The Best of Non-Studio Album Bob Dylan, Part III

Many apologies for the hiatus between posts, especially since I left some of you hanging with these last ten. But here they are without further ado. Again, remember that the rule here is that these songs weren’t originally included on one of Bob’s solo studio albums and they can’t be alternate takes of songs that were included.

FIVE STARS

10. “I’m Not There”- The amazing thing about this famed outtake from the Basement Tapes sessions is how none of the players seems quite sure where it’s going at any time and yet they all get there together. And where exactly is there? It’s that place inside a broken heart where hopes and dreams go to die, where the expectations that the one you love is really going to change finally give up the ghost. I tend not to believe in magic, but there was something clearly afoot at Big Pink beyond just talent and inspiration, and it’s all over this mysterious, marvelous track.

9. “Tweeter And The Monkey Man”- I’ll never stop wondering how much of this was meant to be homage and how much was meant to be parody. The funny thing is that Springsteen had largely stopped writing these streetlife tales by the time Dylan and Top Petty concocted this wild love quadrangle. Instead this plays like some lost connector between Bruce’s second and third albums. And, unlike most songs of this nature, it’s extremely engaging even if you don’t get the jokes, in large part due to the ominous refrain and Dylan’s ability to pull all the various strains together in a fatal but funny ending.

8. “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”- The first Bootleg Series volume was the first huge payload of unreleased Dylan material to hit the shelves, but Biograph leaked some great forgotten songs a few years before that, including this single far too unwieldy to be a hit (except in England, where it snuck into the Top 20.) The Band’s herky-jerky rhythmic inventiveness is in early evidence here, while Dylan curls his words around them like sarcastic vines. This tale of a girl mesmerized by a svengali-like character whom the narrator knows isn’t all that features some of Bob’s most elastic wordplay, with lines that you could never believe even now would work in a pop song (so imagine what it must have sounded like 50 years ago!)

7. “Foot Of Pride”- One of the great songs that Bob left off Infidels and made that disc the ultimate what-might-have-been of his career, “Foot Of Pride” benefits from Mark Knopfler’s tough guitar licks and Bob’s colorful harmonica asides. The music is really just an excuse for Dylan to spin lyrics that take aim at various targets and characters, all of whom are going to survive his diatribes just fine, which is part of the reason he’s so aggrieved. Why he didn’t want the world to hear this kind of wild genius around this time is known only to him. What’s certain is that Dylan spewing venom allows us all to vicariously get out own frustrations off our chests as well.

6. “Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie”- Yeah, I know, not a song. But it has to be acknowledged. The nervousness with which Bob plows through this spoken-word poem about Guthrie’s impending passing and the impact he made on the youngster carrying the torch, which was recorded and captured for posterity on the Bootleg Series, betrays just how much the folk forefather actually meant to him. That makes it an important document of the inner, empathetic Dylan that too many observers overlook in favor of his lyrical brilliance and idiosyncratic behavior. It’s hard to imagine anyone not being mesmerized and genuinely touched by that performance, while it’s easy to figure that anyone hearing it might just look up Guthrie’s stuff too, which is a heartening thought.

5. “She’s Your Lover Now”- Howlingly funny and heartbreakingly disappointed all at once, here is a masterpiece that remained unfinished for many years, thanks to the breakdown at the end of the take included on The Bootleg Series. The complete 65-66 recordings finally gave us the full magilla with Bob on piano, but the band version is the one for the books. Nobody plays the jilted lover like Dylan, as he alternately insults and confides in his romantic rival while directly addressing the former lover with wisecracks that are leavened by the hurt in his voice. Perhaps the best manipulation of pronouns ever heard, as well.

4. “Things Have Changed”- I had the chance to interview Marty Stuart and asked him about the resemblances between this and Stuart’s “Observations Of A Crow,” and he admitted that Bob asked him for the A-OK first. Stuart responded that he had probably borrowed the melody in the first place anyway from somebody else, so Dylan could go crazy with it. People concentrate on the chorus and the seeming weariness of the punch line, but a close listen to the verses reveals that there’s a lost of feistiness in this main character. I think that payoff line should read more like “I used to give a damn, but ….” Because when you’re confronted with the insanity and hypocrisy that Bob details in the lyrics, indifference seems to be the only reasonable option.

3. “Positively 4th Street”- The capo de tutti capi of all kiss-off songs; it’s quite amazing that this kind of unrepentant attack made it so high on the singles charts. But, then again, with each new release Dylan was expressing emotions that hadn’t previously been broached in pop songs, so the newness of it probably struck people, that and the fact that he did it with Al Kooper’s chirpy organ as his main accompaniment on the track. I’m in the camp that it was probably written about his former folk song buddies who turned on him, but what does that matter really? What matters is that without it, it would be hard to imagine songs as diverse as “You’re So Vain,” “You Oughta Know,” every diss rap ever recorded, and, heck, even “Diamonds And Rust,” for that matter, ever existing.

