Monday, September 5, 2011

#462 - Marvin Gaye - Here, My Dear

Critically panned upon its’ initial release, Marvin Gaye’s ode to divorce Here, My Dear has now come to be known as a genius album. Ummmm, huh? Now, there is no argument from me that Gaye is an immense talent. Arguably, the best R&B crooner of all time, but this album is, for lack of a better term, weird. This is unfortunate, because the story behind this album is so wonderfully tragic that I want this album to be the best thing I have ever heard.

Upon their divorce in 1975, Marvin Gaye and Anna Gordy (sister to legendary label owner Berry Gordy) came to an agreement where Gaye would kill two birds with one expensive stone. Berry Gordy was pressing Gaye for an album and Anna wanted paid. Seeing as how Gaye had been getting it on and having two children with another woman, I don’t blame her. Ultimately, it was agreed upon that Gaye would write the album that would later become Here, My Dear and that the album’s advance and the first $300,000 of its’ earnings would go to his ex-wife. Gaye agreed to these terms fully intending to write a piece of shit record just to appease the Gordy clan, but then Gaye’s emotions (as well as his artistic pride) got in the way. The album developed into something that ran the spectrum of emotion ranging from rage to bitterness to genuine heartache. The artist was unsure if he even wanted to release the deeply personal album. Eventually, he did, but only after having his ex-wife listen to it. She was less than ecstatic.

I was very harsh on this album the first few times I listened to it. It may be due to the fact that Gaye disregarded most pop conventions when constructing these songs. Half the songs don’t appear to even include a hook or chorus. Instead, the album presents itself as some form of R&B/Jazz fusion record. The uniqueness of the album and Gaye’s masterful voice began to grow on me, but ultimately I feel this album falls way short of such a high accolade. Ultimately, the same things that I love about this album are its’ downfall. Gaye’s heartfelt lyrics tug at the listeners’ heartstrings, at times, but these same lyrics also provide some awkward sarcasm and lyrical pitfalls. I’m not going to go into each song and dissect them as I sometimes do. Instead, I’ll leave it at this. If you are a true fan of Marvin, you may love this album (even though as I stated before this album was slammed upon its’ release). If you are not a fan in the same vein, you may want to pass on this album. I definitely think it is worth a listen, but am not read to give my approval on its’ inclusion on this list.


Marvin was never one for subtlety. He makes it very clear how he feels, what he plans on doing to you once you’re in his bedroom, or how much you’ve hurt him when you won’t let him do the aforementioned anymore. He found success by wearing his heart on his sleeve, and doing so with one of the most beautifully passionate voices in r&b. Unfortunately, that voice was so stunted by excessive drug use by the time Here, My Dear was recorded that despite it’s heavy emotional content, it feels lifeless.

Let’s set the scene. Marvin married Anna Gordy, seventeen years his senior, in 1964. They remained a power couple, as he was a superstar singer and she was Berry Gordy’s older sister and a successful songwriter herself, until the early ‘70s. That would be when he met a 17 year old girl named Janis, and began an affair with her. Obviously this didn’t set well with Anna, and she ended up leaving Gaye, who then wrote this album about the whole sordid mess. So when I first saw titles like “I Met A Little Girl” my mind began questioning the appropriateness, and I wondered where this was all headed.

Turns out that song is about Anna, and practically walks you through their relationship. Marvin even yells out the exact year he plans to reference before each verse, which is just as corny as it sounds. That kind of defines my problem with this whole thing; it’s corny as hell. Not in a kitschy, unapologetic way either. In a do-we-really-need-another-spoken-intro kind of way. It’s like a lounge singer doing a retrospective, with lot’s of unnecessary time spent beating the plot into you.

“Is That Enough” could be a beautiful song with an epic sax solo if not for one thing. In the middle of that solo, there is a missed note that pops the worst reed squeak I have ever heard on record. My middle school band director would have slapped us over a mistake that horribly timed. I think the player is Ernie Fields, Jr., who currently plays in the American Idol band. So if any of you ever get the chance to make it to the finals of that affront to music, paintbrush that bastard for me.

It’s not that this is a terrible album. Really, it’s not. It’s just so far from the greatness that Marvin Gaye was capable of. Cocaine had gotten the best of him. He wasn’t questioning his initial ideas, and it shows a real lack of taste at times. Random instrumental solos overlayed in the verse clash with the vocals, with both being poorly performed. It just all feels lazy, which makes me so frustrated. This could have been a fantastic breakdown of such an emotionally turbulent period, the kind most songwriters have a perverse wish for, which tend to motivate great art. Instead we get half-assed, spaced out meanderings that completely fail to ever find the point.

