When you have a recorded legacy as monumental as the one possessed by Paul McCartney, it’s difficult to make a dent in it, especially these days when new releases by even the most prestigious of artists suffer quickly deteriorating shelf lives. I would argue though that the three-album stretch begun with Chaos And Creation In The Backyard (I’m not counting the specialty album Kisses On The Bottom) is the finest such stretch of his post-Beatles career. And it all began with this with cumbersomely-titled 2005 album, on which producer Nigel Godrich coaxed Paul to dig deeper, bite harder, and edit more carefully, all while doing his one-man band thing for an album as intimate as the end of the evening and as bracing as the first cold light of day. Here is a song-by-song review:
13. “At The Mercy”- The one song here where all of the instrumental passages, while lovely on their own, don’t quite cohere into something greater. It’s too bad, because it’s not often that you get Paul talking about darker emotions like “the fear inside.”
12. “Anyway”- I feel like this song, while pleasant enough, sends the album out on a bit of a recessive note, even with the off-kilter instrumental coda that lengthens its running time.
11. “Too Much Rain”- Essentially a rewrite of the old standard “Smile,” with maybe a little less of the obvious undercurrent of melancholy that the old song possessed. Not bad, but not earth-shaking either.
10. “Promise To Your Girl”- There’s more than a little bit of “Nineteen Hundred And Eighty-Five” in this, the album’s lone true rocker. It has the same kind of shapeshifting quality, at times charging ahead recklessly, at times stopping to ponder its whereabouts with dreamy falsetto vocals. That it holds together is a credit to McCartney’s compositional acumen.
9. “English Tea”- For all of those critics who feel like McCartney can get overly precious at times, this song must grate to no end. I, on the other hand, kind of like the idea of Paul skidding into the curve with this one, owning up to his tweeness with a Victorian era melody and exaggeratedly proper diction. An album’s full of this stuff would be deadly, but one for fun is just fine.
8. “How Kind Of You”- This one takes some clever musical turns, making the gratitude expressed by Paul in the song sound almost desperate. There are many times on this album where the lyrics somehow deepen within their interesting musical surroundings, and this is one of them.
7. “A Certain Softness”- McCartney loves slipping these exotic little numbers onto each album, showing his preference for a mellow, almost jazzy mood now and again. Sounds a little like something Antonio Carlos Jobim might have concocted for Frank Sinatra, which is a good thing.
6. “Friends To Go”- Macca dedicated this one to George Harrison, but I don’t see the connection. If anything, the story of the lyrics slightly recalls The Beatles “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party” in the way they detail a wallflower’s wish to remain undetected. One of many tracks on the album that come at us from a funky perspective, making the familiar sound strange and novel.
5. “Follow Me”- Like “My Love” many years before it, “Follow Me” overcomes lyrics that might be considered trite on the page thanks to the moving tug of the music. The verses arch upward hopefully, while the middle eight steps unto the breach, fearlessly bringing our narrator to a much-needed friend. The uplift comes without any forcing, so that can feel good about being gently manipulated into warm fuzzies by a master.
4. “This Never Happened Before”- Consider this one along the lines of “Only Love Remains.” It’s clearly in the vein of adult contemporary, tailor-made for a big-screen romance (and it was indeed used in the bizarre Keanu Reeves time-travel tale The Lake House.) And yet the craft McCartney possesses ensures that it’s quite stirring, as it saunters around in the first half before building to quite a momentous climax.
3. “Fine Line”- One of the odder opening tracks and lead singles in McCartney’s oeuvre, yet it’s compelling nonetheless. The off-kilter, almost dissonant piano riff is actually much more like Harrison than anything in “Friends To Go,” and it draws you in. Even though the lyrics don’t necessarily connect the dots, there are enough intriguing lines to keep you inspecting it. Plus it sets the tone for an album that, as a whole, comes at you from a slight different angle than the usual Macca release (and is the better for it.)
2. “Riding To Vanity Affair”- Since torment often breeds art, it can be argued that the relatively smooth sailing that Paul and Linda McCartney’s relationship enjoyed was not conducive to inspiration. Paul more than compensated over the years, but this moody, piercing track, perhaps aimed at Heather Mills, perhaps not, you be the judge, operates at a rather prickly frequency. And the thing is, Macca was always really good at these types of songs way, way back; I’m thinking of Beatles’ gems like “I’m Looking Through You” and “You Won’t See Me,” from the days when he and Jane Asher were undergoing a tumultuous romance. Kudos to Godrich for pushing him to improve the lyrics of this song; McCartney responded with a suitably stinging rebuke of fake friends.
1. “Jenny Wren”- Again, there’s a bit of a Beatle callback here. Once upon a time, McCartney mesmerized with a toe-tapping, acoustic, avian-inspired number called “Blackbird.” Here he captures that same kind of sound, albeit with an encroaching darkness surrounding it, emphasized by the strangely hypnotic solo from the duduk. My, this is a stunning melody. And Paul fills it with lyrics that dare us to interpret their fascinating suggestions. I’ve always read the song as a lament at how women are left to clean up the messes of antagonistic men. Jenny seems like a Cassandra character, seeing and speaking the truth but never heeded. Somehow both gorgeous and deeply sad. Gun to my head, I’d say it’s the finest song he’s done since Wings’ implosion.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Check out my new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, available from the link below or at any online bookseller.)
