Bob Dylan–Hard Rain (1976)

Among a certain category of old rock fans, there are certain live performances and tours that have passed into legend. How many of you would give front teeth to see the Allman Image result for hard rain bob dylanBrothers live At Fillmore East? Led Zeppelin at Earl’s Court in 1975? Anyone at Woodstock? (Not the trashy, violent turn-of-the-century Woodstock I saw Counting Crows at, that is. Woodstock ’69.) Cash at Folsom Prison comes to mind as well.

Well, Bob Dylan fans have one too. The Rolling Thunder Revue tour is famous among Dylan fans as one of his most creative eras, when he rocked the hardest and sung the most sincerely. Now, while I might pay boatloads to go back in time and see Dylan argue stoned with someone who keeps shouting “hey, Bob, cocaine!” at him, at Newport Folk Festival 1964, for many fans, it’d have to be the Rolling Thunder Revue, 1975-76.

An interesting historical note: As far as I know, the final concert of the Rolling Thunder tour was the last time Bob Dylan was ever in my hometown, Hattiesburg. It was the only concert on the tour that wasn’t sold out, a fact once sheepishly admitted to me by the old man who promoted the concert.

Often critically panned, the official live album from this tour has got to be one of my all-time favorite Dylan albums. “Hard Rain” is unlikely to make someone a Dylan fan, but a real Dylan fan will agree that it rocks hard.

It starts slow, with a performance of “Maggie’s Farm,” the protest anthem that marked the first time he performed electric in 1965. Honestly, that performance was more impressive, as he sounds, perhaps, unconvinced here, and his voice is, frankly, shot from touring. Still, the slow buildup to the intro over the raucous crowd is a great way to start an album.

And then comes “One Too Many Mornings.” Originally a finger-picked acoustic number that felt vaguely out-of-place on “The Times, They are a-Changing,” here it’s played as a medium-tempo rock ballad with what I take to be electric violin from string player Scarlet Rivera, a frankly beautiful arrangement. And at this moment more than ever, you believe Dylan when he says he’s “one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind,” or at least, I do. There’s a bright-eyed, stoned fatigue in his voice, like a man who gets up in the morning in a cheap hotel room and stares uncomprehending at the light pouring in through the gap in the curtains, wondering how it can be morning but not resenting that it is. For it’s time to be moving on, like on all those other mornings.

Sometimes, when I pick up a guitar to practice, and I don’t have a set-list to prepare, I immediately want to play Guaranteed,” by Eddie Vedder, but more often I want to Travis-pick the chords to this song, which, incidentally, are the same chords as half the songs on “The Times,” G-Em-C-G, G-Em-C-D… honestly, you can sing half the songs ever written to that.

Next is “Stuck inside of Memphis with the Mobile Blues Again.” Most Dylan fans probably know this from the legendary “Blonde on Blonde” album, but I actually first heard it here. It’s another one of Dylan’s bizarre, psychedelic ballads about being lost in the city, a fainter echo of “Desolation Row,” but it gets rocked hard here, and whatever he’s singing about, he feels it. There’s genuine anger when he sings “me, I expected it to happen when I seen him lose control,” which is what leads me to believe that most of his bizarre songs have an actual coherent meaning in his mind, or at least a set of real events they refer to. And boy, does the band rock, led by Dylan and the famous T-Bone Burnett. Robert Christgau, whom I suspect of simply not liking music, described the Rolling Thunder Revue on this album as sounding like “folkies whose idea of rock and roll is rock and roll clichés.” This could not be farther from the truth. If I ever have a band that sounds so good live with such simple elements, I’m taking it straight to California and getting rich. He is right, at least, in saying that the band are folkies, but folkies appreciate the elemental sounds in music. No one shreds on this album, they just play well together as a group, each playing their instrument and not wishing they could be playing another, and as a result, they sound huge.

