The wonderful story of “Wagon Wheel”, from Big Bill Broonzy to Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup to Bob Dylan to Old Crow Medicine Show. What this article, written in 2011, misses is the latest twist on the story: Darius Rucker turning the song into a mainstream country hit. This is how retromania used to work, back when they called it tradition, and I guess it still does.
Posts Tagged ‘Bob Dylan’
A week of big names, with three new records debuting in the top 20. A great Taylor Swift (the third in a month, with more coming each week up to the release of the album on the 22nd, when I expect all the remaining tracks to appear on the chart—she’s done it before), disappointing Ke$ha, mediocre Rihanna, Flo Rida, Pitbull channeling Toots and the Maytals, and more Mumford’s than you can shake a banjo at. Next week promises more of the same: Swift again, Bruno Mars, One Direction, Kid Cudi, Brad Paisley, Gary Allan, and, oh yeah, Adele.
Taylor Swift—“Begin Again”
For the first of the preview singles leading up to the release of Red (the second, the title song, is already out), Swift takes a conservative turn, falling back on the soaring romanticism she’s famous for, with carefully placed steel guitar to keep her country audience happy. But this commercial calculation doesn’t take anything away from “Begin Again” or keep it from being one the best records she’s made. If there’s another songwriter at the moment who’s capable of capturing small romantic moments with as much skill and grace as Swift, I haven’t heard them. The verses set the stage, and the middle-eight is a delight, but it’s the chorus, which may be the best thing Swift has yet written, that makes this a great record. I only have one question: when Swift wrote the song’s best line, “I’ve been spending the last eight months/thinking all love ever does/is break, and burn, and end” did she realize she was echoing the 18th century English poet John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV (“That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend/Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.”)? I wouldn’t put it past her.
In pop music, professionalism is essential, but it’s also a curse. “Die Young” is intelligent and professionally crafted, but it contains the merest whiff of inspiration. There are a few good moments, but overall it’s the dullest record Ke$ha has ever made. Considering the stuff that Ke$ha put out since her last album–the Dylan cover (terrible, but never boring), the collaboration with The Flaming Lips–”Die Young” is a surprising disappointment. Sounds like she was trying too hard.
Written by Sia, produced by Stargate, and with a weird, Robyn-inspired vocal on the intro that has been noted by many, so much so that I’m beginning to think of all the attention paid to the Scandinavian influence on “Diamonds” as cover for the mediocrity of the rest of the track. Structurally “Diamonds” sounds odd and disconnected, and yet the arrangement is ordinary and, compared to what Rihanna has been doing the last couple of years, conservative. Considering she had just released a remix of “Cockiness”, it seems strange to issue a new single so quickly. But then, “Cockiness” was received with a yawn, so maybe this was a rush job to save face.
Mumford & Sons
“Lover’s Eyes”, #85
“Whispers In the Dark”, #86
“Holland Road”, #92
“Ghosts That We Knew”, #94
In musical terms Mumford & Sons have improved since their first album. The arrangements are straightforward and less cluttered, the lyrics more pointed and less confused. They’ve still got a long way to go, though. Since they don’t possess much of a melodic gift and lack rhythmic variety, they fall back on gimmicks to get their point across: sudden stops and starts, dynamic shifts, and lurches in tempo are the only real tools they possess. They tend to use the same tricks, to the same effect, over and over again, often within a single song. It’s tiresome, but their unerring precision keeps the tracks moving even when there’s not much else going on.
What is going on, most of the time, is rage. I wish I could tell you what their anger is about or directed towards, but the lyrics are vague and fall too readily into cliche, making it difficult to get a clear picture. Biblical imagery suits them, but it doesn’t clarify their ideas. That may be a good thing, since many of these songs revolve around the perfidy of women, or one woman anyway. It’s possible the lyrics are about something else–society in general, or the church–and the feminine pronoun is a way of personalizing the imagery. But that only makes it worse. If Mumford is striking back against a real woman who did him wrong, his imagery would be acceptable, but not if it’s intended as allegory. The world has endured enough Bible-based misogyny. The last place we need it is in pop music, which has too much of its own misogyny already.
Flo Rida—“I Cry”
The serious subject matter of “I Cry”–the mass murder in Norway, the death of a sister–explains the lack of a new hook from this hook machine, but it doesn’t explain the usual club-banging arrangement. Talking about tears falling into a champagne bucket doesn’t elicit much sympathy, either. In most cases, when a pop star who’s traded in party music releases a “serious” record, it’s a sign their days on top are coming to an end. Next stop: a greatest hits album with a couple of new tracks. Should be a good one.
Pitbull featuring TJR—“Don’t Stop the Party”
Another insane track from Pitbull, and a perfect example of a sample chain. Having heard TJR’s funk/house track, “Funky Vodka”, Pitbull brought the producer into the studio, and re-edited and remixed the track with his vocals over the top. Like so many dance records, “Funky Vodka” itself was based on a sample: Toots and the Maytals’s “Funky Kingston”. So if you want, you can credit Toots Hibbert with writing the riff that makes the song move, though he no doubt borrowed it from someone else. Whatever the case, Pitbull’s version isn’t a desecration: all he does is up the party atmosphere and modernize the sound. He also delivers one of the best lines I’ve ever heard from him, mixing his usual bragging with a healthy dose of Latino pride: “Just cause you ain’t me, don’t hate me/As a matter fact you should thank me/Even if you don’t, you’re welcome, yankees”.
