Tag Archives: Rolling Stone

Late 90s Nostalgia….?


Nostalgia seems to be a buzz word these days. With the upcoming 20th Anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind, early 90s nostalgia is about to reach its apex. Even more indie-oriented bands such as the Pixies and Pavement have taken to the road in recent years. If the Rolling Stones decide to tour again, aging baby boomers will once again be taken down Nostalgia Row.

Much of the music I listen to was recorded years (and sometimes decades) before I was even born. To me, “Ruby Tuesday” and “Like a Rolling Stone” have always existed. I can’t look back and fondly remember “Behind Blue Eyes” playing in the background as I made out with my first girlfriend.

I was too young for Nirvana and Pearl Jam, though I remember them playing in the background as a kid. As a teenager, the artist that should have defined my generation took a completely different route. Perhaps to counter the anger of grunge, artists such as No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, and Blink 182 took a more juvenile and laid-back vibe. Even rap, in the wake of Tupac and Biggie’s deaths became flashy. There was little substance to hang onto – at least in the mainstream music world.

By the late 90s, even the bands that had once stood for something, got caught in a downward spiral. R.E.M. lost their drummer and decided to make elevator music. U2 took excess to a whole new level with the Popmart Tour. Even the “newer” bands like Weezer and Green Day who came to prominence in the mid 90s, seemed bloated and bored by the end of the decade. Who knew that those two bands would see a resurgence in the early part of the 2000s?

So it’s hard to be nostalgic about the late 90s, because even then I knew a lot of the music was a let down. Even the bands (and artists) that “defined” that time seem stuck in that era. Beck’s Odelay as great as it is, is a product of the late 90s and it doesn’t make much sense now. Radiohead’s OK Computer  in retrospect seems more like a stop-gap between their guitar heavy early days and the ambience of Kid A.

So now as Blink 182, Limp Bizkit, and No Doubt gear up for new tours and albums, I can’t help but feel a little cheated. No, not because I want to see them. But every other generation has had seminal bands that folded and re-unite. These days, Generation X has Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots. The Boomer Generation has The Stones.  Bands that actually meant something to the youth at the moment.

I’m not necessarily that these bands re-uniting for a quick cash tour are always good. I’m not necessarily sure I would go.  Instead I’m just left with “feel good bands” from the late 90s, whose party-vibes seem even more out of place as the stock markets continue to crash.

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Albums I Thought Were Terrible (But Aren’t)

 

Popmatters recently ran a piece on “Albums that Supposedly Suck (But Don’t) and it got me thinking of which albums I initially hated. Sometimes, it would take a few listens for me to warm up to the music, with other albums it took a bit of revisionist history and also a bit of perspective.

Passengers – Original Soundtracks 1

This side project by U2 and Brian Eno is one of the most confusing (and alienating) pieces of work by a major artist in the last 20 years. Larry Mullen has gone on record as stating that he absolutely hates this record with songs set to (mostly) imaginary movies. Indeed, anyone expecting an album full of the anthems U2 are known will be disappointed.It’s a mostly laid-back, atmospheric and somewhat ambient affair, the perfect soundtrack to a late-night. The songs don’t really seem to have any structure as most U2 songs do, but they reveal themselves with each subsequent listen. The obvious standouts are “Your Blue Room” which is one of U2’s most haunting ballads, and the Pavarotti collaboration “Miss Sarajevo”.  But songs like “United Colors” and “Slug” are inventive and groundbreaking anything U2 has done.

The Who – The Who By Numbers

With the exception of the pop-ditty “Squeeze Box” The Who By Numbers has mostly been forgotten about by the general public. It’s not hard to see why, as it lacks the firepower of albums like Who’s Next and Quadrophenia. Instead, Pete Townshend offers up songs about his mortality (“Blue Red and Grey”), alcoholism (“However Much I Booze”), his place in the rock world with the emergence of punk (“They’re All In Love”).  It’s certainly not as consistent as some of their earlier albums, but Townshend lyrics revealed a softer side (and more personal) that he further explored on solo albums like Empty Glass.