Next is another violin-heavy ballad, written not long before the Rolling Thunder tour, during Bob Dylan’s brief phase (captured on the album “Desire”) in which he co-wrote all his songs with some unknown songwriter, Jaques Levy. Whoever did the bulk of the writing for “Oh, Sister” was, nevertheless, a skilled poet. This song is carried perhaps 40% by the band and 60% by the vocals and lyrics, an unusual thing for Dylan. But with lines like “Time is an ocean, but it ends at the shore,” it’s not surprising. It reminds me of a brief and passionate romance, tinged with religious feeling, that I had in my teen years, so perhaps I’m not that objective about it, but I think it’s a great song. I can also recommend Andrew Bird’s cover.

And then, seemingly because someone in the audience has been loudly requesting it from almost the beginning of the album, they play “Lay, Lady Lay.” This is representative of an earlier, dubious era in Dylan’s songwriting, when he had quit smoking and his voice had somehow gotten worse for his trouble, and when he seemingly had no idea what was un-listenable slop and what wasn’t. So here he is, singing of his undisguised lust for some girl, talking of himself in the third person and using rather sketchy lines like “his clothes are dirty but his hands are clean.” Like even Dylan’s worst song, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” this song has at least one line I like, but it’s the band that support this one.

But then he makes it up to us in a big way on Side 2, with “Shelter from the Storm,” off the previous year’s “Blood on the Tracks,” which held perhaps his most critically acclaimed songwriting, as Dylan got into Rimbaud, Verlaine, Dante, and started trying to make his songs poetry. Made into a hard-rock song here, with a great slide-guitar lick, it’s the best version, in my opinion. He sings of a woman who picked him up off the side of the road and restored him to life, a theme that really resonates with me, but I suspect I’m not alone in that. That bright-eyed stonedness I mentioned earlier? You hear it here as well.

The next song, “You’re a Big Girl Now,” is off “Blood” as well, and it has some of Dylan’s more dubious songwriting choices from that album, like the line “time is a jet plane, it moves too fast/what a shame if all we’ve shared can’t last.” Reaching a bit for the rhyme? But it has a great melody and works well as a follow-up to “Shelter,” so I’m not complaining.

And here I must make a confession: My teenage recollections of this album stop here, since my LP was too scratched-up beyond this point to listen (and in fact, that’s the vinyl copy I still own.) But while the final two tracks don’t have the same afterglow of memory hanging around their edges, I’ve listened to them on CD a number of times.

“I Threw it all Away” is not bad. It’s got some good lines, but is this not faint praise when I’ve already said that Dylan’s worst song had some good lines? Well, I must say I’m not huge on filler.

And then comes the disaster. “Idiot Wind” is a great song. It’s an angry breakup song that turns self-loathing and regretful three-quarters of the way through, ending almost re-conciliatory, but not quite. On “Blood on the Tracks,” its original album, it was fantastic, with angry organ licks and hard-strummed guitar underpinning Dylan’s resentment and regret, and lines like “I waited for you on my running boards/near the cypress trees as the spring-time turned/slowly into autumn.” Here, however, it’s apparently too complex for the (stoned) band, and Dylan in particular, to pull off. He caterwauls, whoever’s playing rhythm guitar changes time signatures and adds and loses bars, and in general, it’s a musical disaster, the kind I’d stop and apologize for.

Conclusion:

It’s a great live album, one glaring moment of idiocy and a little filler notwithstanding. And I have to give it an extra point for teenage nostalgia. 6+1=7/10.

 


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The Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms (1985)

This is going to be a hard one to write about… “Brothers in Arms” is one of the six or Image result for brothers in armsseven albums I must have in my collection at any given point. This puts it in a closed category with albums like War, Highway 61, Graceland, Court and Spark and So, albums that, in my mind, are masterpieces both musically and lyrically, with songs that I identify with on a personal level. I could go on and on! So rather than just gush about my favorite parts, I’m going to break this album down track by track and then talk about what I think is the album’s chief failing. 

The album opens with a comparatively short, straightforward rock track, “So Far Away from Me.” Here, singer Mark Knopfler pines to be near the object of his affections, but remains up-beat and melodic, if not actually catchy. It’s a solidly put-together cut, and it deserves more radio play.

