Album: Blood on the Tracks
Artist: Bob Dylan
Released: January 20th, 1975
Highlights: Tangled Up in Blue, You’re a Big Girl Now, If You See Her Say Hello, Shelter from the Storm
Through his first fourteen records, Bob Dylan had transitioned between a number of personas: an acid and acute political folk artist; a prolific troubadour that used impossibly wide imagery and led a wild rock band; and even a country singer. In all themes he had explored, though, Dylan constantly found a way to distance himself from his subject of choice, be it in a heartbreaking tune like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, in a surrealistic fantasy such as “Mr. Tambourine Man”, or in the social commentary of “With God on Our Side”. He was never a part of his stories, but rather an insightful observer who provides clarity to his public. It was only with “Blood on the Tracks”, written in the aftermath of a painful divorce from his longtime wife, that Dylan got close and personal to his audience; the outburst of emotion was so grand the artist could no longer keep the curtains shut.
Although the shift in tone is one of the album’s most remarkable characteristics, and perhaps the reason for its impeccable greatness, it is not its sole quality. After a sequence of works in which his songwriting had clearly slipped from the glorious heights achieved in “Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, and “Blonde on Blonde”, “Blood on the Tracks” comes off as a return to form. More than that, however, it arguably represents the reaching of a new peak. With the exception of a five-sentence stanza in “Idiot Wind” whose melody is repeated a handful of times but whose words change drastically each time around, “Blood on the Tracks” is completely devoid of choruses, bravely relying – instead – in the sheer power of Dylan’s melodies and words to find anything resembling a hook, and the strategy pays off.
In “Tangled Up In Blue”, the album’s amazing opener that tells of a man’s long series of bitter love affairs, Dylan himself reveals the key to the record. His character finds a book of poems in which “every one of them words rang true / And glowed like burning coal”. And such is the secret of “Blood on the Tracks”; whether he is tackling simple ballads (“Simple Twist of Fate”, “You’re a Big Girl Now”, “If You See Her, Say Hello”, and “Buckets of Rain”), a blues number (“Meet Me in the Morning”), a complex folk tale about a man repeatedly saved from doom by the love of a woman (“Shelter from the Storm”), or an angry rant (“Idiot Wind”), Dylan finds melodies and words that sting and burn with both intensity and sorrow, giving birth to tunes with uncanny emotional poignancy and that affect listeners regardless of the mental state they find themselves in.
Lines with the weight of “Though our separation, it pierced me to the heart / She still lives inside of me, we’ve never been apart”, “If I could only turn back the clock / To when God and her were born”, “I know where I can find you / In somebody’s room ”, “I like the cool way you look at me / Everything about you is bringing me misery” are everywhere. They resonate with great power due to Dylan’s delivery, which is that of a very hurt man; and the band’s performance which, aided by the production, is fierce in its mostly acoustic setup and haunting. From start to finish, even while taking an odd but pleasant detour through the humorous storytelling of “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”, “Blood on the Tracks” is a bold and cohesive work of art; one that stands on a level of its own in lyrical terms even within the impressive Dylan catalog.
Artist: The Kooks
Released: April 11th, 2008
Highlights: See the Sun, Mr. Marker, Cap, Sway
Named after the studio created and owned by Ray Davies, where some of The Kinks’ most legendary albums were written and recorded, such as Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround and Muswell Hillbillies, “Konk” is the second effort by The Kooks: a young band that was just coming out of the surprisingly successful and impeccably rock-solid “Inside In/Inside Out”. As if fully aware of the irresistible nature of their brand of pop rock, built around simple song structures and whimsical immediate melodies that would be right at home on a record by The Beatles or The Kinks, the boys do not abandon that ship. Rather, they build on it. “Inside In/Inside Out” was a record with no weak tunes, but with a handful of numbers that felt undercooked; “Konk”, on the other hand, as a natural evolution, is more muscular and full-fledged.
