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.

(#31-50) – The 50 Best Rock Albums of the Decade, 2000-2009

Originally posted 2009-12-30 23:30:19. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

With only two days remaining in this decade, I’ve finally completed The Weekend Review’s take on the fifty best albums of the past ten years.  I’ve added the modifier “Rock” albums in order to purposely separate out the other genres currently taking up spaces on many of the end of decade lists.  The albums you will see here stretch across a wide range — from acoustic rock to alternative/indie rock to grunge rock and many shades in between – but what these works all have in common is that basic rock sensibility, namely a songwriter or band with guitars, bass, drums, and words and music of their own creation.

I had originally planned to post a top thirty list, but there were just too many (as you’ll see below) great albums that deserve ranking.  And indeed, this has been a difficult — but enjoyable — task, pouring through my iPod selections and stacks upon stacks of CDs from the decade.  I greatly enjoyed discussing and debating where certain albums should fall, and I was introduced and reminded of not a few by my close friends.  Perhaps the most difficult part was attempting to remove my bias, wherever possible, from my final rankings.  I even had to add the honorable mentions note, highlighting two albums that I could not in good faith rank higher than even one on the list above them and yet felt strongly about their quality.

With that, I enthusiastically thank those people who humored my desires to discuss and debate the greatest music of the decade, and I hope you will enjoy this first installment of the list.  Check back tomorrow for the next ten, with annotations included for each album.  And, of course, please leave your comments, criticisms, and even your own lists — I’d love to read and consider them!

31) Get Behind Me Satan – The White Stripes

32) Binaural – Pearl Jam

33) The Thorns – The Thorns

34) Rebel, Sweetheart – The Wallflowers

35) In Rainbows – Radiohead

36) Little by Little… – Harvey Danger

37) Reptile – Eric Clapton

38) On and On – Jack Johnson

39) Elephant – The White Stripes

40) American IV: The Man Comes Around – Johnny Cash

41) A Ghost is Born – Wilco

42) Riot Act – Pearl Jam

43) The Wind – Warren Zevon

44) Songs for Silverman – Ben Folds

45) The Ruminant Band – The Fruit Bats

46) (Breach) – The Wallflowers

47) Snacktime – Barenaked Ladies

48) More Than You Think You Are – Matchbox Twenty

49) Wildflower – Sheryl Crow

50) Sea Change – Beck

Honorable Mention

51) Here & Now – America

52) Transatlanticism – Death Cab for Cutie

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.

Excrement.

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
Producer:

Released:
March 31, 2011

Rating:
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.

 

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

Rating:
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.