Underappreciated Albums #4: Bob Dylan – Shot Of Love (1981)

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2.83 on Rate Your Music (Artist average = 3.56)

Allmusic: ⅖

Entertainment Weekly: B-

1. Shot Of Love (4:18)
2. Heart Of Mine (4:29)
3. Property Of Jesus (4:33)
4. Lenny Bruce (4:32)
5. Watered-Down Love (4:10)
6. The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar (4:03)
7. Dead Man, Dead Man (3:58)
8. In The Summertime (3:34)
9. Trouble (4:32)
10. Every Grain Of Sand (6:12)

Is there a more uncool chapter of an artist’s discography than Bob Dylan’s born-again Christianity era? Even Radiohead’s ‘Pop Is Dead’ aberration and David Bowie’s wilderness years with Tin Machine have achieved a measure of naff charm by now, but the conventional trio (or should that be trinity?) of albums that mark Dylan’s fascination with evangelism – Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot Of Love – are rarely listened to, or even recognised any more. We’d rather leave them in the cupboard and forget about them entirely. For the first two of those albums, that’s not an unfair evaluation – they are embarrassing given the great man’s high standards.

Shot Of Love at least has a rootsy rock and roll sound, rather than the affectatious gospel of Slow Train Coming and Saved. In those albums the backing vocalists, led by his second wife Carolyn Dennis, sound completely out of place as Dylan does his worst imitations of Baptist singing. For Shot Of Love there is a change of studio – from Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama to Clover in Los Angeles – and, counterintuitively, the move returns Dylan to something approaching the rawness of Blood On The Tracks or Desire; in contrast to the staid, middling sound recorded on the first two born-again albums.

That change is most obvious in the title track, which bristles with an astonishingly live sound. Speaking from a European perspective, extended religious metaphors and pop music for me are by and large incompatible. In a recent chat between Ed O’Brien and Dave Okumu recorded for the Ninjatune podcast, O’Brien recalled a conversation he’d had with Kanye West where the rapper was astonished to find out that, in O’Brien’s estimation, 95% of British musicians would dismiss belief in God out of hand. That said, ‘Shot Of Love’ is one song which, with a powerful gutsy sound working hand in hand with an innovative lyric  – comparing a divine shot of love to shots of heroin, codeine, whisky and coffee. It’s no wonder PJ Harvey covered it.

Whether you view the album as religious conduit or a more secular enjoyment, the songs undeniably have more impact in their structure and their mixing: ‘Heart Of Stone’ has a wonderfully focused chorus, with sweeping chords and changes of pace, and while ‘Trouble’ is a relatively lukewarm 80s protest against signs o’ the times, the guitar and drums have a delicious backstreet vibe to them, as if played by street performers.

Still, though the opening track is strong because Dylan releases a genuine sounding plea from an existential swamp, too many of the songs on here raise him to a pulpit which grates very quickly. The songs are, on average, better than what he churned out for the previous two, but ‘Watered-Down Love’ can’t be redeemed with its plodding exposition of how sorely Dylan’s audience need to be saved. While Shot Of Love’s lyrics can’t compete with the dazzling heights of his mid-60s peak, there is at least an interesting sense of perspective at work on much of the album, as they represent more of an internal monologue for a man who needs belief in the absence of anything else, particularly any sense of self-worth. This allows some of Dylan’s typically enigmatic metaphors to co-exist with Biblical language which, by this point, he is more comfortable with. ‘I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man/Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand’ is a standout from the closing track, with ‘Every Grain Of Sand’ showing a more interesting approach to Biblical materials compared to the more mindless clutches of Bible foisted upon you on Slow Train Coming, which has song titles like ‘Man Gives Names To All The Animals’ and ‘Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)’.

