Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

Tragic Wilbury Shortage Continues

As always, I’m a day late and a dollar short with this post, but I had to say something on the passing of legendary rocker Tom Petty. Petty was a staple on the classic rock radio I grew up listening to, so he was an important musical figure in my early life. I distinctly remember seeing him play “Walls” on Saturday Night Live and seeing the video for “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” when it premiered in the early 1990’s. I saw Petty live once, in the mid-1990’s, and remember the show being really good.

But, like most things, I took Tom Petty for granted. The last album I bought and listened to from Tom was THE LAST DJ. My musical tastes shifted in high school away from rock towards blues. I know that everything eventually ends and we are all destined to one day die, but for some reason, I never thought I’d have to exist in a post-Tom Petty world. But here we are.

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Of all the things Tom Petty was a part of, probably my favorite was The Traveling Wilburys. I don’t hear very many people talk about them anymore, but the Wilbury’s quirky brand of rock always impressed me. On paper, super groups should always produce amazing music, but the reality is that, for most, the sum is never greater than the parts. The Traveling Wilburys were the exception, though they only released two albums, they’re one of my all-time favorite bands. Tom Petty was the “young” guy in the group, the one who (at the time) was the mortal among the legends. That Tom Petty was able to fit into a band with Bob Dylan and George Harrison should go a long way in proving Petty’s exceptional talent. With Petty’s death, the world is now down three Wilburys: Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Tom Petty. To think that Dylan outlived Tom Petty is actually pretty mind-blowing and just goes to show you that you never can tell who has how much time remaining.

When I think of Tom Petty, I’ll always think of the Wilburys, my parents vinyl copy of SOUTHERN ACCENTS, and how he chose to not go after The Strokes for ripping off “American Girl” with their breakout hit “Last Night.” If you haven’t heard “Last Night” in a while, go back and listen, the guitar riff totally rips off “American Girl.” A young band like The Strokes could have had their careers ruined by a lawsuit from a powerful rock star, but Petty (and/or his management) never saw fit to take the NYC hipsters to task for their blatant plagiarism. Now that I’m older, I actually see how generous and kind this act was on Petty’s part.

Rest in Power, Tom Petty. Your catchy, southern-infused brand of rock will live forever in the hearts of rock fans forever.

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Dancing In The BLOODMOONlight with Van Morrison, King Harvest, and Thin Lizzy

I’m sure I’ve bragged about it before, but I have a near-supernatural ability to recall the names of songs. When driving together, I frequently drive my wife nuts playing the “what song is this?” game. She hates it. She never knows the name of the song. Unlike me, she didn’t fill her head with useless musical trivia and is unable to name both the song title and artist (and sometimes even the album) to every random classic rock castaway. I bring this up because recently, I was wrong. And though I come across like a smug professor, I actually really enjoy the (albeit rare) occasions where I do not recognize a song or artist. I sometimes feel like Alexander The Great, sitting alone with no more worlds to conquer. When a new/old song hits my radar I feel the thrill of discovery I’ve mostly lost while listening to classic rock radio**.

Which is why my world was recently turned upside down by Pandora recently with “Dancing in the Moonlight.” First of all, please don’t confuse this song with the fantastic Thin Lizzy song “Dancing In The Moonlight (It’s Caught Me In It’s Spotlight)” off their classic 1977 album BAD REPUTATION. No, I’m talking about the hit single from 1972 released by Van Morrison. At least, I always thought this was a Van Morrison song. But I was wrong. “Dancing In The Moonlight” does have a very ‘70s Van Morrison-ish vibe and would have fit nicely on Van Morrison’s classic album MOONDANCE (though it came out two years later). In fact, I attribute my own person confusion to “Moondance.” Sure, I guess it was weird to think that Van Morrison had two moon-themed songs during this time period, but I’ve always found the guy kinda strange. Anyway, I was wrong: “Dancing In The Moonlight” is actually a King Harvest song. What a silly mistake, right?

"Everything is serious and sad"

“Everything is serious and sad”

So who the hell was King Harvest? Well the reason why I’d never really heard of them (and you probably haven’t either) is that they were one-hit wonders. That one-hit being “Dancing In The Moonlight.” According to a quick Internet search, the band was formed in Paris, France by a group of Americans. The brother of the their drummer, a guy named Sherman Kelly, wrote the song in 1969. I think that’s a pretty cool story: guy writes song, gives it to his brother’s band, they have their one-hit. Everybody wins. Except for me, the guy who 43 years later is walking around thinking it’s a damn Van Morrison song.

Besides the obvious references to the moon, both songs share a similar jazzy feel. King Harvest’s lead singer, Dave Robinson, is a very fine vocalist and shares enough similarities to further compound the confusion. Though to be honest, a real Van Morrison fan would instantly spot the difference as I did when I listened to both songs back-to-back (800 times while writing this post). The production on the ’72 released “Dancing In The Moonlight” is scratchier and masks Robinson’s voice in a way that (at least to me) does make him sound like a younger Van Morrison. I’m assuming “Moondance” sounds better because a superstar recorded it with a superstar’s recording budget. Perhaps I could have avoided all this confusion had someone just spent a little more money. I’m looking at you, King Harvest.

