All posts by Syd Fablo

Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited

Highway 61 Revisited

Bob DylanHighway 61 Revisited Columbia CL 2389 (1965)

Highway 61 Revisited was Dylan’s entry into the realm of superstardom.  He had popularity that was entering the same leagues as that of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.  Bringing It All Back Home was massively popular, but Highway 61 confirmed that Dylan was no flash-in-the-pan success.

This is quite simply the single most essential Dylan album, and one of the most essential rock and roll albums by anyone from any era.  The enduring importance of this album might be how it managed to be a rock album of substance, something with real weight and depth, not just tawdry entertainment.  Unlike Bringing It All Back Home with an entire side geared toward folk rather than rock, Highway 61 Revisited focused entirely on rock.  So much early rock and roll was easily dismissed as just dance music or hillbilly stuff without cachet in urban centers.  This album was something else.  It raised the bar for what rock music was (or could be) about.  In a way, it helped give unprecedented legitimacy to rock and roll, without ever diminishing the intensity and energy and exuberance of the music.  By this point, Dylan’s songwriting talent was unassailable.  He had successfully fused blues rock with poetic lyrics that encompassed symbolism, American and biblical mythology, surrealism, literary references, and vivid imagery.  The songs rarely “meant” anything in a literal sense.  They were oblique invocations of certain feelings and images without a fixed and definite meaning.  You can listen to these songs again and again and come away with a slightly interpretation each time.  Roland Barthes wrote the following year in Criticism and Truth that “a work is ‘eternal’ not because it imposes a single meaning on different men, but because it suggests different meanings to one man…”  So it was with these songs.  Dylan’s approach was drawing huge influence from the writings of the Beats, incorporating that writing style into a rock and roll setting.  The music still had a huge, driving syncopated beat, complete with just enough of the twang and grit to draw a clear line of influence from early rock and roll.  He was supported by a studio band that included members of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band plus Al Kooper on keyboards.  Kooper was not a keyboardist, but the recording sessions for this album made him one.  Electric guitarist Mike Bloomfield has a strong presence that separates the sound of this album from others Dylan had recorded to this point (or what he did later, for that matter).

On “Tombstone Blues,” Dylan sings “the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken,” invoking American slang in which both “yellow” and “chicken” refer to cowardice.  Applying the terms to the sun, Dylan–in a way that epitomizes his songwriting at the time–says something that is perfectly plain but that doesn’t mean anything in particular.  He turns the word “yellow” from a description of color into a slang reference to something that doesn’t really have a literal meaning when applied to the sun.  But to follow this, you almost have to work backwards through the lyrics.  In a nutshell, that’s Dylan’s mid-1960s songwriting.

Bob Dylan – John Wesley Harding

John Wesley Harding

Bob DylanJohn Wesley Harding Columbia CS 9604 (1967)

After the enormous success of Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan had his motorcycle accident and he retreated from the public eye.  He wouldn’t put on a public concert for a few more years, and it would be about eight years before he toured again.  After exploring rootsier music in private with The Band in recording The Basement Tapes demos, he made something of a break with the studio recordings of John Wesley Harding.  In what would come to characterize a lot of Dylan’s later recordings, there is something of a search for peace and solitude in this music, as opposed to the brash and bold approaches of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.  He turned away from what listeners might have expected.  Now Dylan was exploring myth and historical curiosities of the American Old West — just after the Summer of Love found the counterculture exploring entirely new social relations.  The album title is about Texas gunfighter John Wesley Hardin (Dylan changed the spelling here).  The entire album is something of a return to more traditional folk music, but with a significant change from Dylan’s earliest albums.  This album was recorded with a backing band, and the drums of Kenny Buttrey and bass of Charlie McCoy propel the music forward.  If any of Dylan’s albums deserve the description “folk-rock” he so disliked, it’s probably this one.  Recorded entirely in Nashville, Dylan’s vocals are noticeably stronger than on so many of his recordings.  His nasal whine and mumbled grunts are held in check.

The songs tend to be good, even if some are content to merely lock into a simple groove.  “All Along the Watchtower” is a song usurped by Jimi Hendrix for an incendiary cover version on next year’s Electric Ladyland.  Although the version by Hendrix is iconic, Dylan’s original version is still vital.  Dylan’s version has a pressing weariness that is completely different from the ominous desperation of the electrified Hendrix version (which tends to be used in almost every Hollywood Vietnam War movie).