It just felt like there was too much going on for 2001’s Driving Rain to have much of a chance of making its mark. It was Paul McCartney’s first complete album of originals since the death of his wife Linda, and, in the interim, he had taken up with Heather Mills, so that aspect of it seemed to overshadow the actual music. On top of that came 9/11, which led McCartney to promote the album with “Freedom,” a jingoistic one-off that had little to do with the rest of the lovey-dovey material. All that aside, however, the album suffers anyhow from being unnecessarily long at 16 songs, not one of which quite muscles its way into classic territory. Here is a song-by-song review:
16. “Spinning On An Axis”- McCartney’s first of two songwriting collaborations with son James on the album is sunk by lyrics that aren’t nearly as deep as they want to be and music that struggles to define what it wants to be and ends up not being much at all.
15. “Freedom”- The intent was impeccable, and there’s no question the song did it’s job at the Concert for 9/11. But going back and listening to it as anything more than a curiosity is not something I can see many McCartney fans doing.
14. “Heather”- Some decent chord changes, but this mostly instrumental felt indulgent then. And, of course, knowing the outcome of the marriage, it feels downright awkward now.
13. “Back In The Sunshine Again”- The second McCartney/McCartney track on the album is a little better than the first, but not much.
12. “About You”- The rock racket it tries to raise sounds labored, and, by this point in the album, the praising love songs are struggling to say something new from the ones that preceded them. It does find its groove in the run-out, but by then you might have lost interest.
11. “Tiny Bubble”- Not to be confused with Don Ho, the best part of this bluesy midtempo track is McCartney’s willingness to let the melody drift to unlikely places. Nothing too memorable, but sounds pretty good while it’s on the speakers.
10. “Rinse The Raindrops”- The main section with the lyrics is forceful enough. How much tolerance you have for endless instrumental noodling probably dictates how you feel about the rest. As someone who thinks “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” should have ended before the bongos enter the picture, you can guess how I feel about it.
9. “Your Loving Flame”-Suffers from a lot of the same issues as “From A Lover To A Friend.” There’s a nice melody in there, but the lyrics are cliched and the production pushes a little too hard to try to get it to lighter-waving mode. That said, it fits into a kind of pleasing balladic template that makes you like it in spite of your best intentions.
8. “Driving Rain”- More jazzy than we’re used to from Paul, this one. And he wears it pretty well for the most part, although the improvisatory lyrics run out of steam as the song progresses. I do like the line, “Something’s open it’s my heart” though.
7. “Riding Into Jaipur”- Just a few weeks after the release of this album, George Harrison passed away. This feels like a preemptive tribute by Paul, and a pretty able one at that.
6. “Your Way”- Locating the heart of the country has never been an issue for Paul, and he does so effortlessly with this little, foot-tapping love song that’s charming if a bit slight.
5. “From A Lover To A Friend”- I feel like this echoes classic McCartney efforts without quite getting there on its own. The music is unmistakably lovely, stirring piano balladry with Abe Laboriel Jr. doing an excellent job on the Ringo-style fills. But the lyrics are all over the place to me, pronouns kind of thrown about willy-nilly to confuse the perspective and no real unifying aspect to really make the emotional connection. The music wins out in the end, but it feels like it could have been so much greater.
4. “Magic”- The serendipity of love is explored on this dreamy song. Macca’s bass work is inventive, and some leftover Jeff Lynne mojo must have been hanging around the studio from the Flaming Pie sessions, because this one could easily have slid onto an ELO album circa ’78 or so, which is a good thing.
3. “Lonely Road”- Those electric guitars really have some edge to them, and McCartney’s lyrics speak with a kind of fierce honesty to the disorientation that one feels after someone they loves moves on. Bluesy and tough, this song conjures up some raw emotions. Alas, it sets a personal tone that the rest of the songs just don’t quite sustain.
2. “I Do”- Producer David Kahne doesn’t shy away from ladling some Beatlesque bombast to the production here, and it suits the delicate melody and McCartney’s sweet sentiments. Just enough melancholy is located on the periphery to make the loving center that much more affecting. And Paul is everywhere, both singing high and lovely and rolling underneath it all on the bass, a wonderful performance at both extremes.
1. “She’s Given Up Talking”- Slow, heavy and compelling, with lots of vocal and instrumental effects that make matters all the more interesting. Kahne does a nice job laying things on and then pulling them away, while the relentless thrum of Paul’s bass and the smack of Laboriel’s drums provide steady ground. Add on the quirky little character sketch that McCartney delivers in the lyrics and you’ve got an unheralded track that would make for a great live cut if he ever decided to showcase some of his late-period solo stuff.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Check out the link below to my new book Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, available now.)
As a general rule, when Paul McCartney was forced to take most of the burden on himself the create a Wings record, the resulting record turned out to be better than the group’s more democratic efforts. Much like Band On The Run, 1978’s London Town was essentially carried by McCartney, wife Linda, and Denny Laine when other band members headed for the hills at the last minute. And while it doesn’t quite reach the masterpiece status of Band On The Run, London Town, until it peters out at the very end, abounds with such effortless geniality and tunefulness that it makes a strong case to be included among the Top 10 McCartney post-Beatles albums.
14. “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”- It gets lost somewhere between traditional folk and prog, and McCartney doesn’t really try hard enough with the lyrics here. Really the only time this album seems ponderous.
