Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bob Dylan - Tight Connection To My Heart

(Columbia, 1985)

It occurs to me: you know what Bob Dylan needs? Synthesized horns and strings, drum machines, guitar solos, a laid-back vibe, state-of-the-’80s production, and – most important of all! – a bunch of terrible songs. Imagine such a thing! It’d be peachyperfect, a real creative and commercial step forward for America’s #1-favorite Voice Of A Generation. OH WAIT, WHAT’S THIS?? HELLO, HIT LP EMPIRE BURLESQUE! My prayers iz answered!

Now pardon me please while I go throw up for entirely unrelated reasons.

Hi! I’m back! Embarrassing as it is, at least “Tight Connection to My Heart” isn’t as rotten as the other songs on the album, and in fact gets the honor of being the best of the bunch, aside from the incongruous acoustic throwback “Dark Eyes.” Yes, Dylan’s weird, hiccupy vocal performance sounds like a self parody, and yes, he is swallowed up by the wholly inappropriate use of then-modern musical technology, but the song is catchy in its own knuckleheaded way and gets to function today as a novelty item that succeeds at bringing on laughter and groans, and maybe a tapping toe or two. It’s memorable, even. Perhaps not for the reasons Dylan might have liked, but memorable nonetheless. As far as these “aging rock-guy trying to update his sound” things go, the single is hardly a disaster.

But get this. “We Better Talk This Over,” from Street Legal, turns up on the B-side, and I’ll be damned if I know why. It’s certainly not a song that needed or deserved to be resurrected seven years after its original release, and its appearance here is very strange indeed. Maybe Bob wanted to rehabilitate the reps of those older records by demonstrating how comparatively not-shitty they were when placed next to his current material?

Bob Dylan - Heart Of Mine

(Columbia, 1981)

I appreciate the loose feel Dylan achieves on “Heart of Mine” – especially after the embalmed sound of the last few records – I just wish he’d bother to write COMPELLING songs instead of tossed-off forgettables like this. Backing him and sharing the blame are fellow celebs Ringo Starr and Ron Wood, who shuffle in and barely earn their paychecks with ragged, unexciting performances… on full display are the horrors of musical middle age. Making matters somewhat baffling after sitting through that yawner are the surprise energy and QUALITY of Shot of Love outtake “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” on the other side, its mid-’60s-style electric blues and raw vocal showing that yeah, Dylan still has some gas sloshing around in the ol’ musical tank as the ’80s begin. It also shows that he has very questionable judgment when it comes to selecting what makes it onto any given album and what gets tossed aside. Some Columbia exec apparently agrees with me, since “Groom” has subsequently been added to CD copies of Shot of Love, which, I oughta note, is otherwise a turd of an album that should remain far, far away from your precious collection. Advice you can use, see?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Bob Dylan - Solid Rock

(Columbia, 1980)

The studio sheen, backing singers, and Godtalk are back for another round of bloated blandness, but at least this time there’s some slightly muscular rhythmic chug that gives “Solid Rock” a life-support-level pulse. In fact, the arrangement is, overall, quite like a flaccid attempt at The Concert for Bangladesh’s big-band Harrisonisms; a failed attempt, certainly, and yet fascinating in its grotesque overkill. “Covenant Woman” is a dull karaoke exercise as wretched as the worst of Slow Train Coming, and makes it clear that no matter how many expensive session pros he surrounded himself with at this point, Dylan really just didn’t seem to give a shit anymore. Offensively boring tripe that’s both lazy and soulless – an insult to anyone stupid enough to listen.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bob Dylan - Slow Train

(Columbia, 1979)

Sleazy wheeze, Bobert! What happened to that forceful singing from just a few years back, my newly-mellow friend? GOD HAPPENED! And there’s nuthin wrong with that; I don’t react with much more than a shrug to Dylan’s religious phase from a general philosophical or political or even lyrical standpoint – whatever floats the guy’s thingy is AOK with me – but this glossy Vegas act does bug me. Horns and fancy gee-tar and backup ladies can be deployed with taste and grace, and this sure nuff ain’t it. “Slow Train” (edited by a minute here!) is a passable bore, yes, but “Do Right to Me Baby” is a disco-mega-lite horrorshow that sounds like the worst of George Harrison’s late-’70s creative death whimpers. Awful. They can’t possibly dig this stuff in heaven, can they??

