** This is the fifth in a five part series of music reviews, counting down from the #5 to the #1 albums of the decade, 2000-2009. As of today, the #1 album has been revealed, along with the complete Weekend Review picks for the Top Thirty Albums of the Decade! **
By Chris Moore:
RATING: 5/5 stars
Knowing that Wallflowers frontman Jakob Dylan is son of THE Bob Dylan has raised a certain bar for his career in the music industry. And he operates, for the most part, within the confines of genres that his father helped to define — folk/country rock, rock and roll, and most recently on his solo album, solo acoustic music.
Especially considering how high that certain aforementioned bar is, the respect I have for Jakob Dylan’s style of songwriting and producing is all the more significant.
In every way that matters, Red Letter Days is the Wallflowers’ masterpiece, coming just three months after the band passed the ten-year mark since their first, self-titled release. And if you’ve heard The Wallflowers, then you know just how far they’d come to be able to release a record as well-developed, instrumentally brilliant, vocally masterful, and conceptually tight as this one. Lyrically, Red Letter Days is Jakob Dylan at his best, and his vocal performances, both leads and backgrounds, are outstanding — perfectly orchestrated and yet not flat in the least.
This is what drives me furious about the public reception of this band and of this album. Jakob Dylan has a style very much his own — catchy, quirky, tight and poppy yet raw — and still there’s hardly a reviewer who can pass up the opportunity to compare him to his father or to somehow reference Bob Dylan in some way.
I know, I know; even I haven’t avoided this.
Then there is Red Letter Days, an album that combines all the compositional qualities and sonic characteristics of my favorite classic rock — great guitar effects, a solid acoustic rhythm supporting most tracks, cool bass riffs, and a strong back beat — without coming off as being derivative. This is not a band trying to sound like they stepped out of the sixties. They’re not a seventies jam band transplanted into the modern music market. And there’s nothing eighties about them. No, this is a band with its roots solidly in everything that made the so-called nineties rock revival excellent. Two years into the new millennium, they were carrying the best of those aspects into their new album while also incorporating more experimental sounds — i.e. drum machines and other synthesized sounds typically associated with alternative rock.
Forgive me as I ascend the soapbox, but can someone please explain to me why Red Letter Days didn’t so much as appear on any of the numerous “best albums of the decade” lists that I’ve read over the past several weeks? I cannot, for all my love of and experience with the rock music of the past ten years, sort out a justification for why Red Letter Days isn’t sitting pretty alongside such acclaimed works as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Viva La Vida, Elephant, In Rainbows, and Sea Change, all albums that I also appreciate and do, in fact, appear on the Weekend Review’s top fifty list.
Putting the soapbox aside, the Wallflowers are one of the foremost rock bands of the nineties, and despite having suffered a steady decline in popularity, have continued to produce some of the most outstanding rock albums of the 2000’s.
From the first few seconds of “When You’re On Top,” it quickly becomes clear that this isn’t your standard Wallflowers release. This opening track is all about anxiously stretching out for something original in a society that worships the retreads, the formulas. We’re a society that loves what we know — in television alone, consider the four Law & Order franchises, the multiple CSI‘s and the even more numerous Survivor‘s. American Idol is the same old formula, but played out season after season. The narrator of this song, setting the tone for this record, aches for undiscovered ground, all the while remembering that it’s always best “when you’re on top.” This can be read as referring to some other person being “on top” in his life, or perhaps a more autobiographical reading might suggest this is Dylan singing to us after his band’s decline in popularity after Bringing Down the Horse gave way to (Breach).
“How Good It Can Get” and “Closer to You” are the perfect pair, much more straightforward rock compositions that advance the tone and themes of the first track. The former appears to exude a confidence, the narrator nearly bragging about what he has to offer, but the latter follows up with a much slower, more introspective approach.
For the fourth track, the Wallflowers shift into an altogether new and different gear. “Everybody Out of the Water” is some of the hardest rock Dylan and company have recorded. It really shows their teeth and Dylan seems to delight in the apocalyptic imagery and barely-contained scream rising up in his lead vocal.
This is quickly followed up with another drastic downshift into one of the best, albeit simplest, acoustic songs that this band has to offer. “Three Ways” is driven by a clever lyrical device that is delivered within a beautiful, mesmerizing melody.
The middle ground of Red Letter Days presents an interesting combination. Tracks six and eight, “Too Late to Quit” and “Health and Happiness,” are dark, bitter, bile-fueled rock songs that continue with the “all hell breaking loose” vibe of “Everybody Out of the Water.” Between the two lies “If You Never Got Sick,” which is among the best Wallflowers songs to date. If I were asked to play one song that represented the Wallflowers at their best, this would be it. Dylan’s lyrics are beautifully constructed, his vocals are fittingly both longing and confident, and the instrumentation is a perfect blending of strong acoustic guitars, a purposeful electric lead, and driving drumbeats.
It is, in context, a bright spot at the heart of what is otherwise quite dark.
By the time “See You When I Get There” kicks on, the clouds have begun to part. “Feels Like Summer Again” further demonstrates a positive attitude, playing with the imagery of summer to express all the hope that the warm months represent after a cold, frigid winter and a hesitant spring.
By the time the distorted guitars and crunchy bass of “Everything I Need” wind up, Dylan is a man whose confidence has been entirely restored. The double tracked lead — Dylan’s lower register delivery in particular — adds to the battle-hardened, yet optimistic attitude that characterizes much of the album. As he repeats in the chorus, “You can’t save me; you can’t fail me. I’m back up on my feet, baby. On the way down is when I found out, I’ve got everything I need.”
The final track of the album is an acoustic-based number in the same spirit as “Three Ways.” “Here in Pleasantville” takes a deep breath, steps back, and examines the realities of the situation that has spread out before us between “When You’re On Top” and “Everything I Need.” And there is no more zen-like, realistic song that you’ll find on this album or perhaps anywhere. This song is certainly wrapped up in a bittersweet haze, but there is something very peaceful about it.
Almost as an afterthought, the bonus track “Empire in My Mind” stretches out and builds up a nearly manic sinking feeling that, “There is no order, there is chaos and there is crime. There is no one home tonight in the empire in my mind.” After an album’s worth of confidence building, breaking down of fears and insecurities and restoring independence, this is interesting choice indeed for a closing track.
Without reservations, I strongly recommend the Wallflowers’ Red Letter Days to you as the overall best rock album of the decade, 2000-2009. Rolling Stone might as well have ignored it altogether for the bland three-star, one-paragraph review they afforded it. The general consuming public might as well have forgotten the band existed for the relatively poor numbers, as it came in a full 28 spots lower on the Billboard charts than Bringing Down the Horse did and has failed thus far to so much as register on the RIAA books.
Don’t make the same mistake: if you go back and pick up one rock music album from this decade, make it Red Letter Days.