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Listening to all three songs, I think that King Harvest’s song is more akin to Thin Lizzy’s “Dancing In The Moonlight” in that it’s a simple, joyous ode to hanging out late at night, dancing. Van Morrison’s song is more complex and has 100% more saxophone. Also, because it’s Van Morrison, the track is fun but in a really stuffy, intellectual way.

It better look JUST like this...

It better look JUST like this…

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while now and tonight’s blood moon phenomenon got me thinking about this mix-up. I know I’m crazy, but am I crazy in regards to this mix-up? What songs have you wrongly attributed to other artists? I’m sure that this happens all the time to music fans. Please share you semi-embarrassing gaffs below in the comments (unless you’re gonna tell me about how you were confused by Steelers Wheel “Stuck In The Middle With You,” everybody thought that was Dylan).

 

**Sure, I like listening to a lot of new music, but classic rock 1959-1985 will always be my specialty.

 

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Songs Ruined By Pop Culture

One the of great properties of music is its ability to serve as a sort of emotional shorthand.  Songs about love or loss allow us to experience these feelings vicariously while also drawing upon our own pool of half-buried emotion.  Songs can have personal connections to us, but what I’m talking about are the broader, surface-level connections that we all feel to some degree.  Every time you hear Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” you don’t get a knot in your stomach thinking about a dark-haired girl I knew in 8th grade. But when we all hear The Beatles “Something” or Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” we all feel an approximation of the same thing.

This ability to instantly invoke feeling makes music the perfect complement to film and television shows that want to underscore and heighten their down dramatic moments.  When used effectively, the results are memorable and wonderful.  That said, there are some songs that are used a little too frequently in films/shows, turning a wonderful thing into a cheat, a lazy-shorthand for actual emotion.  Worse, there are other uses of songs in various pop culture where, even when not overused, become so iconic that the song ceases to have a life outside this one specific use.  For me, these songs are ruined.   Perhaps ruined is too strong a word, but whenever a song becomes unlistenable without conjuring up residual cultural baggage that’s what it feels like to me.  Ruined.

Don't drop that thing on your head...

Don’t drop that thing on your head…

Here are some notable songs “ruined” by pop culture:

1. “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel.  Most casual music fans are probably under the impression that this is a Bob Dylan song.  “Stuck in the Middle With You” feels like a Dylan song because the song was conceived as a spoof of Dylan.  The song was released in 1972 and by 1973 reached all the way to #6 on the Billboard Music Charts. Songwriters Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan put out two more albums and then disbanded, with Rafferty going onto have moderate solo success including a hit with his 1978 song “Baker Street.”  The song probably would have remained a curiosity/answer to a trivia question had director Quentin Tarantino not resurrected the song for his feature film debut Reservoir Dogs.  The song took on a fresh, demonic connotation when Mr. Blonde, played by Michael Madsen, gleefully tortures a policeman while dancing to the track.   Now 99.99% of people are unable to hear “Stuck in the Middle With You” without thinking about ears being lopped off.

2. “Gimmie Shelter” by The Rolling Stones.  The first cut off the Stones 1969 classic LET IT BLEED, “Gimmie Shelter” is an epic tour de force.  The song is notable for prominently featuring vocals from a non-Rolling Stone (singer Merry Clayton) and for tackling the Vietnam War, which was raging at the time. The song’s dark, seductive groove and “rape and murder” references make the song ideal for use in films with violent content.  So not surprisingly, the the song has been used in countless cops ‘n robbers shows and films.  I also think it’s impossible to make a film about the Vietnam War without using this and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.” But the person who really ruined this song was director Martin Scorsese who has used it in not one, but three films: Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed. It’s a great song, but it has been done to death.  For a song about the horrors of the Vietnam War, I sure do think of garlic-breathed mobsters when I hear it…

3. “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel. Originally released in 1986, “In You Eyes” was the first song on the second side of Gabriel’s fifth solo album SO.  Essentially a perfect time capsule of 1980’s pop, SO also famously featured the hits “Big Time” and “Sledgehammer.”  At the time of the album’s release, “Sledgehammer” was the bigger hit due in part to a really cool stop-motion animated music video.  But all that changed three years later when Cameron Crowe used the song in his teenage love story Say Anything… The song gained renewed attention and immortality when, near the film’s climax, John Cusack blasts the song from a boombox hoisted high over his head.  I was but a babe when Say Anything… came out, so the nostalgia is a bit lost on me, but even I can’t hear Gabriel’s song without thinking of Cusack.  The song’s been used over the years in similar context, but everybody is really just copying Crowe.

4.  “All Along The Watchtower” by Bob Dylan but covered famously by Jimi Hendrix.  Everybody agrees that Hendrix was a guitar god, and his cover of Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” is an amazing interpretation (seriously, have you heard Dylan’s version?) but much like “Gimmie Shelter” the song has been co-opted by filmmakers who use the song as a kind of shorthand for “doing drugs in ‘Nam.” The song’s use in Forest Gump is the gold standard of such use (that film is probably one of the worst offenders when it comes to using music as lazy shorthand).   The track’s overuse has reached the point of cliché, I actually laughed when I saw Zack Synder’s Watchmen film where the song’s use bordered on parody.

