Love and Theft by Bob Dylan

April 23, 2009

Bob Dylan released “Love and Theft” on the memorable date of September 11, 2001. The quotation marks are an official part of the title. It was his first album since 1997’s Time Out Of Mind. While that album would be dark and even fearful at times; Dylan would return to his blues and folk roots in a positive manner. Though far different from each other, both were successful in their own way. It would be Dylan’s highest charting album in years reaching number 3 on the National charts. Rolling Stone Magazine would place it at 467 on their 500 greatest albums of all time.

I can’t help but think that Dylan had fun writing and recording the songs for this album. There is an old time feel to it, especially on the blues numbers. The lyrics were strong and the song structures tight. The music itself has a beauty. Dylan was also wise enough to use his touring band in the studio rather than assembling different combinations for each track. The fact that they had been playing together regularly shows. The only problem I have with the album is his voice. It has a gruffness and sounds lower than in the past, but he manages to get by.

This is not as personal or as thoughtful as many of his past efforts. Instead the focus is upon the songs themselves and this was a wise decision. Dylan, who was now forty years into his career, had decided to just create some music with no hidden agenda or at least very little.

It is the blues songs that dominate the album. “High Water (For Charley Patton)” is Dylan paying homage to a man who influenced not only his music but American music in general. Also known as Charlie Patton, he was one of the originators of The Delta Blues sound. The song looks at southern racial history as well.

Other original blues tunes dominate this release. “Po’ Boy” is right out of the 1920’s. “Sugar Baby” can almost be imagined as being played at a funeral procession in New Orleans. “Bye and Bye” has been used in his live act and the sweet music provides shelter from the intensity of the lyrics. “Summer Days” almost makes a turn into an early country swing sound.

The most memorable track on the album is “Mississippi.” It is a melodic folk ballad of alienation and regret. Both Sheryl Crow and The Dixie Chicks would change this song around and create memorable versions.

“Love and Theft” is an album I do not play enough. When I do give it a spin I find new delights. Bob Dylan proved, that even as his life entered its sixth decade, he is still a master of his craft.

Time Out Of Mind by Bob Dylan

April 21, 2009

Bob Dylan would return in 1997 with his first album of all new original material in seven years. Time Out Of Mind would reach the top ten on the national charts and achieve platinum status with over one million units sold. Daniel Lanois was brought back to produce this release and under his guidance it would win the Grammy for best album of the year.

1997 would find an aging Dylan, who was now well over thirty years into his career. He was not the same person as he had been in the early 1960s and his songs would reflect that fact. His compositions were more philosophical as he continued to explore the world around him, but now from the perspective of a mature, and in some ways a world weary, individual. As such, he would continue to redefine and solidify his legacy.

“Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” find him contemplating his spiritual journey as many people do when they reach his age. Dylan is just able to put his thoughts and feelings into words and music. “Not Dark Yet” would find him thinking about death which is another topic that invades the mind as people age.“Make You Feel My Love” is a straight forward and passionate love song. “Standing In The Doorway” is an emotional track that is wistful and shows a longing.

“Highlands” would be the longest track of his career clocking in at over sixteen minutes. It is a novel set to music, and while it does drag at times, it has enough imagery and parables to keep the listeners attention. It is a song of looking back that gradually moves toward acceptance with the words: “And that’s good enough for me now.”

Time Out Of Mind was a comeback album commercially but a repositioning album personally. Dylan had new things to think and talk about and would bring them to life through his words and music. This album of mature subjects and stories would be a superior effort. It really should not be compared to his best work of the 1960s and 1970s as it is far different in vision and scope. It is enough to just appreciate it on its own terms.

World Gone Wrong by Bob Dylan

April 21, 2009

The positive reception for his album, Good As I Been To You, prompted Bob Dylan to release another album of traditional folk and blues songs. World Gone Wrong was released October 26, 1993 and received another round of positive reviews. Both albums would find Dylan accompanying himself only on acoustic guitar and harmonica.

His choice of material would be darker this time and he would write his own liner notes explaining the songs. This may have been due to the fact he had been successfully sued for using arrangements that were not original to him without providing compensation or recognition. Also the album cover shows him wearing what appears to be the same top hat as on the jacket of Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid.

What has always been amazing to me is that Dylan was familiar with so many and different types of traditional songs. These songs would literally define him as a person and musician just as well as most of his own compositions. The songs chosen for this album may be more intense and less positive than his past selections but they are performed with passion and sincerity. It all adds up to the fact that, at his best, he is a folk singer.

