Bob Dylan’s “Christmas in the Heart” (2009) – The Weekend Review

Originally posted 2009-11-29 02:28:00. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

Throughout Christmas in the Heart, Bob Dylan and his band are clearly enjoying themselves, embracing the timelessness of the Christmas music genre.  More specifically, Dylan and company are transporting themselves and their listeners back to a simpler time of deceptively simple songs and sentiments.

Still, not every nostalgia-inducing feature is practiced or purposeful.  For instance, that’s not static you hear on your compact disc or mp3 copy — that’s just Dylan’s voice.

Over the fifteen songs that comprise this new album, Dylan moves fluidly between the religious and the imaginative, from solemn, sacred hymns describing the birth of Jesus Christ to classic tunes about jolly old Saint Nicholas himself, Santa Claus.

Interestingly, this is the first time Dylan has included more than thirteen tracks on a studio release since 1970’s Self Portrait, the runner up being 1992’s Good As I Been To You, clocking in at thirteen tracks.  Granted, these are not the most positive comparisons in his considerable catalog, but fortunately, the comparisons end at the track count.

Christmas in the Heart is a unified collection of songs that are unlike anything Dylan has recorded before, and yet they somehow fit perfectly with the material he has released in the past decade or so.  Ever since the two albums of covers he released in 1992 and 1993, Dylan has seemingly been drawn to the sounds and styles of the past.  2001’s Love and Theft saw a wide variety of styles, and the songs on both Modern Times (2006) and this year’s Together Through Life have progressively relied on mid-20th century styles and arrangements.

In many ways, this is the most logical time for Dylan to contribute to the very American tradition of popular Christmas music.

Bob Dylan's "Christmas in the Heart" (2009)

Bob Dylan's "Christmas in the Heart" (2009)

I will admit that, upon a first listen, I was unimpressed.  Bob Dylan fanatic that I am, the deterioration of his voice initially alienated me and I felt distanced from these classic compositions, most of which I had heard before in at least one or more arrangements.

“The Christmas Blues” is perhaps the most Dylan-esque of the tracks, especially when considering the predominance of recent Dylan tunes with blues structures, the harmonica solo, and the more serious, even downtrodden tone.  In this song, his vocals are stretched and utilized to heartfelt effect.

As I listened a second and third time, the subtlety of these tracks began to set in.  The lead guitar in “Do You Hear What I Hear?” that more than adequately takes the place of the typical “answer” vocal components, the choral background singers with spot-on, traditional harmonies, and the variations in Dylan’s vocals — the rough edges in “Little Drummer Boy” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the softened edges in “Christmas Island” — all contribute to what is largely a relaxing and entertaining record.

Is there a better description for a Christmas album?

What strikes me about Christmas in the Heart is the proof which it provides for the argument that this time of year is a special season, one which captivates the hearts and souls of men and women and inspires us to be better people.  Certainly, if Bob Dylan put this much effort into not only a holiday album, but also a specifically Christmas-themed release, then there must be something to be said about the power of music influenced by the Christmas spirit.

Dylan, known for turning around and surprising even his most loyal fanbase, has done it again.  It may not be as revolutionary as going electric, or as polarizing as songwriting from an explicitly born-again Christian perspective, but it is at least as dramatic a development in his career.  Rarely has Dylan prepared such well-known cover songs for a studio release, much less songs with such a concrete set of lyrics and straightforward message.

If nothing else, this album will provide some interesting fodder for the ongoing “Is he Christian?/Is he Jewish?” debate that continues to rage on…

For me, Christmas in the Heart is a clear reminder of the universal qualities of the Christmas spirit.  It is an album that further diversifies Dylan’s hand in American popular music, and likewise carries the torch for another generation to hear and appreciate a style that originated almost six decades ago.

All in all, Christmas in the Heart would make for a strong addition to any pop/rock music fan’s Christmas album collection.