5.  “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood & The Destroyers.  The title track off the George Thorogood’s 1982 album, “Bad to the Bone” was not a hit.  But within a few short years “Bad to the Bone” became the band’s most recognizable hit.  How you ask?  Because the song has been used countless time to telegraph to the audience that a certain character is a badass.  Most famously the song was used in conjunction with Arnold Schwarzenegger in T2: Judgment Day when the muscular robot first dons his iconic black motorcycle jacket.  “Bad to the Bone” was a kinda cool tough-guy song that has now been watered-down into a novelty song, thanks in part to it’s uber-level of machismo.  Today the song is now mostly used in comedies in contrast with a particularly un-tough character (i.e. a loveable loser).

6.  “What I Am” by Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians.  The impetus for this list was the recent use of Edie Brickell’s 1988 one-hit wonder “What I Am” on HBO’s Girls. This season on the show, an ill-advised cover of the song that makes its way onto YouTube and haunts a particular character. I hadn’t thought about/heard this song in ages, but the day after I saw the first episode of Girls third season, I started noticing the song was on the radio more than in previous years.   A catchy chorus and twisty, semi-thought provoking lyrics are now rendered meaningless thanks to the series.  This is now a song about defeat and the soul-crushing reality that none of our dreams are going to come true.  Thanks Girls.

 There are countless other examples of song ruined by pop culture, Queen’s epic “Bohemian Rhapsody” was forever stamped by Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey in Wayne’s World as was “Sweet Home Alabama” in every movie to every take place in the South (or feature Southern characters).  I’m sure just how ruined these songs are depends on your film/TV watching habits.   I’m curious to hear what songs you the reader feel have been used to death or ruined by pop culture.  Speak up in the comments section.

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ROCK N’ READ: WAGING HEAVY PEACE

I just finished reading Neil Young’s 2012 autobiography Waging Heavy Peace and I’m feeling really conflicted.  The best memoirs are the ones that feel like you’re sitting with the author listening to their stories.  And while Waging Heavy Peace fails on a number of levels, one thing it does well is capturing the essence of Young.  Reading the book totally felt like having a conversation with Neil Young, albeit a really one-sided conversation.  I really wanted to recommend the book, but Young’s scattershot recollections and constant jumps through his life’s chronology make Waging Heavy Peace a tough read for anyone not already a die-hard fan.  I’m okay with a non-linear account of one’s life, but it has to be done correctly and Young isn’t up to the task. Young also tends to refer to his famous friends as…well his friends.  Paul McCartney is “my friend Paul” which is really cool and down to earth, but also very hard to suss-out when reading a book about someone’s life in which they meet a lot of famous and un-famous people.

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Also frustrating is the fact that a sizeable chunk of the book is devoted to Young’s passion projects: a “revolutionary” new audio system called PureTone (which is later renamed to Pono), an extensive collection of Lionel model trains, old cars that Young buys online, the Lincvolt electric car he’s building/financing to raise awareness about fossil fuels. Like a timeshare meeting where you’re given a free vacation, if you can sit through Neil’s PureTone pitches you’re free to wander about his strange life.

I don’t mind a legacy artist (as he describes himself) indulging himself and talking up his pet projects, but Young brings these things up multiple times.  Worse, he usually just regurgitates what he’s already said about them.  This gives the book a feeling as though it was patched together and not edited very well.  The looseness of the book, indeed the reason the book exists, is that Young has learned he is on the cusp of dementia. So I’ve decided to cut Young some slack in regards to the repetition in some of the book.  In the beginning, Young explains that he broke a toe and stopped smoking marijuana on the advice of his doctor.  These two events forced the legendary musician to temporarily give up music, so he sat down and wrote Waging Heavy Peace. I really did enjoy Young’s discussion of sobriety and it’s effect on his music.  He explains that he’s never written anything without being under the influence and is worried he won’t be able to access the “cosmic” world of music without drugs.  It’s a valid worry and it was interesting to read about his hopes and fears regarding his music.

As the book plods along, he writes about how long it’s been since he’s smoked or drank and correlates that to how long it’s been since he’s written a song.  Neil’s album PSYCHEDELIC PILL was my number one album of 2012 and I hope he wrote and recorded it after/during the writing of this book, but it’s not made clear.  In fact, throughout the book he talks about getting Crazy Horse back together to cut an album, but never writes about doing it…so I’m thinking the album was done after the book.  It would have been nice for him to add an extra chapter explaining how it went.  I think PSYCHEDELIC PILL is one of Young’s best albums, so if he did it sober that would be so amazing.

I admire the guts it takes to write an account of ones life, and despite being a notorious curmudgeon, Young frequently acknowledges his mistakes.  This more than honest look at himself and his career is what saves Waging Heavy Peace and refreshingly, at no point in the book does Neil Young come across as anything but authentic.

