Monday, October 29, 2007

Coheed and Cambria, I'm Not There Soundtrack, John Fogerty

Coheed and Cambria – No World for Tomorrow

There are concept albums, and then there are meta-concept musical careers. NYC’s Coheed and Cambria are now four albums into an ongoing saga about something or other, revisiting musical motifs and lyrical themes that all vaguely seem to tie in to Rush’s 2112 and dystopian visions of a dark future. Be very afraid. To their credit, these guys have the prog-rock chops to pull it off, and lead singer/songwriter Claudio Sanchez has clearly absorbed some valuable histrionics lessons at the Shrine of St. Geddy Lee. But for better or worse, this music makes me want to go hibernate in the basement and play Dungeons and Dragons, not shower for days, and subsist on Mountain Dew and Cheetos. It’s best if I pass. My wife agrees.

Various Artists – I’m Not There Soundtrack

About fifteen years ago one of my friends, an avid Dylan collector, sent me eight ninety-minute cassette tapes chock full of Dylan covers. They ranged from the obvious (The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix) to the painfully obscure (Joey Powers, Moose), from the sublime (Johnny Winter, Van Morrison) to the ridiculous (Mae West, Lawrence Welk, William Shatner). I didn’t realize at the time that that was just the tip of Quinn the Eskimo’s iceberg. To give you some idea of the magnitude of the issue, The Bob Dylan Covers website currently lists 5,870 unique covers of 350 Dylan songs by 2,791 artists. And the website hasn’t been updated since 2002. All of which begs the question: do we really need another 34 Dylan covers?

Thankfully, the answer is yes, as the soundtrack to Todd Haynes’ upcoming film I’m Not There readily attests. For starters, music superviser Randall Poster has assembled an indie dream team for the soundtrack, enlisting the services of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, The Hold Steady, Iron and Wine, Sonic Youth, Sufjan Stevens, Yo La Tengo, Antony and the Johnsons, Cat Power, The Black Keys, and Calexico, along with wily veterans Roger McGuinn, Willie Nelson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Richie Havens. Second, he’s mostly avoided the obvious song choices in favor of a wildly eclectic mix from throughout Dylan’s career, including several obscurities/outtakes that will be familiar to only the most diehard Dylan fans. Third, he’s involved the maestro himself, uncovering a previously unreleased Dylan and The Band Basement Tapes chestnut (the title track) to wrap up the proceedings.

Not all of it works. Callow surfer dude Jack Johnson thoroughly botches his cover of “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind.” The usually reliable Sufjan Stevens offers a woeful misreading of “Ring them Bells,” a dirge when it originally appeared on Oh Mercy, here transformed into the usual Fourth of July marching band set piece. But there are many, many delights and surprises, starting with Tweedy’s soulful reading of “Simple Twist of Fate,” Malkmus’ letter-perfect sneer on “Ballad of a Thin Man,” My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James’ and Calexico’s rootsy take on “Goin’ to Acapulco,” Sonic Youth’s spooky, feedback-drenched version of the title track, and The Hold Steady’s raucous cover of the Highway 61 Revisited outtake “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window.” The house band, featuring Television’s Tom Verlaine,Wilco’s Nels Cline, and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo on guitars, and Medeski, Martin, and Wood’s John Medeski on keyboards, is dazzlingly inventive throughout.

Like the song selection itself, Poster’s musical direction splits the difference between safe, familiar arrangements and more radical, risk-taking moments. The end result is endlessly satisfying, and will appeal to longtime Dylan fans, and a new generation of fans attracted by the indie lineup. Forty-five years down the line, the music of Bob Dylan matters more than ever. It’s gratifying to hear that musicians the age of his grandkids are onto that fact as well.

John Fogerty – Revival

John Fogerty can do anything and everything except write a decent song. His voice, one of the greatest in the history of rock ‘n roll, is still miraculously intact at 62. His swamp rock guitar work, often imitated, is still as dirty and gritty as can be. But bad things happen when he opens his mouth:

But if tomorrow everybody under the sun
Who's happy just to live as one
No borders or battles to be won
But if tomorrow everybody was your friend
Happiness would never end
Lord, don't you wish it was true

Fogerty unhappily marries the worst of sixties sunny utopianism, man, with rhymes that the Hallmark Company would have the good sense to reject. It’s a deadly combination, one that mars the otherwise excellent Revival. Fogerty namechecks his old band (and its sound) on “Creedence Song,” updates “Fortunate Son” with a new and great political screed called “Long Dark Night,” and steals the guitar riff from “Sunshine of Your Love” on “Summer of Love,” giving the aging hippies two nostalgic thrills for the price of one. All of which is fine, or would be fine, if the lyrics weren’t so hamfisted and inarticulate. Once upon a time Fogerty’s songwriting could be considered bracingly straightforward. Now it seems merely straightforwardly awkward. I dreamed John’s rhymes still sounded new. Don’t you wish it was true? Lord, I surely do. I bet you do too.

6 comments:

Chad Parmenter said...

Andy, I've been working on an article for Poets & Writers, and your journalistic style has been a great guide for me. Thanks so much.

Andy Whitman said...

Chad, you're welcome. I'm glad that my writing has been helpful for you.

megan said...

Andy,
Just got back from leaving work to run to Barnes and Noble to pick up I'm not there as it was released today and I'm OCD when it comes to Dylan. LOVED the first two songs so far, so I came in to read your review. I remember you saying you were going to review it this weekend. So glad to hear it was worth a trip out from NW to go pick it up! I plan on listening to it the rest of the afternoon.

The Night Watchman said...

~

Come on now Andy.

Fogerty's lyrics aren't as bad as some of Morrison's greatest stinking sinkers.

'There's a killer on the road/ His brain is squirming like a toad'

But at the very least Jimbo was right about, People are strange...

The Night Watchman at/
Fogerty’s Funky Funny Farm

~

Andy Whitman said...

You know what, Night Watchman? I agree with you. But that's not saying much, because I think Jim Morrison is the most overrated "poet" ever to light anybody's fire.

I like John Fogerty. He's one of my rock 'n roll heroes. I just wish he wrote better lyrics than he does.

J. Lincoln Hurst said...

Andy, have you heard the song that Joe Henry recorded for the I'm Not There album? It got cut at the last minute, which is unfortunate-- it would have been a highlight of an all-around excellent album. He does "One Too Many Mornings," and it's a thing of beauty.