“Shakespeare’s last play was called The Tempest. It wasn’t called just plain Tempest. The name of my record is just plain Tempest. It’s two different titles.”
—Bob Dylan in Rolling Stone
Kenny Chesney—“Come Over”
The mindless “Feel Like a Rock Star” to the contrary, in many ways Chesney has matured as an artist, and he’s become especially effective at songs like this, which emphasize a sense of regret while hinting at a barely restrained longing and sensuality. This may be more a matter of craft than sensibility—Chesney knows his stuff better than most anyone else in country—but it works as long as you don’t listen too deeply and catch the mechanics at work. I doubt he’ll ever top “You and Tequila”, but this is in the same ball park. Enough records like this and I may learn to tolerate him.
J. Cole featuring Missy Elliott—“Nobody’s Perfect”
Cole is a good rapper, but his ideas are so confused that you’re never sure where he’s going or what point he’s trying to make. The beat is above-average but not great, and Missy Elliott, though always a pleasure to hear, provides only enough quality to maintain her reputation and nothing more. The only thing that’s noteworthy is the second reference to Plato to make the Hot 100 this year, but it’s a throwaway; Cole doesn’t build the whole track around it like Jay-Z and Kanye West did.
Gym Class Heroes featuring Ryan Tedder—“The Fighter”
Ryan Tedder has appeared on God knows how many records, but as far as I can tell he’s written only two actual hooks, recycling them from song to song while changing the words and varying the arrangement just enough to cover his tracks. The good thing is that Tedder’s plaintive sentimentality forces Travie McCoy to act like a human being rather than a wind-up snark toy, making him far less irritating than usual. Not that it prevents McCoy from throwing out one of the worst ever examples of hashtag rap: “That’s when you press on/Lee Nails”. It’s so stupid and meaningless and so belittles the song’s message it’s almost disrespectful, especially coming from a guy who says he does it “for the kids”. I’m sure the twelve year olds who think he’s funny appreciate the effort.
Love And Theft—“Angel Eyes”
I have no problem in general with power pop influenced country, even if it necessarily leans toward Tom Petty. The Band Perry, for instance, does very well with the idea, as does the more rock influenced Eric Church. But Church and the Perrys both dig into the emotional side of the form, while Love And Theft are nothing but machines. They get the sound right, the structure, even some of the clever lyrical turns, but they’re far more interested in technical perfection and hitting all the marks than expressing emotion. The result is a well-constructed song that is built from one tired trope after another and adds nothing to them: Songwriting 101 personified. The smartest thing they’ve done is name themselves after a Bob Dylan album, though I doubt they’ll ever live up to it.
Dustin Lynch—“Cowboys And Angels”
In country, if you string enough well-worn clichés together with a decent title hook, you’ve got a song. Find a singer with an air of rough sincerity and enough gravel in his voice to be taken for a real cowboy, pair him with an arrangement that touches all the right buttons, and you’ve got a hit. Here’s another one.
It is the right, it may even be a requirement, of every generation to revise, or even reverse, the work of the generation before it, either through intention or misunderstanding. On those grounds I have no problem with Ke$ha’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”. If she wants to turn a sarcastic kiss-off song into an ironic (in the Alanis Morisette definition of the word) “suicide note”, she’s free to do so with no complaint, no matter how mistaken it may seem to me and many others. I am free, however, to complain about the performance itself, which seems to me to wallow in just about every artistic fallacy that pop music is prone to, the least of which is accepting Alanis Morisette’s definition of irony and acting as if it made sense.
Anybody who writes seriously about pop music long ago resigned themselves to the fact that most performers define art as self-expression, and that, for them, self-expression generally means vomiting forth your emotions in a public arena and seeing what sticks. If something does, rinse and repeat. Most of the time this idea is underplayed and can be tolerated, especially if it comes with a good beat, but occasionally a performer will double down on this doubled fallacy and come up with something that is, if you sympathize with the performer’s situation, emotionally affecting; yet at the same time, whatever your feelings, it’s impossible to listen to.
According to Ke$ha, this recording came about because, while tracking the vocal for what she thought would be an entirely different version, she found herself connecting with the lyrics, as she interpreted them, far more strongly than she had anticipated, and she began to cry. Instead of cutting the take short, she soldiered on, and reworked the arrangement to fit the vocal track. It’s a sweet, touching story, if true, but it doesn’t excuse the result. It makes sense that Ke$ha’s version would be slower, but the irregular tempo here is so slow that the melody almost disappears, along with any sense of emotional dynamics, tension, or variation. Dylan’s version bounces back and forth between lyrical regret and deep sarcasm. Ke$ha’s starts at a single emotional pitch and stays there for the entire song. It could almost be described as emotional minimalism if it wasn’t for the constant, over the top sound of Ke$ha sobbing, snuffling, and sniffling, sounds as irritating to me as distorted electroclash synth bursts are to those who hate her pop records.