While perhaps not as immediately ear-catching to the newcomer as the last few albums, John Wesley Harding remains among Dylan’s best albums.  I’ve played this album numerous times around others and they ask what it is, because few seem to immediately recognize this as Dylan (or at least seem unsure about it) but generally are drawn to like it.

Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America’s Music

Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America's Music

Various Artists – Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America’s Music Legacy C5K 61432 (2000)

As an overview of jazz, this set definitely falls in the shadow of the great compilation The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz.  There is a lot of overlap between the two, and to the extent that they are different, the Smithsonian collection is superior.  One principal reason is that the Smithsonian collection sticks to being an overview through about 1960, and doesn’t really go beyond that date (with a small number of exceptions mostly linked to the early 60s).  This Ken Burns set, however, does go beyond 1960, but offers only an extremely scattershot and poor representation of anything post-1956, and by the last disc seems veer into the territory of rock and pop songs rather than jazz.  Anyway, pick it up if you find a bargain copy more easily than the Smithsonian one.

This set does track somewhat the TV miniseries Jazz by Ken Burns, which in my opinion is an abomination.  Sure it has some great archival footage, but it’s buried under some hammy, overproduced narration and a deluge of longwinded Wynton Marsalis monologues.  The TV show is more a history of the rising and falling popularity of jazz in society, more than a musicological history of jazz the folk art and its evolution in predominately musical terms.  So, naturally, things stay pretty much on track through the rise of jazz to the height of its popularity, but completely fall apart during the period when the popularity of jazz was on the decline.  Rather than discuss the incredible space that was created at a time when tremendously creative artists more at the fringes were vigorously pursuing the idiom relatively free from commercial concerns when there were still enough jazz venues open, enough willing record labels, and recording technology had never been better, rather than touch on that era in a meaningful way, the TV series merely offers a few blunt dismissals of the “new” music of the 1960s (though you might say there is no such thing as bad publicity).  Then, as a final touch, the TV series displaces the discussion they should be having about the fragmented nature of modern jazz by filling up an unnecessary amount of time with lengthy obituaries to the jazz legends of decades past, many of which were previously presented in the miniseries at length, at the expense of the modern jazz legends of the era they purport to be discussing.  Given the length of the TV series, they can hardly say there was no room for modern jazz.  Also, you might guess it from the title of this particular box set, but they ignore 99% of jazz that came out of Europe or elsewhere.  In all, though, the TV series has all the faults of those history books that Howard Zinn, James Loewen et al. have pointed out: they revel in feel-good myths at the expense of hard facts, and manage to paint jazz as no more than a quaint historical oddity, only relevant today to the extent that it can be trotted out as a dusty museum piece or nostalgic/retro fad.  Contrary to what you’ll hear in the Burns TV series, jazz didn’t kinda die in the 1970s; the (hack?) critics selected for interviews in the TV series just happen to not like music of that era.  Bring in a different set of critics and you would have an entirely different set of perspectives.  The problem is that it relies on a kind of false consensus.  It would be like doing a documentary of 20th Century politics and featuring only talking heads from a single political party, one that was actively involved in politics of that era.  Would you trust it?

Spacemen 3 – The Perfect Prescription

The Perfect Prescription

Spacemen 3The Perfect Prescription Glass GLALP 026 (1987)

Spacemen 3 were hardly the most original rock group.  They wore their influences on their sleeves.  On their debut, Sound of Confusion, the effect was a jolt of pure slacker charm.  The Stooges, The 13th Floor Elevators, these groups were channeled with the gawkish, unashamed enthusiasm of a most wonderfully unadulterated kind.   Any why not?  It suited the music.  Here on The Perfect Prescription, the influences have shifted to The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, even gospel music, processed through slightly jangly contemporary British psychedelia of the likes of The Teardrop Explodes, with a more lethargic, down-tempo groove.  This certainly set the stage for the next decade’s “Brit pop”, which you could consider an asset or a liability.  This one is a disappointment though.  Could these guys even play?  You have to wonder with the tuneless vocals on display.  The band seems to maybe start taking themselves seriously.  Snotty music that originated not far from the garage welcomed—no, deserved—to be resurrected with ridiculously faithful and inept 1980s recreations.  It was a proud declaration, “We have learned nothing in the intervening years!”  But the kinds of music with bigger aspirations that Spacemen 3 investigate on this album don’t quiet react well to similar treatment.  You can add acid to water, but not water to acid.  It’s the same with this music.  The irreverent treatment of the serious rock influences has the basic equation backwards, at least when lacking a sense of humor and recognition of the absurdity in doing it that way.  Ah, so it goes.  The Perfect Prescription does advocate for a new rhythm of drugged out rock, and for that it deserves some credit amidst its own shambolic, desultory downward spiral.

