Monday, May 16, 2016

Revisiting "Blonde On Blonde" On It's 50th Anniversary

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I was twenty years old when I first listened to the album. Dylan was a name I had heard before but never paid much attention to or gave him a listen. When you grow up in the 90s you don’t feel you need an artist like Dylan in your life because you already have so much to listen to as it is. So, when the 90s faded, along with the great music that came with it, I figured it was time to dive into the music of the 60s to see what the fuss was all about, and The Beatles and Dylan were the first artists to check out.

As a guide, I used VH1’s list of “100 Greatest Albums of Rock & Roll” to point me in the right direction. Before you roll your eyes I will tell you that it was and still is the best list on the subject I’ve seen. Sixteen years later and I still find myself agreeing with the albums listed, even though we can always quibble on placement. Of course, The Beatles and Dylan were littered all over it and so it seemed to be the most logical place to start. The Beatles were easy to listen to since my dad had many of their albums. Dylan, I had to go to the music store and buy his albums to hear them.

So, I bought Blonde On Blonde along with Blood On The Tracks, two works that many deem to be his best. I went to my car, popped in Blonde On Blonde and went driving around the back roads of Hampton Roads in Virginia and listened, preparing to be blown away.

I didn’t prepare myself enough. How could anyone?

The first track, “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” I dismissed as being a playful little jam session where it seemed as if no one knew how to play their instruments. I still sung it out loud because I had heard it before off the Forrest Gump soundtrack. I began settling into the album on the second track “Pledging My Time”, a muddy, bluesy stomper with a soaring harmonica intro. My foot kept tapping, my head bobbing back and forth and my fingers drumming along. I was into it.

The clincher came when “Visions Of Johanna” came on and opened with one of the greatest opening lyrics I’ve ever heard, “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet.” Mother. Fucker. What a line! I was instantly sold, not just on the album but with Dylan himself. I heard he was a great lyricist, the “poet of rock ‘n’ roll”, but you’re never prepared for when you realize it or when you believe it. That lyric was the one that sold me on that notion. He was the greatest lyricist in rock history.

At the time, I had just fallen out of a relationship (or two) and was still trying to figure things out, about what went wrong and why. There was quite a bit of drama happening between me and a woman who didn’t have the best of intentions and I was working my way through all of it. So, when the 4th track "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)" came on I instantly felt connected to the song. I related to the notion that there were things I messed up when it came to past relationships and while singing along with the song, felt as if I too was confessing some sins or transgressions. There was a relief to the song I felt with the chorus and still feel to this day.

After I got through the jovial “I Want You” I fixated on the steady rhythm of “Stuck Inside Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” and then fell into the swampy blues sound of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” which for a while was a favorite of mine.

But it was the groaning tired kiss off of “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” that had me screaming the lyrics at the top of my lungs, again falling back on past relationships and just being tired of the games that are played while dating. This song was one of many that helped me figure out my own feelings on certain things pertaining to life, love and friendships. It felt Dylan had no more time for bullshit drama in his life, and I was tired of all that shit too. This song became an anthem of sorts.

“Temporary Like Achilles” is still one of my favorite songs to sing out loud. “You know I want your lovin’/Honey why are you so hard?” is such a great, laid back and subtle chorus. Followed up with the endless journey with “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, the album continued to carry me off to a place I hadn’t experienced before as a music fan. I was losing myself in the album, among all these crazy images and characters and scenarios the lyrics perpetrated in my head. Before I knew it, I was involved in the love triangle and quarrel that was described in “4th Time Around”. How’d I end up here and when? Who are these people? More importantly, who am I with these people? The questions were racking up in my head from these exaggerated situations that Dylan created for me, the listener, yet they were real and really happening in my life. In the many subsequent listens (about 4 billion or so) of this album these questions remained and I fell back on them when I found myself in real life situations that resembled those described in these songs. Dylan was giving me the Cliff’s Notes on my life. I knew that if I couldn't relate to those things at the time, I would soon enough so I better take notes.

I was brought out of the emotional doldrums by “Obviously 5 Believers” with Robbie Robertson’s seething guitar and Charlie McCoy’s bluesy harmonica playing. Once again, the lyrics fell to the wayside and I was enthralled with the music. My foot was tapping, my head bobbing back and forth and I was drumming on the steering wheel.

