Bob Dylan – Christmas In The Heart

Bob Dylan, at least in my eyes, is an institution. I have never heard a single album or even full song by the man*, and I could not recall a single line of music he has ever done, unless it’s something that’s been covered by someone else, yet I know exactly what his voice sounded like in all his various eras, I know his history as the reluctant hero of the musical protest era of the 60’s, and I know that he is the most respected songwriter, comma, period. That was an incredible run-on sentence, and I knew I couldn’t let this wondrous Christian holiday without talking about the god-damned Bob Dylan Christmas album, also known as Christmas In The Heart, also also known as holy crap what is this:

I suppose before I undertake what will undoubtedly be a rather sparse writeup of the actual music contained herein, I should make a few admissions. For one, I hate Christmas music. It’s not that I don’t love Christmas, I think it’s a nice holiday despite the expensive gift exchange that brings about a month of retail hell on earth, but there’s something about the music that just bothers me. There are only a few pieces of music I can think of that only have occasional business being heard by anyone; the “Death March” by Handel (or the 3rd Movement of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35) for funerals, Pachelbel’s “Canon In D” for graduations (or the more popular “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” by Pachelbel protégé Greenday) for graduations, and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” for when you want to commit a drug-fueled suicide in the bathtub. So yes, there’s a song for every occasion, but the thing about Christmas is that it has thousands of songs for just one occasion which amounts to mainly eating oneself into a coma after receiving gifts that somehow always seem to be worth about half of what you gave out, all while burning enough electricity on lighting houses and trees to power all those villages in Africa we keep hearing about, all with a sort of bastardized, commercially sterilized version of vague spiritual back-patting, all the while making sure not to offend people who don’t believe in the same Christmas Tree (sorry, “Holiday” Tree, right?)

So yeah, Christmas is fun but is generally meaningless except to serve as a cultural institution that reminds us that it’s “that time of year again”. In that way, Christmas and Bob Dylan are very similar, except one contains a lot more booze and used to actually be relevant. I will leave it up to you to decide which.

I really can not fault Bob Dylan for wanting to make a Christmas album. After all, his contemporaries have all done Christmas albums (heck, Johnny Cash did at least three), and Bob Dylan tends to bring with him a touch of class, no matter how goofy the idea is, and certainly a prominent Jew singing about the birth of Jesus is already stacking the odds against our aging songster. Still, Dylan is undeterred, after all, he claims to have grown up with the music, and songs speak louder than sense to our man, so onward he presses.

I picked up this album and began listening to it and indeed it is a treasure. Being someone who’s not particularly into Dylan and especially against Christmas music, I still found a lot to love here. For one, the instrumentation is lovely, and I mean that in all seriousness. Aside from the cheesy use of bells of the church and reindeer variety (the oldest Christmas cliche), the music is kind of a blend of old-style Country and the “less is more” sensibility of contemporary folk music. Songs like “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is colored by clean, reverby jazz guitar chords and piano, with the drums set to “brushes”, with some angelic background singers. Then we have Bob Dylan singing.

It seems unfair to talk about this album without talking about Bob Dylan’s singing. Again, being totally opposite a fan of Dylan as what I am of Johnny Cash, I know next to nothing about the man or what life has done to him, but I will tell you that it has left him with a voice that sounds something like a chainsaw perpetually trying to start, and he has a lot of the same intonations, too. I will admit, even as someone who appreciates “off” singing, it is next to impossible for me to take this kind of music seriously when Dylan’s got a voice that would make Harvey Fierstein stop and offer him a cough drop. It should thus be no surprise that this is my very favorite Christmas album, not just for its sheer impossibility, but because Dylan’s earnest, straight-forward, and absolutely ridiculous performance is the antidote to everything that currently upsets me about Christmas.

This whole focus on clean-cut consumerism that has ruined the holiday and turned the month of December into a perpetual joke is only getting worse as times go by and the economy gets worse. Maybe it’s my 5 solid years of retail selling that has opened my eyes to this, but it really is a problem. From literally the day after Thanksgiving, when we’re all parked outside of stores waiting for cheap laptops and “early bird” deals, to the day after Christmas when we’re sluggishly cleaning up decorations (or leaving them there until August, why not), the entire month just runs on auto-pilot. We have twice as much traffic, often twice as much work to do, and try as you might, you can not escape the Christmas music. It’s so robotic and soulless, it’s no small wonder that the suicide rate tends to spike just before the big pay-off.

This album serves well as a reminder that this music used to actually be music, and Dylan inserting his classiness into the music and doing his best, with a voice that sounds like it was designed by a joint venture between Pall Mall and Cuisinart, for a genuine love of the music, and without accepting a penny for his troubles (all royalties go to an anti-starvation charity, awwww), strips the gloss away and adds just a glimmer, albeit a fleeting one, of life into a holiday that needs it desperately. Hence, this is still not music I’ll be listening to in March, but next time December rolls around, perhaps I’ll be shut in and will once again avoid the retail rush (my temporary joblessness has allowed me to sit out of this holiday retail season for the first time in half a decade), and will spin this album again and feel the warmth of what Christmas is all about, and that is Bob Dylan, aging folk icon, croaking his way clumsily through “Hark, The Herald Ages Sing”. I fully plan on being very drunk at this point.

If all of that isn’t enough of a testament to this album being not so bad, check out the video to “Must Be Santa“, featuring Bob Dylan looking like a cross between Tom Petty and Tom Waits. I legitimately love this song and video, especially the line “Who laughs this way, Ho Ho Ho”, man that kills me.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

*I have rectified this, by the way, because on the same ticket as this album, I purchased Dylan’s most famous album, Highway 61 Revisited, and will be enjoying that once I get back to Austin.