This isn’t from this album, but a Hawaiian playing Marvin on ukulele is worth it.

-the fat man

Saturday, August 13, 2011

#463 - Elton John - Tumbleweed Connection

I love Elton John albums. I feel like I’ve said that before. Perhaps, only a few reviews ago. I love Bernie Taupin’s lyricism as equally as Elton’s musicianship and voice. Tumbleweed Connection, despite its exclusion of virtually any hit single, is no exception. Elton’s second release in the U.S. (the follow up to the widely touted self-titled album), Tumbleweed gives its listeners an odd glimpse into the American West by the furthest thing from cowboys, spurs, and dusty saloons; two rocking men from London (one of which would later openly reveal himself to be homosexual). What makes the album’s theme even stranger is that Taupin’s fascination of the American West does not stem from any sort of experience. The author of such songs as “Burn Down the Mission,” “Ballad of a Well Known Gun,” and “Country Comfort” has stated that the album was written and recorded before he’d even been to the States. Hmm? Well, if that is the case, then he deserves even more praise for painting such an accurate portrayal from his mind’s eye (even if he did use film, musical, and literary influences to develop his ideas). In fact, Taupin stated that his main inspiration for the album’s lyrics came largely from The Band’s Music from Big Pink. Furthermore, I find it amusing and ironic that critic Jon Landau, in a review printed in Rolling Stone, wrote that Taupin is not a great lyricist, but instead “interesting.” He also wrote that while he originally criticized John’s earlier self-titled venture as “doing too much,” he wished that Taupin and John would have pushed the limit and included more with this album. This leads me to believe that Mr. Landau might just be a prick who can’t make up his mind. In my opinion, the album is a busy one as it is. That’s not to be taken as a criticism, but merely a statement of fact.

As for the songs, holy inspiration for cover songs, Batman! The album kicks off with the aforementioned (albeit briefly) “Ballad of a Well Known Gun.” Kicking off the album’s Western theme, this song is about….you guessed it, a man on the run with a gun. You guys are so smart. Eventually, this song would be covered by James Taylor’s lesser known sibling, Kate. She would also cover “Country Comfort” from this album. Neither of which I could locate on Youtube, which I find oddly surprising. Apparently, she was not as talented as James at writing original material. Nevertheless, Elton and his band use every instrument possible to remind us that this album has a Western theme (as if we were confused). I can hear some fiddle, some pedal steel guitar, and Bob Dylan’s favorite, a harmonica. Also making appearances on this track, Dusty Springfield doing some backing vocals and Caleb Quaye (studio musician for Jagger, Townshend, McCartney, and Hall & Oates).

Next, Elton decided to include “Come Down in Time” which, although being a great song, does not seem to fit the mold here. I mean, here is an album dealing with the rough and tough ideas of early Western America and he decides to include a Gothic sounding song with harp and oboe. Great song, but should have been saved for another album, in my opinion. Eventually, Elton remembers what they were originally aiming for on this one with “Country Comfort.” The aptly titled song does offer a feeling of comfort via very early Americana, despite the looming onset of industrialization offered in the lyrics, “Down at the well they’ve got a new machine / The foreman says it cuts man-power by fifteen.” This song would late be included on Rod Stewart’s Gasoline Alley and while I wasn’t able to find Kate Taylor’s version I was able to find Mr. Stewart’s rendition (along with this). The rollicking “Son of Your Father” follows; picking up the tempo a bit. Then, we get my personal favorite song off the album “My Father’s Gun,” which offers us the words “gun” and “father” yet again. Are you starting to see a pattern? The song, which tells of a son following in his dead father’s footsteps and joining, what I take to be, the Civil War, was featured in the film Elizabethtown (also containing the theme of a son coming to terms with his recently passed father). “Where to Now, St. Peter?” does not do as much as the one before it, but offers Elton as some of his most grandiose with funk-tinged guitars and synths all while singing about sailing along in a blue canoe. Don’t forget this is not the time of Carnival cruises. Oh, what’s that you say? You haven’t forgotten. Okay, I just wanted to be sure we were all on the same page. The next track, “Love Song,” is the only song on the album not written by Elton and Taupin. Written by the forgettable Lesley Duncan, this song resembles every other ballad singer/songwriters were penning in the 70’s and doing it better (i.e. Jim Croce). Decent song, but nothing to write home about, give to a man with his father’s gun who will get in his blue canoe and deliver to your family who are back home basking in the country comfort of their land. You see what I did there? I took the songs from Tumbleweed Connection and made a story using its’ characters and titles. Did you see? Ok, I’ll stop. Next up, “Amoreena,” written for Elton’ God-daughter, its’ most famous moment came by its’ inclusion in the opening scenes of Dog Day Afternoon (which also involved a homosexual man annnnnnd we’ve come full circle). “Talking Old Soldiers” is the classic tale of a young man who meets an old man in a bar learns a thing or two from the old geezer who has become a bit of a joke in his community. The album conclude with “Burn Down the Mission” reminds me of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. In the novel, Darl burns down a neighboring barn that is harboring his dead mother and her casket as a last resort to end the madness his family has wrought. Like the book, the protagonist in Taupin’s lyrics attempts to burn down a mission as a means of helping himself and the surrounding community, but in the end is taken away by the authorities, much like the aforementioned Darl. This song was later covered by the band Toto on their album Through the Looking Glass as well as Phil Collins on the Taupin and Elton tribute album Two Rooms (both of which stink). Sting also contributed to the album, providing a rendition of “Come Down in Time.”

