Peter Gabriel — So (1986)

So here we are with another album I rather like, from an era I really like. Peter Gabriel was about on top of his game here, but he padded out this album a little too much. When I want to listen to a Peter Gabriel album, it ends up being “Melt” (properly known as “Peter Gabriel III”), but when I want to hear a good Peter Gabriel song it ends up being one of the ones off the first half of So.

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Probably his worst album cover

God, what an era, though. Peter Gabriel, U2, Paul Simon and many other great acts were at their absolute zenith in a stretch of two or three years in the late 80’s, with meaningful lyrics and innovative music, which is all one can really ask.

(I think it’s telling that Lorde, the only pop singer I can think of that has had any success in the last five years without completely selling out and making bog-standard EDM, really seems to dig the late 80’s. When she grows up a little more she might usher in a new period of this kind of innovation. She certainly has made it clear that that’s her ambition, though not in so many words. I’ll probably never review a Lorde album, so here’s me saying I like her work for what it is, and I like her a lot as a person.)

So is arty. I’ll give Peter Gabriel’s detractors that. It certainly represents an thorough-going attempt to make an artistic statement, and it can really come off as too arty. I’d almost say “pretentious,” but I’m tired of anti-intellectual people using that word to dismiss anything that resists casual analysis or makes a far-reaching statement, so it has rather a bad aftertaste for me. To show you what I mean by “arty,” though, here’s a prime example: the title is Gabriel’s act of spite against his label, who wanted him to give his next album an actual title. (The prior four were all self-titled; even the numbers were added later to differentiate them.) Unwilling to give them a commercially viable title, he titled it with one of the shortest words in the English language. Yeah, maybe pretentious isn’t too strong a word for that. At least he didn’t title it with the (typographically) shortest word in English, “I.”

But how’s the music?

The album starts with a refinement of his prior sound, with an energetic and intriguing rhythm on the drums and a rich, indefinable instrumental texture a few seconds after that. A few seconds later he comes in himself with the vocals. He tells us openly that the song is about a dream. It’s a bold choice and one that rarely works (though it works for Neil Young sometimes). The details of his dream are cryptic and have the ring of an actual dream, but I can almost imagine it’s about some moment of violence happening on the news at the time he wrote the song. Hell if I know what, though. Take your pick, honestly. The actual songwriting is solid, suits the musical style, and Gabriel has a simple, strong melodic voice that conveys a lot of emotion. The music, overall, has a lot of the earmarks of the 1980’s synthesis of world influences. I like it, but it’s not just a mind-blowing song. 7/10.

Yeah, Sledgehammer is a dick joke.* It has some funny moments, but the Japanese flute in the intro is out of place and the whole thing seems like an attempt by a white Brit to sing what we call the dirty blues. He can’t pull it off, whatever the charts said. 5/10. I will admit that, since it’s the only Peter Gabriel song they play on my local rock station, I’m tired of it and probably biased. If you like it, we can still be friends.

*So much so that it bears mentioning that my friend Steven, a prude, absolutely the last person to make a crass joke, once heard this song and said in a terribly silly and bad Cockney accent “Is he… is he talking ’bout his genitals?”

“Don’t Give Up” is weird as hell. It’s a duet between Gabriel and highly individual pop singer Kate Bush, in which his character is an unemployed man seemingly at the point of suicide. Her character might be his wife or a relative, and she tells him “don’t give up/I know you can make it good.” It’s an oddly life-affirming ballad, even if it doesn’t have any moments of truly stellar songwriting, and Kate Bush has a great voice for this type of song. 8/10.

Ah, “That Voice Again.” This is in my top five Peter Gabriel songs. It’s percussion driven, has some nice, airy piano (probably courtesy of Gabriel himself), and some dark synth. Honestly, most of the song would work if it was just drums and vocals, which is saying something. The high-hat work here is virtuosic; without exaggeration, it’s top-tier playing. And to think that Peter Gabriel has a reputation for hating cymbals! If I remember right, he was on record even before this as saying that he wouldn’t have them on his records at all if left to his own devices.

The drums are played, as far as I could find out, by a French session drummer of African descent called Manu Katché, who also played with Sting and Satriani, and who probably deserves to be very famous. Maybe his solo career is well-known in France. I dunno.

(Did Manu Katché also play with Manu Chao or did I make that up? If not he totally should. How the actual hell do I know more than one French musician active in the world music scene named Manu, anyways?)

And the song is about being neurotic and overthinking everything in a relationship. Or is it about literally hearing voices? Gabriel cultivates the ambiguity, I think. At any rate, I always took it as a song about being a neurotic guy who can’t say what he means to the girl because he’s too insecure. And what frustrated passion Gabriel puts into the vocals! Honestly, he sounds like it’s about five minutes after dawn out on the savanna somewhere, and two minutes after the invention of music. There’s this fire and rawness to it that I’ve never heard in other Western music. His voice doesn’t sound like he’d be as good of a vocalist as he is. 9/10. 

Next comes perhaps Gabriel’s best-known song, “In Your Eyes.” Yeah, it’s a creature of two worlds. It’s an 80’s love ballad, with literally everything that implies. The same blood runs through the veins of “Sister Christian,” by Night Ranger, as blasphemous as that sounds. But then it’s also a product of the 80’s world music craze, with everything that implies. So what does Gabriel make of the raw materials?

Well, it’s better than “Sister Christian;” that should be an uncontroversial statement. I’ve always liked it, mainly on the strength of the anthemic chorus. And now that I give it a close listening, I hear African drumming or at least some poly-rhythms, as well as some other complexities beyond the pop instrumentation I had always heard. While I may never be able to shake its association with John Cusack in “Say Anything,” it’s a fantastic song on its own. The chorus may be cryptic and somewhat… I don’t know, overwritten, maybe, but like Bono around the same time, Gabriel sells it, he really does.

(Now I really want to hear “Sister Christian” with world rhythms and a vocalist of Gabriel’s caliber. I need to call my band.)

I don’t know, though, there’s some part of this song’s appeal that’s bound up in my own emotional history. When I first heard this song, when I first put it in a mixtape, coming hissy and trebly off some cheap boom-box, when I listened to it while driving a slammed-out pickup truck on Highway 49 (and hell yes, the tape is in my desk drawer next to the pens with the track-list written on it in Sharpie)… at that time, I was 17, I thought Bob Dylan was profound, I could still stand Journey, and I had my mind stuck on a girl, one of those crushes that didn’t bear examining even at the time. Still, for three months in 1987 I was obsessed. I thought of her when I listened to “In Your Eyes,” I thought of her when I listened to “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” and probably when I listened to “Any Way You Want It.” So I don’t know what’s real and what is the memory of hormone-driven teen lust. I think critically it’s a pretty great song, but I can barely hear it anymore. 8.5/10?

And there’s “Mercy Street.”  This song was informed by a book of Anne Sexton’s poetry.* I don’t know what it’s specifically referencing, but it’s very nice and atmospheric, and has some touching lines. I consider it a sort of sequel to “Lead a Normal Life” off of “Peter Gabriel III,” in that it deals with mental illness in a very sensitive way. They’re similarly sparse instrumentally too. 7/10

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Anne Sexton

*If you don’t know, Sexton’s story goes about like Sylvia Plath’s, and I, for one, couldn’t hope to tell their poetry apart in a blind test. I don’t mean to demean or belittle either of them or make light of mental illness, but I just don’t know what the criteria for good modernist poetry is, and I know I feel sad if I try to read either one.

But after “In Your Eyes,” the album was already winding up prematurely and to me, “Mercy Street” feels like the outro to the album.

And then comes “Big Time.” It’s an instrumentally bland rock song from the point of view of a rock-star who’s consumed by “bigness,” which is to say that everything around him must be as monumental as his ego. I do like his jab at religious hypocrisy, when the character says “I pray in a big church… my heaven will be a big heaven… and I will walk through the front door.” Really, though, Sledgehammer was all the pointless bombast this album needed. 4/10.

And then Gabriel gets too arty for his own good, as happens towards the end of every Peter Gabriel album. “We Do What We’re Told” is supposedly about the Milgram Shock Experiments, a fascinating psychological study done in the mid-20th century on people’s obedience to authority. People were told that it was a study of memory and learning under threat of punishment: the participants, so they were told, would administer increasingly powerful electrical shocks to a subject in another room whenever the subject got an answer wrong in a memory test, as an incentive to help the subject memorize the answers. In reality, the subject was just a tape recording being stopped and started, on which a man informed the participants that he had a bad heart, screamed whenever the participant had just “shocked” him and demanded to be let out of the study after suffering a certain number of shocks. The researcher would then inform the participant that he or she must continue to administer the shocks, in increasingly authoritarian tones of voice.

