Friday, 31 August 2018

David Bowie - The Gouster (1975)

Boogie down with David now....

  

Intended for release in 1975

This is the album that eventually became "Young Americans". The track listing here is how the album was envisaged initially, before different tracks were added and it morphed into "Young Americans". It is only seven tracks long, three of those that subsequently appeared on "Young Americans" appear here as "Gouster mixes" and contain a few differences to their eventual versions. As you can see, it was even given its cover, so it was very close to being the actual release.

TRACK LISTING

1. John I'm Only Dancing (Again)
2. Somebody Up There Likes Me (Gouster mix)
3. It's Gonna Be Me (without strings)
4. Who Can I Be Now?
5. Can You Hear Me (Gouster mix)
6. Young Americans
7. Right (Gouster mix)

Having lived with the original album for so long, it was, after the 2016 release of this, (as part of the "Who Can I Be Now?" box set), somewhat difficult to get used to listening to it. It kicks off with the addictive dance/disco adaptation of "John I'm Only Dancing (Again)", which renders the original glam rocky version totally unrecognisable. It is full of saxophone and disco grooves, but they are very effective, there is just no relation to the original song. "Somebody Up There Likes Me" is a different mix to the one eventually used. It is the better one in my view - far more bassy, rhythmic, and the saxophone, although omnipresent as on the original, does not overwhelm the track.

The soulful "It's Gonna Be Me" and "Who Can I Be Now?" are undoubtedly two tracks that fitted the "soul" concept of the album, but both were left off the eventual "Young Americans" album, which was odd, because they are both excellent, particularly the latter. I am sure that Bowie modelled his "soul voice" on that of Harold Melvin (as distinct from Teddy Pendergrass). Check out "All Because Of A Woman", it has real hints of "It's Gonna Be Me" about it in places.

"Can You Hear Me" has an alternative "Gouster" mix. It has a pronounced "bongo" style drum in the intro and beyond, and the tempo is slower, more soulful, for the laid-back verses. The backing vocals are less harsh and less dominant, more subtle and gentle. Bowie's vocal delivery is slowed down and more soulfully smoky and throaty.

Then there is "Young Americans" which is the original version. I am glad, because it is total perfection and is one of my favourite David Bowie songs of all time. "Right" is the other "Gouster" mix. Again, it is on the more bongo-ish percussion and the (this time) more blatant backing vocals that there are noticeable differences. It also seems bassier to my ears.

There is no place on here for "Win", "Fascination", the Beatles cover "Across The Universe" and "Fame". Fans will no doubt discuss with one is the better for years. Personally I would add all the other tracks but keep the three "Gouster mixes" over the others.

B-

Photos by Michael Ochs and Eric Stephen Jacobs.

David Bowie - "Hours...." (1999)

The pretty things are going to hell....

  

Released on 21 September 1999

Running time 47:06

After the diversification into dance music experimentation that was "Earthling", two years later, Bowie, thankfully, in my view, ditched the "beats per minute" and returned with this mainly melodic, ethereal, introspective album. He still employs programmed drums and bass guitar as opposed to a conventional band, but it often doesn't sound like it. Initially, they recorded it with a "Diamond Dogs"  guitar backing, which guitarist Reeves Gabrels much preferred, but in the end Bowie went for a more slick, contemporary sound. That was a shame, I would have liked to have head the original version.

TRACK LISTING

1. Thursday's Child
2. Something In The Air
3. Survive
4. If I'm Dreaming My Life
5. Seven
6. What's Really Happening
7. The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell
8. New Angels Of Promise
9. Brilliant Adventure
10. The Dreamers                                        

It kicks off with the airy, breathy "Thursday's Child", which, although it appears to use programmed drums has a fetching melody and a killer bass line, which is also synthesised but actually sounds authentic. The same sound features on the relaxed and chilled-out intro to "Something In The Air" - a nonchalantly appealing and typically Bowie song. This album, far more than the previous two, sounds what I imagine a David Bowie album twenty-odd years on from the mid/late seventies should sound like. I much prefer it to either "Earthling" or "1.Outside", although there are many who would not agree with me. "Survive" is, according to Bowie himself, very much written using similar structures to those used on "Hunky Dory" in the early seventies. I am sure he is correct, but I can't detect it myself. It sounds very much of its time. A bit of "Starman" style morse code guitar creeps in, however. "If I'm Dreaming My Life" is sombre and introspective and probably a bit too long. It is considerably darker and bleaker than the material so far.


"Seven" brings us back to a lighter mood, however, with a "Hunky Dory" style acoustic guitar intro, but that is as far as that tenuous link goes. For me, the material is not really reminiscent of any earlier era. It is Bowie as he was in 1999. It is music contemporary to its time. "What's Really Happening" is a powerful, industrial-sounding rock number with a big drum sound and some "Heroes"-style guitar. "The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell" is a strong, riffy guitar-driven rock number, probably my favourite on the album. Bowie's vocal is deep and confident on this one too.

"New Angels Of Promise" starts with a Japanese-sounding intro and has lots of echoes of "Sons Of The Silent Age" in its deep, resonant vocals. "Brilliant Adventure" is an infectious, eastern-sounding instrumental which has always reminded me of the theme to "Midnight Express". Again, it sounds a lot like the instrumental stuff from "Heroes", like "Moss Garden". This relatively short album ends with the melancholy, sonorous "The Dreamers", which is full of strong, powerful, scratchy guitar riffs and slightly distorted vocals. The album was quite harshly treated by critics at the time, which was somewhat unfair. It is not that bad at all.

