Tag Archives: Basement Tapes

The Top 10 Post “Blood on the Tracks” Bob Dylan Albums: 1. “Love and Theft”

Time Out of Mind is generally considered to be Bob Dylan’s major comeback statement after a decade of what some might call stale material.  “Love and Theft” by contrast is the masterpiece of latter-day Bob Dylan.  On its own merits, it’s an album that most artist would kill to make.  For Bob Dylan it stands up with his best albums and rightfully earns the title “his best since Blood on the Tracks“.

Dylan rightfully gave Daniel Lanois the boot producing the album himself under the moniker Jack Frost.  As a result, “Love and Theft” is Dylan’s wildest, funniest set of songs, since The Basement Tapes.  And like the Basement Tapes, “Love and Theft” uses Americana as a blue-print.  And like those classic songs, Dylan ends up re-creating Americana (and myths of rural America) in his own image.  “Mississippi” is the crown-achievement here (a minor quibble – but it stills bugs me that Sheryl Crow was the first person to introduce this song to the public).   It’s the type of song where the more you listen, the more it confuses you and leaves you begging for more.  Sometimes Dylan seems sarcastic when he sings “the only thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long”.  Other times it’s seems like a lament.   (Though for me the definitive version is the guitar only version found on Tell Tale Signs.)

“High Water (For Charley Patton)” continues a theme about floods that Dylan would also explore on Modern Times.  Driven by a banjo, the songs and its lyrics sound like it could be included on The Harry Smith anthology.  Again, the song gains more poignancy as natural disasters seems to engulf the midwest with increased frequency.  Some of the lyrics are also taken from Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” – but for Dylan its not theft.  (Perhaps that might be the reason why the album’s title is in quotes.)  He’s aligning himself with his legends – and bringing these legends back to life.  There’s no better homage than that.  Charley Patton would be proud.

“Love and Theft” also finds Dylan telling jokes and being downright silly – there’s  a whole song devoted to a conversation between Tweedle Dum & Tweedle Dee (though Dylan refers to them as “Tweedlee Dum and Tweedlee Dee”).  Elsewhere, he tells corny jokes – “I’m sitting on my watch so I can be on time” and knock-knock jokes (“Po’Boy”).

“Love and Theft” doesn’t contain any major statements about the world, or ruminations on death.  Instead, “Love and Theft” is the album where Bob Dylan truly merges everything that’s ever been on his mind – literature (there’s a reference a Othello), blues, jokes, Americana, and love.   It might not be as mind-blowing or influential as Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde, but you could also argue the case that it’s just as good.

Absolutely essential for any music fan.

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The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 1. The White Stripes

In 1973 the critically hated band Grand Funk Railroad claimed themselves to be “An American Band”.  But few bands are as strictly American as The White Stripes.  The ghosts of Son House, Robert Johnson, and Blind Willie McTell  live in Jack White’s basement.  Using old blues records and folk songs as a template, The White Stripes created some of the most authentic and engaging music to come out in decades.  Add to that they came from Detroit, perhaps popular music’s most important city.  It’s a city known for its blues artists in the 50s and 60s, and helped popularize Black Music with Motown in the 1960s, and conceived punk-rock with The Stooges and The MC5.  The White Stripes have almost exclusively ignored musical trends since the end of the 1960s, an era when Detroit seemed to fall out of favor with the music public.

Even as they’ve dug up the past, The White Stripes live in a world that very few artists have.  It’s a world that isn’t defined by time.  While Elephant and White Blood Cells they could easily  exist in the 50s just as they do in our age.  Just like The Basement Tapes, The White Stripes looked to Americana for inspiration, but in the process created their own version.

Crucial to their own version of Americana, is The White Stripes’ own myth-making.  It may seem silly in the age of information for Jack and Meg to insist on being siblings when in fact they were really married at one point.  But like their heroes, they created personas of themselves directly linking themselves to the past, even going so far as to change their names.  Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play guitar. In In the early stages of his career Bob Dylan (another of White’s heroes) created the illusion that he was actually a ho-bo to make himself seem more authentic in the burgeoning folk-scene.  In “Ball and Biscuit”, White refers himself to “the 7th son” – a folklore concept in which the 7th son is given special powers due to his birth order.  It’s no coincidence that White makes this declaration in a seven minute showcase for his fiery guitar freak-outs.  By making such claims, The White Stripes are securing their place in American culture, right alongside other legendary artists.

But it’s really the music where The Stripes establish their credibility.  It’s a primitive and primal crunch, that has to be made two people.  Adding another instrument of person would take away from the rawness that harkens back to the blues records.  There’s a reason why they only recorded with vintage guitars and equipment.  It’s not just because they prefer that particular sound.  Anything else, would make them just another blues band, instead of blues purists.

That sound, while if not wholly original, must have been a shock to casual radio fans who weren’t familiar with the likes of Son House and others.  In era where everything on rock radio seemed homogenized, “Fell in Love With a Girl” was a blast of fresh air.  Not since “Blitzkrieg Bop” have two minutes sounded so exciting and fresh.  “Fell In Love With a Girl” helped established The White Stripes as a new voice in rock and roll to the mainstream (even though they had been receiving critical attention for a while), but it was really “Seven Nation Army” and Elephant that saw them conquer the world.

