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Back To Life, Back To Reality

Starring :

Bob Dylan, Calexico and Iron & Wine, Chrissie Hynde, Jimbo Mathus and Andrew Bird, Laura Mvula, Lightning Bug, Nubya Garcia

This Week's Music

It's a Bob Dylan heavy week this week with a couple of people trying to be Bob Dylan, a performer covering Bob Dylan, and the first album I've heard from Bob Dylan himself. I was ready for a decent bit of Black Lace or even the Smurfs by the end of Saturday! It was by no means all bad though as I hope you will agree.

As ever this week's Taster Track playlists can be accessed at or via the Spotify link on the Home Page. The link to the Youtube playlist is

Highly Recommended

These 13 : Jimbo Mathus and Andrew Bird

This album contains the essence of American music conjuring up the sound of community campfires and of stories told in song.

I was drawn to this album by the involvement of Andrew Bird. Bird has softened a little over the years, but still produces what I can only describe as academic music - challenging, thoughtful and with a deep understanding of how songs evolve and work. He has the knack, usually at least once on every album, of delivering a song that is as close to perfect as you can get. I’ve added his song ‘Oh No’ to the Shadowplay playlist to illustrate this. He’s also an avid whistler in his songs, and that is nowhere near as bad as it might sound. Jimbo Malthus was unknown to me, but a quick dip into Wikipedia, shows that his background is rooted in early American popular music.

It’s no surprise then that this album takes us back to a sound that comes straight from deep American folk and country music. Each track is based around two guitars, and a fiddle or a violin. The songs have simple arrangements that are impeccably played. This is what it sounds like when historians make music. It’s the music of libraries and museums and of musical sacred texts.

The connection between Bird and Mathus is relaxed and companionable. On ‘Stoneway (1863)’ it sounds as if Mathus is teaching Bird the song as they go. In some places, ‘High John’ for example, it’s so sparse and so authentic it can be difficult to listen to. The songs break into the modern day just once, on ‘Dig Up The Hatchet’ with it’s talk of mobile phones. The music is the same though, and so the mood is not spoiled. It returns fully to type in the manic desperation of the possessed gambler in ‘Jack O Diamonds’. ‘Three White Horses And A Golden Chain’ mixes blues, folk and understated gospel as it imagines a journey to Heaven, complete with an outro of celestial strings.

There’s a moment of Andrew Bird magic too. ‘Beat Still My Heart’ is a song of solitary, sparse desolation with just a crumb of optimistic comfort. It also has a melody that could move you to tears from the very first note. It’s gorgeous.

This is an album that remains true to its vision. It invites you to accept and enjoy it without concessions. It’s an album that serves as a reminder of where popular music springs from.

Taster Track : Beat Still My Heart

And The Rest

Highway 61 Revisited : Bob Dylan

Well……. It’s taken 49 years, but I’ve finally listened to my first, original Bob Dylan album. Thanks to Stuart Corbitt for the recommendation of a good album to introduce me properly to his songs.

Why has it taken so long? There’s a few reasons. First, stubbornness. If you tell me I really must listen to something or that I somehow can't be a real music fan if I don’t listen to someone, I’ll resist. Such strident recommendations are a form of hype that’s destined to end in disappointment.

Secondly, even his biggest fans would concede that his works of accepted genius are interspersed with material that is, what’s the word, a bit rubbish. When there’s so much good or new stuff to listen to, why take a chance that you latch on to one of his weaker albums?

Finally, there’s his voice. There’s no getting around the fact that it is harshly distinctive, and for me it’s difficult to like. That’s a big barrier.

Nick Kent, the controversial music journalist, got it right when he said something to the effect that “A wop bop a loo bop a lop bom bom” from Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ is the greatest rock and roll lyric ever written. It’s simple, direct, primal and visceral, music to make you howl. And then there’s Bob Dylan, a man who writes songs such as ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ which has a Wikipedia page devoted to it containing 14 sections of history and analysis. I suppose we should consider ourselves fortunate that the song is just an edited version of the 20 page poem it’s taken from.

The view of Bob Dylan as a genius may well have started with this record. The extended, unchanging, rolling songs - most clock in at over 5 minutes and ‘Desolation Row’ is a mighty 12 minutes - contain lyrics that catch the attention every few seconds. But I still can’t shake the feeling that we are in ‘Emperor’s New clothes’ territory here. I’m still unsure if he’s a genius or, like Eric Cantona, a purveyor of densely packed, opaque words that sound profound but are ultimately meaningless. And if the words don’t strike you as special you’re left with no beauty, no real insight and only basic melodies.