Grateful Dead – Dick’s Picks Volume Twenty-Two

Dick's Picks Volume Twenty-Two

Grateful DeadDick’s Picks Volume Twenty-Two (Kings Beach Bowl, Kings Beach, Lake Tahoe, CA – 2/23-24/68) Grateful Dead Records GDCD 4042 (2001)

I’ve been listening to the Grateful Dead for quite a long time, and albums like Dick’s Picks, Vol. 22 are the reasons why I keep coming back.  The Dead from about 1967 to 1970 were a great musical force.  They were energetic, genuine and unique.  I almost hesitate to say unique, but I do mean it.  For one, the Dead had a postmodern style that drew heavily on blues, jazz, bluegrass, gospel, and even modern classical elements.  And it’s true that they never really contributed much to any of those genres individually.  But in their extended jams that drew all of them together, their revelry of juxtaposition was something unique.  This stuff was fun!  Rather than the dour, pretentious attitude so familiar to postmodern music, the Dead sounded completely different.  Perhaps the fact that the Dead don’t quite sound as “serious” as some people think they should is the very reason they are almost deemed off-limits.  Sure, it wasn’t that long before the Dead became content to churn out unremarkable AOR rock, with forays into faddish trends like their silly attempt at disco a decade on.  Yet here in 1968, playing in a bowling alley no less, the group sounds thrilled to be making music, without sounding like they are forcing themselves to sound like anything in particular.  Later on, that didn’t seem to be the case.  Contrary to their reputation, I don’t feel like they challenged themselves much from about 1970 onwards, instead becoming content to rest on a few of their own perceived strengths and ending up sounding just like a lot of other bands.  But those days lay far in the future back in February of 1968, back when maybe anything seemed possible.

I hate to say it, but the sound quality here is fair at best.  Still, the unusual mix (likely a necessity given the source tape) lends a few pleasant surprises in making Pigpen‘s organ and Phil Lesh‘s bass more readily audible.  In the end, substance wise, this is one of the finest live sets in the Dead’s extensive catalog, and I think the concerns about sound quality can’t really hold this album back much at all.

Charles Mingus – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

Charles MingusThe Black Saint and the Sinner Lady Impulse! AS-35 (1963)

I think this is a pretty good album.  It’s really just a refinement of Ellingtonian ideas, rather than anything groundbreaking.  And the album does insist itself upon the listener.  I think there are better Mingus albums.  But this is still good.  Oh, lest I forget to mention this:  read the liner notes.  The whole pretentious asshole quality of Mingus that you might detect in the music should become crystal clear.

Allen Toussaint – Life, Love and Faith

Life, Love and Faith

Allen ToussaintLife, Love and Faith Reprise MS 2062 (1972)

Life, Love and Faith is a great soul album that has somehow been overlooked. Backed by The Meters, Allen Toussaint brings a shaky balance to this music. The subject matter is surprisingly different from other soul music. We have insecurities and nagging desires in the open. Toussaint runs through how he deals with three of the great forces linked to humanity—that give the album its title. While few would attempt this album, it succeeds with every moment. It sounds better with age too. Though generally dismissed for some time as a watery producer’s album, no description could be more wrong.

The personal songwriting and sensitive recordings come across more like Alex Chilton than Solomon Burke. “Am I Expecting Too Much” masks a song about social equality in terms of romantic difficulties. “Soul Sister” sounds most like a hit (it has shown up on numerous soundtracks). It has black power in the background but transcends simple description with its wistful aspirations. Actually those two songs alone are enough to make this album a classic. But there is more. “On Your Way Down” is almost a southern standard, others have played and recorded it so often. “Electricity” is among the catchier numbers. The adorable melodies and intuitive rhythms support the album’s great overarching design. All the songs are personal reflections on matters of fundamental character. Each one shades the unending facets of its universe. Toussaint made use of this music. He put it forth as best he could, as if needed immediately.

Toussaint could hold out his pleadings where no explanation would do. He struggles to overcome the disbelief of others. His vision of Life, Love and Faith tries valiantly to enlighten anyone willing to listen. It’s a personal document tinged with the sweaty, impulsive movements.

