Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ten Years After - Joe Strummer



By chance I realized that today marks the ten-year anniversary of the death of Joe Strummer, enigmatic and iconic leader of the Clash. Because I’ve been going through a bit of a personal Clash revival over the past few weeks, Joe and his death had been on my mind, but I thought it was already past, not this close to Christmas.

Not to make an “Elvis” comparison, but I can remember where I was when I got the news 10 years ago, which is sitting at the computer of my old home office in TN, where it popped up on some news feed or other. At the time I was going through a huge Clash phase, and so naturally the news was quite upsetting, even surreal, though not as devastating as it had been to so many aging punks who had lived it first hand. I read a lot on the man in the following days, and as a result his legend grew within me.

However, the years in between found me sorta turning my back on the Clash, especially Joe himself, and a big part of that was seeing the 2007 documentary The Future is Unwritten. It’s a great piece of film making, but I walked away feeling disillusioned, and that Joe Strummer, who for so many was “the real deal,” was actually a bit of a jerk until he was about 40, where maturity and experience finally kicked in and made what he was preaching an actual part of his life.

Now that’s a rather broad and admittedly uninformed statement, and there are tons of well-documented accounts before and after the Clash where Joe was, well, a pretty good Joe; but there were other instances documented in the film that left a bad and bewildered taste in my mouth. And so I walked away from the Clash…with the exception of the (UK version of) debut, because it is the real deal, and wondered why I still held on to all those albums.

Still, his loss to the music community, to a groundbreaking movement and to an entire era cannot be understated or glossed over, and the world was certainly a touch dimmer with his passing.

But time heals all wounds, and a decade later a lot of folks can look back on the life and career of Joe Strummer with fondness over tears, appreciate what he brought to music (which is a rather staggering impact despite a somewhat slight output) and the changes he was attempting to bring about in a chaos-driven society as a whole. Looking on the web, I’ve found a few other “ten years after” tributes, folks lamenting the state of things both musically and geo-politically now that he’s gone, etc, etc. Honestly, I’m not sure things would be much different if he were 60 today and had given us three or four more albums as fantastic as the posthumous Streetcore. In the 70s and 80s he may have turned a few minds for the better, but in the end he was just preaching to the converted, telling us what we already knew, but in a way that was more brazenly punk-articulate, and because it was Joe talking, you listened.

Sadly, it looks like the world is forgetting Joe and the Clash. I was picking up the kids at preschool two days ago and Fox’s teacher (I’m guessing in her late 40s/early 50s) made a big deal about my London Calling shirt. She asked some under 20, seemingly “cool” guy what he thought about the Clash and he said, “Is that a 60s band?” Oh well…

As for myself, I have “forgiven” Joe for whatever it’s worth. In the end, the music speaks louder than any individual moment captured on film, or the recollection of someone “who was there” twenty-five years after the fact. The Clash was a truly great band, and Joe Strummer as their peerless leader was about as great of a front man as anyone before, during or after. I hate that he’s not with us here today, not just because of the music, but because he represented the spark that lives in every heart hoping in change for the global better.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Tis the Season



Tis that time of year again, when stores put out their green and red and cover everything in cotton snow, towns line the streets with festive lights and every mother’s child puts out a flippin’ Christmas album.

I believe I did a few Christmas posts a couple of years back, and likely expressed my misgivings with the holidays at one point in my life. But with age and kids, my old soft heart has caved and I’ve found that I rather like Christmas music. As always it’s an emotional thing, and few tunes can swing with zany delight or break your heart into a billion pieces better than those we only pull out for about five weeks at the end of each year. And personally, I prefer classic songs to new compositions, and a more standard, “reverent” rendering of those songs than an amped up throw away tossed on some “Rockin’ XXXmas!” compilation. Of course there are exceptions in both categories, and I believe I’ve mentioned The Pogues/Kirsty McColl ditty Fairytale if New York as a personal favorite, and have also always enjoyed the Cocteu Twins take on Frosty the Snowman and Winter Wonderland.

