Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks

Blood on the Tracks

Bob DylanBlood on the Tracks Columbia PC 33235 (1975)

In a way, isn’t this album everything that New Morning failed to be?  What I mean is that New Morning always seemed like Dylan trying to sound contemporary and relevant by making overtures to the California singer-songwriter movement.  The problem was Dylan didn’t really fit well into that genre (even if he had moved to Malibu).  Blood on the Tracks turned things around and had a more bitter and angry tone, more stripped down instrumentation, more of a narrative lyrical approach, and less demands on Dylan’s limited vocal abilities.  The newer approach suits Dylan a whole lot better.  One thing that is striking when comparing these two albums is that New Morning seems like it is trying to be personal, while Blood on the Tracks seems like it can’t help being personal.  The latter is far more compelling.

Dylan’s marriage was headed for divorce when this album was recorded.  That says volumes about the subject matter.  These are break-up songs.  The protagonists seem hurt, recently, and still hurting.  These songs speak from a place too close to the pain to be past or above it.  Was the whole relationship wrong from the beginning?  Who caused it to go wrong?  Who was to blame?  Him?  What will he do know?  Dylan had relocated to California a year earlier, but this music was a return, or sorts, to the kind he had made back in New York, before the move, before things kind of fell apart.  He’s looking back to make sense of the past before moving on into the future.  There is catharsis at work here.

This isn’t the kind of album that makes for easy listening, at least not on any kind of regular basis.  It’s rather surprising it was so popular.  But it is a success, and perhaps the last really great album Dylan would make.  One of the essentials of his storied career.

Elvis – Good Times

Good Times

ElvisGood Times RCA CPL1-0475 (1974)

Anyone paying attention to Elvis’ career in the early 1970s, well, more accurately, since his 1968 TV special comeback, should have noticed some fierce music coming from The King.  His live shows were rightly a spectacle worth witnessing, and his albums were every bit as good.  But all that came to what in hindsight seems like a grinding halt somewhere in late 1972 or early 1973.  It was around that time that Elvis performed his historic live via satellite “Aloha from Hawaii” concert, which was good but seemed to still find Elvis starting to slip a little.  He wasn’t recording in the studio to speak of, and crummy offerings like Elvis (Fool) and Raised on Rock seem kind of like a slap in the face for fans.  Oh, and they hadn’t even been hit with 1974’s scathing tribute to Roe v. Wade Having Fun With Elvis on Stage yet!

So along comes Good Times, recorded at Stax Studios in Memphis, and on paper it looks like Elvis is actually trying again.  But then the music plays.  This album makes for an excellent case study in how every conceivable decision can be made wrongly during the recording process.  The songs, for the most part, are sappy and stupid, the strings and backing vocals treacly and overbearing, and Elvis seems adrift.  Case in point is Tony Joe White‘s “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby,” a song actually suited to Elvis perfectly, but for which there was a superior outtake version that only appeared posthumously on a few collections.  The version here has Elvis almost hidden behind strangely echoed vocals, random string passages, dripping piano runs and depressingly satin guitar riffs.  Crap-ola like “My Boy” and “I Got a Feelin’ in My Body” seem like the sorts of songs that would be forced on Elvis if he was doing a weekly TV variety show and was running low on material, but an army of largely talentless orchestral arrangers were on hand to adapt cop show background music at the King’s behest.  Elvis had, suddenly, become a self-parody.  Or so it seems.  The same recording sessions produced material for Promised Land, which simply blows this out of the water by comparison, even if Promised Land is no classic.  And that really is the final knock on this album.  Faced with superior material, it was, for the most part, passed over to release this garbage first.  The middle-of-the-road “Talk About the Good Times” sounds alright mostly in comparison to the terrible stuff elsewhere on this platter.  But that’s a small consolation.  From here on out, Elvis’ problems would be many, both personal and professional.  His albums would only intermittently succeed on the strength of a few heartache ballads and down-and-out weepers, on those occasions when his band didn’t spoil the sadness and loneliness in his voice.  The good times were mostly over.

