Friday, June 24, 2016

Oh Mercy - Late Summer 1989

Released September 18, 1989

(From the Journal of Danny)

Late '89, another new Dylan album out only this one had a buzz surrounding it, different from his other recent stuff. Not a redux of the 60s shtick either, hints of a new path forward. I bought the cassette at Encore Records and played it on my stereo three straight times in a dark room in the middle of the afternoon.  I knew a few things about Dylan's new producer, the Canadian Daniel Lanois, young, brash, prodigy not intimidated by anyone, not above pushing Dylan around if the situation called for it. I imagined knife fights in the studio. With no one around in the broken down house, occupied by various other out of grad school malcontents, I put the speakers on full blast. No air conditioning either, windows open with no breeze on a seething Ohio summer afternoon. Rarely saw my old friends those days, still thought of them though. "Political World" came on and I understood what the critics were saying, a song from the swamps with all sorts of chaos in the mix. Sounded as if Dylan took all the frustrations of the 80s and exorcised them in one song. 1989. CEOs walking around like kings. Just what the decade needed, a misanthropic rant. All a stacked deck.  Right on; right on. "Where Teardrops Fall" hints of old jukeboxes, hints of lost love. "Ring Them Bells" could be a sermon from a disgraced preacher, like Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath or a jilted convert. Once the exuberance of being born again fades away- I wonder what happens?  Old vices return along with new temptations of every salacious variety.  But the old time faith (the only faith with meaning) never vanishes either, it stays there, and crops up on songs like this. Staring at the unremarkable clutter of my half-empty room made "Everything is Broken" sounds all too appropriate for my less than minor occasion. "Man in the Long Black Coat" forces you to watch evil triumph and renders you powerless. Keen observers learn to accept such unique pain, grapple with it, and maybe learn something, paying/praying as they go. Where better place to record this album than New Orleans?! A special place, my favorite section in On the Road took place there, the part I reread anyway. A new art for the lost pilgrims. Flip to side 2. "Most of the Time" levels you, for we are no longer the observer but the one on the receiving end. The lyrics were simple, direct, the bass lines luminous. Calling it a heartbreak song cheapens it. "What Good Am I" asks the right questions. Enlightened narcissism as the guiding light? The theme continues with "Disease of Conceit" shifting the point of view back to the omnipresent like a lost chapter from the Old Testament.  God knows we need prophets now more than ever. Don't look at me says Dylan. Who is he addressing in "What Was It You Wanted?" Jesus? Judas?? Lucifer??? Fans???? Critics????? Himself?????? The World???????... My thoughts floated back to the Winter of '81, the front end of the decade. Drifting in those days, drifting all day and all night, with Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding on constant rotation.  The two brothers Tim and Jeff frequently stopping by plotting their futures; Empire builders with no armies and complicated motivations. Those records offered poignancy and meaning to banality. "What Was it You Wanted" channeled those old sentiments of mine, late night conversations in a lonely place where dream and reality intermingle. A way station where existential tensions get absolved. The finale "Shooting Star" features arrivals/departures, goodbyes/hellos, something close to a complete circle. Some thoughts on Oh Mercy, late summer 1989.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Dylan and the Dead (1989)

Released February 6, 1989
During the summer of 1987 Bob Dylan joined The Grateful Dead for a stadium tour of six shows.  Nearly two years later, Columbia released a live album with a meager seven selections from those performances.  The confluence between these two gigantic forces in rock and roll/pop culture history promised unlimited potential -unfortunately the live album yielded disappointing results. The two gospel songs, "Slow Train Coming" and "Gotta Serve Somebody" are the only highlights.  The rest leaves much to be desired: "Joey" is a mess and "I Want You" goes all over the map. I'll assume the live album may not be the best representation of their concerts.  Guess you had to be there. In saying that, Dylan reportedly enjoyed his time with the Dead and even considered becoming a full time member.  When Dylan began the so called "Never Ending Tour" in the summer of 1988, I think he took some inspiration from the Grateful Dead - steady touring backed by a full time band willing to reinvent old and new material on a nightly basis.  Unlike most of his contemporaries Dylan emerged as a road warrior late in his career and would build an entirely new audience.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Bonus Post! The Traveling Wilbury's Vol. I

Released October 18, 1988
The Traveling Wilbury's featured Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan (Jim Keltner played percussion).  In the spring of 1988 the group began jamming together at Bob Dylan's garage and decided to record a full album of tunes. With each member representing different eras in rock and roll, the project seemed too good to be true, even misguided. Against all odds the LP won popular and critical acclaim, including some of Dylan's finest work in years.  Their music combined Rockabilly, Dylan's idiosyncratic lyrics, Beatles Power Pop, Electric Light Orchestra's melodic production style, and Tom Petty's catchy hooks. 