 

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Jesca Hoop – Kismet

The cover to today’s album has caught my eye more than a few times at work, and I always regretted passing it by without purchasing it. I eventually remembered the album long enough to go ahead and download it on Zune, then listened to it a couple of time and loved it, and then went back to work to find that the CD is gone now. Oh well, I’ll have to buy it later, but for now let’s go ahead and talk about a lovely album from a unique little girl:

It of course doesn't hurt this girl's case that she's really pretty. Love the hair!

I had a few hesitations about this album at first, I mean, what if it turned out to be some boring (or worse, indie) sounding hour-long diatribe into senseless… THINGS?! My fear was exacerbated by the endorsement on the back of the CD by none other than Tom Waits, for whom I have an ambivalent appreciation.

Turns out “Tom Waits” was the farthest thing from my mind as soon as the obscure stringed instrument and bird calls carry in the simple folky tune “Summertime”, but hang on. Simple? There’s about 3 or 4 part harmonies going on at every moment. It’s a little imposing at first, but after the first minute and a half, her voice comes back in again, and it’s completely different. Suddenly she’s singing low? What trickery! This is just the hook I had been looking for in a recording, as simple as it seems, the idea of changing the very tone and structure of your singing to serve a different part of the song (the “adult” vocals compared to the “kids” vocals) is something I last heard from a singer called Nick Drake. Bravo!

So just when I strapped myself in for a smooth late-night swim in the river that Tom Waits promised, suddenly the album takes an abrupt turn. The track “Seed Of Wonder” starts with reggae-flavored/accented rhythmic singing, and a really sweet sounding melody coming in every other verse. Then 3 different vocal parts come in and sing different parts, and suddenly I have no idea what’s going on, but I’m interested. The other part I love about this particular track is that it’s 6 minutes long and never really stays in one place for too long.

It was then that I had to learn more about this mysterious girl. Turns out she is not only endorsed by Tom Waits, she’s somewhat of a protege of his, and came into her sound merely by the process of writing stuff she wanted to hear. How novel! Well, as a huge stickler for originality, that was about all I needed to know to enjoy the rest of the album with a mind open for whatever she wanted to throw my way.

And throw she does! After the multi-instrumental goodness of the previous tracks, she strips it down to just a delicately plucked acoustic guitar and really up-front vocals for “Enemy”. Though the guitar remains at the center of the mix, other melodies and harmonies come in from different sources just to stay a while, and they are certainly welcome.

The sounds of a film projector open up the track “Silverscreen”, which she sings with a very strange accent (she doesn’t seem to be fixed on any particular way of singing as demonstrated in the first track). The song is kind of “noir” for lack of a less sleepy term to use. I appreciate it, though the influence of Tom Waits is starting to show a bit. I don’t know though, anyone can get an oboe to play a haunting melody against an upright bassline, why contribute it to just one person?

“Money” comes in with a nice straightforward message about how commercial success colors the sounds that we hear on albums that apparently aren’t Kismet. It’s a much more straightforward pop song where the typical synth crap is replaced by lovely acoustic instruments and a Jesca’s smooth vocal delivery. I really can’t explain how much I appreciate when actual “thought” is put into arrangements like this. The bridge is not to be missed either, particularly for CUSSES!

Then Jesca winds up the next song, “Dreams In The Hollow”, with some wind-up tool, which I guess releases the French lines sung instead of English ones. I guess French is a better language than English, after all.

Then we have a lovely acoustic song about… Hurricane Katrina?! Well it’s mentioned in a line, I guess I haven’t figured out the rest of “Love Is All We Have” yet, lyrically anyway. It’s another near-soliloquy like “Enemy”, where other sounds come in just to visit for a while and build the song up a bit without distracting from the central performances. Beauty!

Just in case you forgot that this is an album of variety, the next song is a number that defies explanation, called “Intelligentactile 101”. It’s kind of a spacey folk jam (like a daughter-of-David-Bowie kind of song, perhaps?) It reminds me of Bowie anyway, and that is certainly not to its detriment. It’s one of my favorite songs actually.

“Havoc In Heaven” is a song she apparently is trying to sing like Björk only without so many dynamics, and it’s got a nice oppressive beat. What more could you ask for?

Well you could ask for a hip hop song with nice low frequency booms, and if you did, you’re just as unusual as Jesca Hoop, as that is exactly what she comes back with. I can’t help but dig “Out The Back Door”, particularly since I enjoy some very bassy headphones indeed. I also absolutely adore the haunting piano keys in the background during some segments of this song. Really what I adore is a song where I HAVE little parts like that I can pick out as my favorite.

We then have the quite traditional-sounding jazz song “Love And Love Again”, which I THINK is a cover. I am too lazy to check this. It’s a beautiful waltzy number, and the singing kind of rushes it along, which gives it an interesting effect. Of course that effect could be in my mind since I am working on quite an extended no-sleeping period (I think I haven’t had any sleep between the previous 3 Album Du Jour entries). I think I am just going to close here by saying Jesca Hoop accomplishes a very difficult feat indeed, being an interesting solo artist despite the temptation to conform to any type of style or way of thinking. Her all-over-the-place genre bending is a breath of fresh air above the sea of “independent” artists trying to be the next big thing. The real charm of this album, at least from what I can tell from a single day of listening, is that Jesca really is just doing music she would want to hear. I am not sure it’s like “swimming in a river at night” like ol’ Tom Waits says, since I would consider that act terrifying, perhaps it’s more like just being there at the river at night. Ah I dunno.

 

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Warren Zevon – Preludes: Rare And Unreleased Recordings

Ok ok, so I know this probably breaks a bunch of unspoken rules. For one, I JUST wrote about Warren Zevon like TWO DAYS AGO. For two, what I’m writing about isn’t exactly an album, in that it’s a posthumous release of collected rarities and demos and a second disc of an interview with the man, the legend, the sandwich-enjoyer, Warren Zevon.