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Bob Dylan - Hurricane (promo)

(Columbia, 1975)

The promo release of “Hurricane,” which features 33rpm full-length versions of the song on each side, one in dead-sounding mono and one in godly stereo. The lyrics remain well-written, but as I listen I can’t help but think of an even better Dylan story, also set in New Jersey: “Tweeter and the Monkey Man.” Dang, that song has it all! Including Jeff Lynne. And naked Springsteen mockery. And, thankfully, no congas. Did you know I suffer this weekend from mild food poisoning?

Bob Dylan - Hurricane

(Columbia 1975)

Dylan’s back into storytelling mode, laying out over two sides of a 7” single the story (or a Dylanized version of it, at least) of Rubin Carter’s arrest and conviction. The lyrics are as direct and cutting as anything else he’d done in some time, but his sympathy for a coulda-been “champion of the world” ends up less affecting than earlier songs about nameless hobos and working stiffs. Beyond the celeb aspect, part of that is due to the damn violin-and-conga backing that places the song firmly in mid-’70s sleeksville – it’s easy to imagine a Mellencamp recording such a song ten years later. Old Bob’s in good voice, though, and the brisk tempo keeps things moving along nicely. So I dunno… call it socially-conscious wallpaper. Sure.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Bob Dylan - A Fool Such As I

(Columbia, 1973)

A Self-Portrait outtake on the A and a New Morning outtake on the B, so you know it’s gonna be good – no shittin’! That handful of post-Blonde, pre-Geffen records might’ve peeved self-described brainiacs aplenty by refusing to offer Grand And Obscure Statements, but I prefer the entertaining cheeziness-breeziness of this stuff a lot more than I do the serious-minded hackery that makes up most of
Dylan’s ’70s work. “A Fool Such as I” is funky lounge-soul that struts nimbly where similar-sounding late-period Elvis material would have lumbered, and “Lily of the West” races along on some fine guitar strummin’ and layered instrumentation. Production values rule the day: Female backing vocals! Strings! Session musicians! You betcha it’s gooey. Better believe it. AND IT WORKS! So what if both songs on here are covers? So what if they’re more about THE SONGS THEMSELVES than about DYLAN? Songs as songs, rather than missives from on-high to be ripped apart and studied. In other words: simple musical kicks. It’s a gas.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Bob Dylan - Wigwam

(Columbia, 1970)

Yes, I am one of those people who unapologetically enjoys the much-hated Self-Portrait, but I can’t and won’t engage in a passionate defense of it; I’m neither a Dylan mind-reader nor a Dylan garbage-picker, so I refuse to concern myself too much with the mobius-strip mindgames that the record might or might not play. I just like the thing… it’s a bizarro, tossed-off, living-room relaxathon that is at the same time carefully and lavishly arranged, somehow pulling off what the Beatles wanted to do with the “warts and all” Get Back concept while still retaining Let it Be’s Phil Spector overkill. A lazy musical raspberry, perhaps, but an utterly charming one. “Wigwam,” the only single lifted from the album, is a syrupy – yet evocative – brass-laden piece that features a “la-da-da-da” semi-vocal crooned in Dylan’s froggy Nashville Skyline voice. Coming across less like a pop single than a musical link track, it prefigures his soundtrack work on Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and ably proves his aptitude for stirring schmaltz. Tear-jerk strings come to the fore on “Copper Kettle,” an old-timey booze ballad that walks a fine line between delicate and over the top; a strong vocal grounds it. Both songs rather bravely abandon any rock or progressive trappings and manage to sound – even now – oddly detached from any easily identifiable time period. While the album from which these tracks come has enough overt jokiness to make one conscious of some larger artistic artifice behind the whole thing, this single is simply a strange, compelling coupling of two examples of free-floating, era-condensing, pure American sap. If it’s a joke, it’s a good one.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Bob Dylan - Positively 4th Street

(Columbia, 1965)