Anyway…

I “don’t allow” Christmas music in the house until Thanksgiving Day, and it irked me to no end to see trees and garland for sale at Target before it was even Halloween. But now that Turkey Day is behind us, it’s been a holy and a holly jolly good time left and right. This year I beefed up the rather small collection of Christmas albums with several that were on sale for “I’ll pay that” cheap at a couple of places. None of them are in the category of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the greatest Christmas album of all time (and if you don’t agree, you are flat out wrong), but one or two might be darn near close in their own way.

Let’s begin!

Frank Sinatra – Christmas Songs by Sinatra: This here is a re-release of a repackage of an original release from back in 1948 that had various other songs tacked on here and there along the way. None of this material was recorded after 1950, so this is prime Sinatra. For the most part it’s a “ballads” collection, so better for background dinner music than to get the party hoppin’, but a few numbers in the middle swing as only Frank can. My favorite part is the bits recorded for broadcast to the troops overseas, complete with pre-song dialog.

Louis Armstrong & Friends – What a Wonderful Christmas: An obvious cash-in on Armstrong (he only appears on about six of the fourteen songs), this is still an excellent collection, as his “friends” include the likes of Duke Ellington, Mel Torme and Lena Horne, just to name a few. I’m not sure that Louis is really well known for his rendition of any one Christmas jingle, but Eartha Kitt’s Santa Baby is always a sexy delight and Torme’s take on his own Christmas Song, while not the definitive Nat King Cole version, reminds you why this is usually considered the greatest Christmas song of all time. But the standouts for me are the lesser known cuts, and especially from Louis, with tunes like Christmas in New Orleans, Cool Yule and the cake taker, ‘Zat You, Santa Claus?

Carpenters – Christmas Portrait: This is the only one I considered a possible gamble and, while I’m not officially ranking, may be my favorite of the bunch. Apparently this version of the album adds tracks from their second Christmas album, the post-Karen An Old-Fashioned Christmas. And really, “old-fashioned” as in “traditional and wholesome” is what they were going for here, and I mean that in the best way possible. Richard C certainly had a vision here with his grand chorals and sweeping symphonies, and the focus here is not Karen but the entire production itself, as through a series of vocal medleys and instrumental highlights she doesn’t make a full on appearance until track 4. From start to finish this is a big production, but always tastefully so, from song selection to arrangements and delivery, and it never drags, never goes too far over the top and hits you in all the right places, both toe-tapping and heart-wrenching/warming.

Dean Martin – My Kind of Christmas: This appears to be a reworking of a previous collection of Dino’s well known (and not so) Christmas standards. All the obvious holiday radio staples are up front and in classic, mischievously lovable form, from Baby It’s Cold Outside to Silver Bells to Rudolph. In addition are some lesser known but equally delicious numbers like Christmas Blues, as well as Blue Christmas, the whacky A Marshmallow World and the not necessarily Christmas, but certainly fitting, I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm. In an attempt to keep things hip and fresh, a reworking of I’ll Be Home for Christmas as a duet with Scarlett Johansson isn’t quite mind blowing but is certainly entertaining (and admittedly the final decider in me picking up the CD), but “The Swingin’ Yuletide Mix” of Winter Wonderland, complete with in your face bass and dance beat, absolutely wrecks an otherwise fantastic version of the song. I guess you can’t get through the season without a couple of broken ornaments.

Burl Ives – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: One problem with holiday songs is that there are pretty much 25 or 30 that you hear over and over again, and that everyone seems to do ad nauseum. And for the most part these are all great songs, so that’s a good thing. But when you’ve just picked up a handful of albums and White Christmas is on most of them…well, you know. That’s what makes what is essentially the soundtrack to the 1969 Christmas special for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, featuring the always perfect Burl Ives, rather refreshing. And to be sure, his take on A Holly Jolly Christmas is the “hit” of this whole deal, but not-likely-to-be-on-your-Pandora-station offerings like the touching Silver and Gold and the nyah-nyah We’re a Couple of Misfits not only conjure up immediate images from the show, but add a little variety to the sometimes monotonous fruit cake that is listening to holiday music for extended periods.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Quarterly JT Part 3 - 2002



Well, we’re near the end of the year so I’m grossly behind in this post. I’d love to blame JT, but he’s been ready for weeks now, so the fault is all mine. In my defense, I had my write up complete but then made some last minute changes that took a bit longer than I’d expected. But regardless, let’s jump in…

The year that was 2002 was a huge year for me in a lot of ways with big events happening left and right – some of them great and others the total opposite. By this point I had lost touch with most all recent or “relevant” music, choosing instead to move further back into classic rock, 80s nostalgia and the more experimental veins of post punk and experimental music. I was pretty much only purchasing new albums by artist that I had liked or had been around for 10+ years and ignoring anyone who was, well, younger than me.