Well, in response to these self-inflicted objections I say:

1. Deal with it
2. I have decided that this album is enough of an album because the recordings are all from the same time period, and none of the songs appear on other recordings, since they were all recovered long after being recorded. Anyway, if I wasn’t able to write about this collection, I wouldn’t be able to write about Personal File OR Unearthed, two of my favorite posthumous releases from Johnny Cash. So I have decided to concede that I CAN write about posthumous “discovered” period collections, because this blog is about what *I* want to write about, and it’s all music anyway, right?

Right. On with the show:

This picture is SO COOL I want to have babies with it

This collection is sold both as a one-disc and a two-disc version. I really recommend the two-disc version, as the second disc is an excellent eye-opening interview with Warren in one of the strangest periods of his life you could have picked to talk with him. It was recorded in 1999, which was about 3 years before he found out he had terminal cancer, but right as he released one of his most death-related albums, Life’ll Kill Ya. I’ll get to that in a moment, first some of the demos on Disc 1:

It starts off with a solo performance of an early song of Warren’s called “Empty Hearted Town”, which features L.A., a city about which Warren sang but didn’t like to be considered part of, musically. It contains the line “Shoulda done, shoulda done” that would become one of the lines from the album version of “Accidentally Like A Martyr”. It’s a beautiful song, and I particularly like the line “I’m walking through the streets of L.A./Wishing I had a warmer jacket”.

The next song is a demo featuring a full band, and contains some very interesting instrumentation. It’s called “Steady Rain” and opens up with a metronome (or maybe some other ticking instrument) and a 12-string guitar riff that sounds really spacey, in fact the whole thing kind of sounds spacey, with the organs and reverb and everything. In fact, I would say the minor-key bridge is a 20 year precursor to Radiohead’s sound. I often wonder what would have happened if Warren did more of the Radiohead sound while Radiohead were still in diapers.

We then get treated to an acoustic guitar/vocal rendition of “Join Me In L.A.”, which is fun to listen to, because Warren liked to party with this song even when it was just clearly him in a room by himself. Right after that is a beautiful solo performance of “Hasten Down The Wind”, which I nearly prefer to the album version, since it’s so sparse and his vocal performance is actually a little more emotional-sounding in this particular performance.

Then a sample from Shakespeare opens up a really strange rendition of “Werewolves Of London”, which features almost none of the crashy dynamics of the album version. The piano is replaced by an organ, the guitar is just reverbed staccato notes playing rhythm as if in a reggae setup, and the “A-HOOO’s” are pushed way in the background and are sung in 2-part harmony. Also there’s a lot of gutteral growling, snarling and panting in the background, ALSO the choruses are cut roughly in half. Quite an eccentric performance, and definitely worth hearing for the novelty, or if you wanted to hear what the song sounds like on heavy medication.

The next song, “Tule’s Blues”, is a different version than the demo that appears on the CD remaster of Excitable Boy, and is a pretty good song about love lost between the performer and another musician named Tule. That is then followed up with an acoustic guitar performance of “The French Inhaler”, which is a pretty interesting take, since I didn’t even think you could adequately play it on guitar. Warren was really an underrated guitarist, he could really pound it out on the 12-string.

One favorite of mine in the collection is “Going All The Way”, mostly because it is such a standard song for something Warren wrote. Well, the piano/glockenspiel melody played through about half of the song is really creative, but the whole song is half-finished anyway, so I guess there’s no sense wondering what might have come out of this track.

We’re then treated to a particulary screamy demo of “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”, which starts out with a line that Warren didn’t sing in the album but did sing in the live album Stand In The Fire:

Well, I met a girl from the Vieux Carre
Down in Yokahama
She picked me up and she throwed me down
I said, “Please don’t hurt me, Mama”

Which, really I do prefer the song to start out with the album version’s lyrics, and I guess Warren felt the same way.

Then there’s a great song called “Studebaker” that I really would have liked to hear a finalized version of. It’s about having a Studebaker and regretting the fact that it breaks down all the time, and it unfortunately ends with a near-flub, so if there are other parts written, I guess we’ll never hear them!

We then are treated to an early, much wordier version of “Accidentally Like A Martyr”. It’s a bit more bitter and less sentimental, which would be the prevailing attitude in many more of his love-lost songs, but I’m kind of glad he went with the more sparse arrangement with the final album version. The song is also considerably faster in this demo version, and features some motown “hey hey hey”s at the end, which might have derailed the song in its slower arrangement. However, like with all the other demos, it’s great to hear how this stuff started out and what became of it.

It’s followed by a less-refined version of “Carmelita”, and then a very un-Zevon-like original called “I Used To Ride So High”. The latter doesn’t even sound like it’s sung by Warren for the most part, and it’s about 70% choruses, which would be a “thing” in Warren’s later albums, but still, it’s kind of a 70’s rock du jour song with falsetto to spare.

We’re then treated to a bit of a country song called “Stop Rainin’ Lord”, which is just a good song all around, though I can see where it wouldn’t fit on all but the later of Zevon’s albums. It references a town called “Mechanicsburg” which I really hope is a real town.

“The Rosalita Beach Cafe” is a really good song about being stuck in a cafe with an impossible to pay off tab, even though the singer “has a million dollar bill and they won’t let me change it”. Pretty great all around, but probably didn’t make it onto the album because it is rather close, lyrically, to “Desperadoes Under The Eaves”, which is the next song, actually! I don’t care how raw this version sounds, I always love hearing this song.

Next is an acoustic guitar song called “Workin’ Man’s Pay”, which is a very minory song about just what you think it’s about. Great song that quite reminds me of a Gentle Giant song called “Working All Day”, which I’m sure I’ll talk about later. This song is about half-finished on this collection, which is a shame. Also relatively unfinished is the silky smooth “Frozen Notes”, which I think is also a bonus on Excitable Boy. I am too lazy to check this.

Finally, we have the extremely scratchy and lo-fi “Some Kind Of Rider” which, despite its rough fidelity, has some really excellent harmonies. It sounds a lot like an old country record that has been buried in a pile of nails for centuries.