Solid outing by Elton John and his long-time writing pal, Bernin Taupin. Definitely worth of inclusion on any “best of” list.

This album’s amateur cover comes from Adam Marsland and The Sexies.

Also, I’ve always appreciated Elton John’s sense of humor as evident in this clip.

“I could snort you under the table.”


I don’t really get why this album is on here. Or why it’s above Elton’s much better Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It’s a good record, but it’s no classic. Never in the midst of a tense argument over the great music of our day have I heard someone say “Oh man, of course! Tumbleweed Connection!”. It’s mildly funked up take on country actually foreshadows the sound Elton and Billy Joel would end up mastering over the years, but here it gets a bit off putting from time to time.

I will say this is great rainy day stuff. There’s something about some records that make them the perfect background for reading as rain pounds away. There’s a lot more to praise than that, like some excellent melodic bass playing, and (to no surprise) aggressive striding piano. My only issue with the music is that the different players aren’t working together. Soloing funk bass doesn’t mix well with slide guitar and fiddle. Individually, the performances are all terrific. I just want a little more cohesion.
The last minute or so of :Son Of Your Father" has some great horns that take the song to another level. The rest of the songs just seems like something Scissor Sisters have done better. That’s kind of indicative of the problem. There are hints of where Elton was heading, and there are surprising nods to his other influences. But either way, it seems like it has all been done a bit better somewhere else. For instance, "Love Song", which sounds so much like Crosby, Stills and Nash that I was waiting for Neil Young’s cheese grater of a sinus passage to ruin everything. Immediately after that is "Amoreena" with it’s multiple melodic lines that were recycled in Elton’s cocaine induced lazy years. By the way, ever notice how bands usually get worse when they get sober (the Weiland effect)? Not so with Elton. The 80’s were not good to him on a creative level.

I am being picky, but some albums are so close to great that they force your hand. I really feel like a little more time spent finding that one really memorable chorus, or making sure the band was completely on the same page would have pushed Tumbleweed Connection over the wall. As it is, it’s a solid effort and deserving of a lot of praise. I just can’t rationalize spending a spot on this. As good as it sounds, I’m quite sure there are better albums that didn’t make the cut.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

#464 - Jay-Z - The Blueprint

Let’s be honest here. In 2001, Jay was huge from a sales perspective, but he was mostly known as that guy that kept getting his ass handed to him by Nas. Well, that and sampling Annie. Which was pretty badass by any standards. But there is so much braggadocio on display on The Blueprint he almost makes you believe his word. I say almost because his style here is… let’s just say it’s not on par with some of his more recent stuff.

First the flow. It’s just weak. He can’t seem to find a new way to ride a beat no matter what the song sounds like. "Never Change" is a laid back r&b jam, while "Heart Of The City" has some dirty funk. So why does he sound exactly the same on each track? His style is the same, the voice is always loud and almost out of breath. He’s so monotone that it distracts from the great music backing him up.