The addition of one track in particular to this album grants it an artistic depth which ensures I keep coming back to it, beyond any prettiness to Dylan’s words or thrillingly engineered sound; track number 4, ‘Lenny Bruce’. Composed in 1980, 14 years after Bruce died, its very inclusion raises a whole host of questions, none of which have an easy answer. Does that make Lenny Bruce like Jesus Christ? Was the writing of the song influenced by the murder of John Lennon during the album’s composition? Why did Dylan write about someone who, as the song has it, he only shared a taxi ride with? Why did he write about another Jewish cultural figure who turned his back on his institutional religion? Paul Nelson’s original review for Rolling Stone helps crystallise an alternative suggestion: that Dylan presents himself as a sacrificial Christ-like figure on the album, and his oddly bathetic overtures to Bruce are part of that portrayal.

Dylan is at his best when he presents, across a song or an album, a series of mysterious signs and lines, like a tarot card deck, which offer an array of interpretations. By the same rule, he is weak when he communicates through evangelised religion, which offers the same answer to every sign. ‘Lenny Bruce’, and Shot Of Love as a whole, are the closest Dylan comes to recapturing such form within his Christian period and, as such, deserve to be re-appraised.

 

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Underappreciated Albums #3: Beady Belle – Closer (2005)

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3.23 on Rate Your Music (Artist Ave = 3.67)

1. Skin Deep (4:03)
2. Pillory-Like (4:18)
3. Goldilocks (4:51)
4. Airing (6:10)
5. Never Mind (5:41)
6. Closer (3:18)
7. Irony (6:15)
8. Stools & Rules (6:00)
9. Tomorrow (2:47)

It’s tempting to knock Jamie Cullum: indie kids think he tries too hard to be in their gang, and jazz nuts think he’s not authentic enough for them. Yet there can be no greater advocate for bridging the two sounds, and he has done a great job in drawing attention to the (predominantly Scandinavian) groups who mix the two aesthetics. This leaves bands like Beady Belle caught between two stools though, as it is unclear exactly who takes responsibility for them – Down Beat? Pitchfork? They fall through a gap which makes it hard for them to come to public attention. This is a great shame, when their songs are so well-crafted and Beate Lech’s vocal delivery is brimming with such white-girl sass.

Lech’s voice is sensual, but poised with a stern distance as she occupies a variety of different female personae, all of whom have a disaffected air of control. ‘Life will go on tomorrow’ she sings in the closing track, paraphrasing Scarlett O’Hara, summarising the carefree confidence she expresses throughout the whole album. She occupies the mind of strong-minded women from literature; Goldilocks and Lewis Carroll’s Alice, in ‘Goldilocks’ and ‘Pillory-like’ respectively. Lech’s sultry whispering, poised atop echoic (Rhodes) piano, seeps into your ear, but the electronica programming grabs you by the hip and makes you gyrate. In the best nu jazz tradition, this is music for coming down from the club as well as the living room.

Lech’s relaxed intimacy sets the tone for the entire LP, which cannot help but bring you under its spell. She described in an interview how the name of the album represented its goal to get the listener in a more personal space with the music, instead of using lush string orchestrations as a largely passive backdrop. The end result is like a more relaxed Jazmine Sullivan, a wittier Portishead, Sarah Vaughan with a drum machine.

‘Irony’ is the song Alanis Morrissette couldn’t write, while ‘Skin Deep’ is one of the more arresting album openers out there – it’s rare that I am hooked on an album instantly through the words alone, but on my first listen Beate Lech’s wry ideal of aesthetic perfection – ‘I like the sugarcoated’ – caught me on the sly and left me wanting more. The lyrics match the atmosphere of the record: dotted throughout are twists on the pull of superficial sound, held up as the antithesis to Lech’s honest intimacy.