The album finished up with the epic list of characteristics of a woman named “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” that lasted for almost twelve minutes. It felt as if Dylan knew me and was singing about a particular woman in my life. A part of me didn’t doubt it. We all seem to fall for the same woman and get dealt a wrong hand along the way. The song tied up the album perfectly. This heartbreaking journey Dylan brought me on was over.

As the music went silent and my mini road trip was ending at my house, I felt sad and bothered, even restless. The album stirred up many thoughts and emotions and soon I was evaluating my life and its direction. It was so weird. Who takes their cues from a rock album?

As a music fan, the album raised the bar of expectations I had when listening to music, especially from singer songwriters and artists alike. There was a risk to Blonde On Blonde and it made me believe there should always be a risk involved with music. Those who weren’t willing to take that risk weren’t completely worthy of my time.

The album also kick started my love affair with Dylan’s music. Shortly after listening to Blonde On Blonde I turned to his 1975 masterpiece Blood On The Tracks before falling back into his 60s output. I got lost in Dylan. I bought the documentary Don’t Look Back and bought books on his lyrics. I parsed his lyrics trying to find some definition or meaning to them, only to give up and be satisfied with my own interpretations. His music took up three years of my life. I was the better for it.

Blonde On Blonde remains as one of my all time favorite Dylan albums, next to Blood On The Tracks and Highway 61 Revisited. When I hear the songs now I’m instantly brought back to that time in my life and am surprised to hear new things in the songs I didn’t hear before. More nooks and crannies for me to discover. There’s a reason this album is constantly named THE greatest of all time. If you haven’t already, you should discover that reason for yourself.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Where Is The Criticism For Drake's "Views"?

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Full disclosure: I am not a Drake fan. I don't hate the man as an artist, or think his music is un-listenable by any measure. His last album If You're Reading This It's Too Late I thought was a pretty good album and most of his singles over the years I've enjoyed, however I always feel as if I'm wanting more from him as an MC and as an artist, as if there's something lacking in his lyrics, rhyme schemes and music, whether its aggressiveness, lyrical dexterity, more intricate word play. I don't know, Drake simply doesn't do it for me. However, what I find perplexing, from both fans and critics alike, is the lack of recognizing what he lacks as an MC and not calling him out on his weak rhymes and lyrics. In fact, they continue to call him one of this generation's best.

His latest album Views is probably the most egregious example of this. In a time when social and political commentary is needed from artists who have a platform to speak on such things, it feels like a waste for Drake to continue with the same old themes that can easily be found on his previous albums, or any other artist's albums for that matter. If he doesn't want to be that kind of artist, fine. If he wants to continue rapping about his exes, his money and fame, and how he feels so alone and betrayed, him against the world kind of thing, that's fine too. However, as an artist (an artist who is regarded as one of today's best, no less) he has to find new ways to approach this kind of subject matter instead of resting on his laurels (along with his easily accepting and forever devoted fan base) and making the same songs that we've all heard before.

Drake is an artist caught in a very interesting time for hip hop, a post To Pimp A Butterfly era, or a time for albums like Beyonce's Lemonade, where artists are seeking out different and creative ideas for their music, challenging their audience or whomever will listen. If Drake wants to continue making the same old Drake album, that's fine, and he'll probably still be successful with it, but if you're weighing the greatest artists of this generation, Drake's complacency should knock him down a few pegs. If anybody should demand more out of Drake, it's his fans but Drake is saved only by the production of his albums, not his lyrical ability as an MC and isn't that what has mattered most in hip hop? Isn't there a responsibility to call out MCs who are not up to snuff, especially those that are capable of giving more?

So why aren't critics calling him out on this? Hasn't the standards of hip hop been raised at all to be dissatisfied by Drake's progression as an artist and MC? Spin Magazine's review of Views is as perplexing as it is frustrating. The reviewer, Rebecca Haithcoat, starts off her review by actually nailing all of the flaws stretched across the album saying,"his fourth studio album is overly dramatic, too braggy, so bloated, and a little delusional." and yet, she only casually touches upon the blandness of his lyrics and rhymes, and gives the album a seven out of ten based, what seems like, solely on the production, as if the skills of being an MC on a hip hop album are so unimportant these days that they take a backseat to the producer. Your production will save you and make people overlook what you're clearly lacking, substance and skills. What we praise about MCs like Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, Vince Staples, J. Cole and even Earl Sweatshirt, with their lyrical ability and storytelling prowess, somehow doesn't matter when it comes to Drake. Why is that?