B-



David Bowie - Blackstar (2016)

Look up here - I'm in Heaven....


  

Released on 8 January 2016

Recorded in New York City

Running time 41:14

This, then, is David Bowie's deathbed valedictory release. For that reason, it is an extremely difficult album to review. It is just seven tracks of avant-garde jazz-influenced material. Bowie had, no doubt, wanted to do an album like this anyway, impending demise or not. Given its incredible genesis, planned meticulously by the dying Bowie, it gets lifted to a position way above the sum of its parts. It becomes a truly remarkable epitaph.

TRACK LISTING

1. Blackstar
2. 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore
3. Lazarus
4. Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)
5. Girl Loves Me
6. Dollar Days
7. I Can't Give Everything Away                            

The title track is a wonderfully bleak and very atmospheric track, all full of portentous gravitas, strong drum beats, deep, sonorous saxophone parts and a typically haughty vocal from Bowie. There are also monk-like chanted backing vocals. The whole thing takes on a holy ambience. The bit where the pace suddenly changes half way through and he sings "something happened on the day he died" and the melody suddenly takes on a seventies feel is just so poignant. "'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore" (taking its title, almost verbatim, from a seventeenth century John Ford drama "Tis A Pity She's A Whore"). Bowie's song bears no relation to the play and is a frantic piece of avant-garde jazz rock, with high-pitched saxophones swirling around all over the place and perplexing lyrics. It is highly enjoyable though, as too is the soulful, saxophone and guitar-driven "Lazarus" with its death-knell solemn drumbeat and its "look up here - I'm in Heaven.." now iconic opening line. "Everybody knows me now..." sings Bowie, plaintively, as the drums continue and the saxophone floats all around. It really is a heartbreaking listen. However, taking it out of context, and viewed objectively it is a damn good track. The end has a rubbery, intoxicating bass line and some cutting guitar breaks that enhance it even more.

"Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)" is another lyrically mystifying one. It was released considerably earlier than the rest of the album, in October 2014, and had many scratching their heads over the seven minutes of jazz meets dance rhythm meets haunting lyrics. Not expecting Bowie's demise at that point, reaction to it was definitely mixed. They should have known Bowie better than that, by then.


"Girl Loves Me" is a slow-paced, mournful lament sung over a huge, powerful slow drum beat with some echoey vocals. "Where the f*** did Monday go?" questions Bowie, several times, in oddly vulgar fashion. None of the material on this album has anything like the instant appeal of the previous album, it has to be said, but that has always been the case with Bowie albums. Rarely is one just like the previous one. "Dollar Days" is an endearing song, with a lovely saxophone solo and, despite its lightness of touch (compared to the other material) still carries a considerable poignancy. "I'm dying to...." sings Bowie, continually, with a profound double meaning. It segues, via some shuffling drums, into "I Can't Give Everything Away", a fetching, typically Bowie song with clear echoes, I feel, of the track "Never Let Me Down", particularly in its harmonica part. Some jazzy saxophone adds to the experience too. This was the final track on the final album from David Bowie. Goodbye, then, you strange, ethereal, distant man who has been part of my life from that same distance since 1972, when I bought "Ziggy Stardust" as a fourteen year-old. I quite like the fact that David Bowie leaves us with some adventurous jazz sounds flying around over his repeated "I can't give everything away" line. He ended on a song that pushed the boundaries. As indeed he should.

This is a bold, experimental album that would have been given critical kudos anyway, despite its sad derivation. Many, at the time, despite the situation, found it dull or needlessly experimentational. If they thought that, then they didn't understand David Bowie. It was always that way. The same people threw up their hands and shook their heads upon the release of "Low". Three years on, it can be listened to with fresh ears and it has a real appeal that begs more listens.

B-




David Bowie - The Next Day (2013)

I'd rather be high....

  

Released on 8 March 2013

Recorded in New York City

Running time 53:17

This was an album nobody expected. Most had accepted that "Reality" would be the final studio album from the now-reclusive, not too healthy David Bowie. Just when many seemed to feel he had retired, almost unheralded, he put out this remarkable album. It had been recorded, almost in secret, over the previous few months. Personally, it is by far my favourite of the post-1990 albums. No question. This is a special album. I am not sure about the cover though, slapping the title over the old "Heroes" cover. That doesn't work for me. I would rather just a plain white cover and the title in black. That is a minor point, however.

Old mate and producer Tony Visconti tells an interesting story as to how the album was created -

"....Sterling Campbell was on drums, I was on bass, David was on keyboards, Gerry Leonard was on guitar. By the end of five days we had demoed up a dozen songs. Just structures. No lyrics, no melodies and all working titles. This is how everything begins with him. Then he took them home and we didn't hear another thing from him for four months...."


TRACK LISTING

1. The Next Day
2. Dirty Boys
3. The Stars (Are Out Tonight)
4. Love Is Lost
5. Where Are We Now
6. Valentine's Day
7. If You Can See Me
8. I'd Rather Be High
9. Boss of Me
10. Dancing Out In Space
11. How Does The Grass Grow?
12. (You Will) Set The World On Fire
13. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die
14. Heat                                                                                                                

Even all these years later, Bowie was still working in a similar style to how he was described as having done so on both "The Man Who Sold The World" and "Young Americans".