13. “Morse Moose And The Grey Goose”- Bizarre right down to the core, this track sounds like McCartney started trying to make some grand statement that got away with him. It’s too bad the last two songs on the disc are the weakest; sequencing (or maybe lack of editing is the better term) mars an otherwise excellent album.
12. “Backward Traveller”- It’s barely over a minute long, but it’s urgently engaging enough to make us wish that it were fleshed out to a full length.
11. “Deliver Your Children”- The minor-key whoosh, the finger-picked acoustic guitar a la “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” the solid harmonies from McCartney and Denny Laine, the refrains: All are fine. The lyrics start well but spin out of focus by the third verse, which keeps this one from quite meeting its potential.
10. “Name And Address”- Not much going on here beyond some rockabilly grooves and McCartney trying out his Elvis impression, which turns out to be not half-bad. The Stray Cats were listening.
9. “Cuff Link”- The light-saber synths are a nice contrast to the ominously funky rhythmic thrum, which, of course, is McCartney on bass and drums, which, of course, turns out to be all you need.
8. “I’ve Had Enough”- It has a very Wings-y feel to it, right? The fact that the song was recorded before Jimmy McCulloch and Joe English skedaddled probably accounts for that, but McCartney is still driving the bus with his feisty vocal.
7. “Cafe On The Left Bank”- The lyrics could have come off as twee, but McCartney’s decision to marry them to some of the toughest music on the disc erases any concerns. Some excellent lead guitar and clopping percussion keep this one vibrant and entertaining throughout.
6. “Famous Groupies”- Maybe not as sweetly appreciative as George Harrison’s “Apple Scruffs,” McCartney’s ode to rock hangers-on is still suitably awed at these sirens’ surprising powers over the musicians they enchant. Winking fun and, you guessed it, catchy.
5. “Children Children”- For my money, this is Denny Laine’s finest moment in Wings. He co-wrote the song with Macca, and you’d have to think Paul had a big hand in the song’s melodic charms, which are hopeful with a slight undertow of melancholy. Nonetheless Laine plays an engaging Pied Piper. Sweet without being cloying.
4. “Girlfriend”- McCartney’s efforts to craft a song for Michael Jackson led him to inadvertently test out his falsetto stylings, which turned out to be quite seductive in their own right; you can kind of understand why the titular character would be stepping out with this guy on the side. McCartney also adds the high-drama instrumental break (omitted by Jackson in his own take), which deepens what could have been just a fun but lightweight ditty.
3. “With A Little Luck”- One of the things critics of McCartney’s lyrics fail to recognize is just how adept he was at matching the words he chose to the the music he crafted. So while “With A Little Luck” might not seem like much on paper, the tentative optimism of the tune is perfectly captured by Paul’s simple declarations. Even the little-engine-that-could backing vocals at the end are right on point. What starts out as a humble tune, barely willing to poke its head out of the ground, becomes quite decisive and stirring.
2. “London Town”- The obviously antecedent here is “Penny Lane,” right down to the colorful characters and dignified brass. That the title track wakes up the echoes of such a formidable number is to its everlasting credit. It also sets a relaxed, benign tone for the rest of the album that turns out to be its calling card. Also, it seems redundant at this point in this particular Retro Review series to say that McCartney writes an enchanting melody, but, really, it’s a beauty. And the brief, rocking break shows there’s some spunk in the old city after all.
1.”I’m Carrying”- I have no idea what the narrator is carrying, nor do I know the occasion of this meeting with him and the girl in her room. But I do know that it is mesmerizingly romantic, thanks to the music behind the tale and the melody with which it is told. The delicately-picked guitar and the carefully-arranged strings form the airborne foundation, and the tune soars even above that with avian grace. In the final repeat of the refrain, you can hear McCartney start to let loose with some wordless “ooo-ooh” vocals, for even he is caught up in the sheer beauty of his creation. Who wouldn’t be?
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Macca’s “other” group, check out the link below to preorder my new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, due out in March 2017. Below that is a link to my Amazon page, where you can check out all my Counting Down books and e-books.)
Blame it on the lack of a George Martin type to bang wild musical ideas into coherent shape. Blame it on the drug arrests and court dates that diverted focus from the record. Or just blame it on the fact that The Rolling Stones were well out of their wheelhouse in the wilds of psychedelia. For whatever reason, 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request, its devoted group of contrarian supporters notwithstanding, was a bit of a mess then and still a bit of a mess now. Yet it did have a pair of crackling tracks to buoy the second side and would have been a great deal better had like-minded songs from the era “We Love You” and “Dandelion” but included. And, if nothing else, it served its purpose of refocusing the band on the earthy path it was always meant to tread, leading to the greatest period of music in their career. Here is a song-by-song review:
10. “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)”- What happens generally is we move on to the next track and make a mental note not to cue up this endless instrumental the next time around. It’s less pretentious than “Revolution 9” though, so that’s something.
9. “Gomper”- If they were indeed aping Sgt Pepper’s, I guess this was their “Within You, Without You.” The Quiet Beatle need not have felt threatened.
8. “In Another Land”- Bill Wyman finally gets his showcase. Alas, the harpsichord-laden verses are the kind of trippy pondering typical of that era that hasn’t aged that well. It’s too bad because the chorus ain’t half bad.
7. “On With The Show”- Although it feels tacked-on to sort of force a concept-album feel, the song surprisingly proves that Mick Jagger could do McCartneyesque whimsy with convincing flair.