The ubiquitous Rhodes piano of nu jazz now comes off as quite cliche and dinner party-ish, but there is enough variation in the texture of the songs – ranging from traditional jazz band set up in the smoky ‘Pillory-like’ to programmed beats in ‘Stools & Rules’ – to keep each track fresh. Purists might not appreciate me saying this, but Closer has something to offer everyone who occupies a corner of the indie-electronica-jazz triangle, and the self-assured delivery of their front woman is very appropriate for our present moment – at the time PureMusic described it as ‘Beyonce goes electronica’. As with fossil fuel exploration, social democracy and melancholy, Norway were years ahead of the game.

Underappreciated Albums #2: Radiohead – Hail To The Thief (2003)

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NME: 7/10 (“a good rather than a great record”)

The Guardian: 3/5 (“Its bleakness – expressed in fragmentary, elliptical lyrics – seems to hold the album back”)

Q: 7/10 (“comes dangerously close to being all experimentalism and precious little substance”)

Blender: 6/10 (“like an hour-long sigh”)

3.73 on Rate Your Music (Artist average = 3.77)

Radiohead don’t make concept albums. They make thematic ones, showing off the album unit as individual parts connected by interweaving ideas to a greater extent than most of their competitors. Hail To The Thief is arguably their greatest achievement in this regard. Fairy tales, mythical creatures, childhood fables, vampires, genies, rabbits, sirens, and wolves all make appearances. The album uses the language of imagination, myth and story-telling while offering a contentious title which, despite the band’s protestations, is about as politically direct as they come. This thematic unity is my defence against some of the criticisms of the album, then and now; it is schizophrenic (even by Radiohead’s standards), rushed, lacking identity in comparison to its genre-defining brethren, What would make it a concept album would be to try too hard and write a libretto for the music, rather than allowing the songs to spark off each other with respectful distance for their own status as individual units. One could imagine another band grappling with the same ideas and coming up with a frame narrative of a bedtime story, with interludes and other production tricks in the place of compelling material that found unity through its own artistic strength. The album’s original title was The Gloaming, meaning the period before sunset, and that has a metaphorical application referring to the point just before sleep – Yorke described the album’s structure as working in this manner, with ‘A Wolf At The Door’ as waking up to the realisation that reality is even worse in a piece of typically Yorkean cynicism. There’s a microaudience of Yorke’s son Noah, who prompted feelings of generational accountability in his father, and a macroaudience of the world at large, being lulled into paralysis by ignorance and fear.

It has my favourite album artwork from Stanley Donwood – compressing Yorke’s technique of manipulating other people’s soundbites into a purely visual form. The cover is based on a street map of Los Angeles. The greens are carefully placed to capture your attention which, in conjunction with the bluish sky above, give the impression of flying above the patchwork quilt of an English landscape. Or maybe the collage quality is a nod to Elmer the Patchwork Elephant, one of many children’s’ fiction characters that lurk around the periphery of the album. That sort of vastly abstracted impression of English scenery – like what Andrew Marvell called ‘a green thought’, albeit in a black rather than a green shade, as Stanley Donwood uses colours taken from the petrochemical industry – accompany the intensely vivid and non-specific pastoral locales invoked by the album, which oscillate between dream and reality, between a chance to escape political control and an acquiescence to simplified neoconservative rhetoric. Listen to the penultimate track ‘Scatterbrain’, where the first line of the song has Yorke’s vocal notes rise with ‘I’m walking out’, into what you expect to be a contemplative walk beloved in the English poetic tradition, before they are see-sawed down again with the shuddering ‘in a force ten gale’.

For once the band tried to avoid tampering with the live quality of their sound, recording a song per day in sessions in Los Angeles, hoping to circumvent the arguments that had threatened to tear the band apart when it came to editing and sequencing Kid A. Accordingly there is a last hurrah for the straight-up rocker in their songbook, from ‘2+2=5’, – a bonsai ‘Paranoid Android’ – through the tight guitar work on ‘Go To Sleep’, to the snaking crescendo of ‘There There’.