2. “Red River Shore”- When we’re permanently separated from the person we love the most, is it possible to truly be happy? What kind of life awaits us if that’s the case? Is it a life at all? Those are the questions underlying a song that might be the most tragic in Dylan’s entire catalog. Much of his music since Blood On The Tracks is haunted by that one girl who reigns above all others in his mind and heart to whom he is endlessly returning but never quite getting there, and “Red River Shore” takes that idea all the way to the harrowing end of the line and dares us to behold the boundless misery that awaits there.

1. “Blind Willie McTell”- Dylan’s intuitive sense of timing on the piano combined with Knopfler’s minimalist acoustic guitar fills make for a haunting combination, first thing. As for the lyrics? Timeless is a word that gets thrown around a lot when discussing music, but this song takes that word to another level. It bounces from Biblical times to slavery ships to a lonely modern hotel room, and a connection that suggests that human nature has never quite been able to get out of its own way becomes obvious. God watches it all, allowing greed and corruption to run rampant and lives to be subordinated to these pursuits while refusing to interject. Only the blues singer can put his finger on the vastness of the pain, providing an outlet if not an answer. And if that pretty well sums up what Dylan has been doing all the years.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to the paperback edition of Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)

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Best of Non-Studio Album Bob Dylan, Part II

Our countdown continues today with #20-11 on the list. Again, the rules here are that these songs do not appear on a Dylan studio album. (By the way, I’m including The Basement Tapes as a studio album, since I did do a CK-style review of that, which you can find in the archives.)

FOUR STARS

20. “Cant Escape From You”- Singing over an elegant doo-wop melody that would have suited Dion, Dylan craggily cogitates about the one love out of them all that stubbornly clings. He’s neither sad nor sorry, yet he states as a self-evident fact that this woman is tied to him till the end. There is a nimbleness to the singing here that matches the sprightly sorrow of the tune, and an overall effortlessness that has no right being in a song with such impressive lyrical displays.

19. “Abandoned Love”- It has the sound of Desire and the sentiment of Blood On The Tracks,  so, at a time when Dylan seemed more committed to thematic unity on his albums than normal, it fell through the cracks. But, man, does it hit home as a clear-eyed dissection of crumbling romance. Both his patron saint and his inner ghosts have betrayed him, so Dylan’s narrator is clearly in no shape to sustain this relationship. But what really kills you is the way he asks for one more moment at the end before it all goes to pieces.

18. “Up To Me”- This is a bit of a soundalike to “Shelter From The Storm,” so Dylan probably decided that Blood On The Tracks  wasn’t big enough for both of them. And really, how can you complain about that album? But still, this song deserves a spot somewhere. The narrator bears the burden at the end of every verse, a burden that slowly squeezes the life out of his ability to carry on in this romance. The settings and characters change drastically from verse to verse, but what it comes down to is fickle, frail human nature, as evidenced by lines like “She’s everything I need and love but I can’t be swayed by that.” And in that lovely last verse, Dylan literally brings his guitar and harmonica into the song and melts our hearts.

17. “John Brown”- Dylan’s Unplugged session at MTV is a prime document of how his live skills were still Ginsu-sharp in the early 90’s, even as people were questioning if he’d ever do anything of note in the studio again. (Boy, were those folks in for a surprise.) But the standout track was this out-of-left-field choice of a song he’d only demoed back when he wrote it in the early 60’s. How relevant its thoughts on the horrors of war stayed, and Dylan’s searing performance of it for Unplugged really makes them stick.

FIVE STARS

16. “Farewell, Angelina”- All you need to do to time-stamp this song is to listen to the surrealistic flow of the lyrics, which clearly places it in the same class with wordy wonders like “Gates Of Eden” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” from Bringing It All Back Home. Dylan gives a restrained reading of the song in the version that made it to the Bootleg Series, perfect for the song’s story of a drastic change that the narrator matter-of-factly abides. His exhortations to Angelina (more on her in a moment) urge her to prepare for the transformation, because it’s coming whether she wants to accept it or not.

15. “‘Cross The Green Mountain”- Dylan knows his Civil War stuff, but the war that he depicts here isn’t romanticized in the least. It’s a brutal, ugly thing, only leavened somewhat by the weary beauty of the martial music his band plays and the dignity of his lyrics. His narrator is dying, if not already dead, and he surveys both the abomination of reality and the sweeter scenery of the spirit world he hopes to enter. Maybe the narrator is a soldier, or maybe he represents the hope of humanity, snuffed out by war’s atrocities. In any case, the tragedy is, as the man says, monstrous.

14. “Angelina”- At the end of the Born Again period, Dylan was kind of all over the place, his secular musings trying to muscle their way back into the picture over the proselytizing nature of Slow Train and Saved. “Angelina” was recorded in the midst of this tumult and is all the more fascinating for it. Dylan switches back and forth from random scenes encountered by his lonely wanderer archetype and direct conversations with the titular character. Anybody who tells you for sure that they know what’s going on here is either lying or in over their heads, but getting lost in it is half the fun. And quite impressive how many rhymes he has for “Angelina,” right?