6. “2000 Man”- Had this song stuck with the folksy acoustic segment all the way through, you might just have ended up with a four-star number. Jagger actually was building a nice melody there with some interesting lyrics about a family man’s inner malaise, which, details aside, sound striking similar to the existential concerns of family men through the ages. Instead it segues into a somewhat forgettable up-tempo theatrics that dull the impact somewhat.
5. “The Lantern”- Again, you’ve got a song that’s too fussy by half and Jagger’s lyrics refuse to let you grasp on and hold, which admittedly isn’t a dealbreaker. Still, there are musical moments on this song as pretty as anything else on the record, so it doesn’t wear out its welcome like some of the other stuff. They’d get a lot better at these dreamy songs that suggest a lot more than they say; see “Moonlight Mile” a few years down the road for a good example.
4. “Citadel”- There’s a pretty good rocker that’s desperate to escape the haze of the production; you can hear it whenever Keith Richards’ ominous riff comes to the fore. Same with Jagger’s lyrics, which get a bit lost in the clamor. Still, a little more of this darker approach would have gone a long way.
3. “Sing This All Together”- The start was promising enough, a percussive, genial sing-along featuring Beatle buddies John Lennon and Paul McCartney on backing vocals. The lyrics in the refrain capture the questing nature of the time pretty well.
2. “2000 Light Years From Home”- Well before Major Tom got lost in space, The Stones were already musing on the eerier aspects of exploring the outer reaches of the galaxy. Jagger allegedly wrote it during his one-night prison stay, and his hollowed-out vocal of his icy poetics still haunts. Richards makes his presence felt here more than anywhere else on the album, both with his slightly sinister opening notes and his bludgeoning riffs late in the song. This is Brian Jones’ time to shine, making that Mellotron sound wondrous and terrifying all at once. Stanley Kubrick was already well into making 2001 at the time this song was released; otherwise you would swear he took some inspiration from it.
1.”She’s A Rainbow”- Nicky Hopkins brilliant piano work alone is enough to carry this one a long way. Add in John Paul Jones’ tender string arrangements and Brian Jones bringing the brass on the Mellotron and you have lusciousness galore. These elements are melded together in ingenious ways around Jagger’s tale of a girl who’s literally colorful. Sometimes they’re all in there together being prodded forth by Charlie Watts pummeling drums, and sometimes they step out on their own for charming interludes. The end result is a song packed with dynamic surprises.
(E-mail me at email@example.com of follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on the Stones, check out my new book, Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, which you can preorder via the link below.)
You know the drill by now, folks. These are the new songs or albums to which I’ve been grooving, so I suggest you check them out to see if they’re equally grooveworthy to you.
“Almost Like The Blues” by Leonard Cohen
It was with great excitement that I learned of Cohen’s new album, Popular Problems, coming out on September 23. And the first taste of that album doesn’t disappoint. Over bongos and bass, Cohen muses on the world’s problems with the typical combination of sly humor and understated grace. What a wonder that he hasn’t lost anything off his fastball after all these years. Check it out in the link:
“Gimme Something Good” by Ryan Adams: Another hotly-anticipated album around these parts (by “these parts”, I mean my office) is Adams self-titled release on September 9. Chances are if you’ve listened to rock radio in the past month or two, you’ve heard this forceful attention-grabber which cops a vibe more Heartbreakers (can we be sure that isn’t Benmont Tench playing those creeping organ riffs?) than Heartbreaker. As direct and powerful as I’ve heard Adams in a while, this bodes well for the new release. And, for some reason, Elvira is in the video, so it’s got that going for it.
“Dangerous Days” by Zola Jesus: In a perfect world, this sepia-tinged electronic anthem would be a summer radio smash. Nika Danilova, who performs as Zola Jesus, has one of those voices that sound amazing in any setting, but in the midst of this track, it’s damn near overwhelming. Listen to the wordless belts in the outro and I guarantee you’ll want to cue thing up again. From her upcoming October album Taiga.
“Even The Darkness Has Arms” by The Barr Brothers: Words and melodies never go out of style, and this one proves that eternal fact in captivating fashion. This act based on Montreal has one album under their belt and have another, Sleeping Operator, coming out in September. This is pretty, haunting stuff that effortlessly seeps into your consciousness. Check it out below.
The Reconsider Me Tout of the Week- Cloud Nine by George Harrison: It may seem silly to ask you to reconsider an album that was a huge smash and contained an unavoidable #1 single (“Got My Mind Set On You.”) But I feel like this one gets forgotten amidst the wave of Wilbury-related albums that came out around that time. This is Harrison at his most accessible, full of killer melodies and lyrics that alternate between spiritual and sardonic. It also features perhaps my all-time favorite song about the Beatles, “When We Was Fab,” with a video that includes, Ringo, Elton, Jeff Lynne, John (via album cover), and a left-handed walrus on the bass.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Check out my books on the songs of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan in the links below.)
At the time it was released, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn was an innovative debut release from a young British band called Pink Floyd that created sounds so vivid and colorful that the entire Summer Of Love of 1967, into which the album was released, looked dim by comparison. Time and circumstance has turned it into the musical legacy of Syd Barrett, Floyd’s original frontman, whose drug and mental problems led to his dismissal from the group just a year after his release. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. Pow R. Toc. H-It’s the one instrumental here that gets a bit tiresome after a while. Rick Wright’s piano work in the early part of the song is the highlight, and a nicely moody ambiance is achieved at times, but the musical breakdowns aim for transcendence but come off bizarre.