This is what he eventually came up with - starting with the infectious, strident title track which is instantly likeable. For me, it has echoes of "87 And Cry" and "Time Will Crawl" from 1987's unpopular "Never Let Me Down" and also a vague feel of some of the short tracks from "Low", if they had been extended.

A favourite of mine is the solemnly atmospheric "Dirty Boys", with its lyrics that in many ways seem to hark back to the late sixties material. "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" is an energetic, upbeat, rhythmic number with hints of some of the "Reality" material about it, but the acoustic guitar underpinning it takes us way back to the early seventies. "Love Is Lost" is a huge track, with a thumping slow drum sound, menacing keyboards, industrial guitars and a sonorous Bowie vocal, together with portentous lyrics. It is a magnificently inscrutable yet stimulating song. Imagine this on "Heroes". A true latter-day Bowie classic.

The haunting, mysterious "Where Are We Now" evokes Berlin once more, speaking of Potzdamer Platz in a hugely atmospheric, slowly grandiose song. Let's be honest, Bowie hadn't put out stuff like this that made your spine tingle like this for years. Yes, there had been good material on the last thirty years of albums, of course there had, but anything like this? Maybe not. I remember listening to this and feeling a real excitement over a Bowie album for the first time since "Scary Monsters". That is not to say I didn't like the others, I liked many of them, but this album seemed very much like a David Bowie we had not heard from for years returning. "Valentine's Day" is another corker. Backed by some rock 'n' roll "la-la-la" backing vocals, some excellent rock guitar and featuring some perplexing lyrics about someone called Valentine, whose identity we never knew.

The dance music rhythms experimented with on "1.Outside" and "Earthling" return for the frantic, beats per minute, "If You Can See Me". Lyrically, however, it is much stronger than some of that material, particularly that form "Earthling". The remarkable thing about this album is that great tracks just keep coming. There isn't a duff track on it. The catchy "I'd Rather Be High", with its dreamy sixties-influenced parts, is another one. It has a great melodic guitar riff too. "I stumbled to the graveyard and I lay down by my parents..." is a moving line from what is a largely autobiographical song. The addictive "Boss Of Me" has Bowie singing over a staccato, low saxophone-influenced tune about a female boss, oddly. At this point, it is worth noting that the sound is truly excellent throughout this album - clear, warm and bassy. This song provides a good example of that.

The jaunty "Dancing Out In Space" keeps the quality coming with another one with "Reality" echoes.   It is also impossible catchy too. "How Does The Grass Grow?" has a searing "Heroes"-style guitar intro which continues throughout this pulsating, rocking track. It ends with some "Low"-style bass on the fade-out. "(You Will) Set The World On Fire" is an upbeat, singalong number that reminds one of the "Diamond Dogs" era, slightly. "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die" is beautifully anthemic and, considering the near future, extremely sad. Musically, it has a sumptuous bass line. It ends, again sadly, with the introductory drumbeat from 1972's "Five Years". There are echoes of "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" throughout the song too.

The album ends with the somnolent "Heat", with its evocative, beguiling lyric about "my father ran the prison". Was he referring to his own father, or merely writing an observational song? The latter, apparently. The "bonus tracks" feature the sixties guitar riffage of the energetic "So She"; an intoxicating instrumental in "Plan" and the effervescent guitar-driven rock of "I'll Take You There". All these tracks are up there with those on the actual album. The pounding electronic rock of "Atomica" from the extended "Next Day Extra EP" is excellent too, as is "The Informer". There are some entertains remixes too, particularly "I'd Rather Be High (Venetian Mix)".

B+




Thursday, 30 August 2018

David Bowie - 1. Outside (1995)

The heart's filthy lesson....

 

Released on 25 September 1995

Recorded in Switzerland

Running time 74:36

David Bowie was back with old mate, producer Brian Eno for this one. It was released two years after the vaguely experimental "Black Tie White Noise" and it ploughed several new furrows - dance music, spoken interludes, electronica, post grunge and even more avant garde, piano-driven jazz than had been dabbled with on the previous album.

It has, supposedly, a "concept" about a detective investigating the horrific murder and dismembering of a fourteen year-old girl. All rather unsettling and frankly a bit odd. It features several characters and, in between the songs, has several short, often spoken pieces. The one called "Baby Grace" I actually don't ever play, finding it decidedly creepy. So, I just stick to the songs, leaving out the spoken interludes and, playing them thus, the "concept" fades away. Did I really care about these characters anyway? No. The songs can all be taken separately, at face value. Yes, I know it is supposed to be listened to in its original incarnation, but well, there you go, I don't. Am I "cheating" the concept? Bowie purists would undoubtedly say yes.

Bowie himself said that the album was intended to be post-apocalyptic in a slightly "Diamond Dogs" fashion as the end of the century approached, something about which Bowie seemed to have become increasingly afraid of.