I didn’t pick the book up just to read the story about his relationship with Kurt Cobain, who famously quoted Young in his suicide letter, but at the time the book was published there were stories in the media that led me to believe this topic would be addressed in Waging Heavy Peace Sadly, Cobain is mentioned fleetingly—like just one sentence.  It was disappointing, but that’s not Young’s fault.   Young’s experiences as an illegal (undocumented) alien at the start of his career were fascinating.  I knew that Young was Canadian at a time when it was uncool to be from the Great White North, but I had no idea he snuck into the country and was terrified each and every time he got behind the wheel of a car.  He had no license or Social Security card for many years and to this day still has pangs of fear when he sees a Sheriff’s patrol car.

Waging Heavy Peace reminded me a lot of Bob Dylan’s 2004 autobiography Chronicles Volume 1.  Like Dylan’s book, Waging Heavy Peace is an unconventional and unfinished look at a legendary life.  On the final page Young says that there will be future books, which may someday surface and shed more light Young’s remarkable career.  I’m not sure if I’d pick up Young’s next book, at least, not for $30.00. If you’re a fan and still haven’t picked the book up I definitely recommend you do.  For everyone else, I’d say familiarize yourself with Young’s music and maybe pick up another biography before wading into Waging Heavy Peace.

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Happy Birthday Keith Richards!

Today is Rolling Stones guitarist/mummified junkie Keith Richard’s birthday.  It’s sad that Richards (who turns 70 today) has become a bit of a joke simply because he’s managed to not-die.  Although to be fair, the joke isn’t that Keith Richards the musician is still alive, it’s that Keith Richards the vagabond-druggie is still alive.  There’s cheating death and then there’s dropping your pants and taking a huge dump on Death’s chest–Richard’s been doing that for decades.

Kids these days are more likely to know him as Johnny Depp’s pirate-dad than for “Satisfaction.”  That bums me out because Richards has contributed a lot to the world of rock n’ roll beyond his off-stage antics.  It’s widely accepted that Keith Richards is a fantastic guitarist and that his ability to write amazing riffs is second to none.  What’s not so widely-accepted is his ability to sing songs.  Since 1967’s BETWEEN THE BUTTONS Keith has been allowed to sing lead on at least one song per Rolling Stones album.  This has been viewed by many as a bit of rock n’ roll charity, similar to an arrangement The Beatles had with Ringo Starr.  But I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that, with all due respects to Mr. Jagger, 80% of my all-time favorite Stones songs are sung by Richards.

Keith is 70 and doesn't look a day over 700.

Keith is 70 and doesn’t look a day over 700.

Does Keith Richards have a pleasant singing voice?  No.  But there’s a haggard, raw quality to it that Mick Jagger’s voice lacks.  When Keith sings about hard living and late nights alone, you can hear his suffering in the timbre of his voice.  Time (and cigarettes) haven’t been especially kind to Richards voice, but in a way his rougher sound serves to accentuate his songs with a extra layer of desperation.  Much like with Bob Dylan, another take-him-or-leave-him vocalist, I find that hearing Richards sing his own songs adds an extra dollop of sincerity.  I’m sure Mick Jagger could have sung all the Stones tracks, but we’d be much poorer for it.

To that end, I present to you my Top 10 Keith Richards songs.  These feature Keith on lead vocals and while they may not have set the Top 40 charts ablaze, have a special place in my heart.  Here’s to 70 great years!

My Top 10 Keith Richards Songs

1. “Before They Make Me Run” off SOME GIRLS.  First off, this song has an amazingly good guitar riff.  The song is all about Keith’s legal problems following numerous drug busts.  At the time, Richards was facing the real possibility of doing some serious jail time.  So of course he writes a boozy song about “walking” before he’s forced to “run.”  It’s a badass song.

2. “Happy” off EXILE ON MAINSTREET.  This is Richards signature song, the one you’re guaranteed to hear him sing if you see The Rolling Stones live.  It’s heralded as his best song and with good reason.  Despite being recorded during one of the darkest periods in Rolling Stones history, “Happy” is bouncy and well…happy. There’s a real off-the-cuff aspect to his singing on the song, it’s almost like he’s making it all up as he goes.  This joyous spontaneity and the bright horn section make “Happy” truly great.

3.  “Wicked As It Seems” off MAIN OFFENDER.  This track is not a Rolling Stones song but rather a straight-up Keith Richards solo-song.  The song’s a slow burn with a  great groove.  This is the track that convinced me that Richards really was the heart-and-soul of the Rolling Stones.

4.  “You Got The Silver” off LET IT BLEED.  Keith Richards may be a rocker but he’s got the soul of a country artist.  In fact, my all-time favorite Rolling Stones affectation is when they do a country song. “You Got The Silver” is a mix of country and dirty blues, it’s simple but damn earnest.  I still get chills when I hear it to this day.

5. “Coming Down Again” off GOATS HEAD SOUP.  A gentle piano ballad sung by Keith Richards? Yep.  Add a knowing nod to drug abuse and you’ve got yourself a fantastic song.

6.  “Little T&A” off TATTOO YOU.  People give TATTOO YOU a lot of grief, and while it’s not the best Rolling Stones album it does have this tight little gem on it.  Many considered Richards past his prime by 1981, but Richards proves on this track that he’s just as spry as ever.

7.  “Locked Away” off TALK IS CHEAP.  Another Keith Richards-solo track, “Locked Away” almost sounds like a serious Traveling Wilbury’s song.  Richards is full of self-doubt and this track which also makes reference to prison/jail which like death has always loomed threateningly over the guitarist.