Next, however, is the song most of us think of when we think of this album: “Money for Nothing.” I’d guess a lot of the popularity of this song is due to the catchy chorus and rather provocative lyrics, but truth be told, it really does have all the elements of a hit record. It opens with an ear-catching space rock segment (reminiscent of “Shine on, You Crazy Diamond”), which features guest vocalist Sting repeatedly crooning the line that has all but replaced the actual title: “I want my MTV.” With a heavy drum line, the song transitions into a vaguely ZZ Top-esque hard rocker, with Knopfler on lead vocals and Sting on backup. The singer laments his career choices, wishing he could get “money for nothing and chicks for free” like the singers and guitarists on MTV.

It is here that Knopfler makes one of the more regrettable decisions of the album: he spends an entire verse making fun of an unnamed rock-star for his supposed homosexuality and effeminate appearance. While Knopfler has distanced himself from the lyrics, saying that they represent the views of a character and not his own, it seems the lyrics came across as counter-progressive even at the time. I certainly think the song might have been stronger with an alternate verse. Who’s to say?

Still, it was built to be a hit, with solid guitar and synth arrangement, pop drums, and fun little details like Sting singing the line “I want my MTV” to the tune of his hit “Don’t Stand so Close to Me” in the background of the chorus. If it were the only strong track on the album, I might judge it harshly, but on an album like “Brothers,” it only has to bear its own weight. It holds up as an album cut.

(I almost wish this song had been in Dune, playing in the infamous scene where Sting’s character, Feyd-Rautha, steps forth Speedo-clad from a high-tech steam bath to watch his soldiers cooking a pig with cattle-prods, but I somehow doubt even David Lynch would go that far. Also, per Wikipedia, the film was made in ’83 and the song was recorded some time after it was released in ’84… Still, a fellow can dream.)

Next comes the other hit from the album, “Walk of Life.” It’s a blues-rock number with a catchy organ/synth line and lyrics about a struggling street musician, almost certainly identical to the title character of “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry. It, too, earned its place on the charts, in my opinion, but it always felt a little light-weight, to me. I don’t know why; it has some great lines in the chorus. Still, I can’t help but overlook it, especially when I compare it to the next track.

“Your Latest Trick” opens with a sad, smooth-jazz saxophone line, which drops away as the song transitions into a slow rocker, remaining present but not over-powering in the background. In the verses, Knopfler shows his true colours as a folk musician after the pattern of Bob Dylan. Clever wordplay builds up some levity, but ultimately it’s a sombre, after-midnight in the city sort-of-ballad. Indeed, the sound of lashing rain hitting windows and walls is nowhere to be found in this song, but it is everywhere implied. If I were a DJ, it would be on my short-list of songs to play on rainy nights, together with “You Look Like Rain” by Morphine, “Invitation to the Blues” by Tom Waits, and a very few others. At any rate, it’s a fantastic track and it more than makes up for the excesses of the album to this point.

If “Your Latest Trick” spoke of insomnia, “Why Worry Now?” is a perfect cure, both in the sense that it is literally a lullaby, with comforting words and a gentle arrangement, and in the sense that it is light-weight, boring, and a minute or more too long. Still, as filler goes, the Straits could do worse. I’d prefer no filler at all, but that’s just me.

The latter half of the album begins with the sound of synthesized bamboo flutes and tribal drums. A less generous critic might call this arrangement an attempt at pushing the listener’s “intrigue button,” but I’ll withhold judgement for the moment. The song, “Ride Across the River” is the first of the war songs on “Brothers,” sung or rather half-spoken from the perspective of a revolutionary about to cross a river into enemy territory. One struggles to place it in Latin America, Central Africa, Korea, but the truth is, the song is general enough to be about all revolution, everywhere. It’s the kind of song U2 were writing around this time, as Apartheid and the developing world came onto the international scene in a big way. Knopfler has the most interesting way of sounding like Dylan “as he should have been.” At any rate, this song and the other two war songs on the album give it much of its universality and lasting appeal, a delicate consciousness of the human condition that  is impossible to fake.