The music is the main redeeming factor. Whether this is mostly samples or written for him, it’s just fantastic. Bass and drums are always interesting, and never seem to synthesized. Backup singers are perfect, and break the rap mold of over singing. Never do we get the 90’s staple of multiple octave runs (which always ended up out of tune). The only problem I have is that too many of these songs sound alike, making for an album that never goes anywhere. It’s like being married to the same woman your entire life. My wife doesn’t read this, right?

I honestly like Jay Z, but this isn’t his best and it doesn’t deserve to be on here. People were disappointed in it when it came out, it didn’t get half the airplay his previous songs had, and it still doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I think this was one of those moments when people were filling out their ballots and thought, “oh I didn’t pick any black guys. I don’t want to seem racist so…..Jay Z”. They guy has earned his place in the top twenty rappers of all time thanks to some of the sickest wordplay and use of double meanings ever used, none of which is on display in The Blueprint. It’s just a letdown all around.

Here's one of the million hip hop songs I'd rather to listen to. Max


Oh, Michael. You couldn't be more wrong. First off, most of the things you criticize Mr. Carter for are the same criticisms you could make about his recent stuff. None of it has changed; it's just who he is as an artist. Same flow (which, although I'm a fan, has never struck me as overwhelmingly great), but it's the lyrics that have always kept Jay in discussion amongst anyone doing a top 10 hip hop list after slugging a few beers (or in my case arguing on twitter stone sober with the whitest boy I know....Ian Blevins). Think about it: same type of bragging (expected on any modern day rap artist's album), he still talks during the hook when he should just let the sample do its' thing, but the difference here is that Jay almost single-handedly controls this album without featuring cameos from other rappers, which is unusual for any contemporary rap album. But what Jay lacks in cameos (aside from "Girls, Girls, Girls" spectacular line-up of Slick, Biz, and Q-Tip), he makes up for with inspired samples from Kanye West whose genius is already apparent as a producer on this album. It would only be a few years before College Dropout dropped and a few more until he became the enemy of a girl named Taylor. And let me tell you, this album is sample heavy. I won't name every one, but some ones of note are Jackie Moore's "If," The Doors' "Five to One," Bowie's "Fame," and The Jackson 5's "I Want You Back."

Now for the logistics: Jay-Z's 6th album, The Blueprint, dropped on September 11, 2001. How's that for timing? But the album and all its' bravado seemed to be just what a reeling American needed. Album sales were high, but reviews, although decent, were not overwhelming. Entertainment Weekly gave it a B-. Rolling Stone gave it 3 1/2 stars, which brings me to another point. Although I believe this album absolutely has a place within Rolling Stone's 500 greatest albums, I find it a bit crazy that they originally gave this album a slightly above-average rating. Now, I could give them the benefit of the doubt and admire them for admitting they were wrong or I could chastise them for their glaring error of the past. Seeing as how my blog partner felt this was not such a great album, I'll go with admiration. Some other numbers of mention: Pitchfork named this album #5 out of 200 best of 2000's. XXL gave it a XXL rating. The Source gave it 5 Mics, which is ironic since this blog can't even get 1 Mike on board.

I love this album from beginning to end. I absolutely adore "Song Cry," despite it's nonsense chorus. I believe "Renegade" is a close to perfect collaboration showing Eminem at some of his old school glory. "Izzo" is a wonderful party track or one for driving around on a sunny day. And if we're going to mention Nas "handing" Jay's ass to him, then I think we have to mention "Takeover." That song is one of the best diss tracks I have ever heard. Jay-Z just pounds Nas and Prodigy from Mobb Deep so hard that I almost cringe with glee (all while imagining I'm in some run down club straight out of 8 Mile, yelling "oooooooh," while watching this verbal onslaught). Mr. Carter wins this one.

A lady giving her side of "Song Cry." This video involves some of my favorite things: bragging without saying a word (look at Jay's face after the missed field goal), football, and Budweiser. Last, but not least, this dude's Jay-Z is on point.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

#465 - The Drifters - Golden Hits

Now here is an album! I know this album associates itself with one of my largest pet peeves, which is that greatest hits albums should not be allowed on any “Greatest of All Time” list. It really is a cop out. Of course, you can make a great album if you compile a collection of hits over an extended period of time, but it does not seem fair to put something like that up against, let’s say, Sgt. Pepper’s. Right? Right. But here’s my argument, at least in this case: I believe older albums might get a pass due to the fact that full albums were rarely released. Instead, music was, more often than not, distributed by singles.