Elvis Presley – From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee (Recorded Live)

From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee (Recorded Live)

Elvis PresleyFrom Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee (Recorded Live) RCA Victor APL1-1506 (1976)

When people see the late-career Elvis as a bloated, cliched wash-out, they probably have recordings like From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee in mind.  Recorded in the campy “Jungle Room” of his own Graceland mansion with mobile recording equipment, these songs reflect a tired soul retreating to a safe haven, away from the world.  Mostly lonely heartbreak ballads, these are bleak songs.  You can feel Elvis’ connection to the mood.  Yet, the main limitation is the slapdash quality of the instrumental music behind The King, offering mostly a cookie-cutter countrypolitan sheen with treacly strings that bowl over the nuance in the vocals.  In a way, the backing tries to take depressing songs and make them cheerier, which is entirely counterproductive.  Elvis’ band members were already seeking other opportunities.  It seems like supporting him was becoming a low priority for them.  Though in fairness Elvis provided little direction and the cramped recording locale hardly helped.  The net result is to make this album a little dull.  It won’t convince anyone of the real depths of the man’s talents.  Yet, if you make an effort there are some worthwhile things here, and Elvis does sing reasonably well.

It’s fascinating to compare the careers of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.  Both came from rural origins and both broke through on Sam Phillips‘ Sun Records in Memphis.  Both developed drug problems in the face of grueling touring schedules and the enormous pressures of the entertainment industry.  Elvis became a movie star and then jumped right back into music full time with a fascinating TV special.  Cash hosted his own TV musical variety show and then toured with a large revue show not unlike Elvis’ breakthrough Vegas act.  By the end of the 1970s both stars had faded.  Cash made a comeback in the 1990s, while Elvis had made one himself in the late 60s.  Of course, the two stars couldn’t have had more different personalities.  Cash had a reputation for always insisting on doing things his own way, while Presley was timid and non-confrontational when it came to his career.

When Johnny Cash made his comeback, it was by mining the darker elements of his music, with faddish attempts to sound “current” taken away to leave just a raw, “authentic” folk sound.  In a way, Elvis was also mining the darker aspects of his music shortly before his death, but his handlers didn’t seem to understand how to deal with that kind of approach.  Someone should go back and strip out the harps, string orchestration, stuffy horns, and some of the backing vocals (much like what was done on Naked Willie), and maybe even re-record new backing instrumentals (the approach of Guitar Man), because there is definitely something to be found in Elvis’ performances here of value, if separated out from everything weighing them down.

Elvis – His Hand in Mine

His Hand in Mine

ElvisHis Hand in Mine RCA Victor LPM-2328 (1960)

Elvis was a legitimate fan of gospel music.  So it should be no surprise that he can reproduce the style of The Trumpeteers on “Milky White Way”, The Golden Gate Quartet on “Joshua Fit the Battle [of Jericho]”, The Staple Singers on “Swing Down Sweet Chariot”, and so on.  It is somewhat amusing to hear Elvis embarrass himself on whitewashed version of these songs.  Well, that’s a bit harsh.  It’s not that the performances are that bad per se, but a hallmark of gospel music has been song arrangements.  You can measure a gospel act by how they put their personal stamp on their rendition of a gospel standard.  Elvis just doesn’t deliver on that score.  The arrangements here all tend to be highly derivative of classic pre-existing recordings, and to the extent they sound a little different it’s only because of the uniformly bland, rubber-stamp 50s-pop backing harmonies.  This is just making black music more palatable to white audiences, and that holds little interest more than fifty years later.  From another, kinder perspective you could say Elvis knew how to pick good songs, but in his performances he’s too deferential here to the artists whose versions of the songs inspired him.  Either way this album is self-indulgent and stupid.  Elvis’ two later gospel albums How Great Thou Art (1967) and He Touched Me (1972) are both much superior.

Bo Diddley – Bo Diddley’s a Twister

Bo Diddley's a Twister

Bo DiddleyBo Diddley’s a Twister Checker LP 2982 (1962)

Hard to know what to make of this one.  The best stuff here is the batch of previously-released singles “Who Do You Love,” “Road Runner,” “Hey, Bo Diddley” and “Bo Diddley.”  But those were old news tacked on here as padding.  There is also the excellent “Here ‘Tis,” which The Yardbirds would cover shortly.  The rest feels like Bo Diddley by numbers, which is still about five times better than most other things you could be listening to right now, but also not as good as Bo at his best.

