Wednesday, May 25, 2011

David Bazan - Strange Negotiations

My review of the new David Bazan album Strange Negotiations, at Paste.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Dylan at 75

New York, NY -- Feb. 17, 2016

Bob Dylan's 115th studio album It Doesn't Feeeeel At All Anymore will be released to coincide with the venerable musician's 75th birthday, on May 24th, 2016. Mr. Dylan, now confined to his nursing home bed except for seventy to eighty smoke breaks during the day, recorded the album over the course of several months last summer and fall. The unique circumstances of the recording sessions (e.g., the need to stop for oxygen intake roughly every thirty seconds) contributed to what longtime Dylan apologist Clinton Heylin refers to as the "breathless" quality of the music. "He can barely mumble anymore," Heylin says, "and when he's got a bit of oxygen in him, he tries to squeeze in as many words as he can. It's almost impossible to understand him, very much like the amphetamine-fueled days of the '66 tour." The twelve tracks, split between eight covers and four original compositions, reflect Dylan's ongoing obsessions with mortality, spirituality, and young women.

Track List

1. Hand Me Down My Walking Cane
2. Don't Get Around Much Anymore
3. Positively Mayo Clinic*
4. It Was a Very Good Year
5. Bad Girls
6. Bingo With a Bimbo*
7. My Generation
8. The Way We Were
9. Silver Threads Among the Gold
10. Idiot Anesthesiologist*
11. Hey Nineteen
12. Last Night I Dreamed of an Erection*

* = New Dylan composition

Dylan at 70

So it’s been five years since I did this. And now Bob Dylan is 70, an unseemly age at which rock ‘n rollers need to seriously consider a future involving adult diapers and pureed food. “How terribly strange to be 70,” Paul Simon once sang, and he was right. He’s only got a couple months to go now, too. You keep waking up in the morning, and before you know it, it happens.

In the intervening five years Bob Dylan has, with characteristic implausibility, released a lot of music. Some of it is old (the historic Newport Folk Festival recordings from ’63 to ’65, the superb collection of outtakes and alternate song versions called Tell Tale Signs, the oft-bootlegged Witmark Demos, and a ’63 concert recording from Brandeis University). Some of it is new (the ridiculously great Modern Times, the mediocre Together Through Life, and the merely ridiculous Christmas in the Heart).

He’s kind of set in his ways now, so you get the feeling that the utter unpredictability of the man and his work is probably not going to change. He is, without a doubt, the greatest songwriter and the single greatest presence in the history of what could loosely be construed as rock ‘n roll. But the fact is that rock ‘n roll has never been big enough to encompass what this man does, which ranges from Delta blues to hallucinatory poetry to honky-tonk jukebox anthems to gentle folk to schmaltzy MOR, complete with sappy strings and heavenly host choir accompaniment. And that’s just in the last five years.

At some point he will probably stop making music. But he’ll go out with his boots on and his harmonica rack strapped to his guitar, and the Neverending Tour will have to be cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances. I hope that’s a long, long way off. Happy birthday, Bob. His biography at All Music Guide starts off with “Bob Dylan’s influence on popular music is incalculable.” That’s correct, and I won’t even begin to try to tote it up. But I’ll still marvel at what the man has done, and is doing. He won’t care about that, or about anything else written or said about him. He will go on being Bob Dylan. I suspect that’s part of the reason why we love him.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Friday, May 20, 2011

Every Picture Tells a Story

Forty years ago this week Every Picture Tells a Story arrived on American shores. It was Rod Stewart’s third solo album, but nobody was really counting at the time. That’s because Rod Stewart was everywhere in 1971, and his albums with his superb band Faces were rivaling those of The Rolling Stones as the best that rock ‘n roll could offer.

For anyone who knows Rod Stewart only from his cheesy pop ballads (“Tonight’s the Night,” “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”) and his incessantly bland covers of the songs of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin, it may come as something of a shock to know that at one point he was the greatest rock ‘n roll singer in the world. But he was. He proved it on this album, where he took a bunch of old and decidedly placid folk, country, and R&B songs, and simply rocked the shit out of them. The fact that he did this with fiddles, pedal steel, acoustic guitars, and mandolins as lead instruments (and, okay, the world’s most primitive drummer in Micky Waller) is all the more remarkable.

There are a few exemplary Stewart originals here – “Mandolin Wind,” the title track, and, of course, “Maggie May.” But it’s the covers that still astound me. Whether obscure (Ted Anderson, anyone?) or blazingly obvious (Bob Dylan, Elvis, The Temptations), Rod’s covers on this album remain the definitive versions of these songs. There are eight songs here, spread out over about forty-five minutes. Okay, so Rod had yet to figure out how to write a catchy three-minute single (and I, for one, am never going to forgive him “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” in spite of its admirable brevity). So he left a lot of room for the band to jam. Good thing, too, or we would have never heard Ronnie Wood’s finest six minutes as a guitarist on the title track, or Lindisfarne’s Ray Jackson play those poignant mandolin codas on “Maggie May” or “Mandolin Wind.” What we have here is as close to a perfect album as the seventies produced. If you’ve never heard it, do yourself a favor and discover one of the classics.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Nelsonville Music Fest, 2011

Nelsonville, Ohio doesn't have much going for it. There used to be a shoe factory in town, but it closed up shop a long time ago. Now 10,000 people hang out and don't do much of anything. There isn't much w0rk outside of the fast-food restaurants and gas stations. The more enterprising citizens run meth labs out on the Back 40, and there's plenty of open spaces right outside of town to raise illegal cash crops to sell to the college kids in Athens, 15 miles down the road. And that's about it.