10. “Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk”- The lone Roger Waters’ solo composition on the opening album achieves a brutal simplicity, at least in the early section, that predates punk rock by a good decade or so. It’s interesting to note that, as he would on future triumphs, Waters prefers a blunt melodic approach, but the difference here is his lyrics don’t pick up the slack.
9. “Flaming”- The pyschedelia here is so overdone that it’s almost feels like a parody. And maybe it was; Barrett certainly was self-referential in his songwriting long before that became all the rage. There is something vaguely threatening in the lyrics, the way Syd’s narrator floats high above those he’s addressing and speaks of touching them should the mood strike him.
8. “Scarecrow”- Even Barrett’s minor songs were never less than fascinating, simple because he had a skewed point of view that other songwriters just didn’t possess. This little character study, distinguished by snake-charmer organ and clicking percussion, has an unforced loveliness to it. It feels a little like an unfinished sketch, which precludes a higher ranking, but it’s still charming.
7. “The Gnome”- Another sweet little song that carries a bit of menace in it, especially when the whispered backing vocals hiss out, “Isn’t it good.” This one has a little bit of John Lennon’s winking wordplay and Paul McCartney’s melodic ease, and a whole lot of the whimsy of Kenneth Grahame (the author of The Wind In The Willows, which inspired the title of the album).
6. “Matilda Mother”- This one would have had a higher ranking were it not for the out-of-left-field instrumental break, which shatters the mesmerizing mood (and sounds just like The Zombies” “Time Of The Season”, which was recorded in Abbey Road studios just a few months after this song), and the jarring edit which takes us back to the main section. Besides that, the contrast between the fairy tale portion sung by Wright and Barrett’s exhortations to the mother in the song to not let the reverie end is wonderfully inventive.
5. “Chapter 24”- Barrett’s fascination with the I Ching apparently inspired the lyrics to this dreamy tune. You don’t need to know any of that to appreciate the beauty in the way the melody soars all around the droning buzz that envelops the song. George Harrison couldn’t have done it any better.
4. “Bike”- Maybe it’s too unsettling for some folks to hear the manic vocals and the clocks-from-hell coda, considering how Barrett’s condition would deteriorate so quickly. That said, there’s something absolutely captivating about the way his synapses fire; it’s really unlike anything that rock music has ever offered before or since. And it’s also a truly unique way to end this album that was ridiculously ahead of its time.
3. “Interstellar Overdrive”- You really can’t go wrong with this or “Astronomy Domine” in terms of spaced-out bliss, but I prefer the latter slightly because it achieves the same effect in a much shorter amount of time. Still, this nine-minute set piece is marvelous, constantly morphing into new shapes, always eluding us when we get it in reach only to sneak up on us again just when we think we’ve lost it.
2. “Astronomy Domine”- First of all, it’s got one of the great titles in all of rock and roll. The instrumental structure is such that the song always seems to be climaxing; indeed it seems like Nic Mason only has toms and cymbals on his drum kit for the track. Some credit also should also go to producer Norman Smith for helping the band realize such an intense sound in the studio. The zombified harmonies of Wright and Barrett utter trippy lyrics that sneak up on you with their darkness (“Stars can frighten.”) It all coalesces into something that’s beautiful and harsh all at once. It’s an insult to the skill and craft on display to say that this music can only be enjoyed on drugs. All you need is a pulse to truly revel in its wonder.
1. “Lucifer Sam”- “That cat’s something I can’t explain” is still pretty much the universal reaction to Syd Barrett; here it’s his way of describing a mysterious Siamese who mesmerizes him. There is none of the whimsy of “The Gnome” here though; just an insistent spy-movie groove that adds something sinister to the feline adventures. The funny thing about The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is that, even though it doesn’t have the conceptual bent that the Waters-led Floyd albums would boast, it’s mostly impossible to listen to songs from Piper without the context of the entire album and still get the full impact. But you can with “Lucifer Sam”, the song where Barrett’s off-kilter storytelling perfectly syncs up with the band’s instrumental ingenuity and provides a glimpse of an alternate history: What Pink Floyd might have been like had Syd somehow managed to not get blown away by that steel breeze.
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Considering that there was a decade-long hiatus between 1990’s The Rhythm Of The Saints and 2000’s You’re The One in the catalog of Paul Simon proper studio albums, one might have expected the latter to be a grand statement sort of album. Although it got the requisite Grammy love, You’re The One is, in truth, a muted, elusive affair, rhythmically complex and lyrically vague to the point of impenetrability. In other words, it’s a grower, although you’re forgiven if you give up on waiting for the payoff. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “Senorita With A Necklace Of Tears”- Another samey-sounding rhythm, a repetitive melody, New Age musings on time and South American frogs: This one is a snooze, even with a nice verse toward the end about the intertwining of memory and music.
10. “Look At That”- Session man extraordinaire Larry Campbell provides a little bit of color in this one with his pedal steel work. Other than that, this meandering mid-tempo track is hard to remember once it’s over.
9. “Hurricane Eye”- There are what seems like two distinct songs going on here, with the banjo work of Mark Stewart distinguishing the first half before a more aggressive second half. You get the feeling, based on its placement as the penultimate song, that Simon thought he had an album-defining track. Instead, it’s much ado but little impact.
