Sunday, January 14, 2007


In a previous post I commented on how some music is better suited for certain seasons. The subject of that post was the Fall. When it comes to Winter nothing beats this album for me. You almost need insulated gloves to handle it.

With the release of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon” in May of 1973 the sixties officially came to an end. It was now part of history and all of the music, books, films and sporting events were forever book marked in that decade. As one of the driving forces behind the music of those ten years Dylan now turned his attention to the things that were right in front of him. Gone was the “thin wild mercury music” and “magic swirlin” ship(s).” They had been replaced with a wife, kids and grocery shopping.

Those themes were not new, he had explored them on “New Morning” with mixed results. That album featured domestic bliss emanating from the music room of his home as much as anything. The arrangements and songs were gentle, slight and not always fleshed out. For this January 1974 album though he called on old friends, now known as The Band, to take a swing at these recent songs that he’d been working on.

The result was one of his most anticipated, reviled, under praised, and misunderstood albums. Critics tried hard to like it, but in the end just couldn’t wrap their arms around it. In retrospect it seems they just couldn’t let him age. The ragged edges and seemingly improvised arrangements rival the best Stones outtakes. This album has a beauty all its own and mines the depths of Winter melancholy as well as anything you’ll hear. You can almost feel the temperature drop each time a new song starts.

With an album of Winter songs recorded in November, written and performed by someone living in Woodstock and backed by a Canadian group they naturally headed to L.A. to record. Recorded over three days in November of 1973 they prove that if it feels right then you should just let it stand. They did. Their decision to not go back and tweak it or redo some of the songs made for a timeless statement, warts and all. The next time someone would use this approach and make it work as well was John Hiatt on “Bring The Family.” Less can be so much more in the right hands. Hiatt made the mistake of trying to duplicate the magic and broke the spell with “Little Village.” Dylan never looked back.

Opening with the crackling, smell the wood burning, “On A Night Like This” the theme of the album is firmly established. This ode to a night at home is about as romantic as it gets. Love is the central theme of this album. Love of wife, love of kids, love of where you come from, love of those left behind and more. Unlike “New Morning” the songs here were much more crisp and with a capable group behind him the songs have a lived in, rustic feel. Any video from these recordings would have had woods, deserted farm houses, abandoned streets and so on as the backdrop. The Band meanwhile were doing a test run on the sound they would perfect on “Northern Lights, Southern Cross” the next year. (See below)

Of course the track “Forever Young” has emerged as the classic track from this one. No argument here. Bubbling under are several other unknown outside of the Dylan circle classics like “Something There Is About You,” “Hazel,” You Angel You,” “Going, Going, Gone,” “Never Say Goodbye“ and of course “On A Night Like This.” Hardcore sixties fans struggled to understand that Dylan could be tamed by domestic life. Not unlike Lennon revealed on “Double Fantasy” a few years later. The only misstep for me is the inclusion of a second take of “Forever Young” instead of using the outtake of “Nobody ‘Cept You” which would have fit much better.

No doubt hard line fans struggled with the lines “You’re beautiful beyond words, you’re beautiful to me” from “Never Say Goodbye.” However, being the good guy he is he throws them a bone a couple of lines later with , “My dreams are made of iron and steel, with a big bouquet of roses hanging down, from the heaven’s to the ground.”

Old timers were rewarded with the track “Tough Mama.” It is easily the hidden gem on this album. It’s a grinding, loping tune that sounds like a “Basement Tapes” leftover. It rolls along with some great, if nonsensical lyrics that will put a smile on your face. “Sister’s on the highway with that steel driving crew, Papa‘s in the big house, his working days are through“ anybody? The abrupt ending takes you back to the unfinished tracks we used to find on those vinyl bootlegs we cherished so much.

There are countless lines and images that let the listener know that the setting of these songs is “a deep and dark December.” He invokes the names of childhood friends, locations, his grandmother, the loves of his life, his children and thoughts of cold nights from his youth. While the album seems firmly rooted, underneath it all was a restless spirit that recalled other times and apparently a yearning to hit the road again for the first time in years. He would take The Band with him and try to recapture those halcyon days of the sixties when they all traveled together like a band of gypsies.

Almost a year to the day of the release of this album “Blood On The Tracks” came out and this album would be nearly forgotten. It’s main claim to fame that it was his only studio album not recorded for the Columbia label. He of course returned to Columbia and they would eventually claim ownership of this recording as though it had always been there.

Play “Blood On The Tracks” every chance you get, it’s one of the best albums ever recorded by anyone. But late at night when the windows are iced over, and you know you’re not going to leave the house for the rest of the evening slip this one in the player. Throw another log on the fire and listen to it hiss. Because as the song says, “it sure feels right on a night like this.”


As long as we’re snowed in for the evening we may as well give this one a spin. For me this is the companion to “Planet Waves.” Dylan doesn’t make an appearance, but his image is visible in the smoke of the driftwood.