The announcement of a more focused and grown-up group is carried out by ringing guitar of “See the Sun”, which accompanies Luke Pritchard throughout the tune and serves as the main hook in a song that is devoid of a traditional chorus. Those same signals of musical maturity are broadcasted in “Sway” and “Cap”, a couple of power-ballads, with the former, in particular, having a great deal of anxiety in both the way in which its lyrics are irregularly and nervously delivered, and in how its tension comes to a dramatic peak in its final segment with a dirty solo, a shouted bridge, and a repeated chorus that reaches new heights of energy; and also in “Always Where I Need to Be”, a balls-to-the-wall rocker that has a relentless guitar riff that pounds mercilessly but that does not forget to feature an infectious pop hook.
Great melodies alone, however, would not be enough to make “Konk” qualify as a masterful modern twist on British pop rock, for that genre is incomplete without lightheartedness and humor. As it turns out, “Konk” has the two elements in droves. The youthful playfulness of “Jackie Big Tits”, one of the highlights of “Inside In/Inside Out”, which here reappears in “Do You Wanna”, has been replaced by a more sophisticated wit. The catchy “Mr. Maker” has the silly, yet deep, characterization Ray Davies often proudly employed, disguising numerous social commentaries with a heavy layer of storytelling. Meanwhile, “Shine On” and “Love It All” have the same kind of innocent outlook on the world that the Lennon and McCartney pair rode to stardom in their pre “Revolver” days.
Ultimately, “Konk” is an album that does a lot in a little. Within thirteen tracks and slightly more than forty minutes, it explores terrain that includes loud and furious rock, sunny guitar sonics, electric balladry, unpretentious little pop gems, and eventually wraps up the deal with a sequence of three gripping acoustic numbers. Much like the masters of British pop rock that preceded them, The Kooks know the importance of branching out into many areas and pulling all those pieces together under the same umbrella. Here, that unifying magnetic field is the feel-good simplicity created by the urge to craft irresistible and far-reaching guitar pop.
Album: Them Crooked Vultures
Artist: Them Crooked Vultures
Released: November 16th, 2009
Highlights: Mind Eraser No Chaser, Dead End Friends, Elephants, Bandoliers
More than a supergroup, Them Crooked Vultures is an act that combines the forces of three musicians with astounding work ethics; men whose endless energy has sent them across numerous musical projects of varying styles over the course of their careers. Josh Homme, one of the brains behind stoner rock pioneers Kyuss and the mastermind pulling most of the strings in Queens of the Stone Age, is joined by Dave Ghrol – he of Nirvana and Foo Fighters – and John Paul Jones, the bassist of Led Zeppelin and an absolutely legendary studio musician and arranger, to produce a potent masterpiece of hard rock that is incredibly well-executed (these three men are, after all, virtuosos in their main instruments) and shock-full of hooks.
In a room with so many distinct and powerful personalities, the pendulum seems to swing more firmly in Homme’s direction. It is not just that he takes over the reins and sings in all of the record’s songs; it is that “Them Crooked Vultures” is an album that sounds a whole lot like his main project: Queens of the Stone Age. Although all tunes are credited to the group as a whole, these songs are right up Homme’s alley: these are tracks built around mid-tempo riffs that pound the listener into submission; a drone-like wave of sound that comes down hard while also swaying. The prowesses of the instrumentalists end up being perfectly combined: Josh’s merciless hammering guitar gains weight thanks to Ghrol’s violent energy when he takes over the drums and Jones’ punchy funky bass; the keyboard layers he provides are a pleasant extra element that highlights the tipsy vibe of the songs.
As it is the case with Homme’s post-Kyuss works, though, “Them Crooked Vultures” is not a straight-to-the-neck attack. There is a dancy and sexual aura emanating from the tunes; a hard rock brand that would rather shake its hips than soak itself in blood. Examples of such mixture are evident in “Gunman”, where a trance-inducing circular beat is paired up with sinister lyrics that pave the way to a chorus that stops the song on its tracks to take advantage of the high-pitched end of Homme’s voice; and “No One Loves Me, Neither Do I”, whose stop-and-start dynamics eventually open the way for a relentlessly loud segment.
