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Donald Gavron
Saturday, 22 September 2012
Mood:  a-ok
Topic: Music

Bob Dylan’s 35th studio album is a sublimely dark ride for anyone willing to buy a ticket. “Tempest” (Columbia) is ruggedly poetic, self-indulgent, cryptic, and vitriolic.

Mortality has always been a major theme of Dylan’s fifty-year career. Dylan’s recent renaissance of well-received recordings — “Love and Theft” (‘01), “Modern Times” (‘06) and “Together Through Life” (‘09) — contains a sense of urgency sparked by a line from the song “Not Dark Yet” from Dylan’s Grammy Award-winning triumph “Time Out of Mind” (’97) — “It’s not dark yet/But it’s getting there.”

Longtime Dylan collaborators Charlie Sexton (guitar) and David Garnier (bass) are joined here by David Hidalgo of Los Lobos (guitar, accordion, violin) and others to render a rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues dirge composed on scorched earth following a Pyrrhic victory. The souls of the dead rise from the ground in a spirit dance that transfixes the listener, and the musicians all play with mud on their boots.

“Duquesne Whistle,” describes a train ushering the narrator to the beyond in a smoky honky-tonk rhythm. “Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing/Blowing like it’s gonna kill me dead.” The line “Blowing like she's at my chamber door,” recalls Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem “The Raven.” The raven, rapping at the chamber door, is death. But the final judgment does not appear completely dire. “I can hear a sweet voice gently calling/Must be the mother of our Lord,” is delivered in Dylan’s signature growl. The music bounces along in an almost cheerful manner and makes the song into a wistful contemplation of death.

The bluesy waltz “Soon After Midnight” is a typical Dylan exercise in ambiguity. Is the narrator a hopeless romantic? “I've got a date with a fairy queen.” Or is he a stalker looking to murder a rival? “My heart is cheerful/It's never fearful/I've been down on the killing floors.” 

“Narrow Way” is an up-tempo country/rock tune that references the War of 1812. “Ever since the British/burned the White House down/There's a bleeding wound/in the heart of town.” Other lines such as “If I can’t work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday” and “It’s a long road/It’s a long and narrow way,” seem to encompass the convoluted state of today’s political atmosphere. As with many songs here the music has a way of giving grim subject matter a wink and a grin.

“Long And Wasted Years” is a tale of remorse. The narrator is bent on confession. “If I hurt your feelings, I apologize.” Some of the lines used in this song, particularly “Shake it up baby/Twist and shout,” are incongruous and perplexing and the mood here is like a drunken jab aimed at a roomful of ghosts

“Pay in Blood” is one of the album’s highlights. It is a twisted tale told by a bitter survivor. “I've been through hell, what good did it do?” The lyrics paraphrase Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. “This is how I spend my days/I came to bury/not to praise.”

“Scarlet Town” is not a cover of Gillian Welch’s excellent far superior song of the same name, however the dark shadings of the lyrics share a mournful symmetry. Scarlet Town, in both cases, is not a place to hide from one’s fate. In Dylan’s interpretation, it signals, “the end is near.”

The melody of “Early Roman Kings” has a familiar chord progression borrowed from Muddy Waters’s “Mannish Boy.” The theme in Dylan’s song is once again mortality and hard times. “I ain't dead yet/My bell still rings,” Dylan croons despairingly. “They're peddlers and they're meddlers/They buy and they sell/They destroyed your city/They'll destroy you as well.” Was the songwriter reading up on Bain Capital when he wrote this?

“Tin Angel” is a meditation on murder and death involving a love triangle that could have been imagined by either H.P. Lovecraft or Poe. “She put the blade to her heart and she ran it through/All three lovers together in a heap/Thrown into the grave/forever to sleep.” Once again, Dylan offers no respite from murder, betrayal and dark obsessions of the heart

It takes a degree of stamina to sit through the 14-minute title tune, “Tempest.” The song concerns the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912; but it also strangely echo’s James Cameron’s film version of the event. If this is a grand metaphor about the demise of America, it certainly strains one’s patience. The alternate reality that Dylan has constructed here is like an interminable dream one is trying to wake up from. It may be the weakest cut on the disc, but it is not without humor or merit.

“Roll On John” is the best offering here and closes the album like the door of a funeral parlor after the mourners have left. It’s a moving tribute to John Lennon that contains many allusions to Lennon’s life and the Beatles. “I heard the news today, oh boy … Now the city’s gone dark/There is no more joy.” The chorus is like a prayer in stone. “Shine your light/move it on/you burn so bright/roll on John.” With this song, Dylan reminds the listener of just what a tragic event Lennon’s murder was over thirty years ago.