13. “Caribbean Wind”- Dylan lamented that all his rewrites of this song kind of diluted the original meaning, which he could never quite recover. Yet, somewhat like “Angelina,” the messiness of it is part of its charm, as each verse sets a new, thrilling scene and makes an insightful observation or two before its on to the next one. And the huffing rock arrangement is buoyed by Dylan’s absolute commitment in the vocals; his whine has rarely sounded more urgent. Autobiographical details sit next to shaggy-dog tales, and all of it lives within the “furnace of desire.” Who cares what he originally meant? This will do just fine, thanks.

12. “I Shall Be Released”- Let’s be clear here: Dylan’s off-the-cuff recording of the song for a greatest hits package (upon which this ranking is based) doesn’t come close to the takes he did with with The Band that eventually found their way to light. If he was trying to take some of the sonority out of the song in the version he recorded with Happy Traum, he succeeded, turning the song into more of a shrug of the shoulders. Still, it’s hard to erase the soaring ache in Richard Manuel’s voice from your head while listening; that’s your definitive take, right there. As for the song itself, well, it’s a matter of Dylan proving that he didn’t need verbal gymnastics to deliver profound truths.

11. “Rambling, Gambling Willie”- Keep in mind that this tale was concocted by Dylan at the very outset of his songwriting career, which makes the level of craft somehow more impressive. The gambler with a heart of gold is a tale as old as the hills, and still this song wrings something new out of it. Bob even gets away with giving us a moral to the story to wrap it all in a neat bow. Plus he blows some mean harmonica throughout. I’d go to see a movie made out of this song in a heartbeat.

(For more on these and many other Bob Dylan classics, check out my book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, now available in paperback. You can get it in the link below or find it at your local bookstore.)

https://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/1538101874/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=


Best of Non-Studio Album Bob Dylan, Part 1

In honor of the paperback release of my book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Songs, I thought I’d dig back into the Dylan catalog. You can see my Dylan album Retro Reviews by looking through the archives, but there are so many ridiculously great songs that he wrote and performed that didn’t make it onto his studio LP’s. So for the next few posts (after which we return to the Paul McCartney catalog), I’ll be counting down the Top 30 of those non-album songs, in typical Retro Review style. Remember that if the song appeared on a studio album, it’s ineligible for this list, so no alternate versions of “Idiot Wind” from the Bootleg Series or stuff like that. Today we start with #30-21.

FOUR STARS

30. “All Over You”- The Witmark Demos is one of the few Bootleg Series releases that didn’t really set me on fire. The versions of the well-known songs tended to pale next to the album takes, and the ones that were left unreleased were generally inferior and understandably left behind. But this one contains a heaping helping of cleverness and humor, as well as what seems to be pretty rampant use of double entendre, which is relatively rare in the Dylan catalog outside of The Basement Tapes, where minds seemed to be hilariously in the gutter much of the time.

29. “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”- Whether rendered acoustically in front of a live audience or in a herky-jerky studio take, this is one of Dylan’s flat-out funniest songs. He sets up each one-liner with the timing of a Borscht Belter, and it would be a sly commentary on sexual politics if he was even the least bit serious. We always wonder who inspired some of his heartbroken songs from the early 60’s, but the poor one-night stand who fired up this lark is probably glad to remain unidentified.

28. “Tell Ol’ Bill”- For your next Netflix theme night, fire up some of the random movies which included new, original songs of Bob’s in the last two decades. Not a lot of classics, mind you, and yet the songs that Dylan dreamed up for them were uniformly excellent. This moody, sauntering shuffle sounds like a song played by a combo on a smoky stage with just a handful of people milling about in the audience, none of them paying much attention. Dylan’s narrator, left to rot in a cold wasteland resembling his Minnesota childhood stomping grounds, by a woman, or God, or whomever, goes for broke because he has nowhere else to go. The phrase “the night is young” has never sounded so ominous.

27. “I’ll Keep It With Mine”- You can hear Dylan walking through this song on the Bootleg Series, prodded along by his producer, and the tender ache in his voice more than makes up for any stumbles and fumbles made by the musicians as they feel their way around it. The takes with Dylan kind of stomping through it on piano are fine as well. “If I say I’m not loving you for what you are/But for what you’re not” is a couplet that stays with you. And what do you suppose the “it” in the title is? I’d say it was the girl’s heart, but can you imagine Bob being that kind of honeydripper? I actually kinda can.

26. “Dirty World”- Found on the first Traveling Wilburys collection, this stomper is propped up by a muscular Jim Keltner thump. What always amazes me about these Wilburys performances is how at ease Dylan seems in a time frame when he sounded so labored in much of his solo work. You can focus on the humor there, and there’s plenty of it when his buddies all chip in with their random interjections at song’s end. Yet Dylan locates a note of woefulness in the narrator that makes it seem like he’s laughing through tears. The finished product is almost more affecting than maybe it was even intended to be.