New Orleans soul has always been shamefully overlooked. Let us not forget that New Orleans largely started soul off, with Professor Longhair, through Little Richard and Fats Domino. New Orleans soul doesn’t quite fit into “southern soul,” which generally only refers to Memphis or Muscle Shoals, nor is it Chicago “sweet” soul or Motown/Philly. Some people perhaps lump New Orleans soul into other categories, be it R&B, funk, blues, or some miscellaneous other category. That is a mistake. Apart from the general idea that all categories are worthless, one listen to Life, Love and Faith proves it. Toussaint was a huge influence on the entire atmosphere of New Orleans music. As a solo performer, sideman, producer, and songwriter, he touched almost everything (from artists like the Showmen, the Meters, Ernie K. Doe, Lee Dorsey, LaBelle, Chocolate Milk, and more).

Life, Love and Faith is great; it’s as good as soul ever got.

Paul Robeson – The Peace Arch Concerts

The Peace Arch Concerts

Paul RobesonThe Peace Arch Concerts Folk Era FE1442CD (1998)

Paul Robeson had his passport revoked by the U.S. State Dept. in the 1950s.  This was illegal, as courts later found.  On top of that, President Truman signed an executive order that prevented him from traveling to Canada.  Normally American citizens could travel to Canada without a passport (* this long-standing practice was ended during the so-called “war on terror” in the 2000s).  The grounds for all this was that Robeson was supposed to be some kind of a threat during wartime.  “Wartime” you ask?  Supposedly, the Korean War.  But there was no declaration of war with respect to Korea, so it wasn’t a “war” as far as the U.S. Government is concerned, so the actions against Robeson were illegal — not to mention completely spurious.

When prevented from traveling to a scheduled concert in Canada, Robeson set up on in a park on U.S. soil, standing feet from the border, and sang for a broadcast across the border.  That was 1952.  He came back again three more times for similar cross-border concerts.  Recordings were made and released by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers.  This comp — released in honor of the 100th anniversary of Robeson’s birth — collects the 1952 and 1953 performances.  The one from ’52 is by far the best of the two.  Though what’s interesting is that not all of the ’52 concert seems to be present here, as I Came to Sing (recorded at that concert) included “Water Boy” which is omitted here.

Art Ensemble of Chicago – Les stances à Sophie

Les stances à Sophie

Art Ensemble of ChicagoLes stances à Sophie Pathé 2C O62-11365 (1970)

The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s greatest strengths were their versatility and eclecticism. Les Stances a Sophie is a great example of their best qualities, as they swing between mellow soul jazz, free jazz skronking, Euro-classical adaptations, delicate world fusion, retro bluesing, and points in between. I don’t know if you could point to the group as being ultimate masters of any one style, but that didn’t ever seem to be their intention. They came up at a time when lots of the last barriers in music had been torn down, and these guys made a case for the beauty found in stitching all the various strands together in intriguing ways. The individual pieces are familiar, but the tapestry feels genuine and fresh. It would be hard to hear this and not immediately find something to like, even if the entirety takes some time to absorb.

Sly & The Family Stone – A Whole New Thing

A Whole New Thing

Sly & The Family StoneA Whole New Thing Epic BN 26324  (1967)

A reviewer once described A Whole New Thing as “the most exciting mediocre record I’ve ever heard.”  That about sums this up.  Sly was still working out the details of his whole new thing.  He would, of course, perfect it in just a matter of months.  What helps this album, though, is that whatever parts of Sly’s vision were still under construction aren’t terribly apparent behind the gale force of the music’s raw energy.  Any album that opens with something like “Underdog” has achieved something.  It quotes the familiar melody of “Frère Jacques” for the effect of lulling you to sleep, only to jolt you awake with a big beat and punchy horns:

I know how it feels to expect to get a fair shake/
but they won’t let you forget that you’re the underdog/
and you gotta be twice as good

The album’s weakest moments tend to be those with the most overt similarities to conventional soul of the day.  Sly evolved into an effective vocalist with perfect rhythm, but when he tries to be the typical kind of emotive soul singer (like you would find on Stax or Motown or Atlantic) his voice comes across as overly affected.  The vocals in general aren’t as well integrated into the group’s sound as they would be later.  Yet the best stuff — the up-tempo numbers, especially those dominating side one — are infectious even when the songwriting isn’t Sly’s best.  The group gets a lot of mileage out of even the thinner material.  A Whole New Thing is not an essential item, but even this somewhat lesser outing from one of pop music’s greatest geniuses will entertain you.