If you’ve ever taken a psychology class, you probably know what the data showed: most people will administer potentially fatal shocks to what they believe is a man at risk for heart attacks, if a man in a white coat and a tie tells them to in the right tone of voice. There’s controversy, naturally, as to whether this was an ethical study, given that people thought they were killing somebody, and as to whether the data is contaminated by people who suspected the experiment was fake. All of this is fascinating and perhaps troubling, if the results are valid, but does it translate to a good song? Nope. You wouldn’t have known any of this from the song, which plays as a slower and duller repeat of “Mercy Street” with fewer lyrics. Actually, I think it’s just the title being repeated over and over again. It’s pretentious rubbish that barely registers as music with me. 4/10.

And the last song is… weird. Decent, but weird. Laurie Anderson does guest vocals and I think guest writing on this song. If you don’t know who that is, imagine Peter Gabriel as a woman, but with the self-awareness knob not only turned to zero, but actually pulled off and thrown in the studio trashcan. A lot of people know her only as Lou Reed’s eccentric wife, but she actually had a career, shockingly, much weirder than his. Back in the day, she had a thing shaped like a violin, but instead of strings it had a magnetic head from a tape player where the bridge would have been. She strung a violin bow with tape and recorded all kinds of weird samples on it. Apparently, she could actually play music on it by moving these samples past the head at various speeds (and thus pitches). I don’t know if she still uses it, though, because if I remember right, she later made some kind of motion sensitive wizard staff that plays samples. I swear.

So this song is… nice, actually. It’s a lot of double-tracked vocals from the two of them and not a lot of instrumentation. I have no clue what it’s about and probably, neither do they. 7/10.

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It’s high time, Cymbaline.

I’m forced to conclude that this is another “glorified EP” album, where the album, minus filler and garbage music, equals a perfectly good EP. “Soundtrack to the Movie More” by Pink Floyd is the archetypical example for me, with the difference that it doesn’t claim otherwise. It’s a soundtrack album, so I didn’t expect 42 minutes of song-like content; I expected atmospheric noises and half-assed jams, and got them, but there was also almost a full side of fully-formed songs. Honestly, I view every song on More as a gift, unasked and undeserved–the fact that there was more early Floyd I had never heard was in itself a gift when I first heard that album.

So, however, claims to be an album and delivers practically an EP’s worth of content. Some of it is stellar content, but it’s still not enough to make the album stand on its own.

Full album average: 6.81/10
Penalty for even including “Big Time:” -0.5
Bonus points for two guest vocalists that deserved to be on more songs, and some fantastic studio musicians: +1
Best Song: “That Voice Again,” with “In Your Eyes” as the immediate runner-up.
Worst Song: “Big Time”
Final rating: 7.3/10

All content reviewed here is the property of its respective owners, all images  claimed under fair use, all views and opinions mine.

Sunday Singles: The Left Banke — Pretty Ballerina b/w Lazy Day (1966)

Image result for pretty ballerina coverOne of the few Sunday Singles I’ve written so far that I don’t have on vinyl, this is a cute little number about going out with a pretty ballerina. Only the narrator leaves it ambiguous as to whether he’s just dreaming or not. It has that baroque chamber-pop sound that could get you on the charts in the mid-60’s, a sweet sentiment and a good melody. Supposedly it’s in “Apocalypse Now,” but hell if I remember that. I mostly remember the bald guy ranting about how the napalm threw off his surf, to be honest.

(Google turns up a bunch of results that all repeat the Wikipedia statement about the song being in the movie word-for-word, but give no details.)

The interesting thing is that, as much of a first-wave British Invasion song as this is, the band is actually American. I had them pegged for the kind of act that would have formed in Liverpool in the wake of the Beatles’ success.

The B-side is less familiar to me. It’s more of a psych-rock deal, and unknown 60’s psych-rock is always a treat to me. It’s about being a disaffected slacker, I guess. The fuzzy, right-panned lead guitar is a nice touch, such a crystalline moment of the character of the 60’s.

Which one wins? I tend to think the A-side, but you tell me!


All images found online and claimed under fair use, all content reviewed property of its respective owners, all views and opinions mine. Cobb never makes it out of the dream.

 

Blitzen Trapper — Destroyer of the Void, Pt. 1

rm2

I’ve died a thousand times, found out what it means to be believed…

Let’s talk about dreams. I’m obsessed with them. You might have guessed that from previous reviews, or you might not. Mine are vivid, often rather coherent and set in a continuous, somewhat consistent world, as far as dreams can be consistent. I’ve seen dark things, roaming that dusty, empty world in a Jeep that I no longer own, and have not owned in decades, with people I barely know in the waking world beside me as my companions. I’ve killed the king and I’ve been him, played the hero and the villain, been a woman, to the extent that I know what that is, been a child again… and it was all meaningful, even if I didn’t always know what it meant.

(The trick to remembering your dreams is to keep a notepad by your bed and write them down first thing, by the way.)

So even if I were to believe (which I don’t) in the materialist view, which is to say, believe that nothing is supernatural, everything is physical and that mankind understands her environment* pretty well, I would still maintain that that other world was also real. Not “real” in the strictly materialist sense, which is to say, made of atoms or whatever, but real in the sense that it’s a substantial part of the human condition, a part of our reality. Modern psychology may have discounted dreams, but I still hold with Freud and Jung and the rest that dreams are deeply meaningful, a part of our existence that can enlighten and teach. Hell, at times I earnestly think that ideas are more real than things, in which event dreams take on every quality of reality except for  consistency and persistence.

It is by way of admitting my bias that I say all of this. Only a few bands and artists transport me to the world of dreams in waking life, and I love them all dearly, as one

LetThereBeMoreLight

Then, at last, the mighty ship, descending on a point of flame…

loves kin. Bob Dylan with his late 60’s psychedelic rambling was probably the first, and Peter Gabriel has certainly managed (though that brings up my yearning for the late 80’s when global activism and I were both in our primes), but the ones that take me there consistently are Blitzen Trapper and early-era Pink Floyd. I don’t write glowing reviews of early Floyd, because I feel like very few people would get it. My love for “Let There Be More Light” is grounded in the things I read and watched and the things I dreamed about in middle childhood, and I bet that, to most people, it’s just a silly song about aliens. To me, the bloom hasn’t rubbed off the idea of extraterrestrial life, and the idea of first contact… it still sounds like something that could happen and something that would be profound and moving. Hence, I love that damn song.

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The Four-Eyed Cow of Doom

I guess I shouldn’t review Blitzen Trapper either by that token, but since I’ve already started this series, by gaw, I’ll see it through. Destroyer of the Void… well…

Like the moment when Julius Caesar brought his troops into the Roman Demilitarized Zone with the bated calm of a gambler rolling the dice, Destroyer was the end of an era, and by necessity, the beginning of a new one. Worse? Probably. Different, certainly.

So far, I haven’t been able to write a halfway decent review of this album, because there’s so much that was good and so much that was bad about it.

I’ve decided to review it in two parts, because it is a double album (though I tend to think they could have condensed it into a single LP without losing more than one or two songs), and more importantly because the two discs are different beasts altogether.

Destroyer is the most progressive of BT’s albums. Now, in a previous review, I compared prog-rock to “total art.” Ideally, it should be the full package–art, physical presentation, liner notes if possible, music and, finally, album-craft.

In the physical regard, the album does not really disappoint, I guess: the package of the vinyl edition (which I bought when I saw them live, my first and for a long time last piece of BT vinyl) is very handsome, with damn cool art both front and back, and inside the gatefold. There’re no liner notes, not that I typically miss them with BT. When an album does have them, it’s always frontman Eric Earley writing them, and maybe he should let somebody else do it. But then again, Bob Dylan has taught us that third-party liner notes can actually be worse: “In the end the plague touched us all…” What a load of hock. And to think that the man who wrote the liners to “Blood on the Tracks” also stood and disarmed Sirhan Sirhan after the murder of RFK…

The vinyl is sturdy 180-gram or whatever it is that we’re all supposed to flip for now, which is to say about half-again as thick as, and far sturdier than, LP’s were when I got into them. I rather like the thick vinyl here, but sometimes it grates, and I do think they’re just as prone to skipping and warping. There’s cool custom labels, not standard Sub>Pop fare. (Does Sub>Pop even have standard labels for their vinyl? Beach House fans, can you tell me?)

I think it’s probably a damn waste of vinyl to press this on two discs. The album comes to about forty-seven or forty-eight minutes. They could have trimmed some ends of songs and gotten it on one disc. Who even cares about the fadeout? I guess that with fewer songs per side, you can have better groove spacing and so better dynamics, but with modern production you’re not going to get the rich 70’s-type of dynamic range anyways. You’re not shooting on film, baby…  Anyways, that’s not important; let’s get to the music.

I came upon Blitzen Trapper on YouTube around the time “American Goldwing,” the album after Destroyer, was released, so I started with Furr and Destroyer both readily available. I’d say that the two songs that got me into the band were the two title tracks of the two albums–worlds apart, to be sure, but two sides of the same coin*. The title track to Destroyer is six minutes long. It nods at Queen, Led Zeppelin and probably the Beatles without losing its originality. I appreciate that; it’s a brand new statement in the musical language of the 70’s, not blind aping imitation like those Greta Van Fleet punks. Grow up and get your own place, kids. More on that in a future review.