25. “Huck’s Tune”- Dylan latches onto the gambling concept here in honor of the film Lucky You. This guy knows when to fold ’em, hence the refrain of “I’m gonna have to put you down for a while.” The vocal nails all the themes of the lyrics, from the weary heartbreak to the tentative hope. Extra points are awarded because he manages to surprise us with the hoary “wife”/”life” rhyme in the opening lines somehow. Never has losing one’s entire stake sounded as noble as it does here.

24. “Mama, You Been On My Mind”- Maybe the narrator doth protest too much, because I feel like she’s in his heart as well as on his mind. (Kind of like 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” or John Waite’s “Missing You,” in that regard.) Those opening lines are effortlessly poetic, and then Dylan pulls back from all that with prosaic pronouncements about how their paths are diverging and how it’s not really hanging him up that much. Dylan even sings it somewhat dispassionately to second that emotion (or lack thereof.) Then comes the closing couplet, where suddenly he turns the spotlight on her and how she may be kidding herself too. Such a subtle beauty.

23. “If You Belonged To Me”- Many people sleep on the second Wilburys album, but there’s a lot of fun stuff there (“Wilbury Twist,” anyone?) as well as this absolute killer. Jeff Lynne polishes those acoustic guitars to a fare-thee-well and Dylan pulls out the harmonica to seal the musical deal. The story is a pretty standard affair, you should be with me instead of him and so on, but it’s rendered with enough idiosyncrasy and bite to keep you coming back to it. George Harrison liked it so much he essentially recycled it with new lyrics for “Any Road,” the leadoff song on his final album.

22. “Dignity”- Some people might like the rawer takes you can find on Tell Tale Signs, but I actually prefer the studio version that he released as a single back in ’94. (Holy Hannah, has it been that long?) It’s musically nothing fancy, but it has enough of a backbeat to propel it along, and the other instrumental elements know to lay low and let Bob’s words do the heavy lifting. It’s a fascinating idea for a song; you can take it as a debate about what the word means or you can hear it as a lament that the concept of dignity is nonexistent in the modern world. In any case, it’s a deep thinker with some pep.

21. “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”- Straightforward enough to be recorded by Elvis (and Rod Stewart, whose version actually outdoes the King’s, in my opinion), and yet still strange enough to be worthy of its creator. The melody is a beauty, all cold desolation in the verses and sweet reunion in the refrains. The second verse sounds like a prototype for the lonely wanderer character Dylan would inhabit again and again in the post Time Out Of Mind era to staggering effect.

(For a more in-depth look at the songs of Bob Dylan, check out the link below to order Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, now available in paperback. Or find it in a bookstore near you.)

https://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/1538101874/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

 

 


CK Retro Review: Tempest by Bob Dylan

Anyone expecting Bob Dylan to mellow out once he passed the age of 70 had another coming with the release of Tempest in 2012. Full of darkness, grit, and violence, yet leavened by moments of great tenderness, the album was the most ambitious Dylan had attempted in about four decades, and wouldn’t you know he pulled it off stunningly. Here is a song-by-song review.

THREE STARS

10. “Soon After Midnight”- There’s not anything resembling a clunker on the album, so this track can hold its head high even as it brings up the rear. Dylan inhabits a musical backing that sounds like its been hijacked from an old Platters single and gets all romantic on us. That is when he’s not talking about the killing floor or threatening to drag people through the mud.

9. “Scarlet Town”- Interweaving lines from Quaker poets and folk ballads with references to his “flat-breasted junkie whore,” Dylan is clearly mixing up the medicine on this intriguingly elusive track. Bob’s piano sneaks through the minor-key instrumentation as if visiting the various people and places within this fascinating tableau, so rich and ruthless that it wouldn’t be surprising if one of the streets in “Scarlet Town” were Desolation Row.

8. “Narrow Way”- Dylan’s band really tears into this forceful blues number, playing with an abandon well-suited to Bob’s gripping, seemingly endless series of couplets that picks up steam as it goes. That catchy refrain suggests that the narrator knows his place in the gutter. He also knows that whomever he’s addressing is bound for that same gutter but doesn’t realize it yet.

7. “Duquesne Whistle”- Robert Hunter gets co-writing credit on this one, and, thankfully, it’s a good deal better than most of the collaborations he and Dylan had on Together Through Life. That Lawrence Welk gentility of the instrumental intro doesn’t give any indication of the ferocity that lies ahead on the album, but it is apropos for the train within the song which chugs along amiably even as it’s dogged by a hint of melancholy. After all, it might be delivering the narrator to the end of the line.