And along those lines there was a bit to choose from, but not all of it took me where I needed to go. Chris Isaak released his first studio album in four years, the yawning Always Got Tonight (which I need to give an honest re-listen one day); Pet Shop Boy gave us Release, which had a fantastic lead single (Home and Dry) but failed to capture my attention overall; Sonic Youth delivered Murray Street, their first with Jim O’Rourke, that is quite nice but never asks to be listened to (when you’re putting an album on out of obligation…well, you know); Dag Nasty (sigh...) reunited with Dave Smalley (double sigh…) for Minority of One, full of great hooks and sing-along choruses, but still couldn’t match the power of Can I Say (though it squashes Four on the Floor like a grape) and Belle & Sebastian put out a soundtrack for the movie Storytelling, that I’ve yet to see, and which is pleasant, but soundtracks are rarely ever groundbreaking, much less something that requires repeat spins.

So with a lot of mainstays letting me down a bit, what did I do? Well, I sorta started beginning attempting to listen to new music again. Sorta…

Here’s a bit of all that and then some in no particular order – also, I covered all these albums more in depth on a previous post. And, as always JT goes first…oh wait, I think his are in descending order…

 JT

5.  Busted Stuff by Dave Matthews Band - After the success of the illegally leaked ‘Lillywhite Sessions’ DMB went back in the studio and recorded many of the tracks from those sessions and the results, while not as good, were amazing none-the-less and comprises the band’s best album to date.   
 
4. One Beat by Sleater-Kinney - More than any of the albums on this list, One Beat screams of living under the Bush Administration in a post 9/11 world...songs such as ‘Combat Rock’ and ‘Far Away’ put to music the way many of us felt during that confusing time period.  

3. The Remote Part by Idlewild - Idlewild were one of the most consistently good rock bands of the early 00s. More introspective than their previous two albums, The Remote Part finds the band churning out singable, perfect pop rock songs.

2. Turn on the Bright Lights by Interpol - Interpol came out of the box sounding like Joy Division for the new Millennium and launched 100s of new wave revivalist copycats...some that were good (Editors, Elefant) and some that weren’t (She Wants Revenge) but none (including Interpol themselves) that would ever replicate the brilliance of Turn on the Bright Lights.

1. Castaways & Cutouts by The Decemberists- In my opinion, the most brilliant ‘indie’ band to come out of the early 2000 music scene, from Alt-Country to Prog Rock Concept Albums, the Decemberists have rarely made a misstep. With Castaways & Cutouts, the band set the bar high for what has been an amazing career thus far. 

Me

Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights – Of all the acts riding on the retro New Wave, this album hit me on a crazy personal level. Virtually every post punk outfit – from the menace of Joy Division to the echo of the Chameleons to the quirky melody of Echo and the Bunnymen – was blended together into something familiar and yet fresh, the logical footnote to a genre whose heyday may have been 20 years before, but continued (and continues) to influence all but the most banal of bubblegum pop.

Rhett Miller – The Instigator – As the second greatest songwriter of my generation, Rhett’s first solo album after the success of the Old 97s left me a little underwhelmed when it first came out. But these songs really, really stick with you and now it’s my favorite of his solo work and even gives a couple of the Old 97s albums a run for their money. As always it’s the catchy hooks and infectious choruses, all oozing with Rhett’s charm, humor and down to earth good nature, making even his weaker moments better than most folk’s stronger.

Tom Waits – Blood Money/Alice – Brother Tom can deliver abrasive, frightening and near comical “rockers” that stomp and howl with post world abandon, or brooding, tender and equally as frightening ballads that wind tiny fingers of sweet pain deep into your heart and soul; and with Blood Money and Alice, released together and yet two entirely different projects, he handles both separately and perfectly. Honestly, with a catalog built of amazing songs and albums, these two may be his best in each of his “sub categories” and you just need to decide which mood you’re in before you choose.