That being said, what a great collection of songs. I am a little partial to Ben E. King, but it amazes me that even with all the changes that The Drifters saw over the course of their career that they were able to create such lasting and memorable tracks. I know the naysayer would argue that this feat is less spectacular, because The Drifters were a manufactured hit machine. To those people, I would say, “Kick dirt.” C’mon. “Under the Boardwalk?” “This Magic Moment?” “There Goes My Baby?” “Save the Last Dance For Me?” “On Broadway?” Get the point? Classics. Phenomenal classics that I would dare anyone, even if you are not a music buff, not to know the words to. I found myself belting them out in true Ben E. King fashion while driving around. I couldn’t stop. There is just something about the simple greatness of these tracks.

By the way, Rolling Stone also included three of these tracks in their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time: "Under the Boardwalk" (#487), "There Goes My Baby" (#193), and "Up On the Roof" (#116).

Unfortunately, there’s not much else I can say, because these songs are, in fact, simple. And once again, it is a greatest hits album, so one already knows what they are getting into before they start it up. Wonderful album.

James Taylor and Carole King giving it a go. And this guy...not sure who he is.


There is no group that represents early R&B as well as The Drifters. The arrangements, the phenomenal vocals, simple love songs, it’s all here. They benefited from having some excellent songwriters providing for them. From Carole King to Ben E. King, every name in 50’s and 60’s music had a hand in a Drifter’s hit. Since they were on top during the singles era I won’t complain about another greatest hits collection. Actually, I’d suggest skipping this one and going with the two disc Definitive Collection. There are just so many classics that deserve inclusion.

The best way to explain The Drifters is to say that after listening to this I want to go buy an old Impala or Skylark and drive about 12 miles an hour with this blasting. This is classic golden age pop, evoking the brylcreem coated days of bowling shirts and wingtips. A further reminder that I missed the greatest eras in music. How many girls were felt up for the first time at a "This Magic Moment" themed prom? I know I’ve been at several wedding receptions where "Some Kind of Wonderful" stole the night. Every note of these songs was written to last.

One thing that still amazes me is the sound. This was recorded between 1959 and 1964. If you listen to most recordings from the time, the instruments are a compressed mash up of indistinct reverb. But here, every player can be heard clearly. I can make out the bassline (unheard of on many older singles) and pick out the individual strings and horns. This is simply astounding. You can tell the vocals were generally one-offs, with the occasional singer overreaching or jumping his cue. But it just adds to the character. Some of these songs have 4 or 5 part harmonies, and they would have laughed you out the door if you showed them auto-tune.
I love Ben E. King, but Johnny Moore really dominates this collection. He runs over the better part of two octaves on "Under The Boardwalk," and floats some beautiful notes over it’s sister song, "I’ve Got Sand In My Shoes." It’s a shame that in the digital age we are losing the nuances of performances like these. It’s the inflection, the slight yodel between notes, the effortless jumps to falsetto and barreling drops to basso profundo. It’s all lost right now, and I hope with the growing scores of independent artists working from their homes that some of them turn off the computer and go back to singing it until its perfect.

I’m taking cheap shots at an unrelated technology, but it’s easy to do when you have music like this gearing you up. I really can’t stress how much you need this in your own collection. Whether to remember a bygone age, or to learn how an artist works, or just to enjoy some fantastic music. The Drifters may have been a revolving door of studio musicians simply doing a days work, but damn, they did it so good.

Watch this tv performance of Saturday Night At The Movies and wait for Johnny Moore to run out of fucks to give about lipsynching. Hint: it doesn’t take long.


Monday, May 9, 2011

#466 - Hole - Live Through This

I looked forward to this album for a few reasons. One, being that it was one of the albums during the “grunge” era that I completely missed. Two, being the influence (although disputed) Kurt Cobain must have had on Miss Courtney’s critically acclaimed album. Three, being that I love a good rock album, especially if it is raw and emotional. The problem here is that, while one could argue for the album’s rawness and emotional construction, the album is just an ode to Love’s bullshit.