FOUR STARS

6. “Early Roman Kings”- Taking the music from Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” and adding some of David Hidalgo’s accordion to the mix, Dylan has a simple framework on which to hang his observations about the titular dandies. Bob spits out the lyrics with demented glee even as the Kings run roughshod over everyone in their path. I’m not sure whether Dylan is targeting politicians, CEO’s, or financial bigwigs, but it seems from the way that he sticks with the first person perspective for the most of the second half of the song that he’s sardonically suggesting that you should join ‘em if you can’t beat ‘em.

5. “Tin Angel”- This is a Dylanolgist’s dream in terms of the hidden meanings and lyrical mysteries just begging to be uncovered. It’s up to each individual listener how far you want to dig. For me, I focus on the grace notes on the surface, such as how Bob subtly switches the tone of his voice as he sings, from sly and suggestive when he’s being the narrator to a gravelly, disdainful bark when he’s portraying the members of the love triangle in their final confrontation. Shakespeare would be proud of the body pile Dylan leaves behind in his wake, and I look back to a quote from an older Bob parable for the best way to explain the mixture of passion and brutality on display in “Tin Angel”: “Nothing is revealed.”

4. “Long And Wasted Years”- People like to make fun of the condition of Dylan’s voice, but it’s hard to think of anyone pulling more emotion from his songs than Bob has, even with the limited range and ravaged quality of his vocals. Listen to his brilliant phrasing in “Long And Wasted Years,” as he soulfully emotes over a descending guitar riff and makes you feel every one of those years in his rear-view. He could be singing gibberish in that manner and make it sound affecting. Luckily, the lyrics are equally strong, recriminations and unhealed wounds giving way to self-examination and regret.

3. “Roll On John”- Dylan waited a good 32 years to assemble his thoughts for a John Lennon tribute. It was worth the wait. In typically idiosyncratic fashion, Dylan pulls Beatles song lyrics together and benevolent wishes with fantastical visions of Lennon in shackles and sailing into an ambush. Bob may be projecting his own feelings about the pitfalls of fame onto his old buddy, but what really jumps out at you on this elegiac track is the empathy. Lennon and Dylan may have had a complicated relationship, but this closes the book on it, and this amazing album, in the most heartfelt way possible.

FIVE STARS

2. “Tempest”- Like that dude who climbed the mountain just because it was there, so too did Dylan have to write about a song about the Titanic simply because it loomed before him as the ultimate in songwriter’s subject matter. In Bob’s retelling, the great ship’s destination, with the emphasis on destiny, was always the ocean floor; the passengers simply weren’t privy to that info. Those passengers react in ways ranging from heroic to heinous, while Dylan gilds their sad fates with effortlessly elegant wordplay. The watchman, lulled to sleep by David Hidalgo’s mournful violin, dreams away so as not to interfere with “the judgment of God’s hand.” Not a second of those twelve-plus minutes is wasted.

1. “Pay In Blood”- Some of Bob’s greatest angry songs, like “Idiot Wind,” “Positively 4th Street,” and “Like A Rolling Stone,” have an undercurrent of hurt running beneath them. Not “Pay In Blood,” as the narrator revels in the hurt he is about to inflict on the target of his unrelenting scorn. You would think such harshness would yield diminishing returns, but this is a triumph. It’s good to hear Dylan in a modern idiom for a change, even if modern means Tattoo You-era Stones. I can’t think of a better couplet to end this series of reviews than this: “I got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim/I got dogs could tear you limb from limb.” Says it all, doesn’t it?

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com 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 book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, available now at all major online booksellers.)

http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0810888238


CK Retro Review: Together Through Life by Bob Dylan

When it arrived in 2009, Bob Dylan’s Together Through Life was met with almost universal praise from reviewers (yours truly included, I must admit.) And yet…. The album, which features Dylan co-writing with Robert Hunter and getting instrumental support from Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and accordionist David Hidalgo, hasn’t blossomed with the passing of time like other late-period Dylan albums tend to do. I would wager that it’s not too high on any Bob fanatic’s playlist these days, burdened by a few too many generic blues tracks and a dearth of thunderbolt moments. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

10. “Jolene”- This song is as generic as it gets both lyrically and musically. Even Bob’s crack band fails to provide it a jolt, leaving it at bar-band material at best. I’ll take Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” over this one any day of the week.

9. “My Wife’s Home Town”- Maybe Dylan and Hunter made each other chuckle with the lyrics here, but for the listener, well, I guess you had to be there. Dylan’s vocals are uncomfortably serrated on the track and the pace is sludgy. Take the semi-funny punch line of the refrain away, and even that loses its luster after its repeated a few times, and there’s not much left here.

8. “Shake Shake Mama”- This one has an effective enough groove, but the repetitiveness of it begs for lyrics to provide some spice and variety. Alas, there is little life in them besides some worn over blues cliches which are hung together without any regard for how they fit into the song.

THREE STARS

7. “If You Ever Go To Houston”- This exercise in Tex-Mex balladry is understated enough to be charming. Dylan sets the song in an Old West full of gunslingers and barrooms, but you can tell all that the second Hidalgo’s accordion strolls across the dusty trail. Nothing too fancy, but welcome nonetheless.