TRACK LISTING

1. Leon Takes Us Outside
2. Outside
3. The Heart's Filthy Lesson
4. A Small Plot Of Land
5. Segue - Baby Grace ( A Horrid Cassette)
6. Hallo Spaceboy
7. The Motel
8. I Have Not Been To Oxford Town
9. No Control
10. Segue - Algeria Touchshriek
11. The Voyeur Of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)
12. Segue - Ramona A. Stone/I Am With Name
13. Wishful Beginnings
14. We Prick You
15. Segue - Nathan Adler (1)
16. I'm Deranged
17. Thru' These Architect's Eyes
18. Segue - Nathan Adler (2)
19. Strangers When We Meet                                        

"Outside" is a solemn, intense but sonically addictive song, with a really strong Bowie vocal and a great sound to it. Lots of searing guitar, keyboards and a slow, industrial drum beat. I had forgotten what a good opener it was. "Heart's Filthy Lesson" introduces us to Bowie's dance beat experimentation that would continue into 1997's "Earthling" album. Beneath the thumping beat lies some madcap Mike Garson piano, some delicious rhythms, backing vocals and some haughty Bowie vocals coming in here and there. It is an innovatory and interesting track. Similarly so is the avant-garde jazz of "A Small Plot Of Land", with old "Ziggy"-era pianist Mike Garson to the fore. It is a most unusual track with some beguiling rhythms, cutting Talking Heads-style guitar and oddly distant but sonorous vocals floating around from Bowie. It is one of his strangest songs.

Quite how "Hallo Spaceboy", a crazed dance beat song with spacey overtones, fits in with the concept  is unclear. It seems completely incongruous to me. "The Motel" is a haunting, ethereal number with some more sumptuous Mike Garson piano, some absolutely killer Reeves Gabrels guitar and some echoes of the future in how some of the "Blackstar" album would sound in places. That whole futuristic jazz thing. "I Have Not Been To Oxford Town" has Bowie narrating part of the album's concept, semi-singing over an insistent but highly captivating guitar-driven industrial rhythm. "No Control" has a slow-burning, walking pace dance-ishbeat and a typically arch Bowie vocal. "The Voyeur Of Utter Destruction" has some "Aladdin Sane"-style piano over another thumping dance beat.

"I Am With Name" is a bizarre, cacophonous piece of jazzy experimentation that doesn't lend itself to too many listens, to be honest. "Wishful Beginnings" has a sledgehammer single beat drum sound that goes right to one's centre. It is a slightly unnerving but infectious song. All very enigmatic. "We Prick You" has the frantic, synthesised dance beat back again, but it features some excellent keyboard and guitar sounds too and an energising vocal. "I'm Deranged" just washes over you in a swathe of dance beats and occasionally tinkling piano with a somewhat airy, distant vocal. "Thru' These Architect's Eyes" is one of the album's best tracks. It has a rumbling bass line, great guitar riffs, yet more wonderful piano and Bowie powerfully incanting out the perplexing lyrics. Finally, (and this has been Bowie's longest ever album), we get the most conventionally-played number, "Strangers When We Meet". It has an introductory riff vaguely reminiscent of Spencer Davis's "Gimme Some Lovin'". It is probably my favourite on the album. It has a great hook, catchy melody and thankfully, no dance rhythms! A "proper" Bowie song - at last. These last two songs have been good ones, but, I have to admit, although the album is somewhat stodgy, it does indeed merit many listens. There is much beneath the surface. That is the mark of a good David Bowie album, I guess.

Incidentally the extended double disc edition of the album contains endless remixes of some of the tracks - five versions of "Hearts Filthy Lesson", for example. It is a labour of love trawling through them all, but some of them are pretty good and sometimes superior to the one used on the actual album. I particularly like the bassy "Rubber Mix" of "Heart's Filthy Lesson".

Interestingly, Brian Eno spoke one week after Bowie's death thus -

"....About a year ago we started talking about Outside – the last album we worked on together. We both liked that album a lot and felt that it had fallen through the cracks. We talked about revisiting it, taking it somewhere new. I was looking forward to that...."

What a shame it never came to pass.

C+

David Bowie - Earthling (1997)

I'm afraid of Americans, I'm afraid of the world....

 

Released on 3 February 1997

Recorded in New York City

Running time 48:57

This was David Bowie's "dance" album, influenced by contemporary electronica and "drum and bass" synthesised sounds. It is not a genre that has ever really appealed to me, so, for that reason, it is not one of my favourite Bowie albums.

However, unlike a lot of drum and bass material, Bowie didn't simply take snippets, loops and samples of bits of other songs and paste them over a dance beat, he did create actual songs to go with the beat. They are lyrically pretty minimalist, but they are actual songs and do have a certain appeal. In some ways, though, the songs sound as if they are regular Bowie songs and he has slapped a dance beat on them. One wonders what they may have been like given a maybe more conventional rock backing, a soul backing, or a "Tin Machine" grungy backing. As it was, he wanted to give them a dance backing, so that was that. Beneath the slightly overwhelming backing, though, lie a few hidden treasures here and there. Bowie was always the great innovator, and he certainly is here. It is one of his most experimental albums, if not the most.

Bowie actually compared the album to "Scary Monsters" in its aural attack and I can sort of see what he meant. He said he wanted to be "dynamic and aggressive". It was certainly that, but, as I said, I would have preferred more guitar to programmed drums, but there you go.

TRACK LISTING

1. Little Wonder
2. Looking For Satellites
3. Battle For Britain (The Letter)
4. Seven Years In Tibet
5. Dead Man Walking
6. Telling Lies
7. The Last Thing You Should Do
8. I'm Afraid Of Americans
9. Law (Earthlings On Fire)                                      

"Little Wonder" does indeed have an intoxicating rhythm, a catchy chorus hook - "so far away..." and all sorts of electric noises coming in and out of the song, behind the metronomic, thumping dance beat. There are guitar bits, keyboard bits, strings bits. It is a veritable cornucopia of sounds, making it stand out a bit from the usual dance stuff. "Looking For Satellites" is less frenetic, beat-wise and quite slow and industrial in its grinding beat and chanted vocal refrain about "shampoo, TV..." and so on. "Battle For Britain (The Letter)" actually sounds like a song from the "Space Oddity" era of the late sixties/early seventies until the huge drum machine rhythm kicks in. It has a great, sharp guitar interjection in places, which is quite exhilarating. The vocals just sound so evocative of that early era.