At 71, Dylan is one of the most respected songwriters in his profession and still going strong. This is another journey into the labyrinth of Dylan’s mind — and will do little to change the polarity between his hard-core fans and his skeptics. His response to critics (calling them “wussies and pussies” in a recent Rolling Stone interview) — concerned with his borrowings of lyrics and melodies; and his arcane references to events — is anything but contrite. The controversy surrounding his originality will never die and it will no doubt keep musicologists and lawyers busy for generations. If “Imitation is the highest form of flattery” as the designer Coco Chanel once said, then Dylan seems to have taken this sentiment to heart. If so, his musical cross-pollinations have produced some of the finest hybrids in popular music history.

Posted by dgavron at 8:16 PM EDT
Updated: Saturday, 22 September 2012 8:21 PM EDT
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Sunday, 3 July 2011
Mood:  a-ok
Topic: Music

For his fifth solo album, How to Become Clairvoyant (429 Records), formerBand guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson has assembled a group of crafty veteran musicians and savvy young players to form a memorable and almost mystical summation of a career that has spanned six decades and is a cornerstone of rock history.

Clairvoyant is admittedly Robertson's most personal record, and even though its arrival comes 13 years after the release of Contact from the Underworld of Red Boy, it was worth the wait.

In the 429 Records press materials, Robertson says the project was a "rising to the surface [of] personal experiences. I just found a comfort zone in expressing that … in a bit of a mysterious way." The genesis of the album began with Robertson and Eric Clapton exchanging musical ideas, then reuniting years later to flesh out the tracks they left incomplete. He describes the collaboration with Clapton (who co-wrote two songs with Robertson and penned another alone) as "guitars taking to each other."

"Straight Down the Line" is filled with whimsical dream-like imagery. The narrator meets an old bluesman with a walking cane who tells him "there's some tough choices to be made." Later, while taking refuge in a church with a gospel choir "singing of war and peace," he encounters a woman in a black robe who says, "I do not play no rock 'n' roll/I would not be moved to sell my soul/the demons are out tonight." A wonderful pedal steel guitar solo from Robert Randolph enhances the track.

"When the Night Was Young" is a standout about early days on the road and at New York's Hotel Chelsea with Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol. "We had dreams/when the night was young/We were believers … We could change the world/stop the war." It is a lament for a bygone era: "What is lost?/What is missing?" the narrator asks rhetorically.

"He Don't Live Here No More" is another autobiographical song about excess and change. During the '70s, Robertson admits to a lifestyle of "insanity and decadence" that he shared with his housemate and friend, film director Martin Scorsese (who directed The Last Waltz, The Band's farewell concert film, which released in 1978). "Survival was at stake," he concludes, and he abruptly changes course. Robertson's gut-string guitar solo adds an edgy texture to the track.

"This Is Where I Get Off" is the first time Robertson has broached the subject of The Band's breakup in a musical context. It is a subtle and poetic acknowledgement of the need to move on and grow, and the lack of acrimony gives the listener the feeling of two lovers parting.

"Fear of Falling" begins with a bluesy vocal by Clapton and signature keyboard work by Steve Winwood. Robertson plays off the fellow veterans so well that the song has intimations of such supergroups as Cream andBlind Faith

"Axman" is a tribute to guitar greats 
Jimi Hendrix (whom Robertson remembers as Jimi James) and the three Kings (AlbertFreddie and B.B. King). Guitarist Tom Morello of Audioslave and Rage Against the Machine fame helps to conjure up the spirits of the players being honored.

The artistic mix throughout How to Become Clairvoyant is precise and controlled. Bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Ian Thomas add a rock-solid foundation to the tracks. Robertson says he found the guitar contributions of Morello and Randolph "fascinating … both of these guys do something that I don't understand … they play a different instrument." Singers Taylor GoldsmithAngelyna Boyd and others bring a soulful texture to the undertakings. Marius de Vries (who co-produced the record with Robertson) contributes inspired keyboard layers to several tracks.

How to Become Clairvoyant is an expert blending of autobiographical songwriting and musicianship. The album washes over you like a welcome balmy night — each song has its own divine character — and is a statement of wonderment and mystery.

— By Donald Gavron

Posted by dgavron at 12:10 PM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 3 July 2011 12:34 PM EDT
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