6. “Life Is Hard”- Melodies are usually not what one discusses when dealing with Dylan’s later work, but “Life Is Hard” has a subtly affecting tune. Even if Bob can’t quite grab the higher notes, the strain is emblematic of his character’s woeful plight. This dude is seriously messed up over the departure of his love, so much so that he feels a “chilly breeze/In place of memories.” He can’t even muster up some trademark Dylanesque black humor to leaven his plight. As a result, the song teeters on the edge of being too maudlin, but Dylan’s vocal keeps on the right side of the line.

5. “I Feel A Change Comin’ On”- This song has the feel of one of The Band’s more soulful tracks, which means Hidalgo plays the Garth Hudson role here and plays it well. When the album came out, everybody jumped on the lines about Billie Joe Shaver and James Joyce as emblematic of Dylan’s unique songwriting perspective. For me, I prefer the other bridge, where Bob opines about the futility of dreams in simple but stinging words. There’s a good vibe to this one on the whole, even if it’s not quite the definitive statement it aspires to be.

4. “It’s All Good”- Maybe this one should have had a subtitle for the sake of accuracy: “It’s All Good (But Not Really)”. Dylan seems to be saying that the title phrase is not only wrong-headed but dangerous. His narrator has his eyes wide open about the world’s ills, but he’s also ready to take advantage of the chaos where he can. Even if the lyrics are a bit too obvious, the song gets by on the maniacal joy that Dylan seems to be having throughout.

3. “Beyond Here Lies Nothing”- The dynamic music pushes this one a long way, with the accordion hook and Campbell’s powerful licks playing off each other and the flamenco rhythm nicely. The lyrics may not be the most evocative set in Bob’s career (although “boulevards of broken cars” is quite a potent phrase), but the words fit the meter tight to make it prime sing-along material. Basically, it’s an airtight single, and that’s no easy feat.

2. “Forgetful Heart”- A suitably moody recording with lyrics just suggestive enough to make this sound maybe more profound that it is. Dylan has had conversations with his ticker before (“Heart Of Mine”), but none so ominous as this. That last couplet is a doozy (“The door has closed forevermore/If indeed there ever was a door”) and the song sustains its central conceit well all the way through. It’s more of a triumph of songwriting technique than an example of inspired profundity, but it’s still fine.

FIVE STARS

1. “This Dream Of You”- While it’s probably not fair to cast aspersions on the contributions of Robert Hunter based on the fact that the lone song which Dylan wrote alone is by far the best on the album, it is probably fair to say that it’s not a coincidence. Like other songs on the album, Dylan doesn’t try to fling his lyrics too far afield of the music, which in this case is a lovely South-of-the-border tune with fiddles and accordion in perfect conjunction. Yet this is the one Together Through Life song that has a little of the old Dylan mystery and magic. What seems on the surface like a simple broken-hearted lament actually goes much deeper and darker than that, until the very existence of the narrator’s dream girl comes into question. It’s haunting stuff, and it’s miles and away the best song here.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com 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 book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, available now at all major online booksellers.)

http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0810888238


CK Retro Review: Modern Times by Bob Dylan

It took Bob Dylan nearly five years to follow up on “Love And Theft,” but 2006’s Modern Times was well worth the wait. Once again self-produced and featuring members of his touring band, the album continued Dylan’s amazing late-period hot streak. It has jumping blues tracks, romantic crooner-type material, and a moody, magnificent closing track to send us all off the bed with the covers pulled tight over our eyes. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

10. “Beyond The Horizon”- The music has a sleepy, island lilt to it, making the heaven Dylan promises in the song sound a lot like Honolulu. That soporific music and the song’s deeper themes of eternal love might be at cross purposes though, so this one is a near-miss.

THREE STARS

9. “Spirit On The Water”- That jaunty little riff that anchors the song has an entrancing effect, which might make listeners feel like they’re in gentle territory here. Indeed, “Spirit On The Water” starts down that road, only to veer into darker territory down the line. The narrator seems a bit possessive of the woman he’s addressing, perhaps because he can feel his grip on her slipping. When he admits to killing a man in Paradise toward the song’s end against that supper club musical backing, this dreamy little track turns fascinatingly nightmarish in a hurry.

8. “Rollin’ And Tumblin’”- It’s a bit one-note lyrically, Dylan railing against the “lazy slut” who has beguiled him to the point of exasperation. What makes up for it is the kicking beat of George Receli and the band’s breathless performance, which gives extra oomph to every one of Bob’s ornery observations. Nothing new here, but well-executed.

7. “Someday Baby”- Dylan was right to choose this as the song which introduced the album to the world in promos and TV ads, because it’s got a rhythm that grabs and holds you throughout the entirety of the track. The lyrics are as accessible as Bob gets as well, a kiss-off to a lover who’s more trouble than she’s worth. The fact that the song was never played in live leads me to believe that Dylan wrote it for that mercenary purpose of hooking potential buyers, and it fills the bill effectively. Who knows? In a time when such things were possible for artists like Dylan, it might have been a hit single.