"Seven Years In Tibet" has really a chilled-out, quiet introduction and some plaintive Bowie vocals before a seriously huge, heavy blast of a chorus kicks in, then it goes quiet again. It is actually an intriguing song, with many facets. Typical Bowie in fact. "Dead Man Walking" sees a return to the 160 beats per minute, (or whatever it is), club beat backing. It has, beneath the synthesised onslaught, some excellent Bowie vocals and lyrics. It also has some interesting keyboard and guitar parts that have a Talking Heads feel to them in places. Right at the end, some recognisable Mike Garson piano arrives, a bit too late though.


"Telling Lies" is a sonorous, bassy thumper with another haunting and beguiling Bowie vocal. Again, one can't help but wonder what he song would have been like if given an alternative backing. The same applies to the mysterious "The Last Thing You Should Do", which features some searing guitar from old Tin Machine mate Reeves Gabrels. By now, listening to this album, the monotonous beat is starting to grate a bit, I have to admit. I am saved, though, by the gloriously powerful, riffy and addictively catchy "I'm Afraid Of Americans". This is, in my opinion, the best track on the album. It has some excellent lyrics, a great build up and a monster of a chorus. "Law (Earthlings On Fire)" has echoes of The Human League's "Sound Of The Crowd" in its vocal refrain. Otherwise it is pretty intransigent, clunky dance stodge. The album is not really my thing, but a dip into it every now and again can't harm.

C



Billy Joel




I became aware of Billy Joel in 1973, with his "Piano Man" single. It seemed, during that period, that a number of UK artists had an American "equivalent" - David Bowie had Lou Reed The Stones/Mott The Hoople had The New York Dolls and Elton John had Billy Joel. He was very much perceived as the USA's Elton John, serving up piano-backed, thoughtful ballads with a touch of rock here and there.

Personally, I properly got into him with the "52nd Street" album in 1978, which inspired me to buy "The Stranger" too. Despite being preoccupied with punk and new wave at the time, this sharp, cool New Yorker appealed to me in the same way that Bruce Springsteen did. He was more than just a balladeer - he had a knack for an atmospheric lyric and he merged it with a tough, streetwise persona too. He had a knowledge of music history as well, reflected in many of his recordings. There was always a down to earth honesty about Joel, together with a bit of wit that made him and his music an attractive prospect. The best material comes from the 1974-1978 period, a time where he just personifies that whole New York Italian restaurant vibe.

LIST OF ALBUMS

Click on the title for a more detailed review.

Cold Spring Harbor (1971)
Piano Man (1973)
Streetlife Serenade (1974)
Turnstiles (1976)
The Stranger (1977)
52nd Street (1978)
Glass Houses (1980)
The Nylon Curtain (1982)
An Innocent Man (1983)
The Bridge (1986)
Storm Front (1989)
River Of Dreams (1993)

Steeleye Span






Albums already reviewed are highlighted in orange. Click on album title for review:-

Hark! The Village Wait (1970)
Please To See The King (1971)
Ten Man Mop, Or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again (1971)
Below The Salt (1972)
Parcel Of Rogues (1973)
Now We Are Six (1974)
Commoners' Crown (1975)
All Around My Hat (1975)
Rocket Cottage (1976)
Storm Force Ten (1977)
Sails Of Silver (1980)
Back In Line (1986)
Tempted And Tried (1989)
Time (1996)
Horkstow Grange (1998)
Bedlam Born (2000)
They Called Her Babylon (2004)
Winter (2004)
Bloody Men (2006)
Cogs, Wheels And Lovers (2009)
Now We Are Six Again (2012)
Wintersmith (2013)
Dodgy Bastards (2016)

Bob Dylan & The Band - The Basement Tapes (1967)

Million dollar bash....

  

Recorded in 1967 in New York State

Running time 76.41

I have always had a bit of a problem with this sprawling album of largely "demo" songs being hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time, packed full of works of genius. While it is not quite in the execrable category as The Beach Boys' equivalent of studio buffoonery "Smiley Smile", not by a long way, I still have difficulty in accepting the album as anything other than a reasonably interesting collection of loose, pressure-off, relatively light-hearted pieces of studio fun. "Open the door, Richard..." is no improvised slice of genius, to me.

Yes, there are some genuinely enjoyable tracks on here. Personally, I really enjoy "Apple Sucking Tree" in an odd way, with its melodic swirling organ and Dylan's enthusiastically-delivered vocal. The same applies to "Please, Mrs. Henry". Another couple of favourites are the lively "Orange Juice Blues" and "Million Dollar Bash" (later covered by Fairport Convention). The Band's impossibly bluesy "Yazoo Street Scandal" is good too, but it is much better on "Music From Big Pink". Similarly, I much prefer The Band's "Tears Of Rage" to this one here, which is decidedly lo-fi and Dylan's vocal somewhat more nasal than usual. Speaking of the sound, it has always been "bootleg" lo-fi and no amount of remastering will be able to completely change that. As the title suggests it was recorded in a basement and the sound will be thus adversely affected. For some, this ropey sound is part of the appeal and I can sort of understand that. Not quite for me. Just my personal taste. Played on a decent system, though, it sounds as good as it has ever done under its latest remastering. The opener, "Odds And Ends" sounds as good as I have heard it, to be fair. An interesting thing to me is also the fact that the sound on "The Bootleg Series - Basement Tapes Raw" is infinitely better than on the original "Basement Tapes". Check out "This Wheel's On Fire" and "You Aint Goin' Nowhere" for convincing evidence.