The Beatles – The White Album

I first this album when I was young. Even then, I knew there were great songs on it, but I couldn’t understand why the hell songs like “Rocky Raccoon” and “Wild Honey Pie” were included. The only version I had was a dubbed cassette I borrowed from my older brother. I was convinced that he must have taken these terrible songs from The Beatles Anthology and put them on the cassette as a joke. There could be no other logical explanation. In recent years, The White Album has grown to be one of my favorite Beatles’ albums. The quirky detours add to the charm of the record, and counter-balance some of Lennon’s heavier lyrics. And what other album could offer songs as majestic as “Julia” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and others as silly as “Ob-la-Di, Ob-La-Da”?

Beck – Midnite Vultures

I loved Odelay upon its release, so I quickly bought Midnite Vultures based on the bouncy and horn-heavy single, “Sexx Laws”.  I was quickly disappointed, as the rest of the album seemed to be a party album, without a party to accompany it. The songs seemed like Beck was trying to hard to be exciting, and unlike Odelay all the odd sounds annoyed the hell out me. In retrospect, Midnite Vultures is the soundtrack for the end of the party. It’s mesh of sounds while not groundbreaking makes it sound fresh and vital, and “Debra” is one of the best Prince tracks that Prince never wrote.

The Rolling Stones – Some Girls

I’ve always heard from various people that The Rolling Stones albums are almost unlistenable after Exile on Main St. While that is certainly their prime, some of their latter days are albums are quite good. I bought Some Girls after reading a positive review in a magazine. This shit didn’t sound like The Rolling Stones. Jagger’s voice was the same, but where was the classic sound? You let me down, rock writers! “Miss You” sounded like a disco song, and “Some Girls” while raunchy, was nowhere as good as “Starfucker”(aka “Star Star”.) As it turns out, I missed the point. “Some Girls” was probably the last time that The Rolling Stones could take a contemporary sound and put their own spin on it without sounding tired and out of ideas. And for the record, I now love “Miss You”.

 

 

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Clarence Clemons: A Tribute

I’ve written a lot about how Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street band captures the sounds of summer.  Much of this really has to do with Clarence Clemon’s instantly identifiable saxophone playing.  Clemons elevated Springsteen’s most classic songs into anthems of warmth and comfort perfect for afternoon sing-alongs even if the subject matter was a little bleak (see “Badlands”).  Clemons offered a fun and soulful side to the band – a perfect foil to Springsteen’s earnestness an sincerity.  The cover of Born to Run says it all – these two musicians were bonded in brotherhood and music.

“Well, I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk,” Springsteen declares mid-way through “Thunder Road”.   Even back in 1975, no one believed in the power of rock and roll like Bruce Springsteen and Clemons breaks into his famous sax solo at the end of the song, it’s the perfect embodiment of that idea.  Rock and roll can mean something.  The ending to that song is so perfect, that if the rest of the album weren’t so damn good, you’d be inclined to never listen to the rest of the album.

Without a doubt Clemons was the most famous saxophone player in rock and roll.  Who else is there?  He had no contemporaries – maybe Bobby Keys (who played saxophone on many of The Rolling Stones songs from their classic era) – because in a way, for many Clarence Clemons was the saxophone.  When you picture the instrument, you automatically envision Clemons with his lips pressed to the horn ready to wail.  To the public, he seemed to live for music.  There was always a joy in his eyes in interviews when talking about playing.  Even recent health issues couldn’t keep him from playing on the last couple of E-Street Band Tours.

I came to Springsteen late in life.  I had a few of his albums but never really “got” him until I heard the Live at the Hammersmith Odeon ’75CD.  It was the performance of “Spirit in the Night” that truly made me a Springsteen fan.   It was a wild, and chaotic treatment of the song – nearly veering out of control. (I’ve heard many version of the song played from that era, and none of them are as commanding as this one.)  Springsteen can barely contain himself as he spits out the lyrics – a song about drinking and summer love turns into something erotic and and sinister – the chanting of “all night” becomes “all damn night”.  Amidst all this chaos, Clemons playing remains grounded – holding the song together.  When it comes times for the instrumental break, Springsteen shouts, “Big Man! Woooow!” – as if there is no other option, but for Clemons to take control of the song and bring it back to some sense of normalcy.    It’s one of those performances that almost feels unreal.  How can a band be this amazing?