And with that, the collection’s first disc of 19 tracks comes to an end. Overall, an excellent collection, and really makes one wonder what might have been, and excepting the final few tracks, has excellent sound quality throughout.

The second disc, as I mentioned, is an interview Warren did for KGSR, Austin’s fancy-pants radio station. The interview is great to listen to, since Warren speaks with such articulation and everything he says is so genuine. Without giving away too much of the facts I’m sure to mention when I talk about Life’ll Kill Ya, I’ll reveal some things I learned about Warren:

1. He was a big Radiohead fan, and considered them “a favorite, which means out of 2 or 3 bands ever”.

2. He wrote a song from that album while driving to the Wal*Mart I live really close to!

3. He never considered himself an “unsuccessful rock singer”, but rather a “really successful folk singer”.

4. He played some songs at the inauguration of Minnesota Governor/ex-Wrestler/Actor who has no time for pain, Jesse Ventura. Ventura himself sang a rendition of “Werewolves Of London”.

And there are many more topics spoken of including mortality, being a “song noir” songwriter, and his views on music in general. Great stuff.

 

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Warren Zevon – Excitable Boy

Everybody’s desperate, trying to make ends meet
Work all day, still can’t pay the price of gasoline and meat
Alas, their lives are incomplete

Don’t it make you want to rock and roll, all night long?
Mohammed’s Radio
I heard somebody singing sweet and soulful on the radio
Mohammed’s Radio

These are lines from Warren Zevon’s previous album, which I’ve already talked about. Today, I have been inundated with all kinds of financial worry, which is unrelated to anything I couldn’t have prevented with a bit of sense, so no real big deal. Either way, I’m stressed, so today I am going to talk about one of my very favorite albums/artists to check into therapy with:

Doesn't he just LOOK excitable?

This album is likely in the record collection of just about anyone over the age of 40. It was, up until his final recording, the most successful album Warren ever put out. The success is certainly deserved, as it is a remarkable album.

Now, I usually recommend listening to the debut, Warren Zevon, before listening to this recording, to provide a sort of context for the sound and the lyricist, but I’ve realized lately that the album really stands on its own. It’s something of an evil cousin to the previous album, all of the wonderful production and top-shelf songwriting is there, only it lacks the introspection and redemption of the debut, and is mainly concerned with partying and presenting the dark themes of the lyrics in a very unapologetic, yet accessible, way.

The album starts off innocently enough with “Johnny Strikes Up The Band”, which is perfect for people looking for a bit of party therapy, as it opens up with:

Dry your eyes, my little friend
Let me take you by the hand
Freddy get ready, rock-steady
When Johnny strikes up the band

It’s a great little song, particularly the bridge portion with its fancy piano chords.

It reminds me, really, of my favorite thing about Sgt. Pepper’s etc., the legendary Beatles album: it’s a “gateway” song, like the album is welcoming you with a song about the music you’ll be hearing, but not something as obvious as a “Theme to Album” song (something another band I like is known for).

So I bet you weren’t expecting to be floored with a haunting ballad of a Norweigan mercenary’s ghost immediately after that, were ya? Well, “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner” is precisely that, and it is a song that floors, provided of course that you have a soul. The piano intro actually sounds a lot like “Frank And Jesse James” from Warren Zevon, but not close enough, merely in the same key. Anyway, “Roland” is a much better song. It’s got backstabbing, war, murder, revenge, and some extraordinary word-play, just about everything you could expect from a masterful ballad.

Of course, then it’s time to bring it all up to speed with another type of ballad, and that is the song’s title track. Oh, how I love this song. It’s so twisted:

Well he went down to dinner in his Sunday best
Excitable boy, they all said
And he rubbed the pot-roast all over his chest
Well he’s just an excitable boy

Every stanza of the 4 verses are arranged like this, with each “activity” becoming all the more sickening. You’ll just have to hear it for yourself. The fact that the tune is so pleasant against all this makes this an incredibly fun song for deviants or people with superior senses of humor.

Speaking of, the party doesn’t stop there! The next song is the one Warren is best known for: “Werewolves Of London”. I really want to say that this song isn’t worth a dime because it was written in 15 minutes and Warren was outspoken in his “hatred” of the song, and I totally relate to that (despite not being a “successful” musician, the song I play that people like the most is the one that took 15 minutes to write). However, I am not strong enough of a cynic to dismiss this song. It’s an amazing song, and just you try to listen to it in the car without howling along with the over-simplified chorus.

“Werewolves Of London”, despite the lack of time spent writing it, has some great alliterative lines and some very interesting imagery in the lyrics. It’s what one should expect from a genius, I suppose.

After that, it’s finally time to take a break for a love-lost song. Though Warren has written a couple dozen love songs, “Accidentally Like A Martyr” is one of the more raw and emotionally honest ones, and goes to show that genius can be applied to emotional issues as well as party songs about rape or werewolves:

The phone didn’t ring, no no
And the sun refused to shine
Never thought I’d have to pay so dearly
For what was already mine
For such a long, long time

We made mad love, shadow love
Random love, abandoned love
Accidentally, like a martyr
The hurt gets worse, and the heart gets harder

It’s got some crazy chord changes after the choruses too, which is always a fun separation from the 3 chord structure used in the previous couple of songs.

Next is a funky jam called “Nighttime In The Switching Yard”, which isn’t really much lyrically, but has some awesome drum and bass work throughout, and a great breakdown with a horn section in the chorus. I dig this song, it reminds me of something really familiar, but I can’t quite place my finger on it. I guess it’s just got that kind of 70’s funk feel to it that kids my age just know.

Man, hard to believe we’re already almost through the album… next is “Vera Cruz”, which is a historical ballad co-written by Jorge Calderón (who is musically Zevon’s faithful sidekick), and is written from the perspective of a rich Mexican family fleeing from “Woodrow Wilson’s guns”. I kick myself that I can’t remember anything about the particular struggle, because that would PROBABLY make this song a lot more significant to me. It features some Spanish language in the bridge, which wouldn’t be the last time Warren uses that language (legitimately, though, as he was a resident of Spain for a while before getting signed).