“The Man’s Too Strong” grapples with similar ideas, but in a far more cryptic way. “I am just an ageing drummer boy,” the narrator informs us, “and in the wars I used to play.” Then he skillfully blindsides us with “And I have called the tune to many a torture session.” This song, more than the one before it, sounds like it’s about revolutions in Latin America, especially given the Catholic imagery, but who’s to say? There seems to be a narrative here, but it’s so heavily buried under cryptic lines about stolen diamonds and stolen pieces of silver that I can’t make heads or tails of it. The real shining moment to me is the abrupt dynamic shift in the chorus after the line “the man’s too big, the man’s too strong,” but it can’t really save the song from being too obscure.

“One World” is lightweight, a bunch of pseudo-Dylan moaning about the human condition that comes across as too blatant and bleeding-heart. It does have a couple of memorable lines, like “They say it’s mostly vanity that writes the plays we act; they tell me that’s what everybody knows.” It’s not bad for filler.

And finally we come to the title track, the third and final war song, dark, brooding and full of stormy 80’s synth and slow, clean blues licks. And it’s here that Knopfler really shows his talent as a songwriter, even more so than “Ride Across the River.” There’s a line here that is so startlingly strong and simple to me that I’m only surprised no one plucked it from the vine before 1985: “Now the sun’s* gone to hell, the moon riding high.”

(Or, continuing with messianic imagery from “The Man’s Too Strong,” “The Son.”)

But isn’t that line great? It takes something that literally happens everyday, and effortlessly colours it with strong emotion. How many songwriters must have kicked themselves in ’85 for never having thought of “the sun’s gone to hell?” The only other single line I can compare it to for emotional effect is David Bowie’s “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.” And it goes on like that. As the ageing soldier thanks his comrades and laments that they had to fight at all, Knopfler gets in a few more gems, like “it’s written up in the stars, and every line in your palm.”

But now that I’ve covered the album with dripping praise, I have to talk about its tragic flaw. There exists what we call “the 80’s sound,” more so than for any other decade before or since, though the 90’s and the 00’s are close runners-up in this department. Instantly dated digital synth, hi-gloss sound production and plastic-sounding drums say 80’s rock in the same way that heavily compressed guitar lines with no dynamic range say 2000’s metal. Few of the greats of the era were exempt. U2 were not exempt on War, an apt comparison on a number of levels. On both albums, the drums sound like plastic toys. The studio drummer here gets away with it somewhat better than Larry Mullen Jr., perhaps because Mullen plays more histrionic fills and is generally mixed front-and-center. But where, oh, where are the full, thick, organic sounding drums of the 70’s? And the synths are lamentable. The midi pan-pipes on “Ride Across the River” in particular must have been badly dated ten minutes after the track was recorded. And the fact that this was literally the first album to be digitally recorded in full only solidifies my opinion: the mastering and production are trash.

Conclusion:

In summation, it’s a truly great album that’s unfortunately struggling to breathe through a film of shiny 80’s plastic. I have to give it an 8/10, though, and I don’t intend to give many of those.


 

(All music reviewed here belongs to its respective owners. All images found on Google Search marked for non-commercial re-use.)

 

 

Pink Floyd – Meddle (1972)

14313592250_1da92549e8_bPink Floyd’s unfortunately named “Meddle” isn’t winning any major awards, especially not in the cover art department, but it’s a fair quality early-mid-career offering from Floyd. It easily beats “Animals” as a listening album, in my book.

The album opens with the mostly-instrumental “One of These Days“, built on a heavily delayed bassline and featuring distorted, ocean-sound organ. But the real stand-out moment on the track is not in the music. Rather, it’s drummer Nick Mason shouting through a ring-modulator and threatening to dismember the listener, “one of these days.” All in all, it’s a cute gimmick, but it’s a bit too lightweight to carry its own weight. 5:15 is definitely a bit long for this particular track.

Next up is “A Pillow of Winds.” This is definitely one of the highlights of Meddle for me, with excellent steel guitar and tripped-out vocals from Gilmour. Waters’ lyrics treat the simple theme of going to sleep with a heavy layer of psychedelia and more than a touch of existential angst. As a concept, it’s way out there, but it totally works. In tone, it’s almost closer to “If” or “Fat Old Sun” from Atom Heart Mother than to anything else on Meddle, but it works well enough here, especially as foreshadowing for “Echoes.”