I am writing this as a lifetime Dylan/Band fan (dating from the late sixties) in case you are wondering.

"Too Much Of Nothing" is ok in a "Blonde On Blonde" sort of way, but it is nowhere near up the standard of that album, let's be honest. Also, like many of the songs on here, I prefer another version, this time it is British folk group Fotheringay's take on it. There is, admittedly, an appeal in the loose, chilled-out enjoyment that is palpable in Dylan & The Band's delivery of fun material like "Yea! Hey And A Bottle Of Bread". Yes, it is clear that they all had a great time the studio recording all this stuff and that comes across loud and clear but, personally, I prefer a perfect studio album that was painstakingly recorded, however difficult its genesis maybe had been. The sound on "Tiny Montgomery" is pretty awful, it has to be said. I have no desire to listen to it too often. I have to admit a weakness for the take on "Long Distance Operator", though. Dylan's "This Wheels On Fire" is evocative, too. So, there is certainly good stuff to be found on the album, that cannot be denied, despite my other misgivings.


Also, I don't view this album as a treasure trove of "Americana" either, despite the presence of songs like the appealing "Crash On The Levee (Down On The Flood)" and The Band's "Ruben Remus".  There is far more of that to be found on The Band's first two albums, or on late sixties material from The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash.  I would much rather listen to all that material before this one. That is not to say I cannot enjoy things like "Don't Ya Tell Henry" on occasions, however.

The musicians involved on the album have said many times over the years that the material was never intended to be released - they were just trying out a whole heap of songs and styles and having fun doing it. Robbie Robertson has expressed disappointment that the stuff got bootlegged. For me, it will always sound rough and ready, some guys having a good time in the studio, and were it not Bob Dylan & The Band, it would not have garnered 1% of the attention of that it subsequently did. But, because it was them, it does have an interest. Give me "Music From Big Pink" anyday, though. Sorry.

B- (for cultural and historical interest)
C (for sound quality and concept)


Bob Dylan - Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973)

Mama put my guns in the ground....

  

Released July 1973

Recorded in Burbank, California

Running time 35.19

This is obviously a movie soundtrack album, as opposed to a regular album release, so there are not really quite as many observations to be made. There are some good tracks on the album, though, making it more credible than many think, particularly as it was Dylan's first material for three years.

TRACK LISTING

1. Main Title Theme
2. Cantina Theme
3. Billy 1
4. Bunkhouse Theme
5. River Theme
6. Turkey Chase
7. Knockin' On Heaven's Door
8. Final Theme
9. Billy 4
10. Billy 7                                                  

The "Main Title Theme" is an appealing piece of Mexican-influenced guitar and rhythm with some addictive, full bass lines coming in half way through. It is actually a really nice piece. The bongos and acoustic guitar of "Cantina Theme" are attractive too. A notable thing to this album is just how good the sound is. "Billy 1" is a harmonica-drenched, Latin-tinged track with some Dylan vocals. Again, it is not a bad song with echoes of the later "Romance In Durango". "Bunkhouse Theme" is a few minutes of slow finger picking guitar, slightly affected by some strange scratchy background noises. "River Theme" is more of the same, but without the noises and "Turkey Chase" is a lively piece of country fiddle and guitar fun.


The big track on here, of course, is the mournful and solemnly wonderful "Knockin' On Heaven's Door". I have always loved it and still do. It has a great bass line to it too, which is continued in "Final Theme", enhanced by some fetching flute passages. "Billy 4" is a fine, evocative song too, telling a tale in typical Dylan narrative style, and featuring some trademark harmonica. "Billy 7" is shorter but still an atmospheric song.

The presence of the three "Billy" songs and "Heaven's Door" make this more than just an album of background music. It is a worthwhile occasional listen.

C+

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Bob Dylan - Modern Times (2006)

Meet me at the bottom don't lag behind....

 

Released August 2006

Running time 62.43

Five years after the delicious, Americana-influenced "Love And Theft", Bob Dylan gave us pretty much more of the same with this uplifting, often exhilarating album, which had a real ad hoc, almost live feel to it. His band were on top form and they just got on with it, or it certainly seemed like it, listening to its loose, ready groove. Apparently, several lines in some of the songs were ones that had appeared earlier in old blues songs, sparking a bit of controversy. You know what? I don't care. I didn't care when Led Zeppelin did it and I don't care when Dylan does it. He is influenced by these songs so he goes somewhat jackdaw-like when writing new ones. I guess he should have credited the original writers of those lines, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. Dylan loves Americana and he uses it wherever he can to enhance his songs. That is what he is all about in this later phase of his career. The whole album has hints of songs and artists all over it.