We then have a song that, well, I am not too crazy about. It’s called “Tenderness On The Block” and it’s a very insightful song instructing fathers to learn how to let go of their daughters when they come of age. It’s not the theme that bothers me, I guess I just find the instrumentation a little grating on this one, which is bound to happen at some point or another, I suppose. Still, I listen to this song when it comes up about half the time.

Finally, in case you forgot this album was about destroying the pressures of modern day life by singing absurd songs of excess and wrongdoing, we have the legendary “Lawyers, Guns, And Money”, which is better explained by Zevon himself than I could ever do:

“Back in the late 70’s, I was working on the album Excitable Boy, and I decided I needed a vacation, so I went to Kawai in the Hawaiian islands. I wrote this song, late one night, on wet cocktail napkins after a long day of improbable and grotesque mischief. Obviously, I survived all that, but I learned something from the experience. I never take vacations.”

There are a few songs that, even after getting clean and kicking the alcoholism that plagued Warren’s early career, that deal with unapologetic excess and the hilarious consequences that ensue. Warren is usually the victor in this regard, as he enjoyed writing himself as a victorious villian, to be redeemed whenever he feels appropriate. That redemption would come much later, so until then, Excitable Boy stands as a wonderfully mischievous album which makes for perfect listening for potential trouble-makers.

 

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Johnny Cash – At San Quentin

For some reason, when I started this blog, I told myself I wouldn’t talk about any live albums. Just today I asked myself why not? After all, they’re still albums, and I’ve been listening to a particular one all day to get me through a 13 hour day at work:

Johnny hears the train a-comin', but if he'd just look to his left he'd SEE it comin' too.

This is the second live album Johnny Cash recorded in a prison, 2 years after his most famous album At Folsom Prison, and I quite prefer At San Quentin for a few reasons. For one, the instruments are in tune most of the time, which was a big problem with At Folsom Prison. For two, the songs are much tighter and performed better, and for three, the dialogue and audience response is much better. This is possibly because the act for Folsom was a bit more rehearsed (the Legacy Edition box set of At Folsom Prison contains the concerts done on both days and there are a lot of lines repeated from the first show in the second), and even the set-list for San Quentin was barely written, in fact Johnny says at one point,

I tell you what, the show is being recorded and televised for England, and they told me you gotta do this song, you gotta do that song, you gotta stand like this and walk like this, and I don’t get it man. I’m here to do what I wanna do and what you want me to do. So whaddya wanna hear?!

Really, all of the dialogue has a more loose, rebellious and even mischievous feel to it, and that conveys in the album really well. Not to take anything away from At Folsom Prison, it’s just a personal preference of mine. Truthfully, the song “Folsom Prison Blues” sounds better to me on At Folsom Prison.

So, how could it possibly take all day to listen to a live album, you ask? Well, I recently purchased the Legacy Edition box set, which contains the entire concert. There is a slimmer edition that is called rather erroneously “At San Quentin: The Complete Concert”, since it adds 8 more tracks to the original 10 song release, but that edition leaves out 4 songs, and the Legacy Edition even contains the 3 opening acts, so yes… it’s long.

In fact, the album starts with Carl Perkins playing his song that made Elvis famous, “Blue Suede Shoes”, and then vocal quartet The Statler Brothers come out and sing a pretty good song. Then June Carter Cash, who had just recently married Johnny Cash, came out and did a song with The Carter Family (their most famous, “Wildwood Flower”) and recited a poem she wrote. It’s probably about 25 minutes or so before Johnny even takes the stage with his signature “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

He opens with one of my favorite train songs, “The Wreck Of The Old 97” where he does this “woo woo” thing with his voice that actually sounds like a train whistle. I have no idea how he does that, but it’s great nonetheless.

It would really be useless to talk about how well he does each song, because it would probably take several thousand more words than I’ve limited myself to, but some particular highlights include the following:

Folsom Prison Blues” is the only song I ever knew by Johnny Cash before I took an active interest in him, so it remains my favorite song he does. This particular version is notable because it’s the first time he played it on a recording with then-new guitarist Bob Wootton, who was a life-long fan of Cash’s and when the original guitarist Luther Perkins died in a fire only 7 months before At San Quentin, it turned out that Bob Wootton knew every single note of the lead guitar parts of the Tennessee Three, so he was a shoe-in. He’s a great guitarist, despite his tendency to play a distinct extra note in the minimalist lead guitar part of “Folsom Prison Blues” that I kind of have mixed feelings about.

One highlight of course is the string of hits that are Johnny Cash staples, “I Walk The Line”, “Long Black Veil”, “Give My Love To Rose”, and “Orange Blossom Special”, all of which sound excellent. One particular thing about “Orange Blossom Special” that might not be apparent from simply listening to it is that Johnny plays a pair of “Harmonicae” for the lines between verses, and switches them with the chord changes, which is fairly amusing to see.

Johnny also sings a couple of duets with June Carter, “Darlin’ Companion” and “Jackson“, and he sings with the whole Carter family on a song called “Break My Mind” which was one of the songs that was cut from every version except the Legacy Edition. It’s too bad because that’s a really good song. I think the sound might have been a little off so perhaps that’s the reason.

The middle of the album, which contains the “prison songs”, is probably the best part of the album. It starts with a prisoner-penned song called “I Don’t Know Where I’m Bound” which is a very spiritual number, followed up by Johnny’s own “Starkville County Jail”, which is an account of an actual night Johnny spent in prison for picking flowers in Starkville City, Mississippi. He talks about it before playing the actual song, and after that song he plays a tune he had written specifically for San Quentin. The excitement of the prisoners to be hearing this wonderfully spiteful song is crazy to listen to, I actually don’t think I’ve heard as much earnest and loud applause as when he finished that song. He did it so well he played it again immediately afterwards! The interesting thing there is that the crowd is practically silent for the second run, not because the novelty wore off that quickly, I think they just wanted to hear every single word and make damn sure it stuck in their heads so they’d be singing it for the next few years.