That said, the lyrics, whatever they mean, sound fun to sing. Once he’s done the hard work he’s easy for others to cover. At its core these songs have a strong rock and roll feel, even if the unchanging pace and relentless musical repetition is a little wearisome sometimes.

There’s no doubt that Dylan, perhaps with this album, provided a genuinely groundbreaking game changer with regards to communicating in song. It was a major development on what came before. The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Elvis, The Rolling Stones - none of these pulled off the same feat with as much conviction and commitment. I’m still left though with the sense that because Dylan sounded clever, he helped his listeners to feel clever, and that was enough to cement his reputation.

The surprise for me in listening to this record is that his voice does not grate as badly as I remembered. It’s raw and gravelly. There’s a sneer to the singing of tracks such as ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’ that can appeal to those feeling like outsiders at the time of their life before they sidle off into the mainstream. There’s a suggestion too that his voice can offer genuine and heartfelt emotion alongside the rants. The little I’ve heard of his later albums bears that out.

The verdict? I’m never going to be Bob Dylan’s biggest fan, but I understand his appeal better. And, to my surprise, after listening to Highway 61 Revisited I found myself singing ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ in the shower. Perhaps that’s the ultimate test, a test that Dylan has scraped past successfully.

Taster Track : From A Buick 6

Post Script : I asked Stuart if he would like to comment on the album too. He’d first heard it in his teenage years and, having identified that I was on the wrong track to begin with, as I called it ‘Highway 51 Revisited’, says:

“I listened to some Dylan myself recently and I’m afraid to say it’s not as great as I remembered it in my youth. A bit dirgey.”

Thanks Stuart. The times they are a changing, eh?

Years To Burn : Calexico and Iron & Wine

Two like minded acts combine seamlessly to create serious American music. It’s another example of how attentive listening will bring its own rewards.

Some collaborations sound like two separate acts have been stuck together like Dr Doolittle's Pushmi Pullu.

Some collaborations sound like two separate acts have been stuck together like Dr Doolittle's Pushmi Pullu. Here though, it’s hard to see where Calexico ends and Iron & Wine begin. They have a shared history, and a common approach to music that welds them together into a stronger whole.

They create a distinctive sound that melds country, steel guitar, mariachi trumpet and even jazz blues into an occasionally compelling whole. It’s genuine Americana, taking elements of American music from across the spectrum to create something that is all of its own. It doesn’t always work. ‘Outside El Paso’ is less a song or tune, and more a soundscape using instruments.

It’s worth acknowledging that it requires commitment to learn to like this music, but it’s the commitment of a teenager taking their first steps in alcohol. At first, they might shudder as they swallow, but learn to enjoy and appreciate the taste over time. Don’t come to this expecting the sound equivalent of fine wine or craft ale. This is the sound of moonshine liquor, produced at night and away from the public gaze. (And as with alcohol, Calexico and Iron & Wine are not an act that you should over indulge in!)

This is music to be treated with respect. They avoid easy melodies and catchy choruses. There are elements that absorb and entertain though. The centrepiece of the album is the three part ‘Bitter Suite’, each section strong enough to carry the whole and even the bridging section ‘Evil Eye’ stands on its own merits. ‘Midnight Sun’ with its call and response between the musicians is the closest they come to a single, and it’s a good one.

It used to be the case, before the Beatles had their mid career golden period, that music snobs whether from the folk, jazz or classical camps, would look down on pop and rock. This is the kind of album that demonstrates why our kind of music deserves to be taken seriously. It’s an album crafted with care, authenticity and sincerity.

Taster Track : Midnight Sun

Standing In The Doorway : Chrissie Hynde

No one does Dylan like Dylan, but Chrissie Hynde’s collection of Bob Dylan covers strikes a personal note that sounds heartfelt and sincere.

Sometimes when artists turn to recording albums of cover versions it’s an act of desperation. The well of creative inspiration is beginning to run dry. More recently it's been a way of coping with lockdown and having more time on your hands, but less money coming in.

Chrissie Hynde deserves high marks for recording a collection of Dylan’s songs that sound as if they mean something to her. This is not just a chance to worship at The Church of the Sainted Dylan. This sounds like a labour of love rather than just an attempt to hitch a ride on Dylan’s reputation and the interest in it following his Nobel Prize for Literature.

It’s not an obvious match. She’s always been more of a band girl, and there aren’t many Dylan influences in The Pretenders that I can hear. Here she’s left her rock act in self isolation. This is gentle stuff, subdued even. The treatment of ‘Sweetheart Like You’ feels very personal, perhaps an exploration of events with the Hells Angels detailed in her autobiography ‘Reckless’, in other relationships.

Musically it’s one paced, and consistently downbeat in tone. To the uninitiated it’s difficult to tell the tracks apart. Overall though her vocals work well with the songs, for example in bringing warmth to ‘In The Summertime’.