Starting with the release date of November 1975 and the cover photo you know Winter has them in its grip. The sonic textures that they debuted on “Planet Waves” were now the perfected ambiance of their own new recording. The songs, all eight of them, can stand alone as classics and near classics anyway you view them. Each one offers something that can be described as essential listening for a variety of reasons.

In addition to the songs, the three singers never sounded better. They eased their voices into the tunes in such a seamless way that others need not attempt to cover any of the songs down the road. Danko stops the show with “It Makes No Difference” and keeps you on the edge of disbelief as the song unfolds over its six minutes plus running time. (While we're on that song notice how the song's structure and Robbie's licks resemble "Going, Going, Gone.") Levon churns out “Ophelia” as though it was a leftover from “Planet Waves.” It recaptures the sound perfectly and until you check the credits you’d swear Dylan wrote it. Manuel graces everything his voice chooses to caress and delivers some of his most poignant vocals ever. The purity of his voice becomes more amazing the more the years pile up.

Sadly, this was pretty much the end of the road for this group. Magic almost always ends with something disappearing no matter how long it lasts. One of the nice things about music is that it is preserved for all time. The music on this album can carry the weight of the word timeless about as easily as anything you’ll ever hear.

Don't forget your coat on when you go out for more wood.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


One of the reasons I always try and have a camera within reach. You never know when you'll stumble onto a scene right out of a song.

"I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand,
Walking through the streets of Soho in the rain.
He was looking for the place called Lee Ho Fook's,
Going to get a big dish of beef chow mein."

" And you think you found the bag
You're getting weaker and your knees begin to sag

In the corner playing dominoes in drag

The one and only Madame George...."


Monday, January 01, 2007


THE BEST (?) OF 2006

Time to honor those recordings that made owning a disc player worthwhile this year. Not the best year by any means, but there were some highlights that should last longer than it takes to listen to them. Other than the first album, the rest are in alphabetical order because they rise and fall from week to week on the chart in my head. The Hubbard album belongs at the top of the heap though.

My criteria here is very simple, I played these the most. I get hundreds of discs in the mail each month (trust me it’s not as cool as it sounds) but when it’s all said and done these were the ones that were most often found on the floor board of my car.

Alas, you won’t find any new cutting edge type music here. Or even ten albums for that matter. However, if you’re middle aged and couldn’t be more out of the loop you may find some of these enjoyable. The fact that I’m only older than a couple of the acts on this list and that half of the albums are cover albums speaks volumes I suppose. Maybe this year I’ll get out of the house more.


Unlike a lot of artists Hubbard gets better with each release. This one continues the trend and ups the ante. Working in the alt-country / outlaw genre he has consistently forged his own path and sought his own form of salvation at the expense of commercial success. In a field plagued with the likes of Ryan Adams, Jeff Tweedy and their ilk he’s been a rock. He has much in common with Leonard Cohen and his life long spiritual journey. Unlike Cohen though he is more musically ambitious. Not a knock on Cohen just the difference in their approach.

This eleven song album is a dizzying cycle that allows us to glimpse the life of a gypsy musician traveling the back roads of our memory that John Hartford wrote so eloquently about. He’s the dust covered mortal soul that walks into the eternal fire with a bible in his hand. Moments later he emerges from the flames covered in ashes with a rifle in the other hand. To hell and back for him is a trip for a pack of smokes and more ammo.

He’s Dylan’s “Man In The Long Black Coat” in the flesh. Dancehalls, saloons, one room churches with a missing bell, the back alleys of a ghost town and the seashores of Old Mexico are where you‘ll find him wandering. Fortunately we can experience all of this from our living room or car by popping in the disc. No unbearable heat or pesky ashes to contend with.

Working with producer Gurf Morlix he has taken his percussive (think early Chris Whitley here) Texas rock and blues sound to a new level. Great albums go nowhere though without great songs and he’s come down from the mountain with a worn bedroll full of them. All but the final track “Resurrection” are originals. Today’s hack country artists at best can only manage to warble a bumper sticker worthy refrain over some half asleep musicians from area code 615. When Hubbard tells us that “the way of the fallen is hard” or “I’m getting desperate, I’m about to derail” he’s got our attention for as long as he wants to talk. He’s not repeating someone’s story, he’s telling his own.

In addition to Morlix’s touch I must mention the contribution of drummer and percussionist Rick Richards. Like Keith Moon did for the Who Richards carries the tunes and never becomes a sideman in the mix. He shakes, rattles and rolls his way through the songs as Hubbard uses him punctuate his tales.

Like any enduring album that lasts and becomes something special it doesn’t reveal itself all at once. This one takes a few listens. You can handle it. The songs are rooted in Texas blues with a slightly modern twist. Some are sung and some are spoken as though he is telling you a story, some sound as though he’s trying to repeat a dream before it’s gone. Once you get into his groove though you’ll find the repeat button on your player that you didn’t know was there.