There’s really no way you can top a song like that in a place like that, so Johnny presses on with a tune he wrote with Bob Dylan called “Wanted Man” (which would years later be re-done on a Mercury Records album called, well, Wanted Man), and then takes a break while Carl Perkins plays a really hot instrumental called “On The Outside Looking In” which was cut out of the non-expensive versions).

The next song is the debut of one of the few “joke” songs Johnny ever did, but it’s such an absorbing story that you hardly think of it as such. “A Boy Named Sue” is one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs because it’s put together so well, lyrically speaking. The crowd really loves the song, too, even though they seemed to not take Johnny seriously when he announced earlier in the show that he’d be doing a song called “A Boy Named Sue”.

After that song and another cut song called “Blistered”, the show slows down with several gospel numbers such as “(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley”, “Less Of Me” performed by the Statler Brothers, “He Turned The Water Into Wine”, “Daddy Sang Bass” (which Carl Perkins also wrote), and “The Old Account Was Settled”, pausing briefly to play a really good rendition of “Ring Of Fire”.

The album closes out with a Medley where each of the performers sing a line or two from the “hit” songs, and Johnny himself closes with some lines from “The Rebel Johnny Yuma”. I actually really dig the ending to this album, I guess after listening to the thing for nearly 2 hours it’s kind of nostalgic in a way.

It took Johnny Cash years to convince the record company that recording an album live inside of a prison would be a great idea, and I am glad his message got through. I really do love At Folsom Prison and I’m sure will be talking about that one later on, but At San Quentin is the live album I tend to listen to whenever I feel like hearing the quintessential “live” Cash. Though I really love the “Legacy Edition” box set of the performance (it includes the DVD of the English documentary they mention from which the Youtube videos were extracted), I’d say if you pay a fraction of the cost to get “The Complete Concert” edition, you won’t be missing out on too much. As for me, I am an absolute sucker for special-edition anything, and I love all the extra banter included with the cut songs, so I am very happy with this version of the album.

I’m not happy, however, with how late it took me to write this entry. I had to work from 7am until 8pm so that’s why it’s late. Oh well, until tomorrow!

 

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Violent Femmes – Hallowed Ground

I spoke yesterday of a band that is considered “stuck in the 90’s”, and on my usual whim, I decided to write about another band that fits that same description. The Violent Femmes, at least according to people more pretentious than myself, are considered “so 90’s”, and surprising for people existing in this decade to still listen to, but I can’t help it, I had never heard The Violent Femmes until about 3 years ago. Even then, I had heard the same album as everyone else, the self-titled debut. Little did I realize that an even better album came right after that:

What the hell is that thing?

Why do I like Hallowed Grounds more than the first album? Well, for one it doesn’t have any songs that have been butchered to death by the radio (though I have made my peace with “Blister In The Sun”, the radio still needs to die), and for two… well… there’s no real reason, I guess. I consider this album put together a bit better, and I like the presence of a full drum kit. I still love Violent Femmes, though, and will probably talk about it sometime.

There’s a prevailing theme in at least the later parts of Hallowed Ground, and it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s religion, and what better way to start an album that deals with religion than with a murder ballad?

The first track, “Country Death Song” is a delightfully sick song, from its twisted country-bass opening to the actual story of the song. It’s a song about a father living in the country who goes completely nuts from the boredom and decides to kill his daughter. The instruments are really well arranged here, and includes a banjo being plucked in a minor key, which is always a good thing.

The theme of death carries onto the next track, “I Hear The Rain”, which opens up with 3-part harmony, and after 3 distinct vocal parts, ends with the same 3 different vocal parts being sung by each band member simultaneously, which is dash clever. I always love a Violent Femmes song that features the vibrophone as well. At 1 minute and 32 seconds, however, the song may be considered a bit “short”, but at least it never runs the risk of outdoing its welcome, and anyway the next song makes up for it.

Hey sister, have ya heard? Some people stand like trees without a word
And what that means is… some people don’t…
…talk.

“Never Tell” is a song that had to grow on me a bit, as I kind of considered it a spiritual successor to the song “Confessions” from the previous album, and I didn’t like that song. However, “Never Tell” is a good song, and considerably better than its predecessors. It takes a special kind of music fan to appreciates Gordon Gano’s edge-of-sanity stuttering delivery in some of the Femmes’ songs, but I’ve grown to appreciate it. The stuttering is in full effect in this song, as well as Brian Ritchie’s slightly indulgent bass solos, which brings the song down to a bass-and-vocals only part which contains one excellent “sting” with the other instruments when Gano says the line “I will find you… and I will cut you up (screeches)”.

So where does the actual “religion” in this album come in? Right the hell after “Never Tell”, with the song “Jesus Walking On The Water”, a song so completely Baptist-hymn-like that the first reaction might be to crack up laughing at it like “Oh, you guys!”, but check this out: It’s real. Yep, Gordon Gano, the guy who JUST sang about cutting up someone for telling secrets and 2 songs ago sang about killing his youngest daughter, is a gol’dern Baptist Christian. Bet you weren’t expecting THAT, and that’s why Hallowed Grounds is so great. The pure, unadulterated dichotomy of a band who sings about mentally unbalanced violence mixed with some really genuine praise & worship.

However, the next song, “I Know It’s True But I’m Sorry To Say”, uses neither of those themes. It’s more of a regretful love-lost song and is about as slow as a Kindergartner doing math in slow-motion. I get kind of distracted by just how slow this song plods along, so I kind of forget to pay attention to what the lyrics are trying to say, so I might even be wrong about what this song is about. Did I even hear the whole thing? I don’t know. It’s a good thing I’m not a real reviewer, eh?