Doves – The Last Broadcast – For me this is one of the greatest albums of all time and a definite desert island disc. I found these guys by chance on a sampler that Tower Records (RIP) was giving out, which included There Goes the Fear. That song is an epic surge of dynamic energy in and of itself and an excellent example of everything this album has to offer. The Last Broadcast is nothing short of a masterpiece by any standards, with highs and lows dabbling in elements of shoegaze and electronica and folk and solid rock, conjuring images that are at once joyous and morose and ultimately darn near holy. Everything comes together in a melodic, emotive and immediately endearing mesh that is nothing short of triumphant.

Neil Halstead – Sleeping on Roads – I’m saying it again, but my boy Neil is the greatest songwriter of my generation, and he makes it seem so simple it’s staggering. This was his first of now three solo offerings outside his Mojave 3 “day job,” and it’s by far the most ambitious. Sleeping on Roads permeates with a sort of satisfied melancholia, realizing that there is beauty in everything, especially pain. That’s not to say it’s a depressing album, but it looks at love and life with a sense that everything we see and experience is just passing, and that’s ok. And what brings it all together are the layered textures, from stripped down and pensive to sweeping walls of atmospheric noise. Through all of it is Neil’s laidback, folky charm and a sense of melody and way of turning a word that brings an easy smile to my face every time.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Decline from the Debut



There was a time when I pretty much thought the first album by any given artist to be the best of their catalog. There were of course exceptions, but for the most part I considered this to be a hard and fast rule with everything from U2’s Boy to the Church’s Of Skins and Heart to Duran Duran’s s/t debut. And maybe on some levels this claim can be argued for any of those releases, but at the same time, the diversity of all three of these artists throughout their careers (with all of them now hitting around the 30 year mark) makes it impossible to compare their debut to anything put out 10 or 25 years after the fact. It really just boils down to preference, and if you like electro-pop better than post punk, then Achtung Baby or Pop Trash may be more your speed.

At any rate, JT and I were discussing this awhile back and he put forth the challenge to come up with a list of artists whose post-debut output did not live up to the potential built up by that first full length album.

And there are some that are more or less universally acknowledged, for example Stone Roses’ Second Coming was pretty much panned by everyone and all of the Weezer catalog after the quirky pop bliss of the blue debut. Of course I’ve made arguments against the former and loads of folks will cite Pinkerton and even more recent albums as worthwhile in the case of Weezer. But let’s face, Maladroit (or whatever) may be a fine album, but there’s not one song half as good as the weakest tune on the Weezer debut – and I can’t even tell you which song that is, because they’re all top notch or better.

And of course the obvious ones are out, from Violent Femmes to Bat Out of Hell to The Truth About Ocelots. And it’s not really fair to bring up Depeche Mode’s Speak & Spell or Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn because they were in many ways different bands due to a change in leadership.

And this isn’t to say that these artists put out universally bad material post-debut, only that in general everything else rather pales in comparison to expectations based on that fantastic debut…which says more for the debut than it does less for everything after. And of course the reasons why are endless, from label mischief to attempting to cash in on mainstream momentum by altering course and ruining their own product. It all happens, and each is as likely as the next. I mean heck, some folks only have a handful of good songs up their sleeve, but that’s better than Ween, I mean nothing, I mean… And again, in most all cases this is 100% up to the listener and so whatever you see below is strictly opinion…but darn good ones I have to say.

Also, I really need to point out that compiling this list wasn’t nearly as easy as we had initially anticipated (JT in fact had to back out of his own idea…weakling), which means that while many debut albums are spectacular, any artist worth their salt is only going to build on that brilliance, and while the fuel may eventually run out, they can still put out a string of solid and ever improving albums that reach a high point and then fizzle, leaving us pining for just one more hit.

We had decided on three each, and I could honestly barely scrape this together with one or two alternates, though I have to say that I stand firmly behind my decisions, and I am prepared to fight you and your mama if you disagree. Another rule we tried to stick by was artists with three or more albums, so that the sophomore slump we’ve discussed here a few times couldn’t come into play.