Elliott Smith’s “Figure 8” (2000) – The Weekend Review

Originally posted 2009-12-13 20:30:50. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

** This is the second in a five part series of music reviews, counting down from the #5 to the #1 albums of the decade, 2000-2009.  On January 2nd, 2010, the #1 album will be revealed, along with the complete Weekend Review picks for the Top Thirty Albums of the Decade. **

By Chris Moore:

RATING: 5/5 stars

Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 is undeniably one of the most hauntingly beautiful studio albums ever recorded.

This album — his fifth and final before his death — came at the peak of his career, blending his early acoustic fingerpicking styles with the orchestration that characterized his later work.  When it was first released, some reviewers criticized it as lacking the “subtlety” of his previous work.


Figure 8 has all the subtle brushstrokes of his tremendous early work — Roman Candle, Either/Or — with a much better grasp of the big picture.  Even XO, released two years previously as his major label debut, never quite attained the cohesion of Figure 8.  The concept of the album title alone is compelling, possibly taken from a Schoolhouse Rock! song (which he recorded during the sessions).  In a Boston Herald interview, Smith explained the concept by saying, “I liked the idea of a self-contained, endless pursuit of perfection.  But I have a problem with perfection…”  Conjuring the image of a skater, he continued, “So the object is not to stop or arrive anywhere; it’s just to make this thing as beautiful as they can.”

If this doesn’t encapsulate Smith’s worldview, then what does?

For better or worse, Figure 8 — not to mention all of his previous work — is often, perhaps unavoidably viewed through the lens of his death in 2003, generally considered to have been a suicide even though homicide could not be ruled out.  Knowing the circumstances of his death, it is difficult not to bestow additional layers of meaning on tracks like “Everything Means Nothing to Me” and “L.A.”

Whatever your take on his life and death may be, the music on Figure 8 speaks for itself.  Ranging from stripped down acoustic crooning to full-band electric romping, not to mention some honky tonk piano thrown in for good measure, the instrumental and vocal textures are well-layered, somehow achieving complexity without distracting from the songs themselves.

Elliott Smith's "Figure 8" (2000)

Elliott Smith's "Figure 8" (2000)

“Son of Sam” is, of course, the perfect album opener.  As my girlfriend has pointed out, you really have to remind yourself of the topic of this track to avoid being taken in by how catchy and pretty it is.  And how many songs about serial killers are simply this good?

Not many, I would hope.

Smith immediately takes it down a notch for track two, declaring his emotional distance in “Somebody That I Used To Know,” which is all acoustic and double-tracked vocals.  Classic Elliott Smith.

No sooner does that song fade then “Junk Bond Trader” kicks up on piano, spewing out disdain in a manner that only Smith ever could.  The next two tracks — “Everything Reminds Me Of Her” and “Everything Means Nothing to Me” — continue along the same theme, but in a more openly vulnerable voice.  The latter sounds every bit as stripped down as the former until about a minute in, when the characteristically double-tracked vocals are joined by heavily reverbed drums, building up to a spine-tingling crescendo.

The album continues in this manner, spare instrumentation at times and all-out rock n’ roll at others.  While Smith is an excellent piano player, guitar is clearly his instrument.  His use of timing with guitar riffs, electric solos, clean and distorted sounds at various times, and even palm mutes is unsurpassed.

Somehow, Figure 8 achieves an eclectic, indie sound that is both very modern and very nostalgic, particularly of mid to late Beatles work.  It seems no coincidence that Smith purchased authentic Beatles recording equipment throughout his career and even recorded several tracks for this release at the famed Abbey Road Studios in London.

It is difficult to imagine any other singers being more emotive, any other songwriters being so diverse in their styles and interests, or any other performers being so talented, much less all at the same time.  For these reasons, Figure 8 is one of the absolute essential albums of the decade, 2000-2009. It may have barely cracked the upper half of the Billboard Hot 200, but anyone who rejects the radio and the Grammys as the best source for new music knows that this is an unreliable judge of musical character.  Rolling Stone‘s panel of judges came a bit closer by voting this album as the #42 album of the decade, but this is drastically underselling it.  After all, I love Love & Theft, I think Magic is rocking, and White Blood Cells is great, but how these albums can place higher than a true masterpiece like Figure 8, I’ll never know.