The Observer claimed that "the detail--both lyrical and producerly [is that a word?]--is pin-sharp" and XXL boldly stated "In fact, crafting standout lines and quotables is what Drake nails on this album." Really XXL? Really? So you would classify lines like "I could GPS you if you need addressin'" ("Hype"), "Momma hit my phone and said rap's no good/Better than her telling me the check's no good/Now they wanna act like I do no good/Funny cause I really did more than I should" ("9"), or "Yeah, how's that for real?/You toyin' with it like Happy Meal" ("U With Me?"), as standout lines? Time to up your critical game everybody because there are plenty of horrible lines throughout this album, these were just a few examples. As much as I'm not a fan of his, I don't ever recall him having lines THIS bad on previous albums, making the claims of enlisting ghostwriters all the more curious to me.

Look, I don't want to bag on Drake simply for the sake of criticizing him. I just want him to do better. I want all artists in all genres to do better. Artists become boring when they're not pushing or challenging themselves to be better than their contemporaries. Shouldn't critics and fans alike want the same? In order for Drake to get better and for fans to want to demand more out of him as an artist, we need to start calling a spade a spade. Otherwise, what the hell are we all doing here and what else are we expecting?

Monday, May 2, 2016

Stuff I'm Listening To...

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Adia Victoria

Man, its really difficult to turn away from this woman, her voice and the style of music she plays. One song sounds like a haunted, ghostly version of country ("Stuck in the South") that sounds like Loretta Lynn singing on a White Stripes track. Then you find another song that is a rocking, free spirited number that won't allow you to sit still. This combination, along with a great New Orleans blues type song ("Howlin' Shame"), has her debut album one that I'm really excited about. (Being released May 13th on Atlantic Records) Highly recommend giving her a listen.


I stumbled onto Seratones a couple of weeks ago when their performance on NPR's Tiny Desk Concert was posted to YouTube and was immediately hooked on to vocalist/guitarist's A.J. Haynes' lovely voice and the sweet rhythms and melodies of their songs. They're carving out a space for themselves with a new and refreshing sound that is a great mix of soul, grunge and classic rock. Really looking forward to catching them on tour and get a taste of their sound live. Their debut album Get Down comes out May 6th.


The Suffers

South By Southwest is a great outlet for artists trying to get noticed and create a buzz. The 2015 SXSW had a noticeable buzz around the 10 piece Houston band The Suffers. Fronted by the awesome vocals of Kam Franklin, this band blends soul, pop, jazz and blues so well that it makes their self titled debut album a whole lot of fun. Also, if you think their album sounds fun, see them live. Their live shows are interactive and such a joy to watch. They are a band that loves playing with each other and are one of the tightest sounding bands you'll ever see live. Bet on it!

Anderson Paak.

Anderson Paak came into my life after watching his stellar interview with Nardwuar during this past SXSW. Then, I kept hearing crazy good reviews of his album Malibu and gave in and listened to it and was sold. The album covers all the bases of his influences, from hip hop soul and r&b. It's far and away the smoothest sounding album out now, with the production and instrumentation sounding so on point. This guy has been around for a few years now and its a shame I'm only stumbling upon his work now. Better late than never right? Well, whatever. I'm glad I've arrived and am looking forward to future releases.

Lera Lynn

Once again, NPR for the win! The site introduced me to singer/songwriter Lera Lynn with her latest album Resistor, released on April 29th. Known for her work for HBO's True Detective, Lynn started out in the Americana genre until she integrated more pop, instrumentation and electronic sounds into her new album. The songs carry a dark approach and feel to them, in some cases haunting. Her voice is incredible and lyrics evocative and powerful. Really happy to have learned about her and hope to grab the album soon.

Sundy Best

I've never been someone that signs on to the bro-country style and most times its an immediate turn off when hearing it. However, there is something very appealing about Sundy Best that I cannot seem to shake for whatever reason. Maybe its their easy to sing melodies, upbeat rhythms or maybe it's the pleasure of seeing two elementary school friends have a whole lot of fun playing together. Either way, I enjoy what I've heard so far and hope to hear more from them soon.