The title of the first track "Handle With Care" seemed appropriate, as if telling all the naysayers to chill out for a second. Bob's comically racy lyrics on "Dirty World" were apparently a shout out to Prince. "Rattled" threw some country rock into the mix.  "Last Night" sounds identical to a mid 70s Harrison record with Petty taking over on lead vocals. "Not Alone Any More" is a hybrid of Doo-Wop and ELO.

Dylan sang lead on "Congratulations", one for all the sad bastards out there. "Heading for the Light" really sounded like a Beatles song with Harrison's signature guitar style. "Margarita" combined Beach Boys harmonies with Brian Wilson's production style on Pet Sounds.

Dylan wrote an homage/pastiche to Bruce Springsteen on "Tweeter and the Monkeyman", an odd tragicomic story set in New Jersey. And "End of the Line" promises everything will be all right.

I imagine them all gathering in Bob's garage one day and deciding to make a record like they did back in the day.  Everything about 1980s production got tossed out the window and the final results were close to magical.

Sadly, Roy Orbison passed away after finishing the album.  In their music video for "End of the Line" the surviving members paid Roy a special tribute.

For anyone disillusioned with the music scene of the Eighties, the Wilbury's may have provided a brief respite. A fun record full of freewheelin' lyrics and faultless musicianship.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Down in the Groove: Dylan Gets Back

Released May 30, 1988
Down in the Groove, at the very least, displayed improvement over Dylan's previous LP Knocked Out Loaded.  For what it lacks in original material, there's enough to suggest Dylan was getting the ship back on course. Opening track "Let's Stick Together" is a pleasant pop-rock version of W. Harrison's R&B classic.  The quiet soul of "When Did You Leave Heaven" has a Fifties feel. Arthur Alexander's"Sally Sue Brown" once again channels early R&B. "Death is Not the End" sounds like a reworked song from Dylan's Christian period - steady beat and solemn vocals set a striking mood. "Had a Dream About You, Baby," sounds like another ode to Elvis.  Dylan also wrote two songs with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter: "Ugliest Girl in the World" and "Silvio." The former is an awful song title, but the latter is rather catchy and even earned a place on a Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. III. "Ninety Miles an Hour (Down a Dean End Street)" is another nod to Elvis with some good harmonies. Dylan closed the album with two American traditional songs "Shenandoah" and Albert Brumley's gospel standard "Rank Strangers to Me." Critics were tough on Down on the Groove, Dylan seemed more out of touch then ever. Nevertheless, the album's aged well. Dylan was getting back to his roots: folk standards and the music of his youth.  After a decade of experimenting with new production methods and occasional writer's block, Dylan was carving out a new path by going back to the basics.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Knocked Out Loaded: Dylan's Junk Drawer

Released July 14, 1986
If anything, the title is appropriate. There's no getting around it, Knocked Out Loaded is a sub standard Dylan album. In 1986 and 1987, Dylan toured with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, playing generic greatest hits heavy set lists. In Chronicles Dylan recalled the lack of enthusiasm he put into those performances, while Petty was at the top of his game. Dylan wanted to record an album backed by the Heartbreakers  but it never took off (although the Heartbreakers appear on KOL).  Dylan and Petty's best collaboration "Jammin' Me" appeared on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers 1987 LP Let Me Up (I've Had Enough). The bluesy opener "You Wanna Ramble" shows promise, but the next track "They Killed Him" pretty much derails the album. A tribute to Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Jesus (written by Kris Kristofferson) falls embarrassingly flat with children's choir and all. "Driftin' To Far From the Shore" sounds like an outtake from Empire Burlesque. "Precious Memories" offers some soothing reggae.  "Brownsville Girl", often considered a diamond in the rough, works better as a prose poem instead of a song. "Maybe Someday," "I've Got My Mind Made Up," and "Under Your Spell" are all forgettable. Knocked Out Loaded adds up to nothing more than a random collection of odds and ends, an uninspired commercial product.  At its best, all too brief flashes of the old magic. I understand Knocked Out Loaded has a cult following - so contrary comments are welcome!