8. “You’re The One”- Simon can’t decide just what he wants this song to be (a problem that permeates many of the weaker tracks on the album.) Is it a jaunty, caustic send-up of the unrealistic expectations of love or a more probing meditation on its frailties? The music is similarly conflicted, partly jumpy and partly subdued. Maybe that was the intent, but the song is difficult to embrace.
7. “The Teacher”- While it musically sustains its mysterious mood, Simon’s weird narrative sounds a little like something at which he might have poked fun back in the day. When he sings, “I was a child of the city,” some might fight the urge to yell at him to get back there. I know I did.
6. “Pigs, Sheep And Wolves”- I’m not sure whether this is just a children’s lark, a goof on a fairy tale, or some deeper parable about the dangers of misperceiving appearance. What I can say for certain is that it’s one of the few times on the album that Simon seems to be legitimately having fun, and that fun is infectious.
5. “Quiet”- The lyrics about shunning the pursuit of material goods sound like they could have been penned by a 60’s spiritual healer (or at least George Harrison.) Still, the music is cinematically vivid and eerily pretty, like mist settling on a mountainside.
4. “Love”- For all of the intricate percussion and rhythmic complexity on the album, one of the highlights is hearing Simon’s vocals, at the forefront if only for a few moments, singing the word “love” here and reminding us how moving his vocals can be. This is one of the more focused songs on the record as a whole, although it rarely rises again to that aforementioned high.
3. “Old”- Holy Horn-rims, are those “Peggy Sue” guitars ever welcome. They bring a little grit and vigor into the otherwise bloodless proceedings. Simon’s lyrics are funny without trying too hard to be, nicely suiting the rocking rhythm. Mentioning the Stones and Holly next to Jesus and Buddha, Simon indulges his album-long obsession with the relativity of time in much more pleasurable fashion than he manages to do in some of the more ponderous tracks.
2. “That’s Where I Belong”- It’s too slight and sleepy to rise into four-star category. That said, it’s by far the best melody on the album, one which Paul sings in touching fashion. The lyrics also win points for their simple yet affecting nature, especially the lovely first verse, which pretty much tells the whole Simon story in a nutshell, doesn’t it?
1.”Darling Lorraine”- From “The Dangling Conversation” to “I Do It For Your Love” to “Hearts And Bones,” Simon has always been painfully honest in detailing the ebb and flow of a romantic relationship. He takes it to the extreme on the marvelous “Darling Lorraine.” From early infatuation to boredom to reconciliation to petty bickering, it’s all there. We end up rooting for this couple, which is why the song’s end is so potent. Some people might find it end morbid, but it is the absolute truth about how it all plays out, rather than the phony, prettified version that usually passes for a love song. Frank and Lorraine, in their flawed glory, feel startlingly real, making them stand out in an album full of cosmic intangibles.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books and e-books based on material that originated on this site, check out the links below. And online reviews of that material are greatly appreciated.)
While it is by no means the utter disaster that many critics made it out to be (nor is it the sneaky masterpiece some contrarians posit), Bob Dylan’s 1990 album Under The Red Sky is pretty much devoid of anything resembling a classic track. As such, it squandered much of the momentum Bob had going following Oh Mercy and his Traveling Wilburys success. At least it had an all-star guest list, as Dylan called on a wide range of instrumentalists to put this relatively listless batch of songs in play. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “T.V. Talkin’ Song”- While I guess you could say Dylan’s concerns over the influence of television on impressionable minds were prescient, he makes his points so thuddingly obvious that he sounds like a crank. Incisive commentary this is not.
9. “Wiggle Wiggle”- There is way too much 90’s rock gloss laid on this opening track, deadening what could have been a decent groove. Dylan’s vocals are lifeless, the lyrics are forgettably simple, and the whole thing lacks punch for an up-tempo number.
8. “10,000 Men”- Just as Bob’s boogeying piano giveth some life to this song, his vocals, which sound as though he recorded them right after waking up, taketh away. The lyrics are all over the place, starting off sounding like an anti-war screed and turning into something pretty incoherent.
7. “2 X 2”- When the most exciting thing about a song is the list of instrumentalists who play on it, there are problems. Elton John and David Crosby are the bold-faced names, but sessionman extraordinaire David Lindley is also along for the ride on bouzouki. (And, the Dawg himself, Randy Jackson plays the bass, as he does on a few tracks on the album, doing an especially nice job on “Born In Time.”) All of that talent is put to the aid of a numerical rhyming game with no melody whatsoever. They do make it sound good, I suppose.
6. “It’s Unbelievable”- I think this song was meant to be of the same ilk as “Everything Is Broken” or “Political World” from the previous Dylan album, Oh Mercy, sort of a catalog of the world’s ills. Alas, “It’s Unbelievable” is a bit too vague and not biting enough to make the same kind of impact. Still, the band produces an effectively churning rock groove to lend some heft.
5. “Cat’s In The Well”- The closing track on Under The Red Sky has something akin to a 60’s go-go vibe thanks to the guitar riff that gives the song its solid momentum. Dylan gets a little bit lost behind the band’s thunder, but that’s forgivable considering Stevie Ray Vaughn leads the charge on guitar and gets in a couple brief but stinging solos. Bob gets the last word in, as a matter of fact the last words his songwriting pen would produce for seven years: “Goodnight, my love, may the lord have mercy on us all.”
4. “Under The Red Sky”- Dylan used pieces of nursery rhymes throughout the album for seemingly ironic purposes (although who knows what he was trying to do really.) On the title track, he plays it straight and seems to have written a children’s song; the album was dedicated to his daughter, after all. It’s a charming effort that benefits from some nice slide work from fellow Wilbury George Harrison and keyboards from Al Kooper that could easily produce some Highway 61 Revisited déjà vu.