TRACK LISTING

1. Thunder On The Mountain
2. Spirit On The Water
3. Rollin' And Tumblin'
4. When The Deal Goes Down
5. Someday Baby
6. Workingman's Blues
7. Beyond The Horizon
8. Nettie Moore
9. The Levee's Gonna Break
10. Ain't Talkin'                                                  

"Thunder On The Mountain" is a lively, appealing bluesy rocker with a namecheck for Alicia Keys, who Dylan was thinking about, apparently. There is some excellent rocking blues guitar on the track and just a great vibe to it. It just gets you going. "Spirit On The Water" sounds like it is straight off "Love And Theft", with that laid-back, swampy, jazzy guitar and shuffling, appealing beat. Dylan softly croaks away and it just sounds so reassuring and comforting, even. "Rollin' And Tumblin'" is an upbeat, Muddy Waters-influenced rocking blues of the style we have come to expect from Dylan now, particularly since "Time Out Of Mind". I really like these later-era Dylan albums - they are invigorating, enthusiastically played and just most enjoyable. "When The Deal Goes Down" is a slow, yearning song with Dylan actually crooning, a style he would come to utilise in later years when he covered that sort of material. This is more a piece of old time, bluesy slow swinging jazz.

"Someday Baby" recycles that old six note blues riff that Dylan and many, many other artists have used before - Muddy Waters, Sleepy John Estes (originally) and The Allman Brothers Band, to name just a few. Now, the mighty "Workingman's Blues" is up there in my top ten Dylan songs of all times - it is a slow-burning, sad-sounding song, jam-packed with great lines and Dylan's voice just makes me feel tearful when I hear it on this song. I can't express just how much I love it."Sleep is like a temporary death..." is just one of the lines that really does it for me.

"Beyond The Horizon" is another old-time crooning, shuffling jazzy slowie with some lovely jazz guitar at the end. "Nettie Moore" is a re-working of an old nineteenth-century folk ballad. It is performed here over a thumping, funereal drum backing as Dylan's grizzled old voice delivers the tale of his devotion to Nettie Moore despite his struggle and strife. A sombre violin backs him as he launches into the growled chorus. "The world has gone berserk - too much paperwork..." he tells us. Indeed.


"The Levee's Gonna Break" is a lively blues romp with some killer rockabilly guitar, throbbing bass and Dylan on enthusiastic vocal form. Finally, "Ain't Talkin'" is a solemn, extended number to end upon. It is reflective, thoughtful and dignified. As with all the post-"Time Out Of Mind" albums, this has been an impressive outing.

B-

Elton John - Empty Sky (1969)

You can come to Val-Hala in your own time....

 

Released June 1969

Recorded in London

Running time 41.00

Elton John's debut album begins, on its title track, with a minute of bongo drums before we get some piano and the song breaks into what would be a recognisable sound - mid paced piano-driven bluesy rock. There are some dreamy, hippy sixties flute moments in places but it is pretty much dominated by that bluesy sound. It has a Stones-ish fade-out part at the end too. It is in many ways a typical late sixties album - touches of vague psychedelia, hints of country rock, nods to the blues, ambitions of grandeur (a seven minute opener), everyone trying to out-do "Sgt. Pepper" and release an album that made a statement of their creativity. You have to assess whether Elton John's potential is showing through here. On balance, yes it probably is.

TRACK LISTING

1. Empty Sky
2. Val-Hala
3. Western Ford Gateway
4. Hymn 2000
5. Lady What's Tomorrow
6. Sails
7. The Scaffold
8. Skyline Pigeon
9. Gulliver/It's Hay Chewed/Reprise                      

This was the first album also for songwriter Bernie Taupin. Many of the songs were very much in the style of the material that would appear on their second album, "Elton John". One such an example is "Val-Hala", with its Elizabethan keyboards and Elton's Dylan/Mott The Hoople-esque vocal. There is definitely potential on this one, with its appealing hook, melody and beguiling lyrics.

"Western Ford Gateway" is instantly recognisable as an Elton John song, with that bluesy rock style and already distinctive vocal delivery. It is Beatles-esque in places too, though. "Hymn 2000" has hints of Cat Stevens about it, in a dreamy, folky rock sort of way. Something about the vocals and lyrics too.

The even more folky, melodic "Lady What's Tomorrow" also ploughs a Cat Stevens furrow, it has to be said. "Sails" is an upbeat rocker with more bluesy insistence. "The Scaffold" is very much a thing of its time, its twee catchiness is probably best forgotten, lets be honest. The grandiose keyboard sounds of "Skyline Pigeon" give us the best track on the album and one that Elton has occasionally played live over the years. It was reprised as the 'b' side to "Daniel" in 1973, with a piano backing. It is a truly lovely song, Bernie Taupin's first great one.

The final track, "Gulliver/It's Hay Chewed/Reprise", starts as a ballad, then turns into a jazzy instrumental and then, bizarrely, plays a small bit of all the album's tracks. An odd ending to a curiosity of an album.

C-

Elton John - The Diving Board (2013)

A town called Jubilee...

  

Released September 2013

Recorded in Los Angeles

Running time 57.45

Elton John's first album for seven years, which was by far his longest absence from releasing material, this a more piano-led album than those that had been before. He had released the excellent collaboration with Leon Russell, "The Union", however.

