Sunday, October 06, 2013

Fall Albums, Part One

Or, "let's see how all the old white guys are doing this year."

Kings of Leon, Mechanical Bull.  OK, it may be a stretch to call these guys "old," but they've been through a lot, and it's been almost a decade since "Aha Shake Heartbreak" put them on the map.  So if nothing else, they're old souls.

It may be a coincidence that there are songs on the new album titled "Comeback Story" and "Coming Back Again," but you have to wonder.  Their last LP, "Come Around Sundown," was such a desultory affair that to these ears, there was only one memorable song on the entire album.  The boys even bash it a bit in their current RS feature, which makes me wonder who I can write to in order to get my money back.

But all's well that ends well, so I'm happy to say that "Mechanical Bull" is a fine return to form, one of their strongest albums to date and perhaps even better than that.  The band doesn't cover a lot of new ground, they just go back to what they do best, and they do it very well.  Songs like "Rock City," "Don't Matter" and "Family Tree" jump right out of the speakers, with the familiar ringing guitars driving the way.  But there really isn't a weak cut on the entire album, so it's nice to welcome the Followill brothers back to the land of the living.

The Last Ship, Sting.  Caveat emptor: anyone buying this album expecting to hear something that reminds them of classic Sting or The Police needs to do a little research before plunking down the $9.99.  Better yet, I'll lay it out for you.  "The Last Ship" is a throwback to the days of the "concept album," a suite of songs intended for a yet-to-be produced musical about the heyday (and later, decline) of the shipping industry in Sting's homeland.  I wasn't sure if this was going to be my cup of tea, but I'm happy to say that as long as you accept the album for what it is, it's almost entirely successful.  Songs like "The Last Ship," "The Night the Pugilist Learned How To Dance," "What Have We Got?," "I Love Her But She Loves Someone Else," and "So To Speak" lay out the story in fairly easy-to-understand terms, and at times are surprisingly rousing and even moving.  Good show.

Elton John, The Diving Board.  Now, you have to remember that Elton was my first musical hero, to the point where "Honky Chateau" was the first album that I bought with my own money.  So, even though I've bought few of his records in the past three decades, I'm always disposed to like him, and in fact find it hard to understand how anyone could not admire what he's been able to accomplish.

Motivated by the success of "The Union," his 2010 collaboration with (and rescue of) Leon Russell, Elton is clearly trying to put himself back on the artistic map with "The Diving Board."  And the good news is that for the most part, he succeeds - while I'm not sure how much meaning this has at this late date, the new album is clearly his strongest effort in more than 35 years.  Producer T-Bone Burnett keeps things simple, and the sound is about as far from the Gus Dudgeon "throw in the kitchen sink" approach as you can possibly imagine.  At times, it almost sounds like the grandchild of "Honky Chateau," with driving, catchy tunes like "A Town Called Jubilee," "Take This Dirty Water," and "Mexican Vacation."  The ratio of ballads to rockers leans a little more to the former than I'd like, but several of the ballads, particularly the title cut, are among the strongest he's written in years.

So welcome back, Elton.  Very nice to have you back, indeed.

Wise Up Ghost, Elvis Costello and The Roots.  Elvis has certainly come a long way from that infamous night in 1979 when he got ridiculously drunk and, in an effort to be more obnoxious than members of Delaney and Bonnie's band, dropped the n-word on the world in the midst of an incredible monologue about the general worthlessness of American music.  That night impacted his artistic evolution more than one might imagine.  The first album he released following the incident, "Get Happy!," was clearly an attempt (albeit, a mostly successful one) to scream to the world, "I like American Soul Music!"  Right after that, released "Almost Blue," an entire album of country songs, just to hammer down the point that yes, he also liked other, whiter, genres of music from this side of the pond.  Given his efforts over the years, both artistic and otherwise, to support various causes and various diverse musical genres, it's hard to believe, almost 35 years later, that that night ever happened.

So why bring this up in the context of his new album with The Roots?  Because I think that, for the first time, Elvis sounds completely comfortable with the melding of genres, and can now make an album with The Roots, one with a very distinctive "American" sound, and not sound as if he's doing something to make up for past sins.  He can sit across from Questlove, as he does in a photo inside the album cover, and instead of thinking "look at that old white guy, trying to look cool," you think "Yeah, that makes sense.  Right on."

Put another way, "Wise Up Ghost" just might be the album that Elvis wanted "Get Happy!" to be.  It's an unqualified success, with some of the most memorable tunes I've heard from Elvis in many, many years - "Cinco Minutos Con Vos," "Walk Us Uptown," "Sugar Won't Work," "(She Might Be A) Grenade," and a "Pills and Soap" rewrite called  "Stick Out Your Tongue" all crackle with an intensity that reminds one of his first few classic albums.   A definite winner.

Bob Dylan, "The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait."  When the original "Self Portrait" was released, I was 10 years old, blissfully unaware of Bob Dylan, except for those handful of songs ("Lay Lady Lay" comes to mind) that a young, impressionable kid might hear on AM radio.  To this day I don't own that Dylan album, scared away (as I'm sure have been many others) by Greil Marcus' now-famous comment about it, "What is this shit?"

Listening to this two-CD set, which I'd say is yet another worthy entry in the Bootleg series, it's almost impossible to reconstruct what led to Marcus' comment, and that led an angry Jon Landau to call up Robert Christgau to suggest that the latter give the album a "D" in his monthly consumer guide (he gave it a C+).  Because all of this music, either alternate versions of songs released during that era, or unreleased songs from that era, sounds pretty damn good, and it fits in right along with all the rest of the great stuff in the bootleg series.

In a master stroke of marketing if nothing else, Columbia hired Marcus to write the liner notes for this edition of the series, and reading them you get the feeling that he recognizes this as well.  And when you think about it, you can begin to understand it.  Dylan had released a series of the greatest rock albums ever released in the mid to late 1960s, but wanted to branch out and try some new things (not unlike what he did when he went with an electric band for the first time).  But the audience, even discerning folks like Marcus and Landau, wanted nothing of it.

Cutting to the chase, if you're a Dylan fan, you should buy this album.  You won't be disappointed.

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