“And they found him in the desert picking flowers for the muse
Sometimes he’s the fire, sometimes he’s the fuse.
He’s loading up his saddlebags out on the edge of wonder,
One is filled with music, the other’s filled with thunder.
He was long gone,
He was gone before they rolled away the stone.”


Like any Beatles fan I approached this with both anticipation and dread. My fears were unfounded and these re-imagined versions serve to reinforce what enduring music this band made. In the hands of the new keeper of the flame Giles Martin, the remixes and “mash ups” reveal new layers of this familiar canon.

I’m not the type to sit in my living room in darkness surrounded by speakers with 5.1 this and 6.1 that in play so I may be missing even more nuances. I will say however that to me this is the perfect disc for the car. In that enclosed environment with a mere four speakers the music comes to life and make dodging SUV drivers with embedded cell phones easier.

Perhaps the most startling revelation here is that it reminds us of a time when songs actually had melodies with real singers. Not some burnout who didn’t get enough love as a kid droning over a din of computer programs set on repeat.

This is not her best album, but she’s growing as an artist and this new direction suits her well. She’s dialed down the wounded lover cry in her voice for a bit more authority and it really works well on these tunes. The songs are strong and reveal a singer who is growing by leaps and bounds.

She may lose a few fans with this one, but if an artist is going to keep moving it becomes inevitable that all won’t make the journey. In her defense, on her previous recordings she explored the alt-country genre about as much as she could. Careful listens to those earlier albums will show that this direction has been hinted at numerous times. Don’t fence her in, take the trip with her.

Everything you’ve read about this album is true. All of the accolades and all of the criticisms are valid. If more artists were like him and had no sense of time and space then maybe they too could come up with meaningful albums at this point in their careers. This is one of those rare recordings that yields a different favorite with nearly every listen.

Like Neil Diamond’s “12 Songs” from last year Dylan’s in a melancholy mood and very much aware that years have passed liked hours on his shift. Incredible single verses have given way to great couplets. No doubt a nod to our sound bite society. Each song is full of observations that we certainly would have missed if it were not for his ability to make them rhyme. The stuff that makes little or no sense are among the highlights. The closer “Ain’t Talking” essentially edits down the mess that was “Highlands” and makes a better case for that late afternoon stroll through his life and times as he tries to get to heaven before they close the door.

The above two paragraphs are just a new way of really saying that anything he comes up with is better than most of what we’ll ever hear. The sooner you admit it the sooner you can start enjoying this latest offering.

New recordings by Nelson are like the seasons, there’s always one a few pages down on the calendar. And just like those seasons I look forward to each recording. This album turned out to be more of a gentle breeze that carried through several seasons. Easily one of his best in years. Working from a set list by the late Walker he had little chance to fail. What he chose to do instead of a standard reading of these chestnuts was to get inside of them. His love of music is no secret, but these songs apparently are special to him.

He finds just the right arrangement for each one and records them with little or no thought to modern production flourishes. The lyrics and melodies are already so strong that he simply gives them an honest rendition that comes off timeless instead of timely. That is never an easy assignment when covering a single artist.

She’s got lots more songs and I’m more than ready for another volume anytime Willie is.

With this listing I’m including both versions of the album and all of the live shows, bootlegs, camera phone recordings and videos related to it. Bruce may have let a portion of his frat boy fan base down with this one, but he came full circle as an artist to these weary ears.

Like Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” album decades ago he has preserved a part of musical history that will take these songs to future generations. Even if in a hundred years some are known as a “Springsteen song.”

Like some of the other iconic artists that still record, the success of the recording hinges on whether or not they sound the least bit inspired. I can answer in the affirmative on this one. At times he sounds like his whole career has been leading up to this recording. This is his least self conscious recording since his “lost” classic “Lucky Town.” I’m sure he was aware that this wasn’t exactly what everyone has been clamoring for from him.

If you bought this out of habit and played it for a couple of weeks and thought it was cool then pull it out again and give it a really close listen. These are the songs that this country was built on and they still resonate today.

Cover albums at one time were unique and heartfelt (David Bowie’s “Pin Ups” and John Lennon’s “Rock And Roll”) and offered the listener valuable insight into the music that shaped certain musicians. Later, like the “unplugged” phenomenon they simply became a stop gap measure that artists resorted to instead of issuing new music. Too bad since it is such a great listening experience when it works. For these two it’s probably a great way to reintroduce themselves.

This album works like few others before it. The reason is simple and provides a lesson for artists contemplating projects like this. These two simply love the songs and have given no thought as to whether anyone will buy this in mass quantities. Everything works and it leaves the listener wanting them to record at least ten more volumes.

If you missed this album then you missed one of the years best musical moments.