According to Popdust’s Katherine St. Asalph, many people, when they heard Ke$ha was recording this song, expected the worst: a bitchy, discoey version full of random electronic effects and Ke$ha’s sarcastic, braying vocals. If only. That would not only have been a closer fit to the song Dylan wrote, but would have been far better musically than what has appeared. I can already hear those who will say that Ke$ha is finally revealing her true self, that after bathing in artifice the last two years she has finally decided to be “authentic” (no doubt at least one of them will cite the influence of Adele). Let’s just hope that Ke$ha herself doesn’t buy into that idea. My belief is that she was overawed by the idea of recording a Dylan song (and on such a high profile project) and thought she had to do something serious and “different”, both from the original and from her own records. A temporary and understandable lapse. Fortunately, she has simultaneously released the latest remix (with Andre 3000, Lil Wayne, T.I., and Wiz Khalifa) of my favorite of her songs, “Sleazy”, which is joyfully inauthentic (whatever that may mean) and therefore closer to the truth. Long may she bray.
“Everybody knows by now that there’s a gazillion books on me either out or coming out in the near future. So I’m encouraging anybody who’s ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book. You never know, somebody might have a great book in them.”
Todd Snider considers what he would say if he were to ever meet Bob Dylan, which leads to one great meeting Dylan story after another, none of which involve Snider himself, who still hasn’t met him, and obviously doesn’t consider himself worthy.
or how bout the odd “were you talking about me”
fuck i’ve got that before. and i’m a folk singer from the ’90s for fuck’s sake.
they don’t even really have those.
This Guardian article by the usually flawless Tom Ewing is a perfect example of how looking at pop music almost solely as a rivalry between art and business can you lead you to the wrong conclusions. Trying to explain those moments when artists make records that seems beyond not just their own limitations, but everybody’s, and then retreat to safer ground the next time out, Ewing focuses on nothing but commercial pressures. He seems to ignore the personal and emotional forces that help to create such works, and often make it impossible to create another. The history of pop music is full of the stories of artists who created groundbreaking records of seemingly limitless musical and emotional depth, and then either retreated to safer pastures or collapsed completely: Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On; John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band; Neutral Milk Hotel’s The Aeroplane Over the Sea; My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless; Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks; Bob Dylan’s string of mid-sixties triumphs (three different albums, but released in the space of a year); Nirvana’s In Utero; Frank Sinatra’s Only The Lonely; Pet Shop Boys’s Very; and, of course, The Beach Boys’s Smile, which stood uncompleted for almost forty years because Brian Wilson crashed and burned in the middle of making it.
Britney Spear’s Blackout and Rihanna’s Rated R share little in terms of quality with these records (though that opinion is subject to change), but they do share comparable stories of creation, coming as the result either of traumatic events, intense personal pressures, or sudden changes in viewpoint (i.e., Brian Wilson’s discovery of LSD). Each represents an artist going farther into themselves and their music than they ever had before and would ever be able to do again. Some moved on to safer, more comfortable ideas, some collapsed and weren’t heard from again for years, or ever. Some died. But I think it’s fair to say not one of them changed course because of commercial pressure. These records were anomalies, not just in terms of pop music as a whole, but in terms of the artist’s careers. They’re the Bob Beamon’s of pop music, and I would no more expect these artists to continue on in the same fashion than I would have expected Beamon to be able to jump over 29 feet every time he lifted both feet off the ground. There’s only so far into yourself you can go, and once you have, if you get out in one piece, you would have to be the rarest kind of human being to dare and go back again.
Last weekend Jaq and I threw a Christmas party, and of course it was my job to put together some music. I was short on time and most of my Christmas music is on vinyl, so I decided to use my Rhapsody account and slap together a quick Christmas playlist. I picked a few obvious favorites—Dylan’s insane new Christmas album, Phil Spector, Charles Brown, etc—but then I decided it would be fun to put together a jazz playlist. I was happy to discover that there was quite a lot, except, that is, when I did a search for Louis Armstrong. I had assumed that since he recorded in the heyday of classic Christmas pop music, there must be quite a few Armstrong renditions of seasonal favorites. I was wrong. There are plenty of Armstrong Christmas albums, but not a single one that isn’t supplemented with either tracks by other artists or Armstrong cuts that can barely be stretched into the holiday tradition. He just didn’t care for Christmas music, I guess.
My favorite, by far, is Wonderful Christmas, which has both the cheesiest cover and the most bizarre song selection. Its fourteen tracks include three actual Christmas songs, two songs that are often performed as if they were holiday related, even though they’re not (“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “Moonlight In Vermont”), and nine cuts that have no relation to Christmas or wintertime whatsoever. These include “Hello Dolly” (well, it was a hit), “Jeepers Creepers”, “New Orleans Stomp”, and the woeful blues of “St James Infirmary”. The two eyebrow raisers, though, are “Just A Gigolo” (is he a present?) and “I Want A Butter and Egg Man”, which, as you might have guessed, is not about dairy products. It is, however, about a sneaky guy who makes special deliveries. That’s close enough to Christmas, I guess.