He takes two old blues songs from the 1930’s, originally performed by The Mississippi Sheiks, and simplifies them back to their basics. “Blood In My Eyes” is an intensive love song while “Delia” is a ballad of murder, prison, and death.

“Two Soldiers” has appeared in Dylan’s stage act, off and on, for years now. It portrays death in war and the pain of a mother left behind. “Lone Pilgrim” contains some of the most expressive vocals of his career.

World Gone Wrong contained a set of songs that meant something to him. He proves here that good songs are never dated when recorded and sung well. The tunes contained on this album will always be good company.

Good As I Been To You by Bob Dylan

April 21, 2009

Early in 1992 Bob Dylan went into the studio with David Bromberg and recorded an album’s worth of material. None of these tracks would be used on his next album. Dylan would return to the recording studio and record a large number of cover songs that would become Good As I Been To You.

The first thing that I noticed about this album was the personnel listed on the jacket. It read Bob Dylan-vocal, guitar, harmonica and that was it. This was far different from the multitude of singers and performers that had been appearing on his recent albums. The original Dylan had returned.

Producing an album of cover songs worked well for him. This return to his simple folk roots seemed to rejuvenate his career. He began as an interpreter of songs and remains one of the best in the business when he selects the proper material, which he does here. He may not have written these songs but they are his nonetheless. His use of only his acoustic guitar and harmonica served to accentuate the performances.

“Frankie & Albert” has been recorded hundreds of times, but he takes the song in a blues direction by using Mississippi John Hurt’s version. “Jim Jones” was an old Australian ballad. He had a penchant, at times, for using other artist’s renditions without acknowledgment or compensation. This time he got caught as Marc Slocum sued him and won for copying his version of the song.

There are a lot of stellar moments on this album. “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” is the old blues tune by Walter Vinson. He strips this 1930’s blues classic to its basics. Just compare it to the version by the group Cream. “Tomorrow Night” has some classic harmonica playing. “Black Jack Davey” is a folk ballad from the early 1700’s and “Canadee-i-o” is from Canada. Both come to life as wonderful story songs. “Arthur McBride” is a violent Irish protest song and on it goes.

The album concludes with a six minute version of “Froggie Went A Courtin’” which generations of grade school children have sung in music class. This 16th century traditional Scottish song was a wonderful way to end the album in a fun and relaxed manner.

Good As I Been To You was an excellent release and proves that sometimes simple is best. Somewhere Woody Guthrie is smiling.

Under The Red Sky by Bob Dylan

April 18, 2009

I have now listened to Under A Red Sky four times in the last two days and frankly I don’t get it. I also have the feeling that this may have been Dylan’s intent. On the surface it appears to be a children’s album of nonsensical nursery rhymes or possibly The Brothers Grimm on crack.

Dylan had been busy working on the Traveling Wilburys second album with George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison. Looking back it seems that Dylan enjoyed his time with The Wilburys as he appeared relaxed and happy. It may have been that for once all the focus and expectations were not solely on him. It was basically a fun time for all involved. I think that some of that whimsy carried over to Under A Red Sky. The problem was that only Dylan was in on the joke.

Don and David Was were hired to produce the album. This was not a good choice as they were much to pop oriented and slick for Dylan’s sound. I’m not sure that they really understood him or his music. Then there was the who’s who of musicians making contributions to this project: George Harrison, Slash, David Crosby, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Elton John, and a host of others.

I find that the music itself is fine and fairly melodic. It is the incomprehensibility of the lyrics that is the problem. Dylan’s gravelly voice does not help matters either.

The first two tracks set the tone for what will follow. “Wiggle Wiggle” is just plain odd. I played this track over and over and it just got stranger. “Under The Red Sky” would feature a beautiful guitar solo by George Harrison that would be overshadowed by the seemingly meaningless childlike lyrics. Even David Crosby can’t save such songs as “Born In Time” and “2 X 2.”

And so, gentle readers, I leave it up to you. It seems that Dylan went from the poetry of Oh Mercy to the nursery rhymes of Under The Red Sky. Maybe I’ll just play this album for my six year old granddaughter. Her interpretation will probably be as good as mine.

Oh Mercy by Bob Dylan

April 18, 2009

Several things happened to Bob Dylan before he released Oh Mercy in 1989. First, he injured his hand and had some down time while he recovered. He filled those hours by writing songs. Oh Mercy would be his first album in a number of years to contain all original compositions.