The one glaring exception being “Doll Parts,” which even Love doesn’t understand how a three-chord song has held people’s interest, Hole’s Live Through This is just an album of noise and bitching; neither of which are done well. Don’t get me wrong, I love noise. I even love bitching, but I do not love Courtney Love it turns out after listening to this album. I wanted to like this album. I really wanted to, but in the end found myself trying to give this album more credit than it ultimately deserves. You can disagree and throw all the positive reviews this album has garnered throughout the years at me. Go ahead, you’re not showing me anything new. I read them while trying to understand the fascination some people have with this album. I don’t care about her criticisms about stardom or her experiences with it, because, honestly, others have said it better. You can argue with me about Cobain’s influence (supposedly) and how his contribution adds to the album’s mystique, greatness, credibility, whatever, but the sad truth is that there is enough of Cobain to make this album great. In fact, if news were to surface that Cobain wrote the entire album and Love had nothing to do with it, I would deny it. I would deny it unabashedly and whole-heartedly. If after all my denials and arguments had been expressed and I found this unfortunately to be the truth, I would lose a great deal of the overwhelming respect I have towards Cobain as an artist.

I honestly don’t want to talk about this album anymore. It’s not awful. It just isn’t great. Thus, it shouldn’t qualify for this list. Again, no matter how many times I tried to listen to it, I was not struck with any sort of overwhelming sense of anything. Instead, it was just 12 tracks of mediocrity. There, I said it.

Also, for the record, I don’t believe Love had anything to do with Cobain’s death, but I do think she is an idiot. Case in point. And again.


I was 14 when Live Through This came out. I remember watching the video for Doll Parts on 120 Minutes. I never quite got it. Still don’t, for that matter. The whole package is just so formulated. Each song comes across as a b-side from one of Courtney Love’s muses groups. While famously marrying Kurt Cobain, who is rumored to have written much of the lyrical content, she also dated Billy Corgan, who has admitted to writing or playing many of the instrumental parts. Neither gave her their best material, and her lack of charisma (and voice) kept Hole from ever achieving a fraction of the artistic merit that went to the two men in her life.

I’ve tried to give this my best. I came in with fresh ears, having not heard these songs in years. Still, every judgment I had seventeen years ago seems valid today. The guitars lack the requisite energy of the raucous punk they were trying to evoke. The drums have no snap and never find the rhythm to carry out double time and blast beats. But the vocals…..Oh lord the vocals. I understand that Love is emulating the British post-punk singers of the 80’s, and that requires a certain amount of stretching the pitch or speaking rather than singing. But, damn it, know your limits! I can’t tell if this is an example of a lazy performance or just the most oblivious case of overreaching ever put to vinyl.

Let’s put aside the actual performance for a moment. Would any of these be great songs if they came from a better group? Meh….. Not really. Sure, Doll Parts was pretty popular at the time, but it hardly gets played on alternative radio stations these days. The words are pretty scatterbrained, with a message that seems to change from stanza to stanza. Nothing about the song ever finds any kind of cohesion. From section to section it doesn’t push any boundaries and go somewhere new. It just stagnates, which theoretically could be an artistic attempt to create an aural analogy for the blasé outsider attitude of the narrative. But it’s not. It’s just garbage.

Nothing else ever happens. The whole mess is just a bunch of pathetic tries at being someone you’re not. Love could never really be Kurt, so instead she settled on being the Nancy to his Sid. It’s a more fitting comparison than she probably ever realized. A wannabe former stripper latches on to as many major counterculture figures as she can, eventually finding the one who is so conflicted he becomes too weak to see through her. Except in the latter case, the man that was lost was a musical master.

I don’t know if the other members of Hole exemplify “poser” to the same extent, but let’s be honest, the story of Hole is the story of Courtney Love. Everything else there is superfluous. Maybe I am letting my opinion of one member shade my view of the entire group after all. But, then again, isn’t that sort of the point? This is such a self absorbed cry of “Look at me! I’m different! You wouldn’t understand…” that it practically defines the modern hipster. If she were 20 years younger she’d be drinking PBR’s at Bodega and calling Animal Collective a bunch of sellouts. Lame.

Instead of a cover, here’s something that pretty much wraps up my feelings at the end of the album.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

#467 - Bob Dylan - Love and Theft

I’ve been dreading Dylan’s first appearance on the list. While I respect his songwriting, his typically terrible performing of those same songs ruins it for me. No, it’s not the nasal voice or inability to hold a pitch. It’s his poor timing and questionable melodic choices. To reference our last review, he’s more Bernie Taupin than Elton John. No one can question his ability as a poet, though. He’s had some pretty rotten lines, but anyone with his volume of output has to be expected to miss every now and then. So then, how much time was I going to spend with a seemingly permanent wince on my face while listening to “Love and Theft”?