And don’t even get me started on U2, Coldplay, Radiohead, and Green Day…

Truly, if you have ever felt rejected, needed to distance yourself from a negative influence, tried to mentally process the pressures of society, or simply been human, Figure 8 is an essential album.

Addendum to the March 2011 Report: The Weekend Review

Originally posted 2011-07-16 04:30:59. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

Well, I somehow missed a brand new album from one of my all-time favorite artists that was released in March.  And I also listened to Lupe Fiasco for the first time, specifically to his album that was released in March.

Thus, I give you the addendum to my March 2011 Weekend Review report.

FYI: The word online is that Beckley’s Unfortunate Casino is the precursor to a new America album to be released later this year or early in 2012.  As was the case with 2006’s Horizontal Fall and 2007’s Here and Now, it has been suggested that the songs that didn’t make the forthcoming America album are the ones that you’ll find on his solo disc.  If that is true, then we’re in for a real treat when the America record drops!

Unfortunate Casino
Gerry Beckley

March 31, 2011

4/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Hello” & “Feel”

Despite mixed reviews by fans and critics alike, Unfortunate Casino – for all intents and purposes Gerry Beckley’s third studio album – retains some of the best qualities of Van Go Gan (1995) and Horizontal Fall (2006) in a more concise package while covering sonic ground not explored on the aforementioned discs.

How Unfortunate Casino received harsher criticism than 2000’s remix disc Go Man Go is beyond me.

Still, much of the criticism is understandable, as the relative brevity of Unfortunate Casino’s ten tracks fall short of the soaring electric solos and overall energy of Van Go Gan.  It would also be difficult to argue that this new release has the same expansive ambition and the track-by-track songwriting excellence that was evident on Horizontal Fall.  All in all, this album is strikingly different from its predecessors, if only for its reliance on stripped down, slower tracks to lead in the album.There is no individual song to match the power pop brilliance of “Emma.”  There are sparks in “Remembering” and the title track, yet in many ways, the album doesn’t really kick into high gear until the second half with the lively “Feel” and “Hello.”  Some have attacked the lyrics on this latest release as insipid, which is ridiculous, especially considering some of the nonsensical tracks Beckley has helped pen in the past.

For the careful listener, Unfortunate Casino explores the themes of chance and change, playing on the obvious casino metaphors with admirable restraint.  Nostalgia and regret are shirked in “Remembering,” just as the present and future are embraced in tracks like “Simpson Sky” and “Feel.”  What is expressed purely in “Always” is held up to question by the greyer lines of “Fortune Fells.”  Frustration is dealt with forebodingly in “Dark River,” which is balanced later by the positive levity of “Hello.”

Balance is perhaps the best modifier for Unfortunate Casino, along with concise – I’ll take its ten strong tracks over Van Go Gan’s eighteen of fluctuating quality.  It is not better or maybe even as strong as Horizontal Fall, but it is a good album and a worthy addition to Beckley’s catalog.


Lupe FiascoProducer:
Lupe Fiasco, et alReleased:
March 8, 2011

3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“State Run Radio” & “Words I Never Said”

Politically-charged and clearly driven by anger, or at least angst, Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers is enigmatic for its simultaneous endorsement of disengaging from the system.  As a whole, Lasers is the only album I’ve ever listened to that both protests and subscribes to apathy, though the former seems to win out in the end with Fiasco’s consistent call for change and carefully placed qualifiers like the “wanna” in “I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now.”