Second, his work with the Traveling Wilburys in 1988 seemed to rejuvenate him. His association with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne would find him relaxed and engaged. Third, he decided to employ producer Daniel Lanois, a veteran who’d produced a number of albums by this time including The Joshua Tree by U2 and So by Peter Gabriel. Lanois would provide a very strong and creative production for the album and would return for the Grammy winning Time Out Of Mind.

The reception for this album was positive as it was his most accessible and intimate album in years. The sales were also stronger that his recent efforts as Dylan finally seemed comfortable with the passage of time.

Two of the first three songs find him ranting against the modern world. These songs showed he was back with a vengeance. “Political World” finds him once again in protest mode, which is always a good and healthy place for him to be. “Everything Is Broken” has similar content but is stronger musically. It was the first single released from the album. “Where Teardrops Fall” was the second song and split the two political tracks. It is a simpler tune and really provides a good early break to clear the musical palate.

I find the fourth and fifth songs to be the heart of the album. Open your hymnal and turn to page Dylan as “Ring Them Bells” is filled with religious imagery. This is the type of song I wish he had produced during the fundamentalist Christian phase of his career. “Man In The Long Black Coat” is a story song, the kind he excels at. This think track is filled with apocalyptic imagery that is difficult to pin down. This is Dylan at his best.

“What Good Am I?” and “What Was It You Wanted” are tracks that revolve around moral worth or the lack there of. I can’t help but think that Dylan might have been doing some personal self assessment as he approached fifty. The album concludes on a strong note with “Shooting Star.” A song of remembrance with excellent lyrics, it would appear in different forms as his career progressed.

Oh Mercy finally finds Bob Dylan looking toward the future with some vision. How much affect Daniel Lanois had on this comeback album is really unknown but my guess is that he was a valuable part of the process. He seems to have understood his music as well if not better than any producer he would use.

I can think of five or so better Dylan albums than Oh Mercy but not ten, which is high praise given the quality of his catalogue.

Down In The Groove by Bob Dylan

April 18, 2009

In 2007 Rolling Stone Magazine ranked Down In The Groove as the worst Bob Dylan album. The real bad news is they were right or at least close to it. I almost combined a review of this album with my last, Knocked Out Loaded. The albums are similar and in a way each does not deserve their own full review.

Down In The Grove finds Dylan at a low point in his career. There is no “Brownsville Girl” to provide a ray of hope. The songs come from a number of different sessions and are haphazardly thrown together to form this release. Every album he would release would come with impossibly high expectations which made this release all the more disappointing. Issued in May of 1988 it would continue the trend of high criticism and poor sales.

It all begins with three cover songs. “Let’s Stick Together,” “When Did You Leave Heaven?” and “Sally Sue Brown” are performed without passion as Dylan makes no effort to make them unique. Even the original songs “Death Is Not The End” and “Had A Dream About You, Baby” can’t save this release. His rendition of the old traditional song “Shenandoah” is almost painful.

The only possible redeeming tracks are the two written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. “Silvio” rocks a bit and the lyrics are fairly good. “Ugliest Girl In The World” at least finds him with a sense of humor.

Dylan was constantly touring at this point in his career and at about the time of this release he would stop using a huge entourage of musicians and singers and go back to a simple style of only a guitar, bass, and drums in support. The public would embrace this back-to-basics approach. It’s too bad it did not carry over into his recording career at this time.

Down In The Groove was lackadaisical and ultimately sterile and justly ranks near the bottom of his extensive catalogue. Many of his fans would keep the faith, however, and it would soon be rewarded.

Knocked Out Loaded by Bob Dylan

April 18, 2009

Knocked Out Loaded was released July 14, 1986 and would be one of the worst selling albums of his career as it would find a distant Dylan who seemed preoccupied. The first hint that this is an unfocused album is the number of musicians and singers that appear in the credits which number over fifty. Ultimately it would not be a terrible release but it would be a forgettable one.

There is one shining moment on the album and that is the 11 minute song co-written by playwright Sam Shepard. The music is average on “Brownsville Girl,” but the lyrical quality is excellent. This haunting song of long lost love has wonderful lines and is really a novel set to music. Eleven minutes may seem like a long time when listening to a narrative type song but it just flies by. It remains one of Dylan’s better tracks from the 1980’s.