Then we go back to religion with the song “Hallowed Ground”, which opens with a passage from the Bible itself, and if I were more of a Biblical scholar (or looked at the liner notes) I would probably be able to tell you which verse. I guess it’s the one about making a really good minory rock song, as that’s what this song is. I particularly enjoy the almost baroque-sounding yet simple piano part.

The title of the next song, “Sweet Misery Blues” is pretty much the best thing ever, and I can’t place my finger on why, but it sets up an unrealistic expectation that the song better be nothing short of awesome. The song fully lives up to the challenge. It’s a jaunty blues number featuring wind instruments and amazing lyrics, particularly the catchy recurring lines:

Could I buy you a dress or something?
Could I buy you some jewelry or something?
Would you go out with me or something?
Would you sleep with me… or something?

That’s 4 lines that explain perfectly why I love The Violent Femmes, no-one does “subversive” like these guys. Speaking of which, the best is yet to come:

I dig the black girls, oh so much more than the white girls…

With an old-style swing beat, the band’s arguably greatest song “Black Girls” comes in with a ya-cha-cha attitude and lyrics about black girls. This is one of the craziest songs I’ve ever heard as far as making instruments sound so weird they no longer sound like instruments. There’s an entire horn section that seemed to be put there to give the song that big-band swing feel, but then by the song’s mid-point, they sound as if they are being operated by escaped convicts, one of which got a hold of a Jew’s Harp, and they trade off bizarre solos with the bassist. I absolutely love the break-down, it sounds like one is running through a swingin’ jungle, which I hope is not a dig on black people, but it might be! The whole thing could very well had been the soundtrack to one of those old racist cartoons of the 30’s, or maybe that’s just my experience with such cartoons talking. Either way, more bizarre than any of the crazy instrumental solos in the song is the stanza sung right after:

You know I love the Lord of Hosts
Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost
I was so pleased to learn that He’s inside me
In my time of trouble, He will hide me

I have nothing to say to that, just… well done, guys.

The album closes out with a good ol’ hymn that could appear in any hymnal, “It’s Gonna Rain”. It’s a song that, like “Jesus Walking On The Water”, would be such a great bit of satire if it weren’t for the fact that it’s genuine.

All in all, this album serves as a testament to the talent of a band considered by everyone to be a one-hit wonder. Sure, they have the one hit that gets played on the radio every day until we all die, but it’s a real shame that practically no-one cares about the OTHER songs they wrote that are so much better. Though the band went on to make really terrible albums (which I will be talking about, believe me), Hallowed Ground is worth listening to for anyone who liked the debut album for any reason other than that it contains the version of that song Gnarls Barkley covered that is actually good.

 

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Warren Zevon – Warren Zevon

Now it’s time to talk about a musician who makes the Grandpa living inside me a very happy man. Since we’re discussing his “debut” (not actually his first album), let’s talk a little bit about how I got into Warren Zevon.

When the word “genius” and “musician’s musician” are used with all apparent sincerity about someone, I tend to at least give the genius in question a fighting chance to win me over. Such are the words used for Warren Zevon, and, on the only album (a best of) we had at work, I saw that he’s a guy that looks like this:

More can be said about this man in that one raised eyebrow than in the volumes of testimonies to his greatness I have read.

So I decided to see if I could find anything else on him. I read Wikipedia, and learned his story and realized I had heard of him before, and realized that I saw a special on his final album, The Wind, which he recorded while diagnosed with terminal cancer. Oh! He’s THAT guy. Thing is, I only caught a little bit of the special, and didn’t hear any of the music, but for some reason imagined it was inept, since VH1 decided to make him out to seem like an unsuccessful musician, and yeah I guess being one of the most well-respected and intelligent songwriters in the history of rock n’ roll is kind of like failure.

Thing is, I pre-conceived the man as being inept years ago, and looking at his “best of”, I thought maybe he was arrogant or pretentious, and his music would be that kind of music people seem to think is genius simply because they don’t see what lies underneath.

I decided to rid myself of these notions by purchasing not one, but two, of his earliest albums. The other I will definitely talk about some time this year, but today’s topic is his eponymous debut, my very first experience with the legend known as Warren Zevon.

If I hadn't seen evidence to the contrary, I would have sworn to you that his eyebrow was just permanently raised.

As soon as I threw on the album and started listening, I was surprised! I am not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t a western ballad. While I might have been expecting high-brow artistic music, the really precise piano-playing and the shimmering production put into the thing almost made it seem cheesy at first. I believe this is due to the influence of Warren’s best friend in music, Jackson Browne, who produced the thing, but I have never heard Jackson’s own music yet, so I can’t tell you this for sure.

The other surprise was that Zevon’s actual voice belies his youthful, arrogant appearance. His voice is old. It is just full of this amazing depth and character, like he can’t naturally hit any notes, but he works extremely hard at each and every one, and I think that might actually be the case. The opening ballad, “Frank And Jesse James” (no studio tracks on Youtube apparently, so live will have to do), starts with the afore-mentioned shiny piano intro, and proceeds to tell the story of the outlaws. The thing that really shone to me more than anything else in the mix of that song are the lyrics. Zevon is one of the very rare songwriters that actually floored me with the precision and cleverness of his writing. He does not waste a single word in his songs, it just commands your attention while he tells his story, and it’s just amazing, even if you aren’t crazy about the tune. Of course, I grew to adore the tune.

By the time the next song, “Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded” came around, I was getting used to the vibe the album was putting out, which seemed to be kind of a “southern but intelligent rock” feel. I think it was the presence of fiddle-playing on this track that made it seem southern, though the presence of horns makes it sound like something else altogether. By the time I got my head around that, the background vocals come in during the chorus and that won me right there. Not only can Zevon do intelligent, but he has *catchy* down as well!