FOUR STARS

6. “The Levee’s Gonna Break”- As in “High Water (For Charley Patton)”, the waters roiling in Dylan’s narrative are of the figurative variety. Yet his protagonist in the song seems ready and prepared for the threat of the song’s title. His rough-and-ready attitude isn’t tempered one bit, as a matter of fact, and that spirit keeps this one from being a downer. With the band grinding it out behind him, Bob sounds as if he can ride the flood right to salvation.

5. “Nettie Moore”- Dylan the producer created an interesting arrangement for this song that doesn’t sound like it should work but does in spades. The creeping rhythm in the verses, like a tentative heartbeat, opens up into a gorgeously melancholy chorus. The lyrics work in much the same manner. Dylan’s narrator talks tough in the verses for the most part, at least until the end when the strong sunlight reveals his misery. That was made plain anyway in the refrains, when the title character’s memory haunts him and the whole world darkens before him.

FIVE STARS

4. “When The Deal Goes Down”- These ballads that Bob usually drops on every album are essential to his winning formula. In a way, they humanize him, showing the warm feelings that the gruff, bluesy songs sometimes eschew. In the case of “When The Deal Goes Down,” Dylan takes an old Bing Crosby song and does his own version of crooning that may not be as smooth as Der Bingle but certainly fits the open-hearted content of the lyric. There are a lot of things wrong with the world and with the narrator, but the love of his life redeems and rejuvenates him to deal with all that. To reciprocate, he offers to be there for her at the time in her life when she needs it most.

3. “Thunder On The Mountain”- After a couple crashing chords open up the song and the album, Dylan’s band takes a Chuck Berry groove and slows it down ever so slightly to squeeze all the juice out of it. The lyrics present Bob at his feistiest and most fun as he inhabits a fearless, strutting character that, one might hypothesize, might be the songwriter’s id cut loose. He’s got an army of orphans, a belly full of cow milk, and an expanding soul. You can delve into those lyrics for hidden clues, or you can just rock out with the band. Either way, “Thunder On The Mountain” goes down as one of Dylan’s finest album-opening salvos.

2. “Workingman’s Blues”- So how does Dylan make salient points about the problems of labor in America without making it sound like a sociology lesson? By letting those views emanate from a character who is no saint, who’s hounded by heartbreak, but whose biggest problem may be the dignity stolen from him when he lost his job. Thus Bob can get away with lines about competing abroad and the “buying power of the proletariat” because he puts a human face on the problem. After the elegant interplay between guitar, piano, and violin, the martial beat in the refrains is a sad call to arms for those singing those same blues.

1.”Ain’t Talkin’”- Dylan’s later work is notable for the songs’ refusal to be pinned down to a single emotion, as Bob often takes many detours and backtracks before reaching his ultimate destination. Yet “Ain’t Talkin’” is powered by its single-mindedness, as the narrator is bent on revenge of the most violent kind before a fast-approaching apocalypse occurs to settle all debts. His only deviation from his quest is to catalog his many ills and woes (for a guy who says he’s not talking, he sure goes on a while), and the only bright side you get is the oddly apropos heavenly flourish at song’s end. Maybe Dylan doesn’t create a warm and cuddly character here, but he certainly seems like the ideal spokesman for modern times and Modern Times, since both seem to be teetering on the edge of sanity right along with him.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com 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 book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, now available from all major online booksellers in both print and e-book editions.)

http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0810888238


CK Retro Review: “Love And Theft” by Bob Dylan

Time Out Of Mind got the Grammy love, but 2001’s “Love And Theft” is the album that cemented Bob Dylan’s resurgence to musical heights he previously scaled in the 60’s and 70’s. Whereas on the previous record he sounded wounded, bereft, and near the end of the line, Dylan’s various narrators on “Love And Theft” are ribald, fierce, funny, and generally unapologetic about the way they live their rough-and-tumble lives. The musical settings, ranging from bruising blues to vintage torch songs, are also perfectly tuned to Bob’s vibrant words. Here is a song-by-song review.

THREE STARS

12. “Bye And Bye”- There are no weak moments on “Love And Theft” really and, as on previous masterpieces like Blood On The Tracks, every song is essential in its way. So there is no shame in this ranking for “Bye And Bye,” which it occupies only because it’s a tad on the slight and frivolous side, even as it’s a genuine joy to hear.

11. “Floater (Too Much To Ask)”- It’s a bit of an odd bird of a song, bouncing amiably along before being interrupted by Larry Campbell’s violin which sounds as if it’s the from the soundtrack of an old serial cliffhanger. There’s a lot going on in the lyrics, and bits and pieces rise to the surface to shine, like the narrator’s surprisingly moving descriptions of his grandparents. The real highlight is hearing Dylan finesse those wordy lines while staying in character.