Within those confines, “Them Crooked Vultures” explore both long-winded multi-phase epics with lengthy instrumental breaks such as “Elephants”, “Warsaw or the First Breath You Take After You Give Up”, and “Spinning in Daffodils”; and relatively short and catchy tunes that are crammed with hooks, like “Mind Eraser, No Chaser”, “New Fang”, and “Dead End Friends”. Regardless of the end of the spectrum they are tackling, though, Hommer, Jones, and Ghrol pull it off every single time. For Homme, after Queens of the Stone Age’s uninspired “Era Vulgaris”, it is a creative renaissance; for Jones, and Ghrol it is an opportunity to flex their restless bones in a new realm. Most importantly, though, “Them Crooked Vultures” is a fine, mean, sleek, and sexy record.
Album: Electric Ladyland
Artist: The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Released: October 16th, 1968
Highlights: Crosstown Traffic, 1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be), All Along the Watchtower, Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
An eighty-two-second track that uses a myriad of special effects to produce the sound of what seems to be a landing spaceship; that sketch, boldly titled “… And the Gods Made Love”, is what opens up “Electric Ladyland”. If aiming for the previously unheard sounds that heavenly entities emit was Hendrix’s blueprint when heading into the studio, then “Electric Ladyland” is by all means an undeniable success. It is a legendary trip through sounds that, instead of resonating, paint; and the images they create are gorgeous moving watercolors of feelings, life, and energy. Where “Axis: Bold as Love” had surfed the peaceful waves of 1967’s Summer of Love to define, along a handful of other records, the psychedelic music that marked a generation, “Electric Ladyland” was – more than its most perfect and ambitious point – its elevation to a new musical level.
As a masterfully done sixteen-track record, the album finds plenty of room to explore all of the facets of The Jimi Hendrix Experience. On its more orthodox side, which is conventional only within the unique standards set by the Experience, Jimi is captured at the height of his songwriting powers: “Crosstown Traffic”, with its bluesy rhythms and infectious backing vocals, is absolutely thrilling; “Long Hot Summer Night” locks into one of those mellow hypnotic grooves that serve as a trampoline for Hendrix’s exquisite playing and for the unraveling of a smooth melody; “Come On” and “All Along the Watchtower”, covers of Earl King and Bob Dylan respectively, tower above the originals thanks to spectacular guitar arrangements and Jimi’s soulful vocal interpretations; “Gypsy Eyes” is a flashy blues number; and “House Burning Down” finds the Experience playing with the same reckless energy displayed on their debut.
And then, there are the downright trippy songs in which Hendrix stretches out his magic to unforeseen dimensions, which – in the end – are the core of what makes “Electric Ladyland” so remarkable. “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” invents, within three minutes, soul music dressed up in psychedelic mannerisms; the fifteen-minute live improvisation “Voodoo Chile”, which merges science fiction with blues, and its studio-recorded Siamese twin “Voodoo Child” project a showy Hendrix exploring the full extent of his talent as a guitarrist; “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” is a stunningly beautiful song hidden beneath layers of effects; “Rainy Day, Dream Away” has the band tackling a drug-infused jazz jam; and the thirteen-minute “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” might qualify, thanks to its iconic guitar riff and lyrics depicting an underwater world, as Jimi’s most comely work.
Despite Noel Redding’s poor “Little Miss Strange”, “Electric Ladyland” rises – within the three studio records Hendrix put out during his lifetime – as his magnum opus. More than being a highlight inside the confines of his works, though, the record is an absolute landmark in rock history as well, for it redefined, with its lengthy numbers and multisection songs, the boundaries of what an LP could represent and contain. Its greatest quality, however, is how, as a hugely ambitious project, it hits pretty much all the marks it aims for. “Electric Ladyland” is an unmatchable display of technical fireworks, but – in the end – its most important legacy is how it serves as the most direct and accurate window into the universe that existed inside the mind of a genius.