It’s not an album I’ll be turning to regularly, but I have a new found respect for Chrissie Hynde as a result of listening to this.

Taster Track : Sweetheart Like You

Pink Noise : Laura Mvula

Mercury nominated Laura Mvula’s collection of 80s and 90s influencedRnB fell a bit flat for me.

Laura Mvula is clearly that kind of act the Hyundai Mercury Prize judges love. She’s released three albums now. and all have been shortlisted for the main prize. The critics love her too as their reviews of her latest album show.

I didn’t like it.

I’m not sure why some albums just don’t work their magic. This smooth RnB / dance album with a conscience feels like a statement album but a statement delivered at the expense of songs. I expected to enjoy the 80s and 90s influences below the surface, and they’re all there in the drum sound, the fat bass or the vocal style but it sounded second rate. I wanted to respond happily to the elements of early Madonna and the smattering of African soul, but they weren’t recreating the best moments of either..

‘Got Me’ was the closest a track came to breaking through the indifference. It’s also the closest to a pop song on the album.

The bottom line though is that it simply did not hold my attention. I expect to be in the minority with this view.

Taster Track : Got Me

A Color of the Sky : Lightning Bug

This album has many pretty moments wrapped up in introspective shoegaze that at times threatens to overwhelm the songs.

Lightning Bug is an American alt rock band. According to their record company, “Lightning Bug began as three friends who made music together to bring each other light.” It’s their failure to bring that light into their music that undermines this record.

Musicians often share their worries and pain in their music, using their songs as a form of musical therapy that isn’t so much writing about what they know as writing about what they need to know. These songs suggest a singer on the cusp of an important breakthrough, or at the point of no return ,following which their course, for good or ill, will be set. It’s very clearly one person’s journey of discovery. That’s not necessarily a problem. With any album I’m buying the music, not a crash course in life skills.

When that journey of self discovery impacts on the music though it’s a different matter. Musically this is heavy going, not necessarily hard work but certainly not uplifting or inspiring. I found myself sinking into the songs and affected by their mood. It’s pretty stuff but downbeat, like a more intense version of The Cranberries.

Audrey Kang, the singer, has a vulnerable voice and delivery. It’s a voice that had me longing to reach out and offer help, but ultimately we’re watching, not engaging with the issues.

There are moments when the sun breaks through the gloom. Opening track ‘The Return’ carries you along nicely, and ‘September Song Part II’ has an emotionally soaring chorus melody with a high tingle quotient. It’s just a shame that there aren’t more of these moments in what is, nevertheless, an album that is nicely played and attractively sung.

Taster Track : September Part ll

Source : Nubya Garcia

This Hyundai Mercury Prize nominee challenged me with its no holds barred energy and borrowings from a wide musical spectrum, but also revealed a softer and comforting side.

Nubya Garcia is a London saxophonist, born of Guyanan and Trinidadian parents. That’s three influences for a start. Add in their musical preferences and you have the makings of a truly international record. You also have something distinctive, as female jazz performers who aren’t also singers seem to be a rare breed

I’m always sceptical of the regular single jazz album appearing in the Mercury nominees. I can’t believe that if you graded the best eligible music for the prize you would always have one jazz record on the list. In a good year you’d have more than that. In a typical year you might have none. It smacks of tokenism and that’s not fair on any of the performers.

The good news is that the fluid purity of the sax, the remarkable energy of the supporting performers, the unexpected incorporation of world and reggae influences into the mix and the unexpected periods of cool restraint suggest that this album fully deserves its place on the shortlist.

There’s so much energy in places that it’s in danger of overwhelming the track. Kinetic drumming, keyboards that dart, swoop and soar at pace - I was glad that the sax was there to bring respite and relief. It struck me forcibly that the sax was what lent control to each piece. Without that there was a danger that rather than listening to a spectacular aural firework display we would be witnessing an aural explosion in a firework factory. There’s too much going on in places and my brain and ears were unable to process what they were hearing.

It’s a smart, differentiating touch to incorporate African voices throughout. The 12 minute title track incorporates reggae influences without losing the jazz. It struck me that here, it was less a case of a double bass and more a ‘dub-le’ bass that was being used.

I admire and appreciate the technical skill involved in this record. But I like and enjoy the relief provided by the simpler tracks such as ‘Stand With Each Other’ and ‘ La Cumbia Me Esta Llamando’ that provide the record with breathing spaces.

If you’ve persuaded yourself that jazz is not for you, then you’re unlikely to like this record. It’s not out of the question though that Nubya Garcia could be the first out and out jazz winner of the Mercury Prize.

Taster Track : Stand With Each Other

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