too complicated, but the song is about a primal attraction that oozes into the protagonist’s dreams, so the simplicity is fitting. A crazy backing band that included Eric Clapton on guitar and, I kid you not, Kip Winger on bass, bring the thunder just fine.
3. “Silvio”- Robert Hunter’s lyrics here consist of a lot of catchy phrases that don’t really reach any final destination, but they sound good coming out of Dylan’s mouth. The whooshing acoustic groove plays nicely off the exhorting back-up vocals, provided by Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Brent Mydland of the Dead, and the chorus is catchy as heck. It’s a refreshing cool breeze of a track.
2. “Rank Strangers To Me”- The dark outcome and conflicted emotions of this haunting song popularized by the Stanley Brothers were right in Dylan’s wheelhouse. He wisely keeps the arrangement simple and doesn’t overplay the vocals on his take. The sense of isolation that be brings to the recording is palpable, making this one a memorable choice to close out the album.
1. “Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street)”- The instrumentalists sort of play all around the melody of this moody cover, providing subtle accents but leaving the heavy lifting to the vocalists. Dylan gets expert help in this regard from R&B standouts Willie Green and Bobby King, pulling the song from its country roots in a bluesier direction. It’s a great little song about the perils of passion, and Dylan and friends get its tone of resigned woe just right.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a more in-depth look at the songs of Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, available from all major online book-sellers.)