10. “Cry Awhile”- Dylan’s protagonist here is no softie; he lives in the “fringes of the night” and deals with unsavory characters and situations that aren’t for the timid. Yet he gets twisted and turned by the girl who penetrates his rough exterior and brings tears. Nothing penetrates the exterior of the music, however; it stays thunderous and nasty all the way home.

9. “Honest With Me”- Dylan took over production duties on his albums starting with “Love And Theft”, and he has generally favored pre-rock sounds for his songs. “Honest With Me” is as close as it gets to modern music on the album, churning along with brawny guitars at a pretty good tempo. It seems to set him free as a lyricist to absolutely lose his mind, as nudity, baseball bats, crashed cars, and Siamese twins all make appearances. It’s a wild ride, but a thrilling one.

8. “Po’ Boy”- This is one of those songs that would seem like a terrible idea if someone described it to you, yet it ends up being irresistibly charming. On the musical surface, it’s a gentle stroll of a song with a hint of melancholy in the melody. Yet the lyrics are full of hammy, eye-rolling humor, jokes that are older than Dylan himself. Still, you can’t help but laugh. Credit goes to Bob’s comic timing and the warm spirit that he exudes.

FOUR STARS

7. “Moonlight”- This song succeeds if for no other reason that it gives Dylan a chance to flex his poetic muscles over a lilting melody. His descriptions of his surroundings bring every sight, sound, and smell vividly forth, and he sings those tongue-twisters beautifully. Once he has the listener in awe, he goes for the heart with the sweetly direct refrain: “Won’t you meet me out in the moonlight alone?” This guy is such a sweet-talker, she’d be a fool not to.

6. “Summer Days”- Dylan lets his band, one of the best he ever assembled for an album, do much of the heavy lifting here. The dueling guitars of Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell cut loose on a 50’s-style blues, while the rhythm section of Tony Garnier and David Kemper keep things hopping. Bob has a blast with the strutting, braggadocious tone of the lyrics; the guy he portrays here definitely sounds like he knows “where there’s still somethin’ going on.” You get the idea that “somethin'” might be a lot of fun even if it’s ultimately not good for you.

5. “Lonesome Day Blues”- His voice raw and powerful behind a grinding blues-rock backdrop, Dylan sinks his teeth into a meaty set of hard-hearted lyrics. Bob has always taken advantage of the blues template rather than having his songwriting be restricted by it. On a song like “Lonesome Day Blues,” the anticipation builds up each time the first line of the stanza is repeated, because the completing line is always a killer. He’s done so many songs in his late-period Renaissance like this that they can be taken for granted. When they’re this good, they shouldn’t be.

4. “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum”- Lewis Carroll likely never envisioned his pesky pair being rendered quite like this. As written by Dylan, these two troublemakers seem even more dangerous because of the incompetence and ignorance they seem to possess. Bongos and twisting guitars help make for a thrilling recording, as Bob barks out his couplets with forceful menace. Are they old friends? Rival politicians? Twin poles of the songwriter’s psyche? That’s for the listener to decide and Bob to know, but we can all agree that this dastardly duo make fascinating subject matter.

FIVE STARS

3. “High Water (For Charley Patton)”- The flood here is metaphorical, which makes it harder to spot but no less devastating once it washes over you. People made connections to 9/11 based on some of the lyrics (the album was released on that infamous day), but Bob’s focus here seems to be on some of the traditions and tragedies that make up the history of the American South, making this a companion piece in a way to “Blind Willie McTell.” Campbell’s banjo walks hand-in-hand with Bob’s haunting imagery. The songwriting, the singing, the instrumental work: Everything here is absolutely in the pocket for a dark beauty of a song.

2. “Mississippi”- After numerous failed attempts to record the song with Daniel Lanois for Time Out Of Mind (several of those can be heard on Tell Tale Signs), Dylan took the song back and put it inside of an elegant, acoustic arrangement. That arrangement allowed Dylan’s stirring melody and lovely lyrics to come to the fore. For much of the song, the narrator is haunted by regrets and the circumstances that have pulled him and his love apart. Yet the final verses admit some light into the picture, as Dylan expresses the hope and gratitude that make an already wonderful song even more profound.

1. “Sugar Baby”- It’s the perfect closing song for the album because it’s the antithesis of all that has come before it. After an album’s worth of threats, jokes, and devil-may-care attitude, the bill comes due on “Sugar Baby.” Droning acoustic guitars pick out a chord pattern that sounds alternately heartbroken and resigned to its fate. The narrator makes woefully wise observations and shoos the title character away because he can’t bear to see her dragged down into the abyss with him. Considering the overall top-to-bottom quality of the album, saying that Dylan saved the best for last on “Love And Theft” is all you need to know about the greatness of “Sugar Baby.”

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com 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 book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, available now at all major online booksellers.)

http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0810888238