Not too much. Released in 2001 (9-11 actually, in an ironic twist for an album that was practically a love letter to America) by a then sixty year old Robert Zimmerman, this record is a history lesson through music. Touches of swing, ragtime, jazz and Appalachian folk spell out an obsession with all the genres born in the middle states. I’m usually pretty harsh on artists that borrow to heavily from their forbearers, but in this case, Bob is at his best when trying to sound like his inspirations. “High Water” is the highlight for me. A traditional folk song with the group riffing of bluegrass, I love the mix of fingerpicked banjo, steel guitar and accordion. Aside from the ominous blasts of thunderous tympani, one could hear the Carter Family harmonizing this.

“Po’ Boy” is another favorite. It sounds like it could have been played just like this in a bar in New Orleans eighty years ago. Great attention is paid to structure, every part leads perfectly into the next and nothing seems out of place. Personally, I would have replaced the bass with tuba, but otherwise I can’t complain. “Cry A While” follows that with a unique twist on the familiar country blues structure, bouncing back and forth from the laid back brushstroke drumming to an offbeat-heavy jump rhythm. At first it’s jarring, but once it settles in and the band seems to loosen up a bit it becomes a comfortable and natural play on conventions.

Generally, the best songs on this record are the softer and darker ones. Possibly because Dylan’s voice is best suited to the more macabre. I think it’s also because he’s always been a pessimist and a fatalist, it’s only natural for him to convey the morbid side of life more believably. “Sugar Baby” follows that rule with the most sparse arrangement featured here. Acoustic guitar, accordion, a bit of electric guitar and maybe a smidgen of upright bass. I love the lyrics to this one. It’s impossible to pigeonhole them with one clear meaning. It struck me as advice to anyone who chose to listen close enough.

I’m not a big fan of the attempts at swing, jump blues and rock. It’s just not a world that Dylan is comfortable in, and the tempo is too quick for him. The guy that caused a million tongue cramps with “Subterranean Homesick Blues” just can’t keep up and ends up spitting out the words a tad too far behind. Even that can’t ruin the entire thing. I’m a little surprised at some of the praise it received, with one magazine recently naming it the best album of the decade. But it certainly earns a solid amount of glory, and I think this is a pretty good place for it to sit on the list.

Here’s one of the greats of modern reggae, Sizzla, reinterpreting “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”


So, Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft, eh? Released on September 4th, 2001, this album is an ode to American music, ranging from steady Southern blues to 50’s era rock n’ roll. Everywhere in between, we get the same old Bob Dylan except for one glaring addition: Dylan’s voice seems to have broken. Luckily for him (and us), the weary growl he brings to this album is much welcome, providing his listeners with an age old voice to go with his wisdom. He sounds like one who sings songs of “love and theft” should sound. Tired, at times. Upbeat, at other. Whichever song you look at though, Dylan seems to be having fun the entire time.

Mike does a wonderful job of dissecting particular songs in concerns to their respective genre and influences, so I will spare our listeners more of the same. Also, kudos to the big man for leaving his preconceived notions at the door and giving this album a fair chance. I was expecting a diatribe of animosity and hatred. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised at a glowing critique (despite its’ backhanded jabs). Supposedly, this is Bob Dylan’s 43rd album (studio, live, etc.). Upon reading any review I could find on this album, I came across the same opinions. First, how great this album is. Secondly, how happy and alive Dylan seems to be after a string of performances that came off as lackluster or bored. One might expect this from a person who survived a heart condition scare. What this means to us is that we, as listeners, get the same Dylanesque characters while getting to enjoy an artist who is thoroughly enjoying himself. As the Village Voice review stated, “the poet of his generation is once again prophet of his age.”

I enjoyed this album as I enjoy most great blues albums. I tap my feet to the beat and wish I was at some dive watching it live. This is my greatest love of blues albums as well as my greatest disappointment towards them. I just feel that blues is so much better in person where one can smell the sweat, beer, and heartache. Now, admittedly, Dylan’s foray isn’t as depressed as some of my most beloved blues pieces, but he offers up the same sentiment in his characters. Personally, as someone who considers himself a writer of words, I love lyricists and find few even close to Dylan’s ability and delivery. That being said, I don’t feel overwhelmingly confident about recommending this album to everyone. Instead, I believe its’ greatness lies not in the appeal to millions, but instead those that enjoy reflection and feeling. While not containing such hits as “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Hurricane,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” etc., this album is a tribute to the music deeply rooted in Americana and a testament of the strength of a great artist. Approval granted.