8. “Hurricane” off VINTAGE VINOS.  A short little acoustic bonus track recorded during 2002, “Hurricane” finds a creaky-voiced Richards quietly singing with just a guitar.  Even though it’s just a short, dashed-off track the song is endlessly compelling.  I think it’s the world-weary voice.  Keith sounds sound beaten it’s kinda heartbreaking.

9. “We Had It All” a bonus track recorded during the SOME GIRLS sessions. Another bonus track, “We Had It All” is a gentle ballad drenched with regret and sorrow.  Not quite country, not quite blues, the song wasn’t right for SOME GIRLS but it’s still really good.

10. “This Place Is Empty” off A BIGGER BANG.  The most recent track on my list, this song also has the roughest sounding Keith Richards vocals.  It’s a little creepy to hear old-man Richards ask his lady to “bare your breasts” I’ll admit, but this is a good song.  The song’s I-miss-you sentiment pairs well with Richards voice and somewhat halting delivery.

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Crossfire Hurricane & Becoming A Better Stones Fan

I love documentaries.  I really love them.  I don’t think I’ve seen a bad documentary, per say.  I subscribe to the theory that at the very least, a documentary will tell or show you something you didn’t know, and thus it wasn’t a complete waste of time.  Some are better than others.  The Martin Scorsese film on Bob Dylan, for example, is a damn good documentary.  Recently, I sat down and watched HBO’s Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane, which while not as good as Scorsese’s No Direction Home, was entertaining.

crossfire hurricane poster

And how could anything about the Rolling Stones not be entertaining? As far as legendary bands go, the Stones are tops when it comes to drugs, debauchery, death, and deceit.  All the makings of a compelling documentary, right?  Well Crossfire Hurricane covers all the major points in the band’s storied career, but doesn’t really dig in very deep.  Some of it felt rushed and major chapters in the band’s career are glossed over. It wasn’t until the credits started to roll (and I thought, “That’s it?”) that I saw what the problem was: the band were the producers.

So Crossfire Hurricane is really the whitewashed version of the Stones as told by the Stones. If you’re super-fan, you’re not going to necessarily gain any new insights, but the backstage/behind-the-scenes footage is worth seeing.  We see the Stones at the height of their success doing drugs and running around half (or totally) naked backstage.  It’s all very cheeky and fun.

I really wanted to recommend Crossfire Hurricane as THE Stones documentary to see…but it’s not.  The real story is what happened after the credits had rolled: the next morning, all I could think about were the tunes.  I fired up Spotify and started skipping around in the band’s massive back catalogue. And then a funny thing happened: I discovered my all-time favorite Stones song.

STICKY FINGERS, compliments of Andy Warhol.

STICKY FINGERS, compliments of Andy Warhol.

I was listening to STICKY FINGERS while doing my laundry, when I heard “Bitch.”  I’d of course heard it before, but I didn’t hear it until this week.  The cocky, self-assured Jagger vocals, the brilliant Keef guitar lick…it was your standard-issue Stones song until the horns kicked in.  Holy shit, the horns take “Bitch” from good to fantastic. It was like hearing “Satisfaction” for the first time: I was blown away.

Which got me thinking, if a great never-played-on-the-radio song like “Bitch” could hit me like a bolt of lightning—what other astoundingly great Stones songs am I missing out on? Suddenly being a more causal Stones fan doesn’t seem so cool.  There is only one course of action: I must listen to everything by the Stones to ensure that I’m not missing out on any other gems.

To be fair, “Bitch” was a B-side to “Brown Sugar” so it wasn’t cast off into complete obscurity, but with B-sides like this who knows what awesome deep-cuts I’m missing out on.  These are the problems of a true music-nerd.  There are too many great bands with too many great songs left undiscovered.  Whenever I find a blank spot on my musical map, I try to fill it in.  That a band like the Rolling Stones has so many blank spots on my map is embarrassing, to be sure.  So even though I’m pretty sure I could die a happy rock-enthusiast without hearing the entirety of the Rolling Stones 80’s output—I’m gonna listen to it all.  Just knowing the singles and key albums is good, but the odds ‘n sods/deep-cuts are what keep me going, both as a fan and as a human being.

That endless quest for my next favorite song, that’s the very essence of what DEFENDING AXL ROSE is all about.  In the coming days, weeks, and months, I’ll post more about my travels in the Stones back catalogue.

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PSYCHEDELIC PILL by Neil Young & Crazy Horse

Short and sweet. There’s something to be said about a masterful economy of length.  Long things, whether they are books, films, or albums tend to intimidate us.  Our lives are all so busy and hectic, there doesn’t seem to be time for anything substantial anymore.  Short can be sweet, but sometimes you have to kick back and ramble.

Psychedelic Pill: like trippy Pony Express.

At 67 years old, Neil Young should be slowing down.  He should be basking in the glory of his recently published memoir, WAGING HEAVY PEACE.  Young should be doing greatest hits concerts for $150 a pop to a sea of balding, gray heads.  But Neil Young wouldn’t be Neil Young if he didn’t have a bit more on his agenda. I can’t believe it, but in 2012 Neil Young has released his finest record.