With that famous “bass riff”, Seven Nation Army”, has got to be one of the weirdest songs to grace radio in years.  The whole song is built around a variation of the same chord, and there’s no chorus. While some detractors have claimed that Meg White as a terrible drummer, no other drummer would have sounded right for this song.  White has claimed the title came from a childhood mispronunciation of “salvation army”, but the magic number 7 pops up again.

The White Stripes’ popularity suddenly make it possible for younger bands to realize that they didn’t have to be pigeon-holed by a particular sound.  Over the last decade, there has been a surplus in bands that just contains two members, or omit a bass player – The Black Keys and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, being the most prominent.  Numerous unsigned and local bands have also taking the cue as well.  But trying to be authentic, The White Stripes have helped create a rock revolution not seen since the punk-era or grunge.

As significant as their influence on younger bands is, The White Stripes remain legendary because they’ve established themselves as part of American culture in a way that few artists have.  The White Stripes could never keep going, because Jack White is always on the move – always between two places, never staying in the same place once.  Since their break-up they’ve truly managed to become what they’ve always wanted – artists that existed for a time, but never part of a particular time.

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Life, Darkness & Bruce Springsteen

For years, I didn’t like Bruce Springsteen.  I couldn’t stand “Born to Run”.  Every time the song came on the classic rock station I listened to in high school, I turned to another station.  His songs were everywhere, and his “every man” persona annoyed me.  In college, I was getting into Bob Dylan.  As an English major, his literary allusions appealed to me.  I wanted songs rich in metaphor, songs like puzzles.  One Christmas my older brother gave his wife Tracks, the boxed set of Springsteen’s unreleased tracks.  On the cover, Springsteen was sprawled across the floor with a glum look on his face  An expression that seemed to not only ask for sympathy, but demand it.  God, he even looked like he’d be annoying in person.

I finally came around to Springsteen a few years later when I bought a copy of The Wild The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle for about 5 dollars.  I’m not sure what possessed me to buy it, but it certainly wasn’t anything like I was expecting.  Compared to Born to Run, Born in the U.S.A., it sounded fun and lively.  Taking a risk and just driving away, a theme present through much of Springsteen’s work  never sounded as glorious and ridiculous as it did on “Rosalita”.

A little while later, I bought Darkness On The Edge Of Town for another 5 dollars.  I knew little about the album (though the title alone should have been a clue) and decided to give in a chance.  I didn’t particularly like it at first – it was too depressing.  At a party, I told a friend who was as a huge as Springsteen fan as you can get, which albums I had.  “Those are two random albums to have,” He told me in shock.  “You don’t have Born to Run or Born in the U.S.A.?”  A couple of Springsteen fans chimed in, and it was concluded that I randomly picked up his best album without even knowing it.

Flash forward about 7 years later, and Darkness is not only one of my favorite albums, but Springsteen is one of my favorite artists.  But what is it about Darkness that appeals to so many people?  Why do fans constantly rank this album above critically acclaimed masterpieces(Born to Run) or his blockbuster smashes (Born in the U.S.A.)?

Darkness represents the disappointment and disillusionment of the American Dream in a way no other album has. Born To Run showed the possibilities – the open road, the fantasy girls, the myth-making.  It was even there in the music – the songs were big and full of production.  Springsteen famously labored over the song “Born to Run” for months, and added dozens of over-dubs to make it great and bring his vision to the world.  Rock and roll as salvation.  That album was musical proof that if you worked hard enough you could achieve fame and fortune.  You could achieve the American Dream.  All you need is a guitar, honesty and a work ethic and you’d be set.

Darkness, on the other shows what happens when that dream is taken from you in front on your eyes.  There are no grand gestures on Darkness. It’s a lean, tightly constructed album without excess.  Even the cover was a stark contrast to the iconic sleeve of Born to Run -which had Springsteen leaning on the back of Clarence Clemons.  Here were two friends sticking together and yearning for their piece of musical glory.  On Darkness, Springsteen’s eyes are icy cold – filled with sadness.  He’s done with the rock star thing – he wears a hoodie, and is hiding behind the closed blind.

The story behind the making of Darkness has reached legendary proportions – the legal disputes, the 3 year gap between about albums.  This coming week, the audience finally gets to close a chapter on Darkness with the release of the The Darkness On The Edge Of Town boxed set.  The remastered album and the live DVDs will surely be excited, but it is the inclusion of The Promise, a set out-takes that Springsteen wrote and recorded as he was making what would become Darkness that really has fans excited.

No doubt it will be good.  But I’m not sure if it will be the great lost Springsteen album, like Dylan’s Basement Tapes.  I say that because Springsteen specifically put songs on Darkness that spoke to the human condition.  It’s very likely that The Promise won’t be there.  Perhaps if we didn’t know the back-story, these songs might mean something more.  But sandwiched between two great albums that speak different facets of life it might be hard to judge these songs any other way.

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