This is Dylan gone pop. Bye-bye to the instrumental heaviness, vocal fire, and numbing length of preceding “sell-out” single “Like a Rolling Stone,” hello to cheerful organ-burble and a deceptively soothing croon spread over a sprightly 3:50 clock-time. There’s no proper chorus here, true, but the repeating musical phrases and warm midtempo mellowness leave plenty for radio listeners to latch onto – hence its deserved top-10 charting. And yet, the lyrics manage to out-nasty even “Rolling Stone,” climaxing with the rarely-topped knife-twist punchline of “I wish that for just one time / You could stand inside my shoes / You’d know what a drag it is to see you.” Ouch! So “Positively 4th Street” is a definite success as a single, both in terms of its commercial performance and Dylan’s demonstration of his popsmanship, but as a total package it can’t quite stand up next to the better album tracks from Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, its comparatively squishy band performance being inferior to the lean, tough playing on those records. This is all vinegar, no piss. Now, would the song’s contemptuous words be as jarring if the music had more of that edge to it? Perhaps not. Still… while I’d never trade the dead-perfect lyrics, gimme the instro bite of “From a Buick 6” (this single’s B-side) or any of Blonde on Blonde’s ragged, uptempo rockers if I want to hear Dylan actually fronting a rock ’n’ roll group.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ian Dury - Spasticus Autisticus

(Polydor, 1981)

Here’s the one! Here’s the reason I foolishly bought all those other Ian Dury records that mostly bored me to death! “SPASTICUS AUTISTICUS”!! The lone TRULY GREAT disc this dude put out! It’s some fucked Seuss-style lyric-spit over punchy new-wave discofunk, all of which is rhythmically supervised by real-deal Jamaican dubberfuggers Sly and Robbie. Sure, I could do without the geeky Spartacus reference at the end (“I’m Spasticus!” “I’m Spasticus!”), but this is otherwise a catchy, hilariously misunderstood party-yelp that’s both the best articulation of Dury’s physical discomfort (and attendant sense o’ humor) AND the finest SONG he ever put together. The B-side here is a not-too-radical dub version – nothing exciting. Still: Get! GET! GET FOR KEEPS! Especially in the extended 12” format!! A classic, absolutely.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ian Dury & The Blockheads - I Want To Be Straight

(Stiff, 1980)

…Straight in the Jonathan Richman “I’m Straight” sense, that is. Dury was a man of large appetites, from the sound of things, and this is a boozy and not quite convincing expression of a desire to clean up (“I’m sick and tired of taking drugs and staying up late / I want to confirm, I want to conform”). Lotsa wailing saxophone and a non-dancey beat, so I can’t say there’s much to recommend the single, in spite of its snappy funk-bass, good humor, and textural grit – Dury was best when he was making tighter, loonier novelty songs you could really hoof it to. Similarly average is “That’s Not All,” which is laid back and comes across like a more cracked lounge-Bowie. If curious, an Ian Dury hits compilation is all (and more than) any American should ever need; focus instead on his son Baxter’s two unfairly forgotten albums, both of them wonders of sighing, melodic melancholy. Drugs seem to be a matter of some interest for the younger Dury as well, though his outlook is much gloomier than dad’s is here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ian Dury & The Blockheads - Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick

(Stiff, 1979)

BULLETIN! Pub rocker goes disco 12”-style with some funky sax skronk ’n’ cocaine danciness! “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” is a big improvement on the chummy rockarolla that makes up the first Ian Dury record, its mad vocal bark and mindless Blondie groove eschewing the self-conscious Bonzo Dog cleverness that makes the more “British” Dury material so painful and unfun. “There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards” falls into the aforementioned too-thunk trap on the B-side, its amiable music-hall toot being a total studied drag, but the A is freaked and funky enough to make the whole thing a fine use of vinyl. For those who want dancekicks, it’s better than mod bods like, say, !!!. Nighttime decadence with a goofy wink.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Dump - Phantom Perspective

(Hi-Ball, 1997)