Note that I didn’t say perfect or most commercial or the record I’d recommend to my friends; but PSYCHEDELIC PILL is without a doubt Neil Young’s finest record to date.  It’s a wild and wooly album, full of long and intricate songs that manages to perfectly instill the very essence of Young.  I don’t think that one double-album can totally encapsulate an artist as varied and masterly as Neil Young, but PSYCHEDELIC PILL does an amazing job showcasing why he still matters.  These are not gentle, old-man-telling-you-a-story-from-his-rocking-chair songs.   Neil Young & Crazy Horse are not in grandpa-mode at all on this album; PSYCHEDELIC PILL is a rocker.

One of the reasons it’s taken me so long to write about this album is because it’s long and intimidating. The album opens with “Drifting Back,” a 27 minute-long song that’s acts as a kind of sonic air lock, decompressing the listener into the album’s atmosphere.   Or perhaps a better metaphor would be that’s a time machine.  I like that better because PSYCHEDELIC PILL sounds like lost 1970’s record, with the lengthy “Drifting Back” serving as a trippy time tunnel to the past.  I can tell you that this album is a classic and will stand the test of time because it sounds neither vintage nor modern.  Listening to PSYCHEDELIC PILL, it’s impossible to really get a feel for when it was recorded, that’s the very epitome of timeless.

Immediately following the long “Drifting Back” we’re treated to the title cut, “Psychedelic Pill” which serves as a short palate cleanser of soaring, fuzzy guitar tones.  It’s a welcomed gulp of pop before Young plunges us back into the lengthy “Ramada Inn.”   That song, which focuses on the later years of an alcoholic, veers off into long tangents of guitar that walks the fine line between sublime and hypnotic. You either have the patience for this sort of stuff of you don’t.  One wonders how autobiographical “Ramada Inn” is (Young is now sober after years of drug and alcohol abuse).

Speaking of autobiographical, “Born in Ontario” and “Twisted Road” are two really great songs in which Young sings about his beginnings both as a young Canadian and as a newly minted songwriter hearing Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.” Both songs have a breezy, confident feel to them.  “Twisted Road” has my favorite lyric of the album in which Young describes Dylan as Hank Williams “chewing bubble gum.” It’s a great line that never fails to make me smile, no matter how many times I hear it.  “Twisted Road” is a bit odd because it’s strange to think of Neil Young as a Bob Dylan fan.  Young and Dylan are like Gods, the thought of them being fans is a strange concept, though ultimately it’s very endearing.

The best song on the album, in my opinion, is the moody “Walk Like A Giant.”   Even though it clocks in at just over 16 minutes, I’ve listened to it dozens of times, and on each listen I’m blown away at how sonically diverse it is. In the song, Young sings “I want to walk like a giant on the land” as far as I’m concerned with PSYCHEDELIC PILL that’s just what Neil Young is—a giant, peerless and at the top of his game.   It’s one long, strange trip that’s already become one of my all-time favorite songs: how can this be? Maybe I wouldn’t be so over-the-moon floored by this album if I hadn’t long ago written Neil Young off.

Special mention should be made of Young’s famous backing band.  People have criticized Crazy Horse over the years as not being a very “good” band.  And to an extent I can understand that.  They’ve always been a loose, almost garage-band kind of entity that might not work for every occasion, but here the band fits the material like a glove.  I can’t imagine any of these songs without them, each track a beautiful sonic assault.  Crazy Horse may be a blunt instrument, but they’re an instrument nonetheless, and here they’re utilized to great effect.

Lastly, I’d like to encourage anyone reading this to give PSYCHEDELIC PILL a listen but keep a few things in mind.  This album is about as anti-iTunes as one can get.  This isn’t a take a few sips/try it out a little at a time kind of album, you need to commit to sitting down and listening to it.  Yes, some of the songs are really long.  Yes, it’s a bit indulgent in a few places (“Ramada Inn” and “Drifting Back” probably could have been trimmed a smidge).  But overall it’s a fantastic album that every rock fan should check out.  PSYCHEDELIC PILL should be heard in a dark room with headphones. There’s been much discussion of the lost art of album making, and I would argue that people have lost the ability to listen to an album.  This is life changing, earth-shattering rock; have the decency to give it your full attention.

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New Album Round-Up #3: TEMPEST by Bob Dylan

A wise-man once said: Why review some albums, when you could review them all? Indeed.  Here is the third in my New Album Round-Up series:

TEMPEST by Bob Dylan:  I didn’t really like or get Dylan until it was way late. Like MODERN TIMES (2006) late.  Sure, he sounds like a Muppet and his songs are more mysterious than they probably need to be…but the man’s a genius when it comes to writing songs that work just as well as poems.  Think about your all-time favorite song–would it make a very good poem?  Chances are no, it would not.

Dylan’s always like long, rambly story-songs but his latest album TEMPEST takes things to a whole new level.  The album is nothing but long story-songs.  His voice even more craggy and ragged than usual.  The last two albums, the before-mentioned MODERN TIMES and TOGETHER THROUGH LIFE, have had a 1930’s/1940’s vibe to them.  TEMPEST seems more traditional folk/blues, with none of the period flourishes from before. I’ve read that TEMPEST is going to be the “last Dylan record” which is a shame because this doesn’t really feel like THE END. Of course, I would have no way of knowing what the end of Bob Dylan would sound/feel like.