Sonically, Lasers covers a range of sounds and draws textures from a variety of genres without resorting to the time-tested rap topics of drugs, hoes, and violence.  Fiasco’s modus operandi is to avoid the norm, to speak out against what he sees as the perpetuators and enablers of violence and corruption in society.  I have never understood listeners who bristle at the first sign of social commentary, and in fact, I’ve always found those who do so with artistry and a sense of balance to be the most interesting songwriters (i.e. Bob Dylan, John Lennon, George Harrison, Woody Guthrie, and the list goes on…).

Fiasco is successful on songs like “The Show Goes On” with its catchy melody and lyrical middle finger to abusive power or “All Black Everything,” a track that plays out like a blend between rap and Sinatra, imagining a world fundamentally changed as the conception of slavery is prevented; the effects resemble an exercise in imaginative butterfly effect theory.  Lyrically and sonically, “State Run Radio” is perhaps the strongest example of this type of song on the album, verging on being more of a pop/rock track than a rap song.  Still, with every politically-charged writer, there is the danger of going too far.

Even at the peak of the Dylan protest song era, on 1964’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, there was one thoughtful, lyrically nuanced song for every blatantly political track.  This is, however, not necessarily the case on Lasers.  For those who have followed his recent interactions with the press, it is what can only be referred to as the quasi-extremism of his espoused methodologies that most profoundly weakens the overall impact of his message.  For instance, verbally bashing President Barack Obama – with one liners in songs like “Words I Never Said” and in interviews, such as the most recent and severe when he claimed that Obama is the “biggest terrorist” – is certainly not the way to motivate people like myself to listen more closely.  The fact that his comments appear to be directed at all American presidents and all branches of the government, past and present, does little to blunt the impact of such statements.

Even still, though Fiasco is far from being a poet, I have found his music compelling and catchy, and I continue to return for the core messages, such as the frustration with the seemingly unalterable trends in big business and government policies in “Words I Never Said.”  Even though I cannot support a non-voting stance, I can deeply feel and, to a degree, relate to such lines as those that follow his declaration that he will not participate in politics: “I’m a part of the problem; my problem is I’m peaceful.” 

Lasers will inspire questions and thoughts and perhaps even action; for this, in addition to the more important aspects of the music itself, Fiasco remains an artist worth listening to, whether you consistently agree with him or not.


Bob Dylan’s “Another Side of Bob Dylan” (1964) – The Weekend Review

Originally posted 2010-05-24 23:03:06. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  4.5 / 5 stars

Nowhere else in the Bob Dylan catalog will you find a title that is simultaneously so blunt and yet so aptly written.

To be certain, Another Side of Bob Dylan may have been released in the same year as the preceding The Times They Are A-Changin’, an album that earns the distinction of being the most topical, protest-driven record in his resume.  The arrangement here on the fourth is the same as his first three albums: vocals, acoustic guitar, and harmonica.  There is a lyrical poem, “Some Other Kinds of Songs…,” included in this packaging, much like the previous record’s “11 Outlined Epitaphs.”

And yet, in many ways, this album’s material and approach could not be more divergent from what Dylan fans had come to expect.

For one thing, the in-your-face lyricism of his previous protest-genre songs is gone here, replaced by the more abstract, vivid, and provocative lines that begin to demonstrate a different aspect of Dylan’s worldview.  And, although I do love The Times They Are A-Changin’, it feels like he regressed in some ways after Freewheelin’, stating the “truth” on songs like the title track.  Here, on Another Side, he is back to asking questions a la “Blowin’ in the Wind,” perhaps most notably in “Ballad in Plain D” when he sings, “‘Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?'”

Even the arrangements — or perhaps the delivery more than the sounds — have progressed here, noticeable from the first “doooooo” of “All I Really Wanna Do.”  Dylan is clearly relaxing on this record a bit, allowing his most honest voice to shine through at times in ways that would have seemed out of place on the more serious tracks of his previous album.  Songs like “Black Crow Blues” and particularly “Motorpsycho Nightmare” simply wouldn’t have fit on previous records in all their humorous glory, oftentimes verging on the absurd (i.e. in “Motorpsycho Nightmare”: “I had to say something /to strike him very weird, /so I yelled out, /’I like Fidel Castro and his beard.’ /Rita looked offended / But she got out of the way /As he came charging down the stairs /Sayin’, ‘What’s that I heard you say?'”)