And if JT decides to man up one of these days and provide a list of his own, you’ll be the first to see it…

Ok, are you ready? BEGIN!!!

Archers of Loaf – Icky Mettle – Give or take a No Pockey for Kitty or a Today’s Active Lifestyles, this is THE indie rock album of the 90s – angular, aggressive, crazily melodic, the lo-fi elegance bristles and growls like a wild dog scampering for its bit of the kill. Seeing them in support of this album remains a highlight of my live music experience. And then the magic was lost…at least to me. Why? Hard to say, because AoL never really seemed to lose sight of their vision or their aesthetic, but the way they chose to steer their train speeding alongside a cliff never had the same urgency or immediate need to make the listener jump around, take a breath and do it all over again. There are folks who love Vee Vee, even All the Nations Airports (probably not so much White Trash Heroes), and for sure there are some decent songs scattered throughout, and it’s not bad in the sense of what else was happening to music listeners in the 90s, but their rage seems harnessed, their tongue in cheek too tongue in cheek, their melodies played out…essentially all their charms lost, or at least faltered. Again, it could just be me, probably it is, but I was/am a HUGE fan of this first album (and the Vs… EP), but everything else has left me underwhelmed.

Guns n Roses – Appetite for Destruction – Right here was the poster child for censorship in the 80s, from album cover to lyrical content. Being into this album back then was dangerous; you were labeled not just a rebel, but a troublemaker, a hoodlum and in some corners, even a Satanist. Such was the small minded, ultra right wing mentality of the South in those days. And for sure, Appetite for Destruction was and is a barnburner, full of vicious riffs and slashing (get it?) solos, which were the perfect propulsion for Axl Rose’s angst-filled lyrics of hedonism, drug abuse, misogyny, hatred and extreme paranoia – glorifying it, even if he lived in fear of it. And despite some tender sentiments (Sweet Child O’ Mine) and some “feel good” bordering hopeful moments (Paradise City), the brooding menace lingers just behind the next note and these songs all drip with unbridled venom. If you don’t take any of this to heart Appetite is harmless fun, despite the genuine anger that supplied its inspiration. And musically, the flawless fusion of hard rock, glam and punk is an ageless blueprint that remains as relevant in the field of heavy music today as it did 25 years ago. Honestly, I’ll hear other arguments for the best of the “hair metal” era, but you’d best bring some kryptonite... But then it was all over. The moment they released Patience, GnR ceased to be a threat. And I’m not saying it’s a bad song, I’m saying it’s not what GnR promised with Appetite. Despite Axl & Co’s antics over the following years and subsequent Use Your Illusion albums, the reflected music was a watered down, almost parody of what was delivered with Appetite for Destruction. Again, some good songs here and there (Civil War, Izzy Stradlin’s offerings), but those albums just reflect Axl’s persona as a “tortured artist” exploring the dark recesses of his psyche and releasing his anguish in overblown epic ballads. Boring, because the urgency, the belief and overall the fear is gone. At this point he’s just telling a story, he’s not living it, he’s not giving you the play by play details, it’s just some facts he has access to and he’s driveling them out to you over the ivories. And while the music is still competent, the melodies still relevant and the surface details still somewhat intact, that’s as far as it goes, as the end result is a mess of hubris and self-indulgence. And I never took Chinese Democracy seriously, so there.