So what can we say about Destroyer? It’s a sci-fi ballad about some kind of “Space Cowboy”-esque hero who… does a thing. He destroys the void, I guess. I guess the void was eating the Earth, and he stopped it? But then he had to take his lover and run to another solar system.

…I swear, if you weren’t into this sh*t as a kid, you probably will never be. Space-rock for life.

Musically, it’s excellent, laid out in movements like a classical suite–first there’s an a capella section that introduces the title character, then there’s a rock section that sets up the romance angle, and then there’s the chaos break.

(How I love the Blitzen Trapper chaos break: you can see it in a lot of their songs around the three-quarter mark, like a solo where the instrument is whatever weird noises they can come up with on their recording hardware and whatever stock clips of movie dialogue and soundtrack they care to slip in under the surface, a la “Wish You Were Here.” It serves a lot of the same function as the guitar solo in a classic rock song: it’s the disintegration, where the tensions built up by the song are released in one burst before the last chorus.)

And then, like Satan in Paradise Lost*, the song wings its way uneasily out of Chaos, re-integrating into a vaguely Zeppelin-tinged hard-rock section in which we get the bulk of the narrative. The hero is tempted by a snake (Earley loves his Bible imagery), steals horses and then a spaceship, and takes his lover “to endless planets, worlds unknown.”

Then the coda hits, a McCartney-style piano ballad in which the narrator asks his lover if she’ll still love him in a million years, when Earth is gone, concluding with a recapitulation of the song’s first lines: “see this wayward son, boy/may you live to run another day.”

Actually, I’m not entirely sure that he’s not singing to a man, what with the “boy” in that second-to-last line, in the same verse as he addresses his lover. It’d be cross-type for Earley, at least as far as his writing to date goes, but his space cowboy character could be gay, I guess. I don’t know.

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I’m the space cowboy/I think you know where it’s at.

Man, this is one thing I’m way into… space westerns and over-the-top sci-fi things. Silly, yeah, but consider what the late 70’s and early 80’s were like to grow up in. My brother and I were a little young to have gotten much of the run of He-Man, but we were reared on She-Ra and got into Gundam in the early 90’s when we were just the right age to appreciate it. Star Wars had some influence, I guess, and so did the cinematic Star Treks. So forgive me for a little nostalgia.

So is it a good song? Yeah, I think so, even if you don’t have the same nostalgia. It has a great vintage sound, but not the slavish devotion to the past that I come to detest. It’s a little overproduced, because the band seem a little insecure about the production values on Furr… or so Eric says in the liners to the Furr deluxe edition. 8/10.

Next is “Laughing Lover,” which but for one flaw would have been one of their great songs. It’s another “magical lover” song, like Earley likes to write. He shows his fascination with mysticism with lines like “Steal away the sun, the moon and stars/start simple with a woman’s voice,” which sounds like it’s about destroying and recreating the world, and “wisdom lingers on the fingers of the fortress/like a lazy ghost,” which is damn evocative even if it is probably meaningless. The band sound great, with a winding, serpentine guitar riff fuzzed the hell out. The band sound great up to a certain point.

It doesn’t rock. The drumming is a four-on-the-floor pop-country pattern, a drum pattern that, living in the rural South around fans of Luke Bryant and Florida-Georgia Line, I’m rather tired of. There’s only really one part of the song where a real back-beat comes in, and it’s too little, too late.  Not having a rock beat just kind of lets the air out of the whole dynamic. I still kind of like it, but it needs a beat more like the next song. 6/10

Next up is a song that draws a little on “Stairway to Heaven,” “Below the Hurricane.” At this point, Eric probably stops trying to make sense. It’s got a lot of mysticism and the lyrics, frankly, just sound nice. It’s about dark and mystical things happening on a dark and cold night out in the woods, I guess. Or I’m just projecting. Musically, it’s top-tier Blitzen Trapper. It has the only noticeable twelve-string guitar part on any Blitzen Trapper song I can think of, in an intro that’s pretty cool sounding. After the airy, acoustic A-section reaches its logical conclusion, another section starts, with a stripped-down, elemental sound and a “Heart of Gold”-type of back-beat and bass-line, not to mention a shimmering harmonica part and scattered piano that seems to drift in and out of the mix like it’s coming in from the next room. Unfortunately, Eric’s voice is rather shrill on this take. Really, it’s a very nice song, but every part of it could have been a little better, except for that intro. 6/10

On side two of disc one, we have “The Man Who Would Speak True,” another murder ballad in a very similar vein to the famous and enduring Black River Killer,” off Furr. In a way, it feels like a retread. But it’s a distinct song, despite the similar topic and the similar melody. In Killer, the killer is a mysterious, perhaps Satanic force that can possess anyone, a force that the song doesn’t really give any explanations about. Randall Flag? Nyarlathotep? Sure, let’s go with that. Whereas, in “The Man Who Would Speak True,” the man is explicitly possessed by his tongue. No, actually, it’s not his tongue, it’s a plant that has been grafted into his mouth, apparently as part of a necromantic ritual to raise him from the dead. Yeah, so to summarize a long story in a very few words, basically this dude is dead and a girl, “Grace,” digs him up with a jawbone, dresses him up and brings him back to life with this “green and a-growing plant.” So… he kills her and everyone else he meets, first with a gun and then by telling the truth to them, and eventually ends up turning himself in to a magistrate of a small town by the sea, who executes him by planting him in the sand at low tide. Or something. It draws a lot on old Appalachian murder ballads like “Little Sadie” aka “Bad Lee Brown.”

Whoa, dude. There’s a lot going on here. There’s a lot of characters doing a lot of things, by the standards of a three-minute song, and there’s also some weird moralizing or something. There’s even at least one gratuitous Grateful Dead reference. I think, in the final analysis, that it’s a Lovecraftian horror story, and like most of Lovecraft’s stories, Earley explains too much about the monster. If the BRK is Nyarlathotep, the plant-man is the Yith in “The Shadow out of Time:” he’s not horrifying, because we know so much about him. But then again, there are some great lines in this song, and if I can’t appreciate it as a horror story, I can appreciate it as a story, nonetheless (and this is my opinion of Lovecraft and of Shadow specifically, too.)

Musically, it’s a little slight, finger-picked guitar and snarling blues harmonica with Blitzen Trapper’s usual studio trimmings. I’m feeling a little generous because it is a song where a dude’s tongue is replaced by a plant, which possesses him and lets him kill people by telling the truth. In the immortal words of a wise old Buddhist I once knew, das f*cked up. 6.5/10.

Next is one of the least flawed songs on Destroyer, “Love and Hate.” One thing you might notice already is that the tone is all over the place, unlike Furr. “Love and Hate” is where the album almost starts to come together, though. It’s a song about being betrayed and dumped by your girl–one thing is that Eric can’t mess up the classics. This has been a topic of rock songs from the old days, and it gets a treatment at once familiar and fresh.

Yeah, Eric writes this as a fantasy story. It’s what he ended up being good at, in the end, and I can stand it. You might not be able to, so I will readily admit that this is a niche song on something of a niche album. The narrator sounds a little like Gandalf talking about the aftermath of his battle with the Balrog. “I wandered down through dusty towns/witness to the wars that rage within men’s minds.” I rather like it, lyrically speaking, but it’s no Furr or “Shoulder Full of You.”

Musically, it’s pretty great, with a vaguely Sabbath-influenced heavy metal sound (it’s definitely the most metal song they ever did) and a Doors-like overdriven organ solo that’s frankly one of the top ten things on the album. I wish Eric’s voice was a little better on it, and I probably wish it was a little less over-the-top, but its one of the closest things to classic BT on this album, tied with the title track and “The Man Who Would…” 7/10

Then there’s “Heaven and Earth,” which I never really liked. It’s more of Eric’s mysticism, but I can’t help but think it’s a fairly transparent discussion of the Christian church–whether from an inside or outside perspective, I don’t know. The refrain, a vaguely piratical “heaven and earth are mine, says I,” is so damn repetitive that I end up skipping the last third of it when listening on my computer. The music is vaguely ELO, with a simple, dark string arrangement that also grates. I give the last song on this disk a 4.5/10.

If I were to consider this disk as an EP, I’d say it was alright, with a weak song and a couple of good songs that weren’t perfect. Unfortunately, this disk is yoked together unequally with another… which is very different, barely the same album. You’ll see when we get to it. Either would be kind of alright on their own, but together it’s a long and annoying mess with a few zen moments.

So what went wrong between Furr and Destroyer? Notice that in other reviews I mention noise-rock influences a lot, and talk about the band. Now those influences seem almost gone, and one personality dominates, to the point that, writing this review, I find myself on a first-name basis with him where I wasn’t before. That is the enigmatic man they call Eric Earley, and on Destroyer, the band starts feeling a lot more like his solo project. I’m going to go ahead and tabulate the score for this disc, and then I’ll average the two together at the end of Part 2.

