Monday, January 12, 2009

Mixed Blessings of 2008

"Life is strange," Billy Bragg once said, "and you gotta learn to take the crunchy with the smooth". With that admonition in mind let us survey those mixed blessings, those maddening, yet compelling works of 2008.

Bob Dylan's Tell-Tale Signs

The Upsides
"Things should start getting interesting right about now," promises Dylan in the song "Mississippi" and even with the blatant filler (most of the live tracks) he delivers. Witness the evolution of his song-writing (“Mississippi” gets three versions) and hear Dylan turn another one of his public-domain re-workings (“Red River Shore”) into a meditation on the resurrection of the dead.

The Downsides
The padding turned a double album into a $169.99 three-disc monster with an accompanying coffee table book. Hello illegal download. Note to Sony ("So cheap and real phony"): I have legal copies of almost every Dylan album but this triple set. The sad implication is that before the slow death of not just the CD but hard format in general (it's hard to pay for music with no physical form) the die-hards will be gouged by the big labels without mercy.

From the There is No Eye sound track here’s the man himself with "Roll On John" from a 1961 radio broadcast

Glen Campbell – Meet Glen Campbell

The Upsides
A flawed but fascinating album that's loaded with moments both excellent and strange. For the latter, check out the attempt to flesh out the pleasurably thin Green Day ballad, “Good Riddance” which oddly ends up providing this album’s mission statement: “It’s something unpredictable but in the end it’s right”. These Old Country Guys Return albums have their flaws (aiming-for-cool cover choices, ironic marketing, production trickery and the fingerprints of one Tom Petty) but they speak volumes about the never-say-die attitude of those old Opry shitkickers. Musically, Campbell cleaves pretty close to his sixties peak with big open tunes, restrained strings and and his melodic guitar figures. Lyrically, however...

The Downsides
After hearing this cover of the Replacements' “Sadly Beautiful”, the former leader of that band, Paul Westerberg, told his manager, “Tell Glen I'll be his next Jimmy Webb'." And therein in lies one of the flaws of this album; too few of the songwriters here can match Webb. The verbal subtlety of Webb, who wrote most of Campbell's biggest hits, is such that the schmaltzy arrangement cannot overpower the taut, mysterious lyrics of "Wichita Lineman” (let’s ignore the inscrutable "McArthur Park” shall we?) While Westerberg and Jackson Browne give some finely crafted words, clunkers like Petty’s “Some days are diamonds/Some days are rocks” and John Lennon’s "Spending our lives together/Man and wife together” can make you a little queasy.

Walk Hard (Unlike in Oscar land, December, 21 st 2007 counts as 2008 here at MRML)

The Upsides
Dan Bern, prolific protest-singer-songwriter, gets to pretend to be Bob Dylan (via the never-disappointing John C. Reilly) a few times and we music geeks get to play Spot the Musical Allusion (“Hey, a punk version of “Walk Hard”.”)

The Downsides
Some cheap repetition ("The wrong kid died") and a few shots of too-broad-by-half satire (take your pick) veered too close to Epic Scary Date Movie territory.

Now, the Zucker Brothers circa Top Secret, coulda taught these guys a lesson in rock parody:

The Clash - Live at Shea Stadium

The Upsides
Among the many highlights of this album is Mick Jones' once again attacking "Police on my Back" and delaying the onset of BADness for a short time. However the key track here is the furious "New York to Jamaica" mash-up of the "Magnificent Seven" and "Armagiddeon Time".

Strummer’s mid-track cry of "Cheeeeese-burger” is hilarious as is his extemporizing on the epic length of the track they’re in the midst of laying down. Whatever their excesses on vinyl, the Clash rarely noodled about on stage but rather hit hard on every note.

The Downsides
This is Stadium Clash - after Topper Headon's firing and not long before Mick Jones' sacking - and not their finest hour. (How about releasing more from their epic run of seventeen shows at Bond's in New York in 1981?) Strummer, suffers from the cavernous confines of Shea, sounding tired and on the defense during "London Calling" and Simonon's vocals on “Guns of Brixton” feel thrown-away. As well, it’s only a forty-ish minute set with no encore, so that the Who could launch their sad, interminable victory lap which would not only outlast any sense of triumph but also finally smother it.

Our on-going web-comp Songs about Strumming continues with:

"Do You Remember What Joe Strummer Said." by Jake Brennan and the Confidence Men.

Plus for my fellow fanatics here's the Clash on Broadway: The Interviews a promotional mix of talk and music sent out to the press to celebrate the release of their 1991 box set.

Download C.O.B. Interviews


  1. Wow, I never thought I'd see the day that MRML would come out swinging FOR Jimmy Webb. You, my friend, are full of surprises!

    Also, isn't the Tom Petty lyric: "Some days are diamonds / some days are rocks"? And sure, its kinda clunky, but it also reminds me of something an elder Mr. Campbell might actually say.

  2. " that the Who could launch their sad, interminable victory lap which would not only outlast any sense of triumph but also finally smother it."

    That is one of the greatest single sentances of rock criticism I have ever read.


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