A while back, I worked in a factory assembling copper and fiberoptic cables. Since we sat at benches cutting, stripping, crimping, cooking, and polishing all day, music (and Howard Stern) was the preferred method of staving off boredom, and the employees regularly traded records with each other. That was where, thanks to my geeked-out coworkers, I learned that I needed to spend many hundreds of dollars on the likes of Faust, Tony Conrad, Lamonte Young, Amon Duul, and Opal. Hotcha! Progressive! Anyway, Dump – James McNew from Yo La Tengo gone solo – was another one I first heard at the factory, when a guy named Mike loaned me That Skinny Motherfucker With the High Voice, an album of narcoticized, faintly YLT-esque Prince covers that is done SO DOGGONE WELL that it never even hints at what SHOULD be gimmickry or smirkiness. Pretty wonderful music. With the factory days fading into distant memory, that one remains an eternal favorite with good reason, but further investigations into the work of Dump have turned out to be less entertaining, because McNew seems prone to half-finished ideas and aimless noodling when recording his own material, as on this limited single. “Phantom Perspective,” for example, all looped jungle beats and hypnotic structure, sounds like a Flying Saucer Attack throwaway, pleasant and forgettable. And even if there’s the beginning of a decent song on this version of the Alpaca Brothers’ “The Lie,” with its winning vocal melody and simple/catchy, distorted rhythm guitar, it’s hard not to wish that the song had been performed by a full band – the lack of drums is a shame – instead of in what’s effectively demo form. So while none of this is TERRIBLE as far as self-indulgent solo experiments go (in terms of quality relative to the artist’s main body of work, think a notch below McCartney II), beyond the hugely enjoyable Skinny Motherfucker don’t expect anything too outstanding from the Dump discography. I doubt I’d lose any sleep if I failed to hear more of these records.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Dumbwaiters - The Exquisite Pre-Requisite Of...

(Screw Music Forever, 1996)

A semi-perplexing half-stinker from
Home associates Dumbwaiters. There’s a certain brand of wackiness on display in the periodic yelps that punctuate “Reconstruct the la Casa de Carne” and the ever-shifting tempos of it and its B-side, “Martyr,” that ties this material more to canonical late-’60s weirdos than the skewed mid-’90s indie-pop that it is. And while one could charitably describe the overall feel as a mid-’90s take on stock Beefheartian looseness and structural unpredictability, that’d be more than these two songs deserve – this is just the low-intensity sound of buddies havin’ fun, and that’s a vibe that can only carry a disc so far. How far? Thirteen feet is approximately how far that vibe carried this particular disc when I chucked it across the room.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Drunks With Guns - Zombie

(Glitterhouse, 1990)

Drunks With Guns was a bunch of freaked-out, Flipper-esque louts from St. Louis who put out some well-thought-of records in the mid-’80s before eventually splintering into two rival groups, both called – yep – Drunks With Guns (those damn Krauts in Faust pulled the same trick recently). The lineup heard on this single features the original band’s bassist and guitarist, plus the half-funny gimmick of a 12-year-old girl named Melissa screaming the weird, disturbing lyrics about zombies, World War IX, and “fistpuppets.” The music is a series of scumbucket fuzz belches that takes the parent group’s sludgification of hardcore/punk/rock and pushes it even further into the shit. Unfortunately, it’s all too murky and punchless to achieve the heaviosity that might make it enjoyable, and the riffs just aren’t that interesting or memorable. Melissa’s creepy yowling is about the only thing that keeps the record from being a total waste, though not even that minor (“minor” – ha!) pleasure makes this stuff anything like a suitable substitute for the original records.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Drunk Horse - Bambi

(Wantage, 2001)

Just the thing to take my mind off of a depressing hour watching coverage of the Republican National Convention, it’s a coupla boozy Prince covers from the long-haired denim types in Drunk Horse. With all traces of funk replaced by straightforward guitar boogie, there’s no salacious leering or stylish posing here; it’s perfectly braindead hedonism howled out for the Budweiser set. “Dirty Mind” might be a little too restrained for its own good, but “Bambi” (which definitely calls to mind alky kinfolk Cheeseburger) is a full-throttle ass-kick that works just fine on its own terms; most covers lazily hitch a ride on the listener’s familiarity with the original, this one suceeds with sheer cockrockin’ oomph. Not sure whether listening to this single or Fred Thompson kills more brain cells, but we can at least agree that Drunk Horse pisses all over ol’ Fred when it comes to fun. And am I the only one who thought that guy looked like he was gonna keel over and die tonight while he BSd his way through his embarrassingly unconvincing high-passion speechifying?