3. “God Knows”- It’s one of the few songs on the album that has an arrangement with some forethought behind it, as it builds from a spare opening into a chugging, mid-tempo rocker with expert guitar work from the Vaughn brothers and David Lindley. The God that Dylan invokes here is alternately benevolent and merciless, keeping the best interests of the faithful in the forefront even as those straying are threatened in none-too-subtle fashion. Again, it’s all a little vague, but it holds your attention.
2. “Handy Dandy”- Some of the old ambition crept into this character sketch of a damaged and damaging dude. The track swaggers along with a cocky stride, getting extra muscle from Al Kooper’s colorful organ and Waddy Wachtel’s strutting solos. Dylan overstuffs his lines like the good old days and sings with a little attitude for once on the album. I think the fact that it’s on a lesser album makes people overrate it a bit, but it’s fun, has several great lines, and you can dig into it and come up with something.
1.”Born In Time”- Dylan’s accordion-playing (Who knew?) is an oddity on this sweet ballad, but it’s his open-hearted vocals in the middle sections here, seconded by David Crosby’s shaggy harmonies, that really engage the listener. The lyrics have some vivid imagery and the kind of wistfulness that Bob does better than just about everyone. He leaves open the possibility for a happy reconciliation for the couple at the end, singing “You can have what’s left of me” to his star-crossed lover. The heart and soul embedded in this recording makes it the best thing on this collection and one of Dylan’s underappreciated slow ones.
(E-mail me at email@example.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 upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, available at all major online booksellers.)
The media painted it as an artistic comeback for Bob Dylan from the poorly-received Self Portrait, but in fact 1970’s New Morning was formulated at roughly the same time (and released just four months after) its infamous predecessor. As a matter of fact, the album has its own quirks and peculiarities that make it a bit of an outlier in the Dylan catalog, albeit an enjoyable one. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “If Dogs Run Free”- Lounge-act kitsch also attracted The Beatles around this time (their goofy novelty song “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)” is evidence of this), so maybe Dylan can be forgiven. While there’s no doubt he was in on the joke, it doesn’t mean that the joke was all that funny. This one would have been better suited to the erratic weirdness of Self Portrait.
11. “Father Of Night”- The lyrics have some interesting things to suggest about a God who births both the good and the bad, but they are ultimately let down by the song’s repetitive melody and brevity. Dylan usually is right on with his choices for album-closing songs, but this one sends New Morning off in forgettable fashion.
10. “One More Weekend”- A bit of the old rasp in the voice helps authenticate this bluesy, randy ode to getting away from it all, if only for a couple of days. It’s a bit of a throwaway, but a fun one nonetheless.
9. “Time Passes Slowly”- Slowing down the pace of life is something that clearly appealed to Dylan around this time. This song is a sweet little ode to that kind of lovely lethargy. The piano is somewhere between gospel and jazz, while the urgency in Bob’s vocal suggests that the quiet life isn’t easily obtained or sustained.
8. “New Morning”- The preponderance of downright happy songs are what makes New Morning such a refreshing listen. There’s nothing fancy going on with the title track, but that’s only right since the simple pleasures are what Dylan is espousing here.
7. “Three Angels”- Dylan ingeniously contrasts the bustlings of city life with a trio of heavenly statues watching them all. Bob speak-sings the lyrics while the mournful music swirls around him. The message about man’s obliviousness to spirituality might be overdone a tad, but it’s hard not to get swept up in it in the end.
6. “Went To See The Gypsy”- The common critical consensus used to be that this song was inspired by a visit to Elvis Presley (the line “He did it in Vegas and he can do it here” is supposedly the giveaway), but Dylan has since denied meeting him. Whatever the case, the song works as a meditation on the chasm between living life in public and staying out of the limelight. Considering the emptiness of the narrator’s visit to the gypsy and his final transportation back to a small Minnesota town, it seems that Bob was contemplating the proper road to take.
5. “Winterlude”- It’s one of the most charming songs in the Dylan canon, all coy come-ons and sweet nothings that amount to a romantic proposal that’s impossible to resist. The niftiness of the wordplay is impressive, the warmth of the music is enchanting, and, as cheeky one-liners from Bob go, “Winterlude, this dude thinks you’re fine” ranks right up there.
4. “If Not For You”- I think that this song would have prospered even more if a middle ground could have been reached between the muddled arrangement that Dylan chose and the overly lush take that producer Phil Spector created for George Harrison on All Things Must Pass. None of that can mask the fact that this is one of Dylan’s sweetest and most direct love songs, making it an excellent tone-setter for an album full of gentle reflections on love, life, and happiness.
3. “The Man In Me”- Maybe the Coen did us all a favor by making this The Dude’s unofficial theme song in The Big Lebowski, because they captured its essence in the process. It is indeed the perfect embodiment of amiable aimlessness, echoed by Al Kooper’s wandering organ. Dylan’s “la-la” refrains reveal in their own special way more about the inner workings of the narrator than any verbose verses ever could.