Three songs provide the best of the rest. “You Wanna Ramble” is an old Little Junior Parker tune that at least seems to find Dylan interested. He provides a nice gritty vocal that is sadly missing from much of the album. “Maybe Someday” is a good to middling popish piece that is easy on the ears. “Precious Memories” is an old traditional gospel song that Dylan takes out for a ride. Johnny Cash would provide a terrific interpretation of this song and while this version may not measure up it is still very good.

It is difficult to completely ruin a Kris Kristofferson song but Dylan comes close with his version of “They Killed Him.” There is a children’s choir present that removes just about any other redeeming features the track might contain. I am also not partial to “Under Your Spell” which was written with Carole Baker Sager. While she is a talented songwriter in her own right her style is just too different from that of Bob Dylan.

His motive for creating an album to which he does not seem committed is unknown. On the rare occurrences when I actually play Knocked Out Loaded, except for the one brilliant song, it is just not memorable. However, if you really want to explore some obscure Dylan, then you can give this album a try.

Empire Burlesque by Bob Dylan

April 15, 2009

Empire Burlesque may not have been Bob Dylan’s first album released in the 1980s but it was his first 80’s album.

He self produced this release without any help and at this point in his career he was usually better off with a strong outside producer at the helm. Many people would say that modern recording techniques were beyond his complete technical understanding and that would seem to be the case here. On the other hand, the writing and singing would be fine and while the overall product would not be among his very best works, it would certainly be a representative album.

I think the biggest drawback was that Dylan tried to make his songs conform to the 1980s. In some ways, this prevented him from being his unique self. The most obvious example of this is the track, “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky.” It is presented as a dance or even disco song and would fit right in with much of what was being produced at the time. The same song would later appear on the Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991 but would be transformed featuring horns, keyboards and a scintillating guitar solo by Steve Van Zandt. This superior track clearly shows how aware Dylan was in 1985 of the direction of pop music.

“Tight Connect To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)” has a lush, pop sound. The saving grace is the lyrics which are obscure in places but possibly show his dissatisfaction with Christianity. “Trust Yourself” follows the same pattern of polished production with a good gritty vocal. “Something’s Burning Baby” contains some great apocalyptic imagery but too much of a synthesizer sound.

The production is a little better on “Clean Cut Kid,” an anti-Vietnam song from a veteran’s viewpoint and “I’ll Remember You” which is a sweet love song that Dylan still performs in concert.

After presenting nine songs the album ends with “Dark Eyes.” This is just acoustic Dylan with guitar and harmonica. It shows a simple Dylan at his best.

I consider Empire Burlesque both a difficult and a rewarding listen. I try to concentrate on the lyrics and messages rather than the overbearing production. There are some gems to to found here but you have to dig a little deeper than usual.

Infidels by Bob Dylan

April 15, 2009

Infidels was Bob Dylan’s 1983 album release and it brought a sigh of relief from legions of his fans. He had returned to the secular world and left his Christian fundamentalist teachings behind. While the album returns him to messages of protest and social concerns, they are just as hard hitting and passionate as his previous religious views. They would find favor with the album buying public as it would be his biggest selling release of the 1980’s.

The backing band would be one of the best Dylan would employ. Mark Knopfler would co-produce the album and bring his guitar along, acting as a contributing musician as well. Mick Taylor, formally of The Rolling Stones, would also be a featured guitarist. Taylor has a talent of melding his blues/rock sound with just about any guitarist he chooses and he and Knopfler form a formidable pair. Sly & Robbie make up the rhythm section and combine their reggae influenced musicianship into a successful and unique union of styles.

Dylan recorded a lot of material for this album and three superior tracks were left off the final issue only to appear on the Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3 several years later. “Blind Willie McTell” or Mc Tell) may very well be the best song that he created during the 1980s. “Tell Me” and “Foot Of Pride” are almost as good. There is no knowing why these tracks were left off and others included in the final release but they show Dylan back creating a large number of great songs.

“Jokerman” clocks in at over six minutes and is filled with so much imagery that it is difficult to decipher. This is one of those meandering songs that touch the ground every once in awhile but then floats away again. “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight” ends the album and is a good choice to do so. After the intense messages of the proceeding songs this gentle love tune is a good way to clear the mind and relax.

In between these two tracks we find a socially conscious Dylan. “Union Sundown” is great rock ‘n’ roll and a scathing criticism of sweatshops and Capitalism. “Neighborhood Bully” is a passionate defense of the nation of Israel. “License To Kill” finds Dylan tackling environmental issues.

Infidels is an album that gets better with age. I enjoy it more now than when it was originally released. It contains a strong set of songs that put Dylan back on the right track.