Fearless” is next, with more great Gilmour guitar work and vocals. I’d like this song a lot if Waters had not decided, apparently after the song was finished, to force a rough, out-of-key recording of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, the anthem of Liverpool’s football team, harshly into the mix at the beginning and end. The song would have worked well without it, but it ends up partly overshadowed by another annoying gimmick.

And then there’s “San Tropez“. Oh, “San Tropez…” Easily one of PF’s most annoying songs, it’s a jazzy, piano-driven number about lounging on a tropical beach. And that’s it! There’s no lyrical substance to it. It’s just a song about relaxing and thinking about calling a girl. The middle section has some nice steel guitar playing, but everything else about this song is either forgettably plain or just terrible. Perhaps worst of all, it’s completely out of left field, completely out-of-place on the album.

Seamus” is also extraneous, but at only two minutes and some change, it’s a bit less of a sore thumb. It’s a one-verse blues song about a dog barking, helpfully illustrated by an actual dog, actually barking, drowning out the music for the most part. The lyrics are riffing off of a Big Joe Williams song, which earns some points with me, however. It’s cute, and I like it, but it’s hopelessly misplaced on Meddle.

Everything up to this point has been little more than filler, though. Like Atom Heart Mother in reverse, Meddle is entirely dominated by “Echoes“, a sprawling 23-minute epic that takes up the entirety of side 2. There’s a lot to love and a lot not to love about “Echoes.” Ultimately, it justifies not only its own existence, but the album as a whole.

The vocals begin after an intro that’s, amusingly, longer than the entirety of “Seamus“, at almost exactly three minutes. The iconic first line is still one of my favorite moments in PF’s repertoire: “Overhead the albatross hangs motionless above…”. I’d go so far as to say the vocals and lyrics are some of the strongest in PF’s history. My interpretation (just one of many, of course) is that Waters is comparing the chance formation of the first life in the primordial ocean to two strangers falling in love at first sight. It’s a far-fetched metaphor, to be sure, but like “Pillow of Winds“, it just works. There’s something to be said for bizarre metaphors, or what would we have poetry for?

Steel guitar really seems to be the order of the day on this album, and in fact, the first conventional, fingered lead guitar part on this album is a breakdown after each of the first two verses, a part which Andrew Lloyd Webber allegedly ripped off for “Phantom of the Opera.” Allegedly… (Don’t sue me, please!)

After the first two verses, though, the song gradually slows down to an absolute crawl. Several long repetitive sections eat up a significant portion of the song’s length. Some of this music was quite technically impressive at the time the album was released, including parts done with an early tape-chorus effect, but a lot of the middle section just doesn’t hold up.

Getting past the half-way mark in “Echoes“, we hear the signature early Floyd “soundscape” section, which features whalesong-like noises (made by inserting a wah-wah backwards into the guitar effects circuit) and samples of rook and crow calls (a favorite Waters technique.) The effect is less musical and more atmospheric, but it’s standard for this period of Pink Floyd, it fits the song, and I really can’t complain. It makes a very nice ambiance to fall asleep to, let me tell you.

After the whalesong has faded out, the song brings the album full circle, with a section that resembles “One of these Days“, leading right into the final verse. The return of the vocals after the slow movement is incredibly satisfying, akin to the recap in a classical sonata movement, and the lyrics seem to refer back to “Pillow of Winds“, as the narrator awakens to a sunny day, described with the same mysticism as he did for the night in “Winds.” It almost gives the impression that the bulk of the album has been a long, strange, perhaps even slightly wonderful dream.

In a nice bit of symmetry, the song (and with it, the album) ends with an outro that feels like a mirror image of the intro, with descending lines where the intro had ascending ones.

Conclusion:
Well, much as I’d like to forget “San Tropez” was ever recorded, the quality of the music and especially the vocals on the rest of “Meddle” is on par with Pink Floyd’s best work. While they could done with less filler, and perhaps needed to take some pointers from the contemporary lineup of Yes on how to write long songs that don’t drag, for the most part, it’s a solid album. I give it a 6/10.


 

(All music reviewed here belongs to its respective owners. All images found on Google Search marked for non-commercial re-use.)