2. “Day Of The Locusts”- Dylan’s freaked-out experience during his reception of an honorary degree at Princeton University inspired this fascinating track, one of the few in Bob’s career which can be considered nakedly autobiographical. The skepticism of higher education is a recurring theme in Dylan’s career from “Like A Rolling Stone” to “Foot Of Pride,” and it manifests itself here in darkly comic fashion. This is one of the most vibrant musical tracks on the album as well, gathering momentum throughout and featuring a memorable chorus that Dylan cathartically belts.
1. “Sign On The Window”- The album’s standout is marked by some lovely interplay between Dylan’s forceful piano playing and Al Kooper’s wistful keyboards. The female backing vocals are well-utilized as well and it’s a nifty little gospel-tinged melody with melancholic undertones. Dylan’s lyrics, perhaps his best set since John Wesley Harding, and his emotional performance are truly what make this one so special. The narrator’s yearning for an unassuming homestead and a large brood in the last verse is made even more touching by the contrast of his struggles to get there in the first few verses and the bridge. “That must be what it’s all about,” is what he concludes about his dream life, but it doesn’t mean it will be an easily achieved dream.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)
Just two years after the smashing success of their debut, The Traveling Wilburys returned in 1990 for a second round of roots-rock supergrouping that they titled, with typical tongue-in-cheek, Volume 3. Alas, they were missing a family member after the death of Roy Orbison, but Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and George Harrison soldiered on to far less media attention and sales. Here is a track-by-track review.
11. “New Blue Moon”- Lynne was essential to the group for his expert production and his ubiquitous vocal harmonies, but none of the songs on which he took lead in the group’s brief existence ever took off. This breezy number is just well-played filler.
10. “Seven Deadly Sins”- While the idea of Dylan singing lead in a doo-wop group has a certain subversive flair, it’s not enough to carry this one very far past pleasant inconsequentiality.
9. “Poor House”- Petty’s offbeat humor comes to the fore on this hootenanny, aided by Lynne’s yelping backing vocals and Harrison’s ever-fetching slide guitar. One of the most fun tracks on the album, even if it’s easily forgettable once it’s over.
8. “The Devil’s Been Busy”- The second Wilburys album was generally a shade darker than the first, perhaps reflecting the loss they had suffered when Orbison passed away. This track, which gets a nice boost from Harrison’s sitar, is bitingly cynical, a trait that would have sounded out of place on Volume 1. Dylan gets off the best line here, directed to the victims of corrupt power: “Sometimes you’re better off now knowing how much you’ve been had.”
7. “You Took My Breath Away”- Jeff Lynne produced two Tom Petty albums to continue their professional relationship, including Highway Companion in 2006. There’s a lovely ballad on that album called “Damaged By Love,” and you can hear the seeds of that song on “You Took My Breath Away.” The lyrics aren’t as polished on the Wilburys number, but the overall pace and production makes the songs pretty much first cousins.
6. “Where Were You Last Night?”- Both Wilburys album are consistently strong, but the second one lacks any true classics along the line of “Not Enough Anymore” or “Tweeter And The Monkey Man.” Songs like “Where Were You Last Night?,” an amiable ode to romantic suspicion coughed out by Dylan with Harrison helping out, rule the day. It gets by just fine on charm and professionalism but lacks the songwriting spark that propelled Volume 1.
5. “Cool Dry Place”- We all have storage problems, but musicians probably have to deal with that more than most. I learned that from this bluesy, saxophone-embellished affair that features Petty portraying a cramped instrument collector. So what if not everyone can relate to such an uptown problem? Al least the song has a distinctive point of view, which makes it stand out here.
4. “Wilbury Twist”- As stated above, Volume 3 was a relatively dour affair compared to Volume 1. That all goes out the window on the closing track, when the Wilburys create their own dance which includes, among other distinctive moves, this command from Harrison: “Put your other foot up/Fall on your ass/Get back up/Put your teeth in a glass.” At the time, everyone hoped that the Wilburys would regale us with more music down the road, but, as a closing statement by this casual assemblage of superstars, “Wilbury Twist” is as fitting as could be.
3. “Inside Out”- Environmental concerns seem to be at the heart of this song, although the lyrics work better as a series of one-liners rather than as a coherent whole. What carries the day is the group interplay, as Dylan takes the verses, Petty the refrains, and Harrison the bridge, while Lynne adds harmony to them all in an MVP performance. This one has the effortless bounce and swing of the first album, with walled acoustic guitars and Jim Keltner’s rock steady beat doing much of the heavy lifting.
2. “She’s My Baby”- As great as the first album was, there was nothing on there that really rocked. “She’s My Baby” takes care of that right from the bludgeoning opening riff. Keltner, as usual, is crucial, and Gary Moore comes aboard to play a fierce lead guitar and a sprinting solo. The lyrics are reminiscent of Vol. 1’s “Dirty World” in their reliance on double entendres and wink-wink, nudge-nudge sexual references, that is until Dylan (who else?) gets right to the heart of it: “She like to stick her tongue right down my throat.”
1. “If You Belonged to Me”- The band’s willingness to trade jobs and share the limelight on the second album is commendable, but the finest song, ironically enough, is the one where a single band member takes center stage. In this case, it’s Dylan, pulling one of his acidic love songs out of the holster and singing it with just the right mix of wounded pride and thinly-veiled disgust. His harmonica solo is typically stellar, and the acoustic guitar mix behind him is pristine. As a matter of fact, Harrison liked the arrangement so much that he essentially re-wrote the lyrics and presented it as “Any Road,” the lead track on his final solo album Brainwashed.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Books and e-books of material that originated on this site can be purchased from the link below.)