I felt at this point that was on board with the album, which makes sense that it would start to switch direction on me. The next track, “Backs Turned Looking Down The Path”, is another “southern” sounding song, featuring slide guitar and an acoustic melody that really stuck with me. It kind of pulls the album in a more sentimental and feel-good direction which, again, might come off as a bit cheesy to some, but closer analysis may reveal that the shimmer is a product of pure effort on the musicians’ parts, especially Warren’s own playing. The album is so precise that it almost seems false and manufactured like many of today’s recordings, but this was before all of that, so the recordings were just that good.

Speaking of, the next song slows the mood of the album all the way down with an alarmingly honest song about heartbreak and loss. The song, “Hasten Down The Wind”, wound up being one of Zevon’s greatest hits, for Linda Rondstat, that is. She recorded it around the same time (I guess musicians did that a lot back in the day), and it really took off. I haven’t yet heard this version, I think because I like Zevon’s too much to really want to:

She’s so many women
He can’t find the one who was his friend
So he’s hanging on to half a heart, but he can’t have the restless part
So he tells her to hasten down the wind

The next song does what all good next songs should do, brings the album back up to speed, as it’s far too early to quit now! “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” is the first really rockin’ song on the album, but it still contains the same element of care in the arrangement that the earlier songs contain, only now all feelings of potential cheesiness is gone, as far as I’m concerned. The song is just immensely fun, as it explores the sardonic pain of an aging ladies’ man.

Poor, poor pitiful me
Poor, poor pitiful me
These young girls won’t let me be
Lord have mercy on me
Woe is me

So now that the album’s back on its feet and running, it should be all fun and games from this point, right?

Well, kind of, but instead of what you might expect (or what I expected anyway), the album serves up, with another piano intro,  a very classical influenced piece called “The French Inhaler”, a song that doesn’t seem like much at first (the song is far more complex than the previous tracks and may throw the listener off a bit), but when you realize that he wrote it for his ex-wife, it takes on this character of a REALLY elaborate “screw you” type of message.

Loneliness and frustration
We both came down with an acute case
And when the lights came up at two
I caught a glimpse of you
And your face looked like something
Death brought with him in his suitcase

The next song is one of my favorite songs, well, ever. I am very sure I had heard it at least once before ever having heard of Warren Zevon, because it’s just such a familiar tune… it’s called “Mohammed’s Radio” (Youtube note: what a joke of a clip show, at least it’s the real song). It is a song that makes me both really happy and a bit sad, the latter because the radio, as it is today, just isn’t something you can listen to and enjoy. There’s no “rock and roll all night long” and there probably never will be. I made my own solution to the problem and named my Zune “Mohammed’s Radio”.

Speaking of rock and roll all night long, the next song is quite appropriate for my current condition (as I write this I am due at work in about 3 hours and I have been up since 11am yesterday), “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”, which is a stunning exposé on Warren’s then-rowdy lifestyle, set to a plodding beat with the bass and piano pounding octaves on each beat. The best part about this song is about how true it was for Warren at the time, unlike the next song, “Carmelita”, which is a character piece about a heroin junkie living down in Mexico. That one is a more mellow piece that kind of shows its age, but that didn’t stop Rolling Stone magazine from calling it “Zevon’s best song”, which I wholeheartedly disagree with. It’s good, and certainly was the song he played to impress a lot of people early on (its existence predates the debut album by quite a bit, as I understand), but “best ever”? I feel that’s yet to come.

The next-to-last song seems to be set up to challenge anyone who misconstrued the album, as I almost did, as being “southern rock” or some such. It’s a really fun funk piece called “Join Me In L.A.” which unfortunately contributes to the pigeon-holing Warren often gets, which is that he’s a “reporter on the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles”. Yeah he mentions the city 4 times on the album, but his songwriting is so much more than that. This is why I don’t like to read about musicians in any definite terms.

The final song on the album, which DOES talk about Hollywood, is just about the perfect way to wrap up an album. For one, it opens up with the same piano piece as “Frank And Jesse James”, only this time, it is done entirely with a string arrangement, and is almost like the ghost of that song coming back to linger over the head of the hungover protagonist of the song, as it opens:

I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel
I was staring in my empty coffee cup
I was thinking that the gypsy wasn’t lyin’
All the salty margaritas in Los Angeles
I’m gonna drink ’em up

And if California slides into the ocean
Like the mystics and statistics say it will
I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill

One thing that seems impossible to do (at least from experience) is to lyrically convey emotional honesty while still being clever about it. This song is one of the many that Zevon has written that hits both points with all the precision of his well-trained piano playing.

Don’t the sun look angry through the trees
Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves
Don’t you feel like Desperados under the eaves
Heaven help the one who leaves

Still waking up in the mornings with shaking hands
And I’m trying to find a girl who understands me
But except in dreams you’re never really free
Don’t the sun look angry at me

What I love about this song being placed at the end of the album is that it acts as the sober realization of the folly of excess. This is the kind of hangover you get after living “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” and “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”, and again, this song is a true story of Zevon’s life in his struggles with alcohol. The final passage:

I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel
I was listening to the air conditioner hum
It went mmmmmm…

At which point an entire chorus of male voices come in and hum a melody that crescendos beautifully (courtesy of Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, who apparently arranged the whole thing), and the song fades out with that.

I really feel like a fast one has been pulled on me with this album. How is it that such a brilliant songwriter isn’t discussed as much as The Beatles or really just about everyone? I guess that’s what they mean when they call him a “musician’s musician”, everyone who knows the ins and outs of music, who knows the rules, flock to Warren as someone who both knows the rules, and how best to break them. He ran into some hard times all through his career, but it seems that everywhere he fell, he redeemed himself, even as death leaned in for him, he took that opportunity to come out with one of the greatest albums of all time, but that’s a blog entry for another day. This one’s already twice as long as the others, but that’s ok because I like Warren Zevon about twice as much as everyone else I’ve covered so far.

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