Or was about it, until about ten years ago. That's when a couple idealistic entrepreneurs bought an old, abandoned opera house in the center of town, refurbished it, and started bringing in national music acts. People trekked down from Columbus, 60 miles north. People trekked up from Athens, 15 miles south. It's not exactly a rags-to-riches story, but they made enough cash to do something truly audacious: start a major music festival out in the middle of nowhere, in the Appalachian foothills where nobody with any sense ever stops.

That was seven years ago. And it's taken off, sort of. By that I mean the musical acts have gotten bigger, the scope has gotten grander, and the three days in mid-May that it all goes down are the musical highlight of the year for quite a few people. But this isn't Bonnaroo or Coachella, where you can watch your favorite band from half a mile away. This is Nelsonville, Ohio, where 5,000 people show up, maybe 10,000 if the weather is nice, where you can cozy right up to the stage, and where you're liable to run into Willie Nelson or Loretta Lynn strolling the grounds. For some of us, it's just about the best music event in the world.

It's happening again, starting Friday afternoon and extending through Sunday evening. That's Sharon Jones and her Dap Kings up there to the left, who put on one hell of a show last year. Sharon won't be there this year, but here's who'll show up:

Yo La Tengo
Wanda Jackson
Justin Townes Earle
Over The Rhine
Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger
Lost in the Trees
Bomba Estereo
Mucca Pazza
The Growlers
Michael Hurley
Drakkar Sauna
Doug Paisley
Ned Oldham & Old Calf
Baby Dee
Y La Bamba
Cheyenne Marie Mize
Southeast Engine
The Honeycutters
Samantha Crain
The Spikedrivers
Sgt. Dunbar & The Hobo Banned
Nick Tolford and Co.
Mount Carmel
Wheels On Fire
Black Owls
She Bears
The Black Swans
Hex Net
Octopus & Owl
Duke Junior + The Smokey Boots
Whale Zombie
Jerry DeCicca
Eve Searls
Shelby Carter
Jess & Kyle
Zeb Dewar
Bruce Dalzell
Todd Burge
Chris Biester
Matt Moore
The Lovesick Blues
Seth Riddlebarger
Bill Wagner & Brett Burleson
Flyaway Saturn
Elemental Revolver

That deck is stacked, but clearly the aces are on top. Most people will come for The Flaming Lips, and that's fine. If it brings people to Nelsonville, Ohio, I'm for it. Personally, I'm most excited about George Jones (who will, I trust, show up) and Neko Case. I look forward to seeing rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson and indie stalwarts Yo La Tengo for the first time, and Justin Townes Earle and Over the Rhine for the umpteenth time. Some of those folks farther down the list make me pretty happy, too. Michael Hurley is a freak-folk original, a guy who's been writing wonderful and bizarre songs since the '60s. Drakkar Sauna recorded an album of Louvin Brothers covers a few years back that I thought was just swell. Doug Paisley is a Nashville renegage who writes literate, thoughtful, and wryly humorous country songs. I've already told my kids we need to get on the road early Saturday so we can catch Baby Dee. Baby Dee used to be a he, is now a she, and writes some of the most transparently beautiful piano ballads you will ever hear. My longtime buddies and Athens favorites Southeast Engine are playing Saturday afternoon, right on the heels of their new album that has received ecstatic reviews almost everywhere. I can't wait to see them. Jerry DeCicca and his fine Columbus country-noir band Black Swans are playing separately and together. Eve Searls, who I've only encountered in her fine band Super Desserts, is apparently playing a solo set. Oklahoma singer/songwriter Samantha Crain, whose 2009 album Songs in the Night knocked me flat, is playing a solo set. And my buddy Professor Josh Antonuccio, who doubles as an extraordinary music producer, is playing with his band Scubadog.

There is so much to see and hear. Couple that with anticipated reunions with lots of friends I haven't seen in a while, and a chance to spend three days with my daughters, both back home, albeit momentarily, from farflung universities, and you have the makings of one fine extended weekend. I suppose it's also worth mentioning that this is the biggest bargain in the music world. Three days of non-stop music will set you back a whopping $70. You should come. You won't regret it.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Okkervil River -- I Am Very Far

Here's my Paste review of the new Okkervil River album I Am Very Far, one of the highlights of this still-young musical year.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Poems, Never Read

Butcher knives and flowers. Poems, Never Read, at the Image Journal.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The Kick in the Crotch

My immediate reaction when I heard the news this morning was relief. Good. Good riddance. And I still believe that. But I didn't, and don't, feel like celebrating. Within about fifteen seconds my mind had turned to thoughts of, "Hmm, I wonder where the terrorists will strike next?" Because they will. We destroyed the figurehead of an insidious movement, but we have not destroyed the movement. And all the gloating, all the flag-waving, will do nothing but further incite people who are bent on hating and destroying us.

I posted some MLK and biblical quotes on Facebook today not because I wanted to be preachy and santimonious, but because I actually believe them. I think Jesus' teaching about these issues is fairly clear, and I try to take those teachings seriously. I certainly understand that there is a lot of room for differing views here, but what I don't understand is how Christians can condone and celebrate a spirit of vengeance, and how they can justify and gloat about the use of, for example, waterboarding, which apparently led to some of the information that resulted in bin Laden's demise. I guess the ends really do justify the means. I'm not sure where I read that, but I don't think it was the Bible.

There is much that I find dispiriting, unseemly, and distasteful about the events of the past 24 hours. Celebration is fairly far from my mind. So good riddance. But let's not pretend that there's anything remotely Christian about these proceedings. I know, it's a fallen world, and idealism gets kicked in the crotch every time. But don't ask me to cheer the kick in the crotch.