The album is full of stylistic throwbacks. ‘Where I End And You Begin’ is a swampy Joshua Tree style giant, with Jonny’s Ondes Martenot filling in for The Edge’s infinite guitar. I remember reading Pitchfork’s review of The Bends re-release where they described ‘Planet Telex’ as the first song that could have been released on any of their albums; ‘Where I End And You Begin’ may be their last song which could have nestled onto Pablo Honey, though the disaffection of an unrequited love in ‘Creep’ has morphed into 21st century Yorke’s cannibalistic urges (cf. ‘Knives Out’) to ‘eat you alive’. ‘Go To Sleep’ kicks off with a rootsy, Americana guitar riff that is accompanied by Yorke’s rather caustic attempt at a blues refrain, a refreshing song to listen to now, when the eight years of using America and its politicians as a punchline has given way to a pinnacle of untouchable liberal cool. Before that, Bush Jr followed in Regan’s wake in appropriating a particular image of rugged American nationalism, which is satirised in ‘Go To Sleep’, one of the band’s most underrated songs. Yorke in the song becomes a Rip Van Winkle mark 2, this time escaping from the Iraq War rather than the American War of Independence. Jonny Greenwood’s Max/MSP solo at the end is sometimes treated as a gimmick – and its strangely low place in the mix doesn’t do much to deter that assumption – but is one of their best sonic artefacts, a real crystallisation of the band’s themes of the self ripped apart by greater forces, to the point of possible insanity. Much is made of the album’s ‘raw’ quality but there is still the same sensitive awareness of the music’s status as a recorded entity; the first sound heard on the album is of a guitar being plugged in, and the last line of the last verse in closer ‘A Wolf At The Door’ is an anguished request to ‘turn the tape off’.

As well as looking backwards, there is innovation too: ‘A Wolf At The Door’ has Yorke give a demented spoken word-cum-rap-cum-singing performance, the vocal equivalent of Jonny Greenwood’s corrupted exit stage right at the end of ‘Go To Sleep’. It’s so wonderfully fitting of his lyrical style it’s a wonder he hasn’t recaptured it again. ‘Skip Divided’ comes close but is more melodic and too clubby, without the fractured angst of 2003. ‘Myxomatosis’ is the band at their most overdriven, the ‘swagger’ that Ed O’Brien talked about in recording the album disintegrating into a shabby, leprotic mass.

With what has happened to Radiohead since, Hail To The Thief seems like not just the end of their EMI years, but also the closing chapter in their tetchy rocktronica period before The Eraser gave Thom Yorke a platform to make his music to become weirdly sexy, with Colin Greenwood letting his soul influences really flow into his bass playing for the first time, taking Phil Selway with him. Occasionally the mantras on Hail to the Thief can get repetitive to the point of banality (‘Sit Down. Stand Up.’ can lose its inherent tension after so many listens), and it is hard to disagree with the band’s sentiment that the album is simply too long and would have benefited from more rigorous mixing (‘A Punchup At A Wedding’ doesn’t need to be there, and ‘We Suck Young Blood’ could be punchier). The passing of time has helped Hail To The Thief in one way though, as the initial concerns that Radiohead had directed their creative energy into making a petulant protest album has ossified into something closer to what Jonny Greenwood diagnoses within the album, simply ‘what it feels like to be around in 2003’. The album is as a memento from the front line of a paranoid time.

Underappreciated Albums #1: Masato Nakamura – Soundtracks to Sonic The Hedgehog & Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (Game releases 1991 and 1992, album release 2012)

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(Please read here for an introduction to the Underappreciated Albums series)