High Point: Destroyer
Low Point: “Heaven and Earth,” which seems fitting, as the whole album is a declining trend.
Whole Disc Average: 6.4/10
Overall score: TBD


*Mankind is a she, right? Countries are shes, ships are shes, airplanes under a certain tonnage… oh, I dunno.
*Or, times being what they are…
*Book II, if you’re interested. It’s one of the best parts.
All images claimed under fair non-commercial use. Fantasy art by the esteemed Rodney Matthews, found online. Contact me if you represent Rodney Matthews or the artist of the magazine cover and wish them to be taken down. All content reviewed is the property of its respective owners, all opinions mine. Stan Lee is in Valhalla.

Manfred Mann’s Earth Band — The Roaring Silence (1976)

So what is prog-rock, really?

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Don’t do drugs, kids.

Damn, genres are hard to define. Academics sometimes resort to listing… stuff that might or might not be identifiable features of a genre. Most of us just say “I know it when I see it.” Neither way really gives you a succinct definition.  Alt-rock? How can I say this? It’s rock that’s underground, or mainstream rock that sounds like that the stuff underground rockers make, or mainstream rock that sounds mainstream by people who used to be underground… I love you, Kurdt Cobain, but you really screwed up the definition of alt-rock for all time.

Prog-rock, however, is somewhat easier to define. In its classical incarnation, prog-rock is music from the 60’s and 70’s (and maybe the 80’s, but that gets into late prog) that pushed the boundaries of rock-and-roll in some specific ways: prog-rock was more open to longer songs, instrumental jamming, new instrumentation, and lyrics that explored philosophical themes, fantastic worlds. In this framework we began to see album-oriented rock for the first time, and more than that, we began to see stories told in all aspects of the album: lyrics, instrumentals, artwork, liner notes–this almost Wagnerian idea of “total art” was where narrative entered rock in a big way.

Why does this work for rock and not for, say, pop, folk or jazz? Because rock has always had a broad scope. Rock is about life. Rock, from its earliest days when blues and country came together, spoke about romance, work, sorrow, religion, travel and everything else a human life contains, in the language of sex and dancing. Why? Because sex and dancing are not only ubiquitous, but work as metaphors for nearly everything else (as well as each other).

Prog-rock came at precisely the moment that talented rockers were both educated enough and stoned enough to realize that the frontiers of rock were, by their very nature, wide open. Its predecessor, acid rock, led naturally to the frontier, and prog-rock forged ahead from there.

So it’s a genre that a lot could be said about, and, because reviewers tended to shaft prog-rock at the time, it’s a genre that not enough has been said about…. he says, trying to convince himself that he’s not wasting time on Monday night.

So today we’re looking at an unappreciated prog-rock classic, one that most of us know only because it produced its band’s greatest hit, a rather bizarre cover of what had been a mediocre Bruce Springsteen song called “Blinded by the Light.”

Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s seventh album is a hideous, hideous package. It’s a big ear with a little mouth inside it. Why didn’t they learn from the hideous mess that was Floyd’s Meddle album cover? Ears aren’t good cover art, people. This album, at least, is a disappointment in the “total art” department.

But then you slip out the shiny black disc and put it on the phonograph and it acquits itself moderately well, with some glaringly bad moments and some soaring moments, a disc to encapsulate the entire range of its genre from “bloody awful garbage” to “WHOOOO YEAH MOTHER****ERS.”

Let me sober up. (No, I’m not actually high on anything in particular, just naturally a total clown.) The album opens with the aforementioned “Blinded by the Light,” an organ-driven jam on what had been a rather weird Springsteen song. (And yes, Springsteen was weird early on. Every really listened to “Born to Run?”Blinded is a song about being a teen rebel on the early rock and roll scene, complete with light-hearted references to teen sex, masturbation, vandalism and drug use. I like either version alright, but the Earth Band’s version has a better melody, sometimes aided by lyrics changed somewhat to fit the rhythm.

(But yes, as everyone likes to joke about, the singer, Chris Thompson, pronounces “deuce” as “douche.”)

It’s got some nice solos from the guitarists and the headliner himself, Manfred Mann on organ. He even does Chopsticks on the long edit! I find that oddly endearing. While the song is really not that special (and it might not even stand on its own as prog), instrumentally, it gives a good taste of what the band is capable of. I especially like the singers singing the verses as a round at the end. Watch out for this little idea; it comes back. 7.5/10.

But if I took points off the other ear album (or “earlbum”) I mentioned earlier just for containing the abomination “San Tropez,” you know I’m going to be hard on this album for containing “Singing the Dolphin Through,” Mother of Harlots and Abominations. No one can be told what this song is, Neo. You have to hear it for yourself.

Actually, this is pretty funny now that I look at the lyrics. It’s… very British. It’s about two guys going on a head trip and/or making music because Plymouth, England is so violent and depressing. “Singing the Dolphin Through” is short for “singing the Dolphin through still waters;” do they propel their craft by singing? And more importantly for the purposes of this review, do I… do I like this song? Escapism works on me, it’s safe to say. You may find this song too silly, as I did before I looked closely at the lyrics, and may well hate it as I did.

Musically, it’s pretty great, with female backup singers, more synth, more organ, a little saxophone solo… it’s the first definitely prog song on the album, musically as well as lyrically.

I swore I’d do more reviews of albums I don’t love. But I guess I like this one more than I’d remembered. Alright, “Dolphin” gets 7/10 because I’m feeling very generous just now.

Oh, yes, it isn’t even Dolphin that I hate. It’s “Waiter, There’s a Yawn in my Ear.” This thing… Oh, God, this thing. I just remember it having stupid lyrics, really and totally stupid.

So I have the album on as I’m writing, of course, and I’m just getting to “Waiter” now. The intro is pretty cool… Man…

Wait, is this an instrumental? And is that synthesizer real? Can it exist in our dimension? How many PhD’s did it take to program such a thing? And in what subject(s)? Is a mile of patch-cord involved?

And wait, what did I hate again? Was I just that closed-off to Dolphin? Was it the song I was thinking of? Am I gushing again? This review isn’t going the way I wanted it to. I wanted to prove that I’m not just gushing about albums I like. I purposely chose an album that had a couple of songs I could sink my teeth into. And now, boots on the ground, my plan has fallen apart in the face of the enemy. Plans do that, I guess. 7/10.

So the next song was going to be my absolute standout, the deep-cut that made the groaners kinda worth it. But now I’m not sure there ever were any groaners. “Road to Babylon” begins with the female singers from earlier singing “Waters of Babylon,” a round composed by Phillip Hayes in the Classical era based on the 137th Psalm. Some of us might have learned it in Sunday school as children; I personally didn’t but I know people of much the same upbringing as myself who did. Simple text, effective text: it’s a lament for the lost city of Jerusalem, from the perspective of Jews who have been led into captivity in Babylon. Combined with an effective and elegant contrapuntal melody, it makes a beautiful piece of music on its own; particularly brilliant is the fact that “for thee, Zion” in the first voice coincides with “of Babylon” in the second voice, making the dichotomy ever so poignant. And then the band come in and take it off the rails. Drums and guitar enter, the choir fades out, and Thompson leads with the pith of a new story; a story of mind-control, evil sorcery and death along the “road to Babylon.” “A golden helmet blinded minds,” the opening line goes, “among ten thousand swords along the road to Babylon.”

Some minds are like that when sober (if they can ever be said to be sober), and some minds would have to be stoned off their asses to write such a story. I don’t know which is the case here, but if you like fantasy it’s a song to blow your mind. It’s some high-concept stuff, and if you’re open to it, it’s a great song, with a great sound and great overall composition, with a gospel-esque “well, well, well” in the backing voices as a key motif. At intervals, the melody of “Waters of Babylon” returns, before a recapitulation at the three-quarters mark. If the band had needed to prove their literacy in terms of classical form, they would have been surplus to requirement, so to speak.

Not everyone is going to dig such a high-concept prog-rock song, but I have to give it a good rating on technical ground, if on nothing else: 8/10.

And then “Road to Babylon” abruptly stops, and a little bell starts ringing. It’s the intro to “This Side of Paradise.” This is a fairly slight and idyllic little number, about a tropical paradise on Earth. I like it okay. The intro is annoying. 6/10.

Starbird was the B-side to “Blinded by the Light,” there called “Starbird #2” for whatever reason. I guess on my first listen I assumed it was a cover of the theme-song to another of those 70’s puppet-based sci-fi shows like Thunderbirds. It begins with Chris Thompson and Manfred Mann (I think) singing in a round, once again. The lyrics are an ode to some sort of heroic creature, the Starbird.” “Starbird, you can fly me, take me everywhere you go…” and the melody will be familiar to Yes fans as an excerpt of a theme from Stravinsky’s Firebird score, which they played a recording of as the overture to many of their famous 70’s concerts, for instance at the beginning of Yessongs. You know, like how Metallica play “The Ecstasy of Gold?”

Then there’s an instrumental breakdown that owes a lot to Billy Preston’s instrumental “Space Race,” which was one of the very first records I ever owned, and which some of the older generation will fondly recall hearing whenever Bandstand had technical difficulties. Weigh the two together and Starbird will be found wanting, instrumentally speaking, but it’s a cool instrumental on its own. At the end, the a capella A-section gets recapitulated. 6/10; brevity certainly works in this little guy’s favor.