Sting – The Dream of Blue Turtles – Since the Police were innovators of the New Wave mainstream that flawlessly fused punk, ska, jazz, pop and you name it into a blend of something magical and inspiring, it would be safe to assume that the leader of that band, who was responsible for penning most of the songs (all of the hits anyway) and, to a degree, sculpting their sound, would be an amazing solo artist once unleashed on his own. And initially that assumption would be right, because The Dream of the Blue Turtles (coupled with the “making of” documentary/live album Bring on the Night) is amazing. For his solo debut he stripped himself of his persona almost entirely, the punk edge the Police had latched onto early on, the New Wave they found themselves caught up in and even much of the pop textures that flavored the distinct personalities of all five of their albums. And for Sting, stripping down meant getting back to all that jazz, complete with a superb band of soon-to-be-iconic jazz musicians. This is not a rock n roll or a New Wave or a post punk record. When it does rock, it’s almost more like hard bop (Shadows in the Rain), and when it does stray off the jazzier feel, it’s really more world or avant-garde than anything else (Russians). It’s a truly artistic statement and the only reason it sold millions was because Sting was still riding on the momentum of the Police and their tumultuous breakup. Well, that and the fact that in 1985 the musical ear of the public was pretty open to just about anything, and there is enough pop-finesse in singles like If You Love Somebody Set them Free and Love is the Seventh Wave to make his just-beginning-to-age audience sing along, while more brooding numbers like Fortress Around Your Heart hit moody youngsters like me in a way that few others have. And honestly, with the exception of the latter, the singles are the weaker moments on the album, as the heartbreak of Children’s Crusade, the industrial thrum of We Work the Black Seam, the sing-your-heart-out of Consider Me Gone and the creepy, night world vibe of Moon over Bourbon Street are the core of everything great that Sting was capable of for one brief, shining moment post-Police. And then he started playing bass again. And there’s nothing wrong with that per se, but while Englishman in New York is a great reggae tinged tune, and They Dance Alone attempts to bring the ache of Children’s Crusade to a wider audience, We’ll Be Together is flat out ridiculous bellows-pop filler and Be Still My Beating Heart is the kind of nonsense Rod Stewart should have been singing (and maybe he did, the whore). Basically, Sting sold out. The last remotely punk thing he ever did was play Feyd-Rautha in David Lynch’s (I mean Alan Smithee’s) Dune, and then put out The Dream of the Blue Turtles. Everything after that is an attempt to capitalize on the lesser moments of that album’s success, exploiting the parts that were truly great and then diving headlong into adult contemporary mediocrity that became criminal when he participated in the shoot-me-in-the-face-now train wreck of All for Love with Bryan Adams and the aforementioned Rod, making admittedly enjoyable numbers like All This Time and If I Ever Lose My Faith in You ignorable out of spite. But The Dream of the Blue Turtles shines regardless, the last pinnacle from a once gifted artist. And Gordon, it’s all your own fault.   

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

New Music: Bob Dylan - Tempest




A few weeks back I mentioned Uncle Bob had a new album coming soon, and that soon has become now and ultimately then, as Tempest has been out a couple of weeks or so and I’ve had that much time to acquaint myself.

As mentioned previously, I’ve been grossly underwhelmed by his last two efforts, Modern Times (2006) and Together through Life (2009), feeling like one was a flat line of one shuffle after another, and the other was a flat line with accordion. And neither of them are bad albums, it’s just that they’re not memorable, with only Thunder on the Mountain from Modern Times even attempting to make any sort of dent in my already muddled mind.

But the sneak preview of Duquesne Whistle with its dreamtime intro and 30s era vamp gave me a sparkle of hope for Tempest, and while I didn’t run out and buy it on release day, I did pick it up (admittedly because my wife reminded me) opening week.

Before I get into initial impressions, I have to step back with a bit of a realization that hit me last night and the notion that I’m not really sure why I’m a Dylan fan. Why do I ask? Well, because with Dylan it’s as much about the lyrics as anything else, maybe even more, and as I’ve said here before, I don’t give a rat’s buttocks about lyrics. For me, lyrics are another instrument to carry the vocal melody and the only way they’ll usually rise to the surface and stick with me is when the melody and/or music surrounding them are so great that the lyrics are the residue left by that impression.

So maybe that’s why Dylan is still getting 4 and 5 star reviews from Rolling Stone and other reputable music media sources for his last couple of albums, because his lyrics are as strong as ever, and since the music, when playing, is enjoyable, the true Dylan-phile can have their cake and eat it too. But seriously (and I ran this by Bill, the biggest Dylan-phile I know – who agreed) the question stands: If these albums were put out by anyone other than Bob Dylan, would anyone care? Would they get a glowing review in Rolling Stone? Would they get reviewed at all?

Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, but the truth remains – while Dylan may be “back” from his 80s slump, he’s really not going anywhere, just continues to chug along the same tracks, not so much keeping it “safe” as just pulling off what he enjoys doing. And ultimately that’s okay. As I’ve said before of Dylan and other innovators (like Eno), how many times is the same artist expected to reinvent the wheel? Just look at the man’s legacy of the past 50 years. And while most would argue that his real influence on popular music ended around the mid 70s (and I’m not saying that’s true), he did enough in those 15 odd years to keep people paying attention all through the mire of the 80s and salivating over most everything he’s done for the past 15 years.

And still, having said that, I have to say that the rarities and outtakes catch all Tell Tale Signs (Vol 8 from his Bootleg Series), pulling from various sessions, soundtracks, etc from Oh Mercy to Modern Times (another 15ish year period), is a fantastic and highly cohesive collection of material. In some respects this may be surprising considering the wide expanse of time, yet shows (me at least) that some of the tunes on Modern Times that make me snore are quite good when approached in a different manner, and he just chose the version that perhaps better fit the album than was, you know, worth hearing. And I think it’s this mix mash up of years and styles and producers (as long as Dylan keeps producing himself under the Jack Frost moniker, he’ll never really break anymore genre barriers) that makes this double (or triple if you’ve got it) album not only the most exciting thing he’s put out in ten years, but soundly proves that his comeback really is legit (it’s worth the price of purchase for the live version of High Water alone) – he just needs someone to tell him which songs (or versions) should make it to the official albums. 

But honestly, I’m not really enough of a Dylan-phile to even be attempting this review, much less delving into such matters, but the truth is I own most of the man’s catalog, I get on fire over portions of it, and since I’m shelling money on him still today, I guess I’m entitled to some sort of voice.

 

So…Tempest.

Well, first off I have to say that I HATE the album cover. I mean what is that? Easily his worst ever, and this is from the man who allowed Shot of Love to be put on the shelves (and I mean that from an album cover perspective, not musically – I quite enjoy that album).

But musically speaking, in short, I dig Tempest. To me it’s a good step back to the variety of Love and Theft while still pulling the train forward in the manner he’s done on the last two albums, which is essentially further into the past. And again, I’m still not listening to the lyrics per se, but I’ve begun singing along to certain songs in the car. Why? Well, because of the music. The big difference here for me is the presence of memorable riffs and guitar licks in most of these tunes. They scat and chug and shake a groove and glide wistfully along – and sometimes even raise the hair on the back of my neck…which is more than I can say for even mid 60s “heyday” Dylan (that’s right, suck it, Robertson). Dylan’s dark humor is in top form, he still tells a compelling story and the couple or so Beatles lifts make me chuckle every time I hear them. Easily, it’s the best set of melodies he’s had in some time, and it’s a flat pleasure to croon along to Soon after Midnight, bemoan those Long and Wasted Years or half growl about the Early Roman Kings. Aside from the somewhat meandering tedium of the title track (hey Bob, we all know the story to this one…), there really isn’t a dull moment on Tempest.

Plus, from a genre perspective, instead of fusing everything together, the various styles are more pronounced, be it jazz or blues or Dixieland swing, it’s a nice jumble of flavors, exactly as Love and Theft was, and this is exactly what Dylan needs to keep things interesting. So instead of having what feels like one continuous song that pauses long enough to change keys every 8 or 9 verses/5 or 6 minutes, we have individual pieces, statements, cohesive melodies and counterparts that finally live up to the Tin Pan pop and Americana that he’s been pulling so heavily from the past 10 years. Because really, Tempest is homage music, Dylan going back to and rehashing the 20s and 30s sounds he loved as a boy and has carried with him and expanded upon throughout his entire career.

And again, he’s not breaking new ground. Tempest picks up logically where Together through Life leaves off, the difference is within the songs themselves, as well as his approach. I recently read an article that was essentially a bunch of interviews of the engineers, producers and musicians he worked with from Oh Mercy to Modern Times, and one thing I picked up on was that he’d attack the same song in every key and every style, but never the same way twice. It’s a fascinating concept, and with Tempest he seems to have picked from the best of each song, allowing the album to meander as it pleases, rather than finding a distinct sound to ride on from start to finish. The end result is a strong set of toe tapping, sing worthy tunes that not only familiarize themselves with successive listens, but linger with you longer (and more favorably) than even Thunder on the Mountain.