TRACK LISTING

1. Oceans Away
2. Oscar Wilde Gets Out
3. A Town Called Jubilee
4. The Ballad Of Blind Tom
5. Dream #1
6. My Quicksand
7. Can't Stay Alone Tonight
8. Voyeur
9. Home Again
10. Take This Dirty Water
11. Dream #2
12. The New Fever Waltz
13. Mexican Vacation (Kids In The Candlelight)
14. Dream #3
15. The Diving Board                                                                                                      

"Oceans Away" is a lovely, melodic, piano-only opener, while "Oscar Wilde Gets Out" is a darkly rhythmic, moving tale of the unfortunate playwright. This song features strings and a full band backing too, effectively. That production once again harks back to the "Elton John" album. "A Town Called Jubilee" has some country-ish blues guitar and some Bernie Taupin Americana lyrics. As with most of the output from 2001 there are significant hints of their recording past in John and Taupin's work on this album - Americana, bluesy tracks, country-ish tracks, rollicking piano, nostalgic lyrics. They are all there, but as with most of Elton's recent backyard-echoing material, they don't recall the hits i.e. "Rocket Man", "Crocodile Rock" and the like. They bring to mind songs like "Sixty Years On", "First Night At Hienton", "Where To Now St. Peter", "Have Mercy On The Criminal" and "Susie (Dramas)". If you are familiar with Elton's seventies material, you will know what I mean.

"The Ballad Of Blind Tom" is a appealing blues-based number with an excellent piano backing and some thumping drums. "My Quicksand" is a stark, mournful lament of a piano ballad. Long and languid, it has a strong vocal and an evocative refrain about "waking up with an accent" after going to Paris once. Elton also lapses into some classical piano at one stage. "Can't Stay Alone Tonight" gets the mood back up again with a country blues-ish upbeat number. "Voyeur" is a rich, warm, bassy ballad. "Home Again" is bleaker, piano and haunting strings only. It has an instantly appealing chorus and is reminiscent of some of the material on "The Union".


"Take This Dirty Water" is one of those piano-led bluesy numbers like "Take Me To The Pilot" or "Honky Cat", enhanced by some gospel-style backing vocals. The melodic, sad "The New Fever Waltz" has a real feel of an old song but I can't put my finger on what it is. "Mexican Vacation" is a rousing barroom blues rocker and the title track is a jazzy, late night closer to an atmospheric, beguiling album.

One thing I would say about this album, though, is that, like many of its time, it is probably about two or three tracks too long. For me, it would have more effect if it were a few tracks shorter. Of course, I could always just not play a few of them, but I aways feel that somehow I should play albums through.

B-

Elton John - Songs From The West Coast (2001)

We bet on our lives and we bet on the horses....

  

Released October 2001

Recorded in Los Angeles

Running time 54.06

After two decades of variable material, this was the long-awaited "return to form", to use that horrible, over-used phrase. I guess here it was true. One listen to the opener "The Emperor's New Clothes" and one is certainly convinced of that - a moving vocal, an autobiographical, nostalgic lyric (always a strength from Bernie Taupin), no layers of synthesiser, a crystal clear, well-utilised piano and generally a great sound to it altogether. It is a great start to the album, and one of Elton's best tracks for over twenty years. This album signalled the beginning of a run of excellent ones that put the previous twenty years' output to shame. To be honest, you could survive on Elton's pre-1978 and post 2001 material and not miss the in-betweens at all.

TRACK LISTING

1. The Emperor's New Clothes
2. Dark Diamond
3. Look Ma, No Hands
4. American Triangle
5. Original Sin
6. Birds
7. I Want Love
8. The Wasteland
9. The Ballad Of The Boy In The Red Shoes
10. Love Her Like Me
11. Mansfield
12. This Train Don't Stop There Anymore

"Dark Diamond" is a rhythmic, mid paced rock-ish ballad with hints of the "Captain Fantastic" album to it and an excellent "proper" drum sound, thank goodness. It also features Stevie Wonder's instantly recognisable harmonica too. You hear stuff like this and think just how the heck did he tolerate some of the material he released in the eighties and nineties. "Look Ma, No Hands" starts with a Billy Joel-esque piano intro and a has a trademark, strong Elton vocal and those Americana lyrics. "American Triangle" continues in the same vein, with another excellent vocal from an Elton who seems to have got his clear diction back. "Original Sin" is another quality ballad. These songs sound so much better without those awful eighties and nineties backings, it has to be said. Maybe some of those earlier albums would have sounded so much better if they had been produced like this.

"Birds" is a country-ish lively number that harks back to the "Tumbleweed Connection" days, although I refute the popularly expressed opinion that this album is similar to that one. Nearly thirty years, for a start. It is difficult to explain how, but they are just different. "I Want Love" is a stark but catchy ballad, with an addictive bass line and is well known by most as it was a hit single . "The Wasteland" evokes some Elvis Presley in its opening riff, and utilises a classic blues progression in its basic backing and namecheck Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. It is good to hear Elton singing the blues again.


"Ballad Of The Boy In The Red Shoes" has echos of "Danny Bailey" from "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" . There are lot of links to the past on this album, but they are just that, links, not attempts to copy. "Love Her Like Me" is a lively number, with a Springsteen-esque guitar riff. "Mansfield" is another of those nostalgic, autobiographical songs looking back at Elton and Bernie's crazy, wild times, of which they have done many, but they are always evocative. "Indian Summer" from the "Madman Across The Water" album is quoted in the lyrics.

"This Train Don't Stop There Anymore" is a beautiful, typical Elton slow and emotional song to close what has been a most enjoyable album, not only lyrically, musically but also production-wise. There is a clarity of sound that had been lacking for a while and a more basic rock approach. Nice album.

B+