Saturday, April 27, 2013

ALBUM REVIEW: Bob Dylan's "Blood On The Tracks", Part 1: Tangled Up In Blue

Cover of "Blood on the Tracks"
Blood on the Tracks
by Garrett Sawyer

Some critics have hailed Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" as his best album. And with good reason.

The album is a raw mix of personal anguish, fantasy and poetry gushing out in an abundance of terrific melodies.

The album was not his best-selling one; "Greatest Hits", "Greatest Hits - Vol. II", and "Desire" all sold more but as an artistic achievement only "Highway 61 Revisited" was undeniably better.

Let's go through the songs in order:

Tangled Up In Blue

This rambling seven-verse epic is a road song/love song that has as many twists and turns as a slalom.

Written in the summer of 1974 at a farm he had just bought in Minnesota it examines a fictional relationship that comes together, breaks apart, comes together again much later and then finally breaks apart a second time, still with eventual hope of reconciliation.

When he sings, "She was married when we first met, soon to be divorced" this is an accurate description of his first encounter with his future wife, Sara Lownds. When they met she was already married and the mother of a daughter.

On stage Dylan has occasionally introduced this song about the ups and downs of his subsequent marriage to Sara by telling the audience it took "10 years to live and 2 years to write."

As part of their 1977 divorce settlement, Sara got half the royalties from the songs Dylan wrote while they were married ... "tangled up in blue" included.

While most of the references in the song are pure fantasy, some of them are quite real. There really is a "Montague Street" in an upscale section of Brooklyn which had a music venue named "Capulet's" (recall Shakespeare's Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet) that Dylan sometimes frequented.

The allusion to "an Italian poet from the fifteenth century" may sound ambiguous at first but the explanation is there were two versions of this song recorded: the first in New York then subsequently in Minnesota.

The Minnesota version was the one used on the album. But in the previous New York version the lyric was originally "thirteenth century" a clear reference to the Italian poet Dante.

From the lines, "All the people we used to know they're an illusion to me now" we get the impression that the breakup of their relationship felt surreal to him. The song ends with a frank confession "We always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view, tangled up in blue."

Despite his legendary career Dylan never hit the charts as frequently as artists/bands with comparable influence such as the Beatles, Elvis and the Rolling Stones. "Tangled up in blue" was a happy exception, poking its way into Billboard's Top 40 in March of 1975.

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Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Story Behind Simon And Garfunkel's Songs: "Richard Cory" With A Twist

by Garrett Sawyer

OK, you're Paul Simon. You and Art Garfunkel have become an overnight sensation when your song "The Sound of Silence" became a number one hit on Billboard without your even knowing that it had been re-recorded and re-released.
The Definitive Simon & Garfunkel
The Definitive Simon & Garfunkel (Wikipedia)

You've hurried back from England to reunite with your partner and rush to the studio to record some more songs so that your new smash can be made into an album.

Problem: you need more songs. Solution? You use some songs that you've had stored up.

And you write a couple more, like "Richard Cory."

Most people don't know it but Simon was an English major at Queens College, obtaining a degree in English literature (even fewer know that he briefly attended the Brooklyn Law School).

So it's only natural he would reach into his knowledge of poetry to help him come up with material for the album they were hastily putting together.

Given that Simon's audience was in the process of becoming disenchanted with the Vietnam War and distrustful of the "Establishment", the wealthy, and the elder generation it's only natural that he would choose the Edward Arlington Robinson poem "Richard Cory".

Written during the depression that followed the Panic of 1893 it portrays a man who seems to have it all: wealth, education, manners, and the admiration of all those around him.

And those who envy him haven't enough money for meat and cursed the bread they did have (many were forced to live on day-old bread in those depression years). But despite all this success Cory calmly goes home one day and commits suicide with a gun.

The reader is compelled to see that all Cory's advantages didn't matter and that he lacked something essential.

Maybe it was the senselessness of excessive wealth (consider the Book of Ecclesiastes "All is vanity and a striving after wind"). Maybe it was loneliness. Maybe it was boredom or depression. We don't know ... but we're challenged to ask.

Simon, using his English literature experience, brought "Richard Cory" into the 20th Century. It begins the same way, although Simon embellished it a bit. Cory isn't just rich, he "owns one half of this whole town".

He's so wealthy he can lavishly give to charity. He knows all the right people. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the pampered only son of a rich banker.

The press follow his every move like a latter-day paparazzi. For his amusement he throws unbelievable parties and indulges in orgies. Yet he still commits suicide with a gun.

And the singer of the song? He works in Cory's factory, hungry and poor, furious at fate for his poverty, bitterly envious of his "boss". But unlike the poem the singer seems to have a death wish because he still wishes he were Cory even after Cory has killed himself.

So there you have it. Alienation personified. Folk-rock with an agenda. And a 19th century poem moved forward into the rebellious '60's and given an O. Henry style curveball at the end.

Simon and Garfunkel's album "The Sound of Silence" began side one with the title song and side two with "Richard Cory", a terrific match.