E-Street will never be the same without Clemons.  While Clemons was surely Springsteen’s brother in music and life, he also felt like ours as well.  Rest in peace, Big Man.  Heaven surely got a lot cooler with your saxophone playing.

 

 

 

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The Top 10 Post “Blood on the Tracks” Bob Dylan Albums: 6. Oh Mercy

Twenty 22 years after its initial release, it’s hard view Oh Mercy as the “comeback” album that critics suggested upon its initial release.  It’s certainly Dylan’s most consistent album of the 1980s, thanks in large part to the production and assistance of Daniel Lanois.   Many of Dylan’s 80s albums have been viewed as misfires due to the exclusions of certain songs that would later appear on the various Bootleg Series.  In retrospect, Oh Mercy suffers not from lack of quality songs (though why the hell “Series of Dreams” is missing is still baffling) but rather inferior versions of keys songs.

Lanois was wise to eschew the large production and big-band sound that had plagued many of Dylan’s 80s albums.  Instead, Oh Mercy offers an atmospheric swamp-type vibe that never overshadows Dylan, though something that would happen on  Time Out of Mind.    Oh Mercy, is probably the first appearance of Dylan’s modern-day smokey, weary voice.  It hasn’t fully descended into the voice of the man who wonders if he can get into heaven before the door closes, but it gives resonance to a song like “Most of the Time”.  Dylan’s gravelly voice gives extra weight as he confesses that, “most of the time she ain’t even in my mind”.  It’s a heartbreaking song, but his voice makes you believe he’s probably felt this way for over a decade.  “I don’t even care if I never see her again,” He croons at the end.  The listener feels bad, because he’s clearly lying, and he probably knows it too.

Elsewhere, Dylan gives an updated version of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with the laundry list of broken things in “Everything Is Broken”.   The lyrics aren’t shot out at 60mph, but like the iconic 1965 single, the lyrics by themselves don’t make much sense by themselves.  However, its quite effective as Dylan runs through the gamut  – “Broken bottles, broken plates, Broken switches, broken gates, Broken dishes, broken parts”. The closer, “Shooting Star” is probably my favorite song off the album, and I was first introduced to it on Bob Dylan Unplugged, which I only listened to once, and found myself absolutely loving this gorgeous song.

Oh Mercy’s acclaim has probably dimmed in years in part due to Dylan’s own renaissance in the late 90s and 2000s, but for mid-career Dylan it’s a  definite high point.

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The Top 10 Post “Blood on the Tracks” Bob Dylan Albums: 7. “Street Legal”

After the masterpieces of Blood on the Tracks and Desire, it seems inevitable that Dylan’s follow-up would dip slightly in quality.  Blood on the Tracks was a naked emotional affair, and Desire was a wild, gypsy sounding outing – the perfect studio counterpart for the Rolling Thunder Revue.  And Street Legal?  Parts of it sound like a cross between E-Street Band (there’s saxophones) and a Vegas theme-show (the first appearance of the backing singers).

Lyric-wise the album finds Dylan swimming in similar waters as the past two albums – the break-up of his marriage, and his divorce.  He’s looking for new women in his life – even if it’s just for one wild ride as suggested in “New Pony”.  “New Pony” is among the grittiest songs Dylan has recorded. Its fierce riff and pounding drums perfectly suit the menacing equestrian/sexual theme of the song.  Dylan has written many songs about sex, but “New Pony” is probably his most explicit – it almost makes the listener feel dirty.

If there was ever a song that begged for the acoustic Dylan it would be “No Time to Think”.   “No Time to Think” is 1970s Dylan in full protest mood with views on mortality.  (In a way, it’s a sort of pre-cursor to the Christian albums, which would shortly follow Street Legal).  It’s a dense song – lyrics such as ” You glance through the mirror and there’s eyes staring clear At the back of your head as you drink And there’s no time to think” would have hit harder if it weren’t for the big-band production.

