Tag Archives: Robert Johnson

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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10 Glaring Omissions From The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame

The rock and roll hall of fame is known for excluding numerous bands and artists over the years.  Here’s a list (in no particular order) of artists that are eligible, but currently not in the hall of fame.

Joy Division

With just two albums Joy Division influenced generations of artists from the early U2 records to The Killers.  Emerging from the punk scene, they were one of the first groups of that era to take the lo-fi esthetic of punk and emphasize mood and texture rather than sheer energy and bombast.  Ian Curtis’ cold baritone and lyrical fascination with isolation and despair  was a perfect mix for the icy, atmospheric music found throughout Unknown Pleasures and Closer.   And no matter what you think of the genre, it’s hard to think of Emo existing without Joy Division.

Television

Television more or less invented post-punk taking cues from the Velvet Underground.  even though they began their career just as the punk scene was beginning to explode in New York City in the mid 70s.  Guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd circumvented the traditional roles of lead and rhythm guitar, specifically on such songs as “Marquee Moon”, which often led the rhythm section of Fred Smith and Billy Ficca to anchor the songs.  What’s even more profound is the lack of blues influences, which even the more avant-garde and wild groups (like The Velvet Underground) had used as a blue-print.  While U2’s The Edge gets most of the credit to popular audiences for the extensive use of delay pedals, Verlaine was perhaps the first to really explore it.

Brian Eno

To many Brian Eno is just the guy who worked with U2, David Bowie and Coldplay.  As a producer and a member of Roxy Music, he certainly deserves recognition, but his solo albums have proved to be extremely influential as well helping to popularize minimalism.  Eno is often credited with coining the term (and also creating) “ambient music” – low volume music which is meant to change the listener’s perception of the environment around them.  His collaboration with David Byrne  1981’s My Life in the Bushes was one of the first records with extensive use of sampling.

Gram Parsons

There are so many alt-country artists on the scene, that it can sometimes be hard to distinguish what exactly constitutes the term.  But Gram Parsons was a true pioneer.  He welded together his love for traditional Country & Western into the emerging rock scene in a way that was not only groundbreaking, but also respectful to its original source. Country-rock never sounded as glorious as it does on GP and Grievous Angel.  While Parsons never had huge success, his influence can be felt on many records by The Rolling Stones, The Black Crowes, Ryan Adams and Wilco among countless others.

Toots and the Maytals

Bob Marley is more universally known, why omit Toots and the Maytals, one of the key artists in reggae?  They might not have had the big names songs that the wanna-be white dude with dreads plays in his dorm, but they might be more consistent.   The band had some of the best harmonies found in reggae, particularly on such as “Sweet and Dandy” the immortal “Pressure Drop”.  It also doesn’t hurt that Toots Hibbert has often been called a Jamaican Otis Redding for his soulful, tender vocals.

Emylou Harris

Emylou Harris has one of the best voices in rock and country music that is gut-renching and aching as it beautiful and angelic. So it’s no wonder she has been a go-to back up singer for artists such as Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Warren Zevon, John Denver, and Ryan Adams among others.  Like her mentor Gram Parsons, Emylou Harris helped make traditional country cool for a rock audience.  And like many of those artists, Harris has a restless musical soul with consistently great records (Elite Hotel and Luxury Liner in particular).

Son House (Early Influence)

Thankfully the Rock Hall inducts early influences from artists who pre-dated rock and roll.  If you can include Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker and Lead Belly where the hell is Son House? Torn between his spiritual upbringing (he grew up wanting to be a preacher) and the secular and profane delta music, Son House embodied the Blues like no one else before or since.  Son House’s rhythms provided blueprint for hundreds of artists Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson to most recently The White Stripes.

The Faces

While The Faces aren’t as well known (or influential) as The Rolling Stones, they’re torn from the same cloth.  If you want dirty, sloppy rock and roll for a bad-ass party, The Faces are an essential soundtrack.  And like The Stones, you can feel the sweat and sheer joy from the performance. It’s hard not to want to get up and dance when listening to songs like “Stay With Me” and “Too Bad”.  A Nod Is As Good as a Wink To a Dead House is an undisputed classic in straight-up rock and roll boogie.  It’s also proof that, despite his cheesiness now, Rod Stewart was once pretty fantastic.

The Smiths

If you can include R.E.M. in the Rock Hall, you also have to include their British contemporaries, The Smiths.  Like Peter Buck, The Smith’s guitarist Johnny Marr favored a clear ringing style of guitar that was under-stated but brilliant.  The Smiths’ jangled, melodic, alternative rock with Morrisey’s articulate and literate crooning style was a direct anthesis to the synth-pop that was over-taking the British music scene at the time.   Like Joy Division, The Smiths had a huge influence on Emo, providing the soundtrack for many alienated and confused teenagers.

Harry Smith (Non-performer)

It’s hard to over-estimate the importance of The Anthology of Folk American Folk Music (aka The Harry Smith Anthology).  Prior to this collection, many of these recordings would otherwise go unnoticed and be lost in time.  The Blues, Folk and Bluesgrass music culled from Depression-Era America, directly resulted in the Folk-Revival off the late 50s and early 60s.  Simply put, without Smith’s archival the Coffeehouse perfomances in Greenwich Village probably wouldn’t have existed.  And who can imagine music without that?

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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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Goodbye Borders

Not that it really comes as a surprise, but Borders announced its Chapter 11 Bankruptcy and plans to close 30% of its stores.  The digital age has already taken its toll on the record industry, and now bookstores are beginning to feel the heat as well, since e-books the literary equivalent of an Ipod.

Before I moving to Baltimore, Borders was essentially the only place where there was a large selection of CDS.  It was either that or Best Buy.  But Best Buy didn’t have the back catalogues of most of their artists, and they also only displayed artists with track records of moving copies.  It was also one of the few places that I was allowed to drive to by myself when I was in high school.

I would spend hours at a time just browsing through the CDs making mental notes of which artists I needed to eventually check out.  Borders was also one of the first places I remember that had a listening station for new CDs.  Usually the description of the album was off-base, but at least you were able to actually hear what you were about to purchase.  Many of my favorite albums were purchased from Borders – London Calling, Sticky FingersZiggy StardustRaw Power, several Pearl Jam bootlegs, etc.  The bargain bin (selected albums were $7.99) was also my first introduction to Sam Cooke and Ray Charles.

When I wasn’t looking at the CDs, I would wander off to the music book section and read through many of the rock encyclopedias, and memoirs.  If you’re ever wondering where most of my knowledge of artists comes from – it’s a direct result of that.  At the time, I desperately wanted to be a rock critic (still do actually) and I figured the best way to do that would be to study up on the subject.  Before I listened to Iggy Pop, I knew of his affection for peanut-butter on stage.  It was in a Borders’ chair that I first learned about the legend of Robert Johnson making a deal with the Devil at the crossroads.

Because I was there so often, many of the cashiers knew me.  When I went to purchase a copy of The Velvet Undeground & Nico , the girl at the counter seemed genuinely interested – she had never heard of them before. When I explained to her what they sounded like – shocker – she didn’t seem as interested in anymore.

Since moving to Baltimore, I hardly ever go to Borders – Soundgarden is about two miles away from my apartment – but whenever I go back to visit my parents I almost always stop by.  The last few times I’ve been have been extremely depressing.  The CD section has all but been taken away.  There are no more back catalogues of artists – shit, even Target has a better selection of artists and albums these days.

I haven’t listened to it in a while, but perhaps I’ll break out my copy of Quadrophenia tonight.  It was one of the first albums I purchased at Borders.

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