Masato Nakamura’s work on the soundtracks for the first two Sonic games, finally receiving official release in 2012, is bound by tight technological restrictions; the compositions for each level are limited to four sounds playing simultaneously, 16 bits, and about 90 seconds of audio to loop. Such restrictions would suggest a music that is inevitably stilted and merely a product of its time, yet Nakamura weaves an evocative score which complements the speed at which the game is played, while also sculpting imaginative vistas. This is no more pronounced than in his score for the first stage of the first game, Green Hill Zone. The melody line is quite pastoral, which helps enforce the geographical non-specificity of Sonic the Hedgehog. Before it became established as a series and developed its own mythos, the story was as simple as “Dr. Ivo Robotnik, the mad scientist, is snatching innocent animals and turning them into evil robots!” (quoted from the manual). Compare this with the Mario series of games, which from the beginning creates the specific universe of the Mushroom Kingdom and has the triangle of Mario-Peach-Bowser at its core. Nakamura’s music turns the level into an abstract token for all green hills, instilling the player with a sense of freedom and beginning that is unusually direct because, in the absence of a detailed overarching narrative, setting the scene is not the main priority.This helps it achieve a monumental nostalgic power, particularly as it was the first video game played by many people thanks to Sega’s enormous marketing drive for its Genesis/Mega Drive console with Sonic as the official mascot. With no scene to set: the player is not concerned with entering into a specific location, but something more symbolic, simply trying to feel that they are on the beginning of a journey. And Nakamura pulls it off beautifully. Emerald Hill Zone in the second game carries on the theme, but it feels more confident, like reuniting with an old friend rather than meeting for the first time, the bass being much more melodic and the melody itself hitting its stride much earlier. In a similar vein, I’ve always loved the cheeky rustic harmonica style effects on the soundtrack to Hill Top Zone, cleverly imitating vibrato on a synthesiser.

There are harder elements to counterbalance though; it’s not always Japan’s green and pleasant land. Masato Nakamura worked with Sonic Team while working as bassist/arranger for Dreams Come True, and his background gives the game music a groove and an edge which the preceding 8-bit generation of games could not provide efficiently. The influence of sci-fi movies like Blade Runner is obvious on levels like Mystic Cave Zone, with the second Sonic game more willing to explore urban themes as it crawls through industrialised locales. There’s even a great interpolation of turntable scratching in Metropolis Zone. The homage to Blade Runner goes further on the game-ending Scrap Brain Zone music from the first installment, but it is innovative in a gaming context – different drum samples are used from the palette of conventional Genesis/Mega Drive samples. This gives that level an industrial feel distinct from the rest of the game, and it is preceded by the relatively laid-back and spacey Star Light Zone, showing Nakamura’s capability for restraint as well as detail within those four channels. He even has time to pull out a waltz within the special stage – a change in time signature being a clever little shorthand to emphasise how that stage of the game is separate from the main story.

Soundtracks are always a tricky business, because at their most successful they are inseparable from the visual element of the game/film, and video game soundtracks often do not see an official release – Masato Nakamura’s work only came out officially in 2011. It’s been said that the stigma of video game music has been symbolically removed with their admission to the Classic FM hall of fame. This isn’t true: the high ranking entries are from the Elder Scrolls and Final Fantasy series, which are composed in imitation of classical models. RPGs by their very nature borrow tropes from opera and symphony. The stigma will really be removed when we start to see blogger/curators bold enough to nominate a soundtrack like Nakamura’s into lists of significant releases from the 1990s (depending upon how you define release date, of course). Nakamura did take his inspiration from film scoring, working only from screenshots and storyboards, and his soundtrack is scenic enough, but the music should be considered differently. It is technologically bound, but aesthetically free to prioritise fleeting moments and feelings, a soundtrack not reacting to specific visual cues but emerging through impressionistic shades. The limited sound palette means that melody has to be exceptionally strong, because there is no orchestral range or depth of sampling to create a vivid feel. He starts with the same materials as a film composer, but he is reacting to very general ideas like ‘the green stage’ or ‘the volcano stage’, dropping little nuggets of pure sensation throughout the game. Nakamura’s soundtracks do not feel like a pale imitation of symphonic precursors, but a condensation of the simple, bright yet unimaginably profound manner that an unspoilt mind – such as a child’s – might experience the world.