Street Legal finds Dylan at a cross roads.  Throughout the album, he’s taken the yearning for lost love as far it can go.  It’s not surprising that in the year (1978) when punk rock was at its apex, Dylan would go the opposite route and put out an album full of grandiose arrangements and a full-band.  Ultimately, Street Legal can be a rewarding album on its own merits, but unlike Dylan’s best albums, the gems aren’t on the surface.

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The Top 10 Post “Blood on the Tracks” Bob Dylan Albums: 9. “Empire Burlesque”

Empire Burlesque is one of the stranger albums in Dylan’s career.  It’s full of some great songs, but it’s hard to listen to because of the glossy production. It’s clearly the product of its time, cementing it to the mid-1980s.  It’s one the most star-studded album of Dylan’s career with numerous guests including reggae rhythm legends Sly & Robbie, Mike Campbell and Howie Epstein of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, and Ronnie Wood an Mick Taylor of The Rolling Stones.

But don’t let the awful cover and production fool you.  There are some real gems here – “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love”, “Something’s Burning Baby”, and the stand-out final track, “Dark Eyes”.  Underneath the glossy sheen of the album, Dylan is fine spirits throughout whether he’s spitting out venom in “Seeing You The Real You At Last”, or lamenting the trials of a Vietnam-Vet on “Clean Cut Kid”.  “I’ll Remember You” is one of his most heartfelt ballads since Desire.  The vicious “When The Night Comes Falling From the Sky” loses it some of its lyrical power with its thick groove, and odd synthesizers fills.

“Dark Eyes” is without a doubt the best song on the album.  In an album filled with big production, it ends with Dylan only accompanied by guitar and harmonica.  It’s full on folk, and Dylan gives one of the best vocal performances of the 80s.  It’s a nakedly stark song.  Is this a nod to “Desolation Row” which was the only acoustic song on the electric-fueled “Highway 61”.  You never know with Dylan.

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The Top 10 Post “Blood on the Tracks” Bob Dylan Albums – 10. Slow Train Coming

Since Bob Dylan turns 70 next week, and countless blogs and magazines have been having tributes and lists,(Rolling Stone recently ranked “The 70 Greatest Dylan Songs”) I’ve decided to look take a look at Dylan’s latter-day career.  Almost every single acclaimed album since 1975 (in one way or another) has been ranked according to “his best since ‘Blood on the Tracks'”.  

Slow Train Coming

Slow Train Coming receives a fair of criticism for being Dylan’s first “Christian Album”.  I admit to having only listened to “Gotta Serve Somebody” from this album as it was included on The Essential Bob Dylan.  When you listen to Dylan, preaching isn’t necessarily something you want to hear.

U2’s Bono has often been quote as suggested that his favorite songwriters are either running towards God or running away from God.  Bono  surely must have been listening to “Slow Train Coming”, especially “I Believe in You” a hymn to the Almighty disguised as a love song. Surely, this must have been a template for many U2 songs in the same vein such as “Mysterious Ways”.   Dylan, of course had spent a good deal of years running away from God, even as he occasionally used the Bible as a source of literary inspiration.

On Slow Train Coming, the Bible is the main source of inspiration, but the surrealistic imagery from  “Gates of Eden” is replaced by taught evangelical lyrics.  It also retains quite a bit of the anger old, just with a new vision.  that  Still, there’s plenty of good songs to be found throughout the album.  “Slow Train” awakens the ghost and apocalyptic visions of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”.   It’s just more specific in its targets and also denounces secular  science and world issues- “I don’t care about economy, I don’t care about astronomy”.  He’s just worried about his love ones “turning into puppets”.

Slow Train isn’t all fire an brimstone though.  There’s some humor throughout, particularly on “Man Gave Names To All the Animals” which finds man giving monikers to different animals based on their attributes. Dylan’s famous non-verbal “ahhhhh” returns in this song as well.  It’s not scornful as in “Like a Rolling Stone”, but rather enlightened – “ah, I think I’ll call it a bear”.

Slow Train Coming also boasts a rather bluesy feel to it due to Jerry Wexler’s production, and there’s some great guitar work courtesy of Mark Knopfler. Musically, it kind undercuts some of Dylan’s lyrics, which depending on your point of view, may or may not be a goo thing.

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