The title references Shakespeare’s final play. Man, I really hope this isn’t the last Dylan album. Surely he has one more Christmas album in him…

Regardless, I’m not going to lie: this is pretty much for hard-core Dylan-ites.  Sure, there are a few tracks that might please a general audience, like the bluesy “Narrow Way.”  The song has my favorite line of the record: “If I can’t work up to you/you’ll surely have to work down to me someday.”  That’s both really funny and really poignant if you think about it.  This song seems to be written for any man who’s ever loved a woman way, way, way out of his league.  As awesome as this song is,  “Narrow Way” clocks in at over 7 minutes, which may test the patients of all but the super-devoted.

I guess you could say that about pretty much all of TEMPEST, which is a shame because there is a lot of really good lyrics peppered throughout the album.  Part of me wishes that someone had edited some of this material down–but to be honest, Dylan has earned a little indulgence. Both “Pay In Blood” and “Long Wasted Years” are fabulous anthems for the tired and crotchety that, quite frankly, would be less effective had they been shortened/watered down.  So pull up a chair and listen to grandpa Dylan sing you story.  Sure, he might prattle on a little too long, but when he’s good….he’s good.

Much has been made of “Roll On John,” the album’s last track.  Dylan’s song about John Lennon is actually pretty damn good.  He references several Lennon songs, including “A Day In The Life” in a way that would probably seem a bit cheesy, were it not THE Bob Dylan making the reference.  It’s an appropriately sad song, about a friend Dylan lost too soon.  Especially heart breaking:

“Tyger, Tiger burning bright

I pray the lord my soul to keep

In the forest of the night

Cover him over and let him sleep”

As “Roll On John” ended I felt as though I’d lost two music hero’s: Lennon and Dylan.  If this really is the final Bob Dylan album, then it’s also the end of a major-era.  Not only in music/art but in pop culture.  There has never been a time in my life where there wasn’t Bob Dylan.   Remember this day, folks.

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My Top 5 Most-Anticipated Albums

2012 is nearly over can you believe it?  Seems like only yesterday I was writing about 2011 (The Year Of The Battling Gallagher Brothers). Time flies when you’re having fun.  Speaking of fun, there’s a bunch of really cool records that are coming out at the close of 2012.  In fact, there were so many really awesome records about to  “drop” that I actually had trouble narrowing it down to just five!

So how does an un-released record get on my “Most Anticipated” list?  Well, it has to be an album whose release date I’ve been eyeing for a while.  The record has to have an “official” release date DAY and MONTH…none of this “September 2012” nonsense where the record company can repeatedly move the street date.  And lastly, the record has to be something I plan on going out and BUYING the day it comes out–that means it’s an album I’m super-duper stoked about.

My Top 5 Most-Anticipated Albums:

1. HOT CAKES by The Darkness (August 21): I don’t have very long to wait for this one, and yet it feels like I’ve been waiting for seven years.  I guess that’s because I have been waiting for seven years!  I seem to be in the minority that believe 2005’s ONE WAY TICKET TO HELL…AND BACK! was better than the british-rocker’s debut PERMISSION TO LAND (otherwise known as the album that spawned “I Believe In A Thing Called Love”).  The band broke up, but like a phoenix from the flames, The Darkness have returned.  The new songs are growing on me and all the reviews I’ve read have been positive.  Here’s hoping for an amazing comeback.

HOT CAKES

2. CENTIPEDE HZ by Animal Collective (September 4): I’m a late-comer to the greatness that is Animal Collective, but I’ve been voraciously consuming their entire catalogue.  They seem to be one of those rare bands that seem to get more daring and more creative the bigger their audience gets.  I was completely and utterly blown away by their last album, MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILLION, with it’s luscious electro-freak-rock vibes.  I really can’t wait to see what the band pulls out of it’s freak bag.  And with song titles like “Monkey Riches” and “Applesauce” how can this be a bad record?

CENTIPEDE HZ

3. TEMPEST by Bob Dylan (September 11): Alright, I know what you’re thinking…Dylan, really? Well I think Bob’s last few records have been just as good as anything he put out in the 1960’s.  There.  I said it.  Well, maybe not CHRISTMAS IN THE HEART so much as MODERN TIMES.  MODERN TIMES was the album that made me truly fall in love with Dylan and give into the fact that he really is as good as they say he is. TEMPEST is rumored to be Dylan’s final album (the title of the album being an allusion to Shakespeare’s final play).  This one is sure to be really weird and epic, just like a good Dylan record should be.  There’s supposed to be a 14+ minute song about the Titanic on the  album, if that doesn’t get your juices flowing I don’t know what will.  Another song is going to pay tribute to fallen Beatle John Lennon, which should be sweet (although he’s been dead for 30 years, what’s been the hold-up, Bob?).  Love him or hate him, if this is his final album don’t you wanna experience it?