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Saturday, April 13, 2013

Classic Rock: The Groundbreakers

English: Led Zeppelin, January 1975, Chicago
Led Zeppelin, January 1975, Chicago (Wikipedia)
by Michael Pickett

With the enduring popularity and classic status of bands like The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Rush and others, we sometimes lose sight of how groundbreaking these bands were when they first hit the airwaves and stereos of music fans decades ago.

Having just seen the huge splash of acts like Elvis, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, The Beatles were something of a groundbreaking act back in the early 1960s.

They had harmonies, they played their own instruments, and their songwriting was superb.

Previously, artists were recording songs mandated by their record companies or even covering established hits. The Beatles were one of the first acts to write and record their own original material (and actually have huge hits come on the heals of this unheard of activity).

Just a few years later, The Who took the mod look and their edgier pop sound and began to add heavier elements to their songs, recordings and performances.

Songs like 'My Generation' would give way to the crushing 'Won't Get Fooled Again' and Who performances would quickly incorporate exploding drum-kits and smashed guitars at the hands of Keith Moon and Pete Townsend.

Longer songs with intricate keyboard sequences and dynamic movements and sections started to border on the progressive.

In the meantime, bands like Cream and Led Zeppelin were also creating more intricate material with heavy, hyper-amplified rock as the underpinnings.

While Zeppelin and Cream refer to themselves as beginnings of heavy metal; darker, heavier groups like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest would end up becoming the benchmark by which all early metal was judged.

As bands like Zeppelin had hinted at elements of progressive rock, Genesis, Yes and Rush made the genre all their own. With incredibly long and convoluted songs sometimes taking up the entire side of a vinyl album, these bands not only saw less airplay, but blew the doors off of what was considered high levels of musicianship.

Eventually, all three bands would find their way back onto the airwaves with shorter, more concise songs. Side-by-side with progish bands like Kansas and Styx, these acts became classic rock staples as they also packed arenas around the world with fans hungry for the incredible levels of musicianship each band encapsulated.

Within the span of just a decade, a wide variety of acts had broken ground in incredible ways, turning the record industry on its ear time and time again.

Today, as we look back through the annals of classic rock, many of these acts have been taken for granted because of the distance between their initial pioneering efforts and today's entertainment climate.

The fact is, without some of these groundbreaking acts, music would simply not sound the way it does today.

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Saturday, April 6, 2013

ALBUM REVIEW: The Minstrel Bows Out: Nick Drake's "Pink Moon"

Cover of "Pink Moon"
Cover of Pink Moon
by Garrett Sawyer

Some albums deliver their power precisely because they are minimal, streamlined and stark.

John Lennon's classic first solo album "Plastic Ono Band" comes to mind, which consisted of only Lennon playing guitar/piano, Klaus Voormann on bass and Ringo on drums.

Then there was Springsteen's raw acoustic gem "Nebraska" which consisted of even less: just the Boss on acoustic guitar.

And then there's Nick Drake's "Pink Moon".

With the exception of a single simple piano overdub the entire album consisted of Drake and his guitar. This spare album was, tragically, his last. Since most people are unfamiliar with Drake a few words are in order.

Nick Drake was the Vincent Van Gogh of British folk-rock artists. He only lived to 26, dying two years after "Pink Moon" was recorded. In his abbreviated life he suffered from severe depression and once suffered a nervous breakdown requiring prolonged hospitalization.

His albums sold sparsely, sometimes as little as 5,000 copies when they were first released. His fame was almost entirely posthumous.

"Pink Moon" was produced against the wishes of Drake's label, Island Records. They preferred he promote his previous release "Bryter Latyter".

Instead, Drake recorded his new album during two evenings with only Drake and his engineer John Wood in the studio. His label first learned of the album's existence when Drake unceremoniously handed the finished tape to Island Records' founder, Chris Blackwell.

The album is quite an experience even though it clocks in at just a little over 28 minutes total. The title itself comes from the Dictionary of Folklore, referring to the color of the moon during an eclipse.

Song after song is filled with bits and pieces that betray the depressed state Drake must have been in (sample lyrics: "And none of you stand so tall, Pink moon gonna get you all ... Now I'm darker than the deepest sea ... To win the earth just won't seem worth your night or your day ... For I am the parasite of this town ... Falling fast and falling free this could just be the end").

After it was finished Drake became convinced that he'd never be able to write anymore and decided to retire from music completely. Thus began his final descent. He became asocial, withdrawn and distant.

Copious amounts of marijuana only helped make things worse. Unable to live alone, he moved back in with his parents despite the humiliation involved. He was broke.

He would disappear without warning for days at a time, leaving no hint where he'd been. In late November, 1974 he died quietly at home from an overdose of an antidepressant (whether accidental or suicide we'll never know).

He left behind three studio albums and a reputation that would last for decades afterward. Rolling Stone would one day list "Pink Moon" among the 500 greatest albums of all time.

While it's undeniable that you don't have to be a suffering genius or mentally ill to make great music it's also disheartening how often it happens. We wish they could make great music and be happy as well.

I like to think they make their music not because of their illnesses but in spite of them. If so, Nick Drake would have had a great deal to be proud of ... if he'd only lived to see it.

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