Dinosaur Jr. – Beyond


Dinosaur Jr.Beyond PIAS PIL070 CD (2007)

Back at it with another chunk of prime Dino Jr.  They haven’t lost a step, though the music does have some of the softened features of a more mature band.  Still, they throw in two crappy Lou Barlow songs, just like old times.  Although the Dino Jr. comeback has been surprisingly good, this remains the only album from the comeback that really lives up to the best of their original run.

Bob Dylan – Dylan


Bob DylanDylan Columbia PC 32747 (1973)

Bob Dylan briefly jumped from Columbia Records to the fledgling Asylum Records in the early 1970s.  After he departed, Columbia took outtakes from Self Portrait and New Morning, and, without his knowledge, released them as Dylan.  Most likely due to Dylan’s lack of input in the project, the album was never reissued in the United States.  It is frequently maligned as the very worst Dylan album.  Can it be?  No, not really.  But the reason that the Dylan fundamentalists dismiss this is precisely because they are tedious bores.  There is a large contingent of Dylan fans who love his songwriting so much that they outright dismiss any of his albums that are not built upon it.  Dylan is a collection of cover tunes, without a single original Dylan composition.  The thing is, this is much more focused than Self Portrait and has fewer head-scratchers than New Morning.  Dylan may be purposefully stepping out of character here, but the results are respectable, even if by no means too impressive.  Side one in particular is pretty decent all the way through.  Side two slouches some more, with Joni Mitchell‘s “Big Yellow Taxi” too self-consciously tethered to an awkward new rhythm, and with much of the backing vocals seemingly under-rehearsed.  But you have to admit that Dylan’s singing is generally stronger here than on New Morning.  While this is no lost classic, it’s a better album than its reputation suggests.  There is no doubt in my mind that Down in the Groove is a worse album, as are Self Portrait and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.

Julian Priester Pepo Mtoto – Love, Love

Love, Love

Julian Priester Pepo MtotoLove, Love ECM 1044 ST (1974)

Love, Love has achieved something of a “lost classic” status, and deservedly so.  Priester extends the basic approach of Herbie Hancock‘s Mwandishi group, though Priester definitely goes a few steps further.  He finds an almost orchestral fluidity that the eclecticism of Hancock’s band seemed to preclude.  It’s also notable that the spacier moments here wouldn’t be out of place on Sun Ra‘s Lanquidity, though there is hardly any of Ra’s afro-futurist weirdness to be found.  The album’s first side finds the most distinct connections to the early fusion era, and blends in some of the more dense elements of Miles Davis‘ post-Bitches Brew work.  On side two, Priester moves into free jazz territory, but also incorporates elements of re-tooled big band music, foreshadowing David Murray‘s early 1980s music.  A rewarding listen that brings to mind what a shame it has been that Priester hasn’t recorded more as a leader.

Bill Dixon – Vade Mecum

Vade Mecum

Bill DixonVade Mecum Soul Note 121 208-2 (1994)

Bill Dixon was an interesting musician.  Dropping almost entirely out of the public eye for long stretches, his recorded legacy is quite modest for a talent of his stature.  His playing, on trumpet especially, unfolded slowly, full of space for contemplation.  He played like he had all the time in the world.  There really wasn’t any flash or any crowd-pleasing gimmickry.  It all came together in a way that made Dixon stand apart, with a style that was quite unlike any other in jazz.  That’s actually worth saying again. Dixon really represented a major, unique voice in modern jazz, as distinct and important as Ornette, Ayler, etc.  Although he was definitely part of the experimental wing of jazz players, his music wasn’t quite as difficult for conservative tastes as some other practitioners of the new thing.  There was an almost orchestral conception to what he did that makes his work palatable to listeners who appreciate Euro-classical music.  Here he plays trumpet with electronic processing.  But unlike most players using such effects on a wind instrument he doesn’t seems to take any influence from rock music.  Vade Mecum is well worth the effort for anyone interested in refreshingly original music.  It’s one of Dixon’s very best.