This kid loves three things: Bob Dylan, the blues, and hammocks???


Sunday, March 20, 2011

#468 - Elton John - Self-titled

I feel like reviewing this album is almost pointless. Who doesn’t already know how brilliant Elton is at his best? If you have never sung along to “Your Song” I probably don’t want to know you. But then. I guess that’s really the only well-known song on this record. As great as this is, it’s not on the level of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but for a 23 year old kid on his second record the songs are shocking. Brilliant musicianship thanks to the (literally) dozens of top session artists he brought in. Of course, Bernie Taupin is on of the greatest songwriters of the century, which surely doesn’t hurt. This may not be Elton’s best, but it’s his most challenging and original.

Starting things with “Your Song” was a pretty damn good idea. This was obviously meant to be the single that broke Elton through, and it did the job. One of the all time great vocals, by any artist. It’s the most easily accessible song here, but while it doesn’t ask the listener to look as deeply within themselves as some of the other tracks it still doesn’t lack for emotion. “I Need You To Turn To” seems vaguely like a Led Zeppelin song with all the metal taken out. Very medieval lyrics with beautiful harpsichord work (a very underrated instrument). Lovely.

A burst of gospel brings up the energy in “Take Me to the Pilot”. Another song where the backing crew really shows off. More of today’s solo artists need to higher session guys instead of using synthesizer for everything. This whole album is proof of that. The next few songs show off a huge variety of sounds and styles. Country from “No Shoe Strings on Louise” and some classical guitar on “First Episode At Hienton”. To my great surprise and excitement we even get to hear some theremin on the latter.

The album does have some hit and miss bits. In the middle of “The Cage”, a Stevie Wonder style funk number, they break into one of the most misplaced and dated moog solos I have ever heard. For the most part, while lacking the spark of the first half, the later songs are pretty solid. The decline in inspiration is what keeps this from being Elton’s best, but it doesn’t exactly hurt it too much. At no point was I disappointed while listening, and that’s a freakish rarity for me. All the same, I had high hopes for the B side and they weren’t quite met. Can’t complain, though. This is a great record that deserves it’s placement on the list.

Here’s “Your Song” sung by Billy Paul of “Me and Mrs. Jones” fame.


Mike touched upon the greatness of the opening track on Elton John's eponymous second album, but I think he failed to explain exactly what makes this song so unique and amazing. This track is important because, aside from being a love song, it is a song about the impossibility of trying to create something perfect for that perfect someone. What makes Bernie Taupin one of the greatest songwriters of all-time is that he is one of the only people that can make and ode about writing an ode not only appealing, but timeless. The song speaks to the listener, because it could be any one of us writing these lyrics trying our best to explain our love. I've said it before, but this song sums it up like no other: I love simplicity. I'm a sucker for it when it works the way it should. This song is the apex of that idea.

I grew up listening to Elton John. He is my mother's favorite artist and, while most people might grow to hate an artist so beloved by their parents, John holds a much revered spot in my musical arsenal. Perhaps, I'm wrong about that previous statement though. I'm sure the musical likings of your parents can shape your musical talents without creating some sort of immense resentment towards their preferences. Regardless, my mom introduced me to this crazy, piano pounding bastard and I cannot help to thank her for doing so.

I find no fault anywhere on this album. Even the tracks that might appear as "misses" are wonderfully arranged and delivered. Taupin and John are an unbelievable duo. Absolutely unbelievable. I love the gospel of "Take Me To the Pilot" and the medieval pageantry of "I Need You to Turn To." "Sixty Years On" skirts the line of melodrama, but one can't get over how beautifully crafted a piece of work it is. Quite possibly my favorite song (aside from "Your Song") is "Border Song." Love that song. Listen to it all the time and belt that baby out.

Great album. Not Elton's best, but pretty damn good, especially for a second attempt.

Here's a version of "Border Song" by ol' Slowhand himself. This girl needs to be recognized for her attempt of "Sixty Years On." People do stuff like this.