“Questions…” Ah, yes, this is the one that grates on me. It’s about going in a dream to speak to beings of great wisdom, who tell you that the answers are within you all along. Stop pandering to me! 6/10, but it missed being a 5 by having a catchy melody, which is taken from a light composition by Schubert.

So do I like the album? Hell yes. I can’t stay mad at Questions or Starbird, even, much less Yawn or “Singing the Dolphin Through.”

Highest Point: “Waters of Babylon”
Lowest Point: Questions
Whole Album Average: 6.8/10
Bonus for mind-blowing synth throughout: 1.0
Penalty for being good when I wanted to write a bad review: I guess I can’t penalize for this.
Penalty for being a little light on original content: -0.5
Overall Score: 7.3/10


All images found online and claimed under fair use, all content reviewed is the property of its respective owners, all views and opinions mine. Johnny Cash was the first American to know about Stalin’s death.

Blitzen Trapper — Black River Killer EP

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I can’t tell, but I think that he’s shining a flashlight at the Furr album cover.

So yeah, I never shut up about this band. Friends like them okay or despise them, often citing frontman Eric Earley’s voice as a negative factor, but I have always had a sort of resonance with them. (No, not vice versa. It makes no sense to say a band resonates with you. The converse is, however, apt on a number of levels: You’re the thing being moved and they’re the thing doing the moving.) I’m reviewing them not to gush about a band I like, but to chart the rise and fall of what I regard to be one of the great alt bands of a generation.

So Furr is “peak Blitzen Trapper,” so to speak. The “Black River Killer” EP is a collection of songs that didn’t make the cut to become part of Furr as well as one song that did. I’m always tempted to lump the two together as one sort of musical moment, but to be honest, BRK EP has more in common with Blitzen Trapper’s other more fan-oriented releases, like the Waking Bullets EP or their singles. It’s songs that wouldn’t work in an album context, much like the tracks from the failed album that Waking Bullets supposedly represents or the singles that were never meant to be on an album. Still, it’s a good spin.

The title track opens the EP, but I don’t really feel like reviewing it again, since it was on Furr. I do note that, as per the interview in the liner notes of the Furr deluxe edition I just got, the character of the Black River Killer is supposed to be a little like the Shining: a supernatural force that possesses innocent (?) men and drives them to kill. I suppose I should have known that from the lyrics, and maybe I did, but maybe hearing it from the horse’s mouth changed it from a half-formed guess to a palpable fact. But Eric notes that the character of the killer is also inspired by the Judge in Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” I don’t really remember that book, but I’m not sure how that gels with the other thing. Then again, Eric might’ve been stoned when he said that, and was definitely trying to impress the celebrity interviewing him (Rainn Wilson of “The Office” fame.)

It’s a good song, with calm fingerpicked guitar underscoring a retro synth hook. I think I said last time that that’s a combination only Blitzen Trapper would think of, but then again, I suppose ELP’s “Lucky Man” prefigured it to some extent, way back at the beginning of the synthesizer era. 6/10, but only so low because it sticks out like a sore thumb here.

Next comes the hard-rocking, harmonica-driven “Silver Moon.” This, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the reasons you came, even if you didn’t know it. This is rock and roll in its primal, true form, at only one remove, one reflection, from the Platonic Ideal of Rock And/Or Roll. It has a driving, battering back-beat, all the classical rock instruments (drums, bass, guitar, harmonica, piano and vocals) and synthesizer besides, with lyrics about a young couple doing as they please and then having to run from the girl’s father, but told with the mystical reverence for romance and, frankly, sex, that has been a key component of rock and roll from nigh on its conception in the mid ’30’s in Mississippi. “Fresh from the flash of the threshing room floor” should sound awkward, risky, unfulfilling and itchy (I’m a country boy and remember those days of my life well), but it captures all of the glow of the thing and none of the rash. 9/10, because I don’t give 10’s except for the top tier of the top tier.

Remember, kids, condoms and don’t do it in the hay or you’ll regret it all day.

Next is a cryptic song,Going Down.” There’s a narrative but I can’t really understand it. There’s something about espionage (“Loose lips sinkin’ ships tonight,” which is exactly the kind of literate reference that makes Eric’s songwriting so impressive to me), and something about jumping out of a plane with a sabotaged chute, which would make an interesting story if it weren’t essentially an aborted song. I can’t tell if he even dies when he hits the ground. There’s just not enough to this song, unlike Blitzen Trapper’s great war song, “Fire and Fast Bullets.” Musically, it’s standard BT single fare, nothing that impressive. I almost like the line “this girl’s a cluster of ripe grapes,” but then again that’s actually kind of gross. What does that make me think of, though? Echad eshkowl enab…? Still, it’s incomplete work: 5/10, see me after class.

 

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Queen Mab, my Dear

“Shoulder Full of You” is “Twin Peaks” material (that’s “Stranger Things” material for the younger generation), and it’s also incredible. I don’t know what “I got a shoulder full of you” means, but I know what “they saw you flying down/from forest park/on a broken ten-speed bike” means. I recognize this type of character. It’s a love song to some kind of fey being, a being from a third realm outside creation, neither heaven nor hell but older and more natural than either, the sort of being that steals children and replaces them with changelings in the old stories–Björk’s species, in short.* Eric Earley steps into the role of Thomas Rhymer with enthusiasm, having his narrator sing of a deep love for this elvish woman that is touched with melancholy, “like a blacksmith’s sorrow.” There’s even something of the old legend in the way he sings “I’ll kiss you” like it’s a momentous decision–in the old legends, if you kiss the fairy queen you’re pretty much hers for life. That’s your life, not hers, by the way–a thousand years is a blink of the eye to the fair folk.

God, I love folklore. You see this story in the old Border ballads from central Britain, in at least one of the Lais of Marie de France, in Irish legends about Oisin… The Silver Chair… I actually did a paper on this stuff in college, back when I could smoke a Swisher in five minutes without throwing up, when the girls in the English program were easy if you spoke their language… when the autumn leaves were still a symbol of the fall of man…

Whoo… I’m still wrecked among heathen dreams, I guess.

I’d argue that the woman in this song is the same as the woman in “Lady on the Water” on Furr, the immortal lover who can bless or curse, and probably “Laughing Lover” on the next album, Destroyer.

Musically, it’s a pretty minimalist song, which is a new look for Blitzen Trapper. It’s pretty much just fingerpicked guitar, scattered piano and melodica. Normally, when they do a song like that, there’s some synth padding to it, like on Lady. The texture somehow puts me a little mindful of “Pink Moon,” which is never a bad thing. 8/10; I took a point off for tantalizing me with generals and not going into specifics.

“Preacher’s Sister’s Boy” is also pretty mystical. I actually wrote the current lyric sheet for this song on at least one of the major lyrics sites, and I don’t know what he’s saying on at least one line. We’re still in the world of folk-tales and myths here, and nor will we leave it on the rest of the EP.

I asked one of the wisest old fogeys I know what this damn song meant, and all he could say was isn’t ‘the preacher’s sister’s boy’ Jesus Christ?” I have no clue. Yes, in point of fact, Jesus’ mother was the sister-in-law of a priest, according to… Saint Luke, I think. Don’t hold me to it. But as to what’s actually going on in this song? I mean, yeah, the Christian angle works as well as any other theory, only that would make the girl in the song Simon Peter, who would not stay awake in the garden while Jesus prayed in at least one of the gospels, if I remember right. That kinda works, I guess: “Came out to find my best friend sleeping somewhere with the stars…” and  “Stay and pray with me, baby, till the archangel comes…” I note that Eric can’t pronounce “archangel” to save his life. But I went to high school in the late 80’s and early 90’s in Mississippi, and I grow weary of trying to find a christological reading for every single narrative. I’m looking at you, Ms. Meador.

It’s not at all clear cut. Only Eric Earley and God know what this song is about, and maybe only God.

Musically, it’s pretty good, with a cool synth riff and a rocking back-beat. 6/10: points deducted for not being able to say words right.

Certainly, no one knows what the deal is with “Black Rock.” It’s basically more of Shoulder. It has some good lines, like “Climbing black rock/Life like flintlock…” and minimalism sure looks good on this band. 7/10: too vague, but very beautiful.

The EP closer, “Big Black Bird,” flies in “Wild Mountain Nation” airspace. That’s the song, not the album. It has a riff with the same classic roots-rock quality, lyrics about belonging to a mystical tribe (“rambling clan gather on the strand/shaking their feet and stomping in the sand…”), and I think they’re even about the same length, but this doesn’t feel like a retread of the older song. For one thing, this one feels a little happier and less contemplative; I might even like it a little better. I wish, like every song on this EP except for the first, and like the EP as a whole, that it was longer. I’d play this song on air constantly if I DJ’d a college rock station.. (And for that matter, I happen to know through my wires that the instrumental track for this song predates the release of “Wild Mountain Nation.”) A side note: the song has a bridge that goes “round and round, round it goes/where it’s gonna stop, ain’t nobody knows.” While this is a cute reference to a very old gambling game some of us have lost large sums of money at, it became a very irritating line when the band decided to take it literally, when I saw them live in Atlanta. They must have repeated it a dozen times and stretched the song out to in the vicinity of six times its original length! Anyways, it’s a great song. 8/10.

