Bob Dylan – Street-Legal Columbia JC 35453 (1978)
I’ve mentioned that Planet Waves was a bad omen. I think, at the time, it could be passed off as just lazy, a fluke misfire on some fundamentally good songwriting material. Street-Legal was something else. Here, Dylan was confirming that he was a brat, someone just unwilling to look outside himself. It’s clear what he was going for here. The backing singers, saxophone. This was a show band. After struggling and failing to make The Rolling Thunder Revue a commercial success, he seemed to be aiming for an Elvis-style Vegas act (see also At Budokan). Or maybe even some kind of second-hand Van Morrison approach, by way of Bruce Springsteen‘s E-Street Band. But Dylan really wasn’t that kind of a performer. He insisted on a “raw” sound recorded in some old warehouse dubbed “Rundown Studio” with temporary recording equipment set up with wires running out the window (similar to what was done on Elvis’ recent From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee). In principle, that kind of an approach might work, but not with this material and this band. It’s as if Dylan just can’t commit himself to the commercial aspects of what his band proposes. This is one of those albums where he struggles to come to terms with the expectations laid upon him, and so he self-sabotages the product. A shame, too, because there are definitely some good new songs here, like “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power),” one of Dylan’s now rare attempts to do the kind of social and political commentary that he managed so adeptly back in his early folk days (“With God on Our Side,” etc.). So, Street-Legal was probably one intervention away from being a success. The committed will find things to like if they focus hard, but, at the same time, there is no excuse for the amount of effort necessary to appreciate this one.
Little Feat – Waiting for Columbus Warner Bros. 2BS 3140 (1978)
Perhaps the most overrated album in Little Feat’s discography is Waiting for Columbus. It is a decent live set, with most of their best songs accounted for. Still, this came at a time when Lowell George‘s influence was waning and things were drifting towards bland, shallow blues knock offs and limp groove rock. In all, not bad, but hardly anything that special. Then again, if all along you thought the problem with Little Feat was that they didn’t sound enough like The Doobie Brothers, well, this might be exactly what you were waiting for.
Little Feat – Sailin’ Shoes Warner Bros. BS 2600 (1972)
Sailin’ Shoes may be the best Little Feat album. I like the eclecticism of their debut, and this one tones that down a bit. But the focus and polish here works for the band rather than against them. The songwriting is again superb, thanks to Lowell George. It embraces rather than fears the weirdness out there in the world. I wish all southern/classic rock held up this well.
Hozier – Hozier Island 3792808 (2014)
Basically a white person singing in an African-American style, much like Adele et al. There is some catchy guitar on “Jackie and Wilson,” for example, but mostly this album seeks to simply appropriate riffs, vocal tones, and other musical elements that have been built up by others rather than forge anything new or unique. Pass.
Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady Bad Boy Records 536210-2 (2013)
If The ArchAndroid seemed almost claustrophobically overproduced at times, then The Electric Lady goes in the other direction and risks being underproduced and underdeveloped. But no matter. For me, this is Monáe at her most likeable and sublime. By this point, the R&B/soul saga of the android character Cindi Mayweather, chronicled in all of Monáe’s recordings, continues, long after it seemed like the story would come to an end. Her first EP indicated four circles on the cover image, with one-and-a-half filled in to represent that it was the first installment and the others hollow to indicate what was to come, the full-length début had just one hollow, but now, suddenly there are seven circles, with two left hollow. This is like some Hollywood movie franchise that suddenly conjures up a few “prequels” to keep itself lumbering along. Yet, if movie analogies are appropriate, this album seems most like an Oliver Stone film: literate, well-informed, incisive, yet a little preachy and always just over the top with drama. But the music is maybe a bit, er, a lot cheerier than typical Stone fare. The album’s heart is its fondness for the past and desire to avoid losing what was valuable in it against the crush of modern corruptions (just like a Stone film). Monáe clearly has a love of 1970s and 80s soul and rock, from Stevie Wonder to Prince to Os Mutantes (she name-drops them in the liner notes!), to, well, you name it. So, if this is less ambitious than her last effort, on the surface, it also has a more solid footing in a broad continuum of music that is at once open-minded and engaged with music/culture that is less open-minded — as a positive challenge to the dominance of the latter, refusing to sit idly by. It is great to hear music looking to make a world that isn’t ruled by fear, and that recognizes that there are precedents for such thinking already out there that provide a kind of strength for subtle but necessary battles of the present. After a few years of listening, this still holds up really well.
Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid Bad Boy Records 512256-2 (2010)
The ArchAndroid takes doses of neo-soul, like Amy Winehouse, and pop with dance club appeal, like Rihanna, and filters it through contemporary rock and hip-hop sensibilities. You can find songs here with clear references to vintage Michael Jackson and Prince. Most surprising (and disturbing) are times when a canned horn section recalls Miami Sound Machine. Anyway, none of this is new, exactly. And the lyrics are no great attraction. But what makes this album work is that it’s more consistent with less obvious filler than most pop albums of its time. It is too dense for its own good, perhaps. Still, the results are refreshingly ambitious and the heart is in the right place.
George Lewis – The George Lewis Solo Trombone Album Sackville Recordings 3012 (1977)
Great stuff. While solo horn albums tend toward the dour to the point of turning listeners away — For Alto the classic example — this one is refreshingly joyous and even humorous at times. A remarkable debut, and yet another overlooked treasure from the Sackville Recordings catalog.