Bob Dylan's "Another Side of Bob Dylan" (1964)

Bob Dylan's "Another Side of Bob Dylan" (1964)

If you think that Dylan was an impressive lyricist prior to this album, then Another Side redefines one’s sense of what it means for words to be “impressive.”  Across the eleven tracks, it’s understandable if the listener might feel swept away into a world entirely separate from our own, into an environment where it is possible for the most raw of emotions and convictions to be translated into words.

In “My Back Pages,” Dylan sings that “Lies that life is black and white spoke from my skull.”  This is an admission of the shortsightedness of his youth, perhaps equally as much as it is a commentary on his own mortality, as he refers to his “skull” rather than his mind, soul, or something else more spiritual.

In my career as a teacher, I have always tried to avoid the pitfalls of the so-called “mongrel dogs who teach”…

Where he is not experimenting with word play (as in “All I Really Wanna Do,” “I ain’t lookin’ to compete with you /Beat or cheat or mistreat you /Simplify you, classify you /Deny, defy or crucify you”), he is surpassing the best songs of his catalog (think: “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” as an updated departure song since “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” sung with all the bitterness that the lyrics require.

Even within this broad range of topics and interests, Dylan has come a long way towards blending his thoughts across multiple songs, avoiding any particular tags.  For instance, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” could be viewed as a sad love song, and it could also be read as a statement about his opinions on the folk movement: “You say you’re lookin’ for someone /Who will promise never to part /Someone to close his eyes for you /Someone to close his heart /Someone who will die for you an’ more /But it ain’t me, babe.”  This new side of Bob Dylan is adamant that he must follow his heart and do what he feels is right, rather than acquiesce to the demands and expectations of others.  Closing his eyes or his heart are simply not options.

This sense of increased confidence amidst confessions of his perceived over-confidence is carefully worked out across the record, aided by his unflinching assessments of others (recall “Ballad in Plain D,” when he sings, “I stole her away /From her mother and sister, though close did they stay /Each one of them suffering from the failures of their day.”  Increasingly, Dylan does not rely on grand, poetic statements or metaphors to capture his meaning; rather, he can deconstruct a character’s psychology through deceptively simple lines, like pointing out the “suffering from the failures of their day.”

Additionally, Dylan’s artistry is all the more complete for the inclusion of a track like “To Ramona,” on which he sings, “Everything passes /Everything changes /Just do what you think you should do /And someday maybe /Who knows, baby /I’ll come and be cryin’ to you.”  Pioneering some cross between sagely wisdom and open vulnerability, this track reads in many ways like the logical progression of Freewheelin’ alum “Girl of the North Country,” if it is even possible to improve upon such a beautifully bittersweet track.

Finally, he has not even abandoned politics entirely as one might imagine.  Instead, he approaches this topic — and this shouldn’t come as a surprise — with more subtlety and humor, as when he sings in “I Shall Be Free No. 10,” “Now, I’m liberal, but to a degree /I want ev’rybody to be free /But if you think that I’ll let Barry Goldwater /Move in next door and marry my daughter /You must think I’m crazy! /I wouldn’t let him do it for all the farms in Cuba.”  That last line is particularly funny, and again signals the spark of an entirely fresh and exciting step in Dylan’s evolution as a songwriter.

What is most impressive is that, as young as he was, Dylan was such a gifted and careful wordsmith.  I’m always struck by his choice of words here; he does not label these songs as “the other side” of Bob Dylan.  Rather, this is “another side,” suggesting that there are more than two sides to him.

As the numerous outstanding albums of his career — Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, Slow Train Coming, and Time Out of Mind, just to name a few — would go on to suggest, there are myriad sides to this singer/songwriter.  And, if last year’s release of Christmas in the Heart is any indication, there may yet be many more sides to explore.