And it’s a good EP, and at one time it was certainly my favorite Blitzen Trapper release; but then again, so was Destroyer… This is part of the last truly transcendent era in Blitzen Trapper’s long and sad history. It’s all downhill from here, I’m afraid.

High Point: Don’t make me choose
Low Point: “Coming Down.”
Whole EP average: 7.0/10
Bonus point for flirting with the real deep-water stuff, folklore and legends and things: 1.0
Penalty for being too damn short, even for an EP: -0.3
Final score: 7.7/10

 


* Lorde probably belongs to the fair folk as well. Doesn’t she live in a crumbling palace in dreamland and call the moon her brother and shit? And look how she dresses. She can steal my firstborn any time.
(No, not really, Jake, if you ever read this, kiddo.)
All images claimed under fair use, all content reviewed the properties of its respective owners, all views and opinions mine. Aliens are behind you, personally, right now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blitzen Trapper — Furr (2008) [UPDATED with Review of Anniversary Edition]

Here we are with another one of my favorite albums, an album that has peaked at my personal number one and never dropped below number ten. In a better world (and you know how I love to think about better worlds), this album would be as iconic as the White Album. In fact, I’d like to think we’d all call it “the Plywood Album.”

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The Plywood Album

Blitzen Trapper, for those just tuning in, are an alt-rock band from Portland, Oregon. Now, for some of you, the combination of “alt” and “Portland” conjures ghastly images: stoned retro-hippies singing about weed, irritatingly precious hipsters in old-fashioned painter’s uniforms singing about how they still like 60s music, violent anarcho-punks being anarcho-punks… and so on.

Forget that. These six men*, for a shining period of three or four albums, were the rockstars’ rockstars. They had fantastic, undefinable music ranging from alt-country and bluegrass to crashing post-rock soundscapes, lyrics that nodded to the Grateful Dead or to Bob Dylan sometimes, but more often soared through imagined worlds even Rush and Yes never made landfall in, and they had old-school, likeable stage presence too. Frontman Eric Earley and multi-instrumentalist/singer Marty Marquis’ salt-of-the-earth working-man personas never feel forced, and do a lot to endear them to me. If they lost their way a little on the last two or three albums, I can forgive them because of my liking for them as a group, and for that three-album window starting with “Wild Mountain Nation” and ending with “Destroyer of the Void.” Hell, I even like individual songs from well before and well after that period. Even their last album has “Rock and Roll Was Made For You.”

(*later five, after the departure of keyboardist Drew Laughery.)

In short, I love this band, enough that I would apply to be one of their roadies if I found myself unemployed and in Portland. They are one of the very few nationally known acts I’ve ever seen live, together with Sarah Jarosz, the Dave Rawlings Machine, and a handful of B-list bands that I saw in my three-and-a-half hours at Woodstock ’99. I even drove six hours to Atlanta to see them in ’16, even knowing that I didn’t like half the new material they’d be playing. It was on that drive, by the way, that I learned how Paul Simon felt on his drive through America with his young son to see Graceland, and it was on that drive that my son and I came to be rabid fans of the Avett Brothers, but that’s a different story.

I previously reviewed their coming-of-age album, “Wild Mountain Nation,” a little while ago, heaping praise on some songs while criticizing those that couldn’t decide on a genre or that went too far into post-rock experimentalism, concluding that the album was good but quite uneven.

Now we come to their next album, almost certainly their best-seller and best-received album and certainly their closest flirtation with mainstream success, Furr. It’s an album that never coalesces into a single genre, but in a way, it doesn’t have to, sustaining an even tone across thirteen wildly different songs in a way “Wild Mountain Nation” completely failed to.

The album opens with the blaring, Al Kooper-esque organ chords of “Sleepytime in the Western World.” Now, I’ll admit I can’t make out what this song is about. But it sure sounds nice, with a retro pop texture and very interesting lyrics that could be about a head trip, a bad dream or even sleep-walking. I can’t tell. I have to admit it’s not likely to win the band any fans right off the bat, but it’s top-notch b-side material, the kind of song I’d regularly use as filler if I DJ’d a college radio station. 6/10

“Gold for Bread” is just as psychedelic and even more cryptic, apparently the paranoid but somehow upbeat ramblings of a psychotic man on the run from the law. It might turn somebody on to the band, if only by its groovy semi-acoustic sound. It’s always been a little too similar to the preceding song for my taste, and honestly it would be more at home on “Wild Mountain Nation.” Again, I’d play it on air. 5/10

And then comes the title track, Furr, which certainly made me a fan of the band at first or second listen. The song opens with airy acoustic rhythm guitar that sounds like Dylan’s, but the lyrics are sung with a triple-time lilt peculiar to a lot of Eric Earley’s writing. It’s a ballad about a young man who runs off into the woods and gets magically transformed into a wolf, only to find his way back to humanity when he meets a beautiful girl.

Yeah, it’s Brothers Grimm material, but it’s also a sensitive treatment of young people living a wild lifestyle in order to find themselves before settling down. The effortless semi-nonsense mysticism of the chorus could have been handled badly, but somehow it works perfectly. The song as a whole is touching without being sentimental, and the acoustic guitar and tambourine formula somehow doesn’t grate. I’m not in love with the sampled wildlife sounds, but on the other hand, they’re not really hurting anything. Anyways, adding birdsong and forest sounds is a total ’60’s-era Pink Floyd move, so I don’t hate it. 8/10.

God and Suicide” is an extremely brief number, with semi-nonsensical lyrics that seem to be about trying not to choose between religion and a worldly life. It has that kind of morbid, dark spirituality that I absolutely love in old blues and country songs, plus an  “Heat of Gold”-esque backbeat. Considering that it’s clearly filler, I rather like it. 6/10.

Next is a song about the apocalypse and one of the album’s hardest and most psychedelic rockers, “Fire and Fast Bullets.” While far from my favorite deep cut on the album, I like it specifically because it marks the point at which Blitzen Trapper found the perfect balance between traditional hard rock and Sonic Youth-esque lo-fi experimentalism. The middle section with distorted vocals is perfect in my opinion, as is the line “to sit on upholstery and burning arise/as the fire starts falling and the fast bullets fly.” It’s also great live. 8/10.

Next is a brief, funky dance number driven by piano and electric piano, Saturday Nite [sic]. It sticks out of the album like a sore thumb, but somehow it works as a moment to catch your breath between two dark songs. I also love the synth solo. 5/10

Possibly one of their best known songs, “Black River Killer” is a folky, mostly-acoustic murder ballad sung from the perspective of a serial killer. That morbid religious tone I mentioned earlier is back in spades, with lines in the chorus like “oh, when, oh, when will the spirit come a-calling for my soul to send/oh, when, oh, when will the keys of the kingdom be mine again?” Honestly, if I had to pick my favorite song sung from the perspective of a serial killer, I’d find it hard to choose between this song and the acoustic version of “Psycho Killer” by The Talking Heads. The retro synth hook over bare finger-picked acoustic guitar is a piece of instrumental flair that only Blitzen Trapper could have written. 8/10

And next, Frontman Eric Earley decides to imitate one of his top idols, Neil Young. Not cool outlaw proto-grunge-singer Neil Young from the late 70’s, or the bizarre synth-savvy tech genius Neil Young of the early 80’s, nor yet green activist Neil Young from the 90’s and 00’s, but rather the Neil Young of 1969’s “After the Gold Rush,” the dorky,  creaky-voiced Neil Young who played piano more than guitar and sung about silver spaceships.

The result, stripped-down ballad “Not Your Lover Anymore,” is a song with a simple message: “In my sleep I’m not your lover anymore/when I’m dreaming I could be anyone.” It’s not a breakup song, and it even tries to convince itself it’s not a breakup song. Nevertheless, it sounds like an overture to a breakup or a veiled confession of infidelity–the singer is hers when he’s awake, but in his subconscious, he’s moved on or worse, he never knew her. Somehow the bald imitation of Neil Young’s sound is fitting, as the song reads as a layered piece of falsehood. And like no other Blitzen Trapper song, it has the world-weariness of a Neil Young song. It’s not a bad song. 6/10.

Next, in one of the biggest genre leaps in recording history, comes a sludgy, doomy post-rock song called “Love U,” which begins with Earley shouting “I love you, baby, like a thief loves money,” and gets stranger from there. I have no idea what it’s about, but somehow, it maintains the continuity of the album, even with the vastly different song immediately before it.