TEMPEST

4.  BATTLE BORN by The Killers (September 18): I know, I’m just as surprised as you are.  Who’d have thought that the HOT FUSS boys would still hold my interest four albums into their career.  Sure, the band hasn’t lived up to the hype that singer Brando Flowers notably likes to cultivate, but I’ve really enjoyed watching them slowly morph into Bruce Springsteen-like “heart-land” rockers.  The album is named after the motto on the Nevada State-flag and comes after the band enjoyed a bit of a hiatus…that’s about all I know.  They released a serviceable first single back in July titled “Runaways.”  It was just okay, I know I shouldn’t be as excited about this record as I am but I just can’t quit this band.

BATTLE BORN

5.  LONERISM by Tame Impala (October 9): Australian psychedelic-rockers Tame Impala have mercifully recorded a new album! I am super-excited about this because I am in dire need of awesomely-trippy, chilled-out tunes.  If you haven’t experienced the band’s first album INNERSPEAKER I urge you to get a pair of headphones (really good ones) and drift off with Tame Impala.  I was worried that the band might not be able to live up to their amazing first album, but if the new songs are any indication, LONERISM is going to be just as good as the first record.  Go treat yourself to the glory of “Apocalypse Dream.”  You deserve it.

LONERISM

Honorable Mentions:

911 by Trash Talk (October 9)

PUSH AND SHOVE by No Doubt (just for the train-wreck factor) (September 25)

JACK SELLS THE COW by Robert Pollard (September 18)

SHIELDS by Grizzly Bear (September 18)

FOUR by Bloc Party (August 21)

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“Reelin’ In The Years”

Like coffee, Steely Dan is a bit of an acquired taste.  I grew up in a household where, for a few years, there were only two CD’s in the house: The Beatles REVOLVER and A DECADE OF STEELY DAN.  That greatest hits compilation gathered quite a bit of dust.  The appeal of a band like The Beatles is instant and able to transcend age and experience.  The appeal of a band like Steely Dan is…a bit more complicated.

To be fair, I never gave Steely Dan more than a causal listen before casting them off as “lame.”  I must say, the band has a certain reputation among rock fans, many write them off as “dad rock”, self-indulgent, and worst of all: boring.  One of my all-time favorite comedians, George Carlin, even has a pretty funny joke that has the lameness of the band’s fans as part of it’s punchline.  Another factor at play in my inability to fully enjoy Steely Dan was my own ignorance of jazz.  Steely Dan, unlike most rock bands, are more jazz-influenced than they are blues-influenced. Jazz is a funny thing, and like coffee (and Steely Dan) a bit of an acquired taste.

“You been tellin’ me you’re a genius
Since you were seventeen
In all the time I’ve known you
I still don’t know what you mean”

And so, I remained ignorant of the greatness of Steely Dan until my second-to-last year of college.  I was driving home from school one autumn afternoon when I heard “Reelin’ In The Years” on the local classic rock radio station.  I’m sure I’d heard it before, but I must not have been ready because that afternoon I was struck-dumb by the song.

“Reelin’ In The Years” is  awesome for two reasons: the blazing guitar work and the incredible delivery of the lyrics.  The guitar work is exceptional, so much so that guitar god Jimmy Page has been quoted as saying that the guitar solo in “Reeling In The Years” is his all-time favorite solo.  That’s mighty praise.  Singer Donald Fagen has gone on to sort of roll his eyes when it comes to the song, calling it “Dumb but effective.”   And I guess it’s effective, like a shotgun’s effective when fired within a foot of it’s target.  To be fair, “Reelin’ In The Years” is a great blunderbuss of a song compared to the more nuanced work Steely Dan produced over their long run.  I guess the fact that it’s more of a straight-up rocker is part of the reason it’s the most-played Steely Dan song on classic radio today.

“Reelin’ In The Years” would be an noteworthy if all it consisted of was Elliott Randall’s out-of-this-world solo-but then there are the song’s lyrics, which perfectly match the quality of the guitar work.  Like all of Steely Dan’s best songs, “Reelin’ In The Years” is equal parts bitter and wistful.  “Reelin’ In The Years” is accusatory and at the same time filled with a sad-sort of desperation.  Steely Dan’s lyrics are famously opaque, but on “Reelin’ In The Years” the band is a bit more on-the-nose obvious than usual, without the usual literary flair or West Coast double-talk found in most of their songs.  I think that’s another reason why the song is so popular on classic rock radio: it doesn’t take a PhD in English to figure out what the hell the song is about.

Admittedly not the coolest dudes in rock.

All the best lyrics in the world don’t mean anything if the delivery is off, though.  The lyrics, though a bit dumbed-down as far as Steely Dan songs go, are delivered spectacularly.  They come come fast and furious.  There’s so much venom in Fagen’s voice as he spits the words out, his voice barely keeping up with the wailing guitar.  The amount of information, the sheer volume of emotion and narrative conveyed so perfectly and so quickly it’s downright Dylan-esque.

The song ended and I switched off the radio.  I went home and got online and started reading about the band, trying to figure out which album I was going to buy first.  A month later I went back home to visit my parents, before I left I found that dusty copy of A DECADE OF STEELY DAN.  Without asking, I slipped the album into my duffle bag and have never looked back.  I never thought I’d be a Steely Dan fan, but I am.

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