It’s the worldview, I think. Eric Earley seems to see the world in different colors, as though he knew that we live in an older and stranger world than most of us ever know. Sometimes I’m driving down a certain section of a Mississippi state highway, and I see the grandeur of a long stretch of timberland that has, within my son’s lifetime, reclaimed the name “forest” and then earned the name “jungle” in one steady motion, slower than the moon, and then, especially if it’s summer and the sun is beating down like a constant Hindustani drone, then I know that man is young and that much is unknown. At these moments, I think I could or rather would write like Eric Earley and Marty Marquis (who seems to be his regular writing partner), though this is a massive overestimation of my abilities. It is this desire for true sight that made me a photographer, and more to the point, it is the ability of music to change my view of the world that has made me a musician and an obsessive music lover.

In “Love U,” and throughout the album, Earley employs these little turns of phrase, some of them hinting at religion and some of them hinting at mysticism, that tell us we’re no longer in the nine-to-five, matter-of-fact human world, and in fact, make us feel that that world is merely comfortable ignorance. “God speed us home with fire and storm,” from “Love U,” sounds to me like a vague allusion to the columns of fire and cloud that led the Hebrews on in the book of Exodus, but more than that, it evokes the elemental forces of the world in this pseudo-religious way. It reminds us, or me, at least, that we do not fully understand fires or storms, and are barely capable of controlling the former, let alone the latter, being but children in an old world. It’s the same with the line about “the ancient, distant flow” in the title track.

And so, while hardly my standout track from the album, “Love U” introduces us to the last few songs on the album, marking the point at which we have firmly left the human world behind and returned to a more primal world. 7/10.

“War on Machines” is next, a throwback to “Wild Mountain Nation“‘s sound, to be sure, but quite at home on the album. It’s a hard, bass driven rocker. The lyrics are as cryptic as ever, but it sounds like it’s about going home in the evening to your girl, ready for love. Do note that, when rock and roll was invented in 1936 by three old blues singers passing through my city on their way to Gulfport, in a makeshift studio in a skanky hotel we’ve since demolished, it was already about that.

Here, Blitzen Trapper take this age-old trope out on the porch and beat the dust off of it real good, with lyrics that are good from beginning to end. The singer compares himself and his lover to tigers, calls the world a dry riverbed waiting to flood, and talks about the night “breaking out like a fight.” There isn’t a line here I don’t like, and the music sounds as primal and natural as the lyrics, like a threesome between Morphine, the Allman Brothers and the Sonic Youth. 9/10

Next, without breaking the tone or the flow, Blitzen Trapper play perhaps the nearest thing to a straight country song in their repertoire (a repertoire which includes a whole country album), with “Stolen Shoes and a Rifle.” It’s a slow, fingerpicked song with a lot of acoustic guitar and pedal steel, and it is about another of Eric Earley’s favorite subjects, a fugitive from the law, traveling in the wilderness. It begins, like “Ramble On” and like the Namarië, by announcing that it’s autumn, with the line “the weather’s like feathers on fire,” a line which took  me several years to analyze: I’ve weighed several interpretations and I conclude it means falling leaves in those fiery colors particular to only a handful of deciduous trees.

I don’t have much to say about this song, other than to say that if songs like Furr and “War on Machines” sketched in little corners of the primal world, “Stolen Shoes and a Rifle” stood in front of the canvas with brushes in its teeth and a wet palette and gave it colors, such colors. I compare the experience to that of watching Bob Ross paint an Alaskan mountainscape. 9/10.

The second-to-last song on the album, the three-part “Echo–Always On–EZ Con” is another piano-driven ballad and definitely a breakup song, perhaps a sort of coda to “Not Your Lover.” The singer laments losing touch with his ex, asking if all their love was is “an echo out in space.” This goes on for two verses and then the song breaks down into a strange, atonal soundscape known as “Always On,” before resurrecting after about ten seconds of that as “EZ Con,” a funky, straightforward instrumental jam where the band as a whole unwinds and lets loose the remaining musical tensions, as the final song is to be nearly a solo number on Earley’s part, with some help from Marquis.

“Lady on the Water” is the preeminent example of another odd facet of Eric Earley’s songwriting: his true love songs (at least, before he stopped trying) were always to a woman of almost mythical qualities, a woman that the singer wants to learn from or be blessed by. This peculiarity in his songwriting was apparent from the song on “Wild Mountain Nation” where Earley sang “Girl, I love your amazing ways/keep me honest, keep me clean,” and became even more clear in another song from the same album, where he sang “Baby’s got to praise like a river on the cusp/crashing through the levee, moving with a mighty rush.” It’s obvious here.

It’s a song that manages to be jangly and fingerpicked at the same time, with basically two instruments: guitar and melodica. (There is some low-key synth glow as well, I think.) In some of his more Dylanesque writing, Earley begs his lover for guidance, for mystical blessings, and for her faithfulness until the end of his natural life. One almost gets the impression that this period is to be a blink of an eye for her. Should Aragorn have written a love song to Arwen, I think it would have sounded much like this. 8/10.

Update:

In the months since I wrote this review, Blitzen Trapper put out a 10th anniversary

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Updated for the 90’s!

edition on vinyl, with an LP of rarities and more extensive liner notes, including an interview with Rainn Wilson of The Office fame, who’s apparently a big fan. When I heard this, I looked at my week’s paycheck, looked at my wife, looked at the paycheck, looked at my wife…

She forgave me for ordering the album (which was cheaper than I thought it’d be), but only after about an hour of harassing me about my spending habits.

It came on translucent yellow and orange “loser edition” vinyl, in a sturdy sleeve that has a darker version of the original cover art. The packaging is beautiful, the coloured vinyl is a nice touch, and it was nice to hear one of my favorite albums on vinyl for the first time. I’d heard some of the rarities on disc two, and I’d probably heard of all of them, but they’re pretty good overall and worth reviewing briefly here:

“War is Placebo” is nice-sounding. I don’t get a plot or a clear situation from it, but it has similar apocalyptic/wartime themes to “Fire and Fast Bullets,” I guess. 6/10.

“Simple Tree” was the bonus track on the iTunes version of “Destroyer of the Void,” and I hated it then because it sounded twee, but Eric explains the story in the liner notes and I guess it sounds less bubble-gum to me now: it’s about trying to impress a stoner chick in high school, even knowing that she’s probably far cooler than you. I can rave to that. It also has more of Eric’s cool animal imagery. 6/10 on the nonce.

“Booksmart Baby,” oh, “Booksmart Baby.” I knew this song from an untitled encore on a life performance on YouTube. Here, in the original studio version, it sounds fantastic. It’s another one of those songs that’s essentially an Eric Earley solo performance, with a tile-bathroom/closed stairwell type of acoustic resonance to his voice and the finger-picked guitar, which I think is his as well. The lyrics are cryptic, apparently (dixit Earley) about a girl whose parents are dead and whose brothers are drunk and abusive, but who finds solace in books. He tells it in the liners like it’s a true story from grade school, and it rings very true. The melody is carol-like in its crystalline elegance, the sort of melody you expect to hear at Christmas, a melody that summons the smells of cloves, glazed ham, Douglas Fir and dad’s goddamn old Borkum Riff pipe tobacco. Now I wish I still smoked, just to sneak another pinch of that old rum-soaked shag and puff at it out on the back porch. Oh yeah, the song: 8/10, but only that; it’s too short.

I have no idea what “Heroes of Doubt” is about, but it has dope lyrics and solid music. 6/10. Ditto for “Maybe Baby” on both counts.

“Ballad of Bird Love” is about trying to pick up chicks with your brothers for wingmen. Now, my brother and I are very different. I help him pick up dudes sometimes, he helped me pick up chicks back in my chick-picking-up days… so the song resonates with me. The drums are massive, the imagery is nice, and I’m a sucker for electric piano. I guess describing dating with a hunting metaphor might be considered a little unfortunate. It’s a 7/10, all the same.

“Hard Heart” is, according to the liners (which I don’t have on me at the moment) about having this fortitude that lets you survive in a hard world, but it almost sounds more like it’s about breaking through someone’s emotional scar tissue in a relationship. I dunno, it has more of that cool apocalyptic imagery. 6/10.

“Other People’s Money” is one of my favorites on this disc, for some reason. Eric describes it as being about our possessions having to live for us, as long as our heads “are full of other people’s money.” To be honest, even though he was totally stoned when he wrote that, it’s as good of a summary of the lyrics as I could’ve written. It’s about being obsessed with money and not noticing that your car is like, alive. I like the refrain “it’s a farewell all the same/as the faucet fills the drain,” which changes in the outro to “…/as the fire falls down like rain.” I think Eric has nightmares about napalm, honestly. I also like that Eric pronounces “pilgrimage” like he’s reading Chaucer in Middle English. 8/10.

“On My Way to the Bay” is actually a fairly straight-forward allegory. Eric, so he says in the notes, knew a Native American boy in high school who got into alcohol in a big way and never really recovered, while Eric kept it under control. Rule of thirds, right? The song is about being stopped by a native man who’s under a spell cast by a witch. They both try to kill the witch, only to find that she can’t be killed, and only the narrator escapes. Decent song, piano ballad in waltz time… My only qualm is that it uses the word “injun,” which Eric (who implies that he has Native American roots in the liner) seems comfortable enough with. I mean, I feel even less qualified to talk about this than the average person; I have a sixteenth of Cherokee blood, but no actual connection to Cherokee culture. I feel like, if I talk about it, I’m going to be one of those white people with pretensions of being an “Indian.” I’m not going to claim to have any insight or any right to talk. Let’s just say it’s a sticky issue that gets into our (America’s) secret history of colonialism, and that the reactions of actual members of native cultures are probably prone to vary. I dunno. 5/10, I guess.

“Rent-a-Cop” is a fast-paced electronic number with processed vocals like “Sci-Fi Kid” on the previous album. It’s about trying to rob a mall and getting shot by a “teenage female rent-a-cop.” It’s silly, and very slight. 5/10.

Then there are live versions of “God and Suicide” and Furr, both very tight and close to the studio versions, maybe too tight and close.

I like to think of it as an EP in its own right, in which case it stands with “Black River Killer” and “Waking Bullets at Breakneck Speed” as a solid, fan-oriented rarities release, perhaps a little less exciting than the former and on par with the latter.

Single song average: ~6.6/10.
Bonus points for cool vinyl, maintaining a good energy level and living up to the legacy of the parent album: 2.0
Penalty for being too short: -1.0
Overall score: 7.6/10

Conclusion:

I’ve done a dangerous thing here, reviewing an album that I have very few criticisms of. Obviously, I’m biased in favor of this album. Giving a whole-album numerical rating seems a little silly. Consider this painfully gushing review as a necessary installment of an ongoing series, as I document the rise and fall of Blitzen Trapper.

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Here they are, by the way, less one member, unfortunately. L-R: Michael Van Pelt (bass), Marty Marquis (multi-instrumentalist, vocals), Eric Earley (guitar, keyboard, lead vocals), Brian Koch (drums), Erik “Tito” Menteer (guitar)


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David Bowie — Station to Station (1976)

David Bowie was one of those figures who are quite impossible to describe. If someone described him as a sexually ambiguous, flamboyant glam/punk/pop/prog-rock singer with a cocaine problem and a golden voice, they’d have all of the facts and none of the essence. You couldn’t guess from that description that one day in the mid-70’s, he’d suddenly begin dressing as a languid, pompous aristocrat, flirting with fascist ideas, and make a hard-to-analyze, hard-to-classify album with themes of Jewish mysticism, modern occultism, and religious yearning. Now, to anyone really familiar with the earlier Bowie, it’s not quite as huge of a jump as it sounds, but it’s still a bleak, unusual period for him. To me, it’s far more significant than the more popular “Young Americans” that preceded it.index

The album is “Station to Station.” It’s not a genre piece.  I’ve seen it called “blue-eyed soul,” and I’ve seen it called a pop album, and I’ve seen it called prog-rock, and it’s pretty telling that all three work equally well. Somebody once told me that the best music gets made when people awkwardly shove multiple genres together and then kind of jam with it until it sounds right. I’m nearly sure that’s how rock-and-roll was invented in the first place, with blues, gospel and country elements coming together and losing whatever aspects were incompatible.

Here, Bowie and his band combine pop, the genre he’s arguably most comfortable working with, with soul, funk, prog-rock, and whatever else came into their heads, apparently. Does it work? I think it does, but it’s not an stellar album on an instrumental  level. Bowie’s constant self-reinvention prevented this sound from enduring onto a second album, but if he’d stayed with it it might have matured into something better.

How are the songs?

Well, the title-track is Bowie’s very longest at 10:14. It’s also one of his darkest and proggiest, and is notable as the only time the words “Thin White Duke” appear on a Bowie song. This was the pseudo-fascist, elitist aristocrat in a baggy white tuxedo shirt and a dark vest who was Bowie’s brand-new stage persona at the time. Bowie was bone-thin and, like the character, was actually taking mind-blowing amounts of cocaine, so the line between persona and reality is blurred quite a bit, even more than is typical for Bowie.

Is it a good song? I like it alright. The long buildup to the actual music, with synthesized train noises, could have been cut. The organ part for the slow, plodding, doom-rockish A-section is very nice, reminding me somehow of ELP, and the B-section is still filled with dread, but more upbeat. The lyrics and vocals are definitely the strong point, as you might expect with Bowie. He sings from the point of view of this aristocrat, who is on cocaine, engaged in occult activities, and thinks he’s in love. I mean, what did you expect, a normal song from Bowie? It’s no Life on Mars, but it’s a good song. I especially like the repetition of “It’s too late,” throughout the last part of the song. Repeating the same line over and over is an interesting technique, which makes the line bear a lot of weight, but can capture obsession, passion or dread very well, depending on the line in question. This is a technique that Kurt Cobain would later perfect, in my opinion. “All in all is all we are…” I give it 7/10.

Next is the funky pseudo-love song of the album, “Golden Years.” This is the only song from this album that classic rock stations seem to play. In fact, it’s one of only three Bowie songs that my local station plays, and some of you can probably guess the other two. It says something about Bowie that such a weird song is the album’s most “normal.”

It’s based primarily on a funk vamp, more or less the instrumental equivalent of repeating the same line over and over. It portrays passion very well at the musical level, but can get tiring. Thankfully, it’s well executed here and never grates. The lyrics and vocals are average for Bowie. He sings about wanting to guard the object of his affections for “a thousand years.” He also has an emotional breakdown later in the song and shouts to heaven “O, Lord, I believe, I believe all the way,” which stands in stark contrast to some thing he says in the very next song. It’s passionate, danceable and, honestly, quite fun to sing in the shower, so I like it a lot. 7/10

Then comes a vaguely soul/gospel-influenced song along the same general thematic lines, “Word on a Wing.” In this, Bowie prays for his love to return to him, but doubts that it would fit into God’s “scheme of things,” showing that his religious declaration in “Golden Years” has been replaced with doubt and a certain level of cynicism. It has a very nice melody and some good lines, but Bowie’s voice wears thin here, as though he’d recorded it in one session with the first two songs. I like that the refrain “my prayer flies like a word on a wing” is probably inspired by a similar line in Paradise Lost. (Don’t make me look up this reference.) I give it 6/10.

So the album’s been arty and emotional so far, but it really hasn’t been that weird. It’s not like there’s a piano-driven boogie-woogie number about a man worshiping a TV that ate his girlfriend, right? Oh, wait, there is, it’s “TVC-15.”

Cocaine, ladies and gentlemen, is a hell of a drug. Later, Bowie barely remembered this time in his life, saying that he could listen to Station to Station as though a different man had made it. He claimed he only knew that he recorded it in L.A. from reading the liner notes. Moreover, he recalled that this was a time when he pondered such philosophical questions as the existence of God and whether he could turn on a TV telekinetically. At around the same time, Iggy Pop, a long-time close friend of Bowie’s, had a bad trip on something no doubt a little stronger than chamomile tea, and hallucinated that a television was eating his girlfriend.

And that’s the song. It’s Bowie singing that scenario. It’s catchy as hell, and Bowie’s band somehow managed to make psyched-out doom-rock over a substrate of honky-tonk boogie piano, which earns them major points with me. 6/10.

“Stay” just isn’t notable to me. It also has a funky main riff, more of the half-spoken lyrics that Bowie went in for during this period, and really, it just sounds like “Golden Years” and “Word on a Wing” rehashed. I can easily understand how someone might really like this song, but it does very little for me. 4/10.

Then for the finale, Bowie covers a 1950’s song popularized by Joe Mathis*. “Wild is the Wind.” Like an antique Timex that still keeps time, the song holds up. Plus, covering a song from the 50’s is always a classy move. It reminds me of the White Stripes covering “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself,” which worked as well. Bowie’s version is passionate, but shaky and perishing. He sounds as old here as he would on his final album, Blackstar, but even more driven. And more than Joe Mathis, I believe him when he says “we are creatures of the wind…    and wild is the wind.”

I appreciate that Bowie can pull off reverb’d-up vocals so well. Only Porter Wagoner does it better, I think. 7/10.

(*Being from the South and not quite old enough to be very familiar with Joe Mathis, I naturally confused him with the country singer “Joe ‘Country’ Mathis,” and wrote a heart-felt aside about 50’s country. When I realized that this was not the case, I almost left it and pretended I didn’t know better.)

So while any number of very strange artistic choices were made here, Bowie shows he can pull off almost anything. More than that, he shows that he can do a stark and dramatic performance as much as he can a flamboyant and colorful one. My only complaint is that some of the production sounds sloppy.

Average track rating: 6.2/10
Bonus points for good album-craft, overall weirdness, et cetera: 3.0
Penalty for occasional sloppy production: -1.0
Overall rating: 8.2/10


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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 somehow unconvinced here, and his voice is, frankly, a little off-key. 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, about five or six years before, when he had quit smoking and his voice had somehow gotten worse for the 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. This was the era that Dylan got into Rimbaud, Verlaine and Dante Alighieri, 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.)