Thursday, February 22, 2007

Five Best...Bob Dylan Albums (#1)

#1 Blonde on Blonde

It’s no wonder that what I consider the best Dylan album to be is also what I think the greatest rock ‘n’ roll album to be, not to mention my favorite album of all-time. It consists of track after track of pure, lyrical greatness that has not been topped since and probably never will.

The unofficial sessions began on November 30, 1965 when the Levon-less Hawks joined Dylan for an attempt at “Freeze Out,” later to be known as “Visions of Johanna.” Considering this attempt as a failure, another recording session would not occur until January of ’66 when they tried their hand at the sublime, “She’s Your Lover Now.” Of course, the track wouldn’t make Blonde (no complete take could be had and Dylan thought “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” was a better track) but would be included on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3.

The first “productive” session took place on Valentine’s Day but unlike “Freeze Out” and “She’s Your Lover Now,” they were recorded in Nashville. With the help of producer of Bob Johnson, Dylan would wrangle in some of Nashville’s finest, including Charlie McCoy, Wayne Moss, Joe South, Kenny Buttrey, Jerry Kennedy, Hargus “Pig” Robinson and the ever-present Al Kooper. Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson would also be present from time to time, with their playing definitely being heard on “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later).”

The recording of Blonde would last until on March 10th with the most productive days being February 16th (“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”), March 8th (“Absolutely Sweet Marie,” “Just Like a Woman” and “Pledging My Time”) and the final one ranging from the 9th to 10th with master takes of “Most Likely…,” “Temporary Like Achilles,” “Rainy Day Woman #12 and #35,” “Obviously Five Believers,” “I Want You” and “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” being recorded.

But on to the individual songs:

“Rainy Day Woman #12 and #35”
-On nearly every Dylan album, there is a track I skip. For instance, on Bringing It All Back Home, it’s “Maggie’s Farm”; on Highway 61 Revisited, it’s “Ballad of a Thin Man”; on Nashville Skyline, I never listen to “Lay, Lady, Lay,” and on Time Out of Mind, I can’t remember the last time I listened to “Dirt Road Blues.” On Blonde, it’s the first track. Although the boys are having fun—after all, they are in the middle of their “Salvation Army” sound—it just isn’t a very good track on the level of the rest of the album.

“Pledging My Time”
-Weird that such a great album starts off a little shaky but outside of containing one of Dylan’s best harmonica solos, “Pledging” is another lack-luster song; good, but not brilliant. Unlike the next track…

“Visions of Johanna”
-Taking off where no other song has left off, “Visions” might just be the masterpiece of Dylan’s entire career. I don’t say this as solely someone who lists this as his possible favorite Dylan track but rather, someone who enjoys lines like, “The fiddler, he now steps to the road/ He writes everything's been returned which was owed/ On the back of the fish truck that loads/ While my conscience explodes/ The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain/ And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain.” This track went through many reconstructions from “Freeze Out” to the album version but every change is perfectly crafted around the mood and, well, vision that the song explains. I know someone who is named after this song and frankly, I’m very jealous. Also, check out the version included on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4 in which the song becomes dreamier

“One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later”
-As mentioned before, this track is a further evolution of “She’s Your Lover Now” and for all its brilliance, I do wish “She’s” had made the final cut. There’s something so totally endearing about that song but maybe that has more to do with that I introduced to my friend and now it’s her favorite Dylan cut. However, I digress; “One of Us Must Know” is actually a very good song with interesting interactions between the male and female characters. In a good way, it sticks out a bit from the rest of the album for its “un-surreal” way of looking at a relationship.

“I Want You”
-Luckily, Dylan didn’t name the album after this song but its still a simple love song…actually, did I say simple? The theme in question is rather basic—guy loves girl—but the language Dylan uses is anything but. For instance, “The drunken politician leaps/ Upon the street where mothers weep/ And the saviors who are fast asleep/ They wait for you.” That’s our Bobby.

“Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”
-A catchy ditty about, among other things, drugs. I mean, there’s so much that can be said about nearly every line of the song that its simpler to just refer to it as a “catchy ditty.” Not to mention quite lengthy and excellent.

“Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”
-Not one of my favorites and seems a little out of place between “Stuck” and “Just Like a Woman” but that’s not to say it’s a bad track; it’s just one that would be more at home on Highway 61 Revisited or a John Lee Hooker album.

“Just Like a Woman”
-A breathless plea to a woman that pains Dylan so very much, “Just Like a Woman” is one of the key tracks on Blonde. Lines like, “Till she sees finally that she's like all the rest/ With her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls” are drenched with emotion and full of something similar to hurtful glee. The harmonica solo at its climax is a keeper for the ages too.

“Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)”
-Outside of leading off his 1974 concerts with The Band with it, this is easily the most forgettable track on Blonde. The music is rather playful but Dylan doesn’t sound as if he totally believes in what he’s saying.

“Temporary Like Achilles”
-More like poetry than a song, “Achilles” sounds lazy in its pacing but don’t let that distract you from its greatness. With four out of five verses ending with, “You know I want your lovin’/ Honey, why are you so hard?,” it’s pretty similar to “I Want You” in that Dylan strives for the female in question. But unlike the one featured on “I Want You,” this girl is much harder to break through (although she doesn’t have a “dancing child in his Chinese suit.”)

“Absolutely Sweet Marie”
-In 1991, Dylan had this to say about “Marie”: That's about as complete as you can be. Every single letter in that line. It's all true. On a literal and on an escapist level... Like, ‘yellow railroad’ could have been a blinding day when the sun was so bright on a railroad someplace and it stayed on my mind.... These aren't contrived images. These are images which are just in there and have got to come out.” It’s odd that he would pick this song to discuss but it’s still a rather interesting look into his creative process.

“Fourth Time Around”
-Inspired by The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” this song has some of Dylan’s oddest phrasing and lyrical structures. On a simple level, it’s a rather easy song (I mean, it does rhyme “boot,” “suit” and cute”) but looking beyond that, there’s an interesting triangular relationship with the girl that Dylan gives his last piece of gum and the other girl who Dylan fills up his shoe for. I have no idea what to make of the song but do know that it being played in Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky is the only interesting thing about the movie.

“Obviously Five Believers”
-C’mon, doesn’t it sound like he’s singing, “Early in the morning, I’m calling YouTube”? Well, it does to me…

“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”
-Possibly the most ambitious song in Dylan’s career (the other qualified for that title might be “Brownsville Girl”), this is what I want being played during my wedding. I mean, there’s nothing quite like an 11 minute dance, right? Written about Sara Lownds, “Sad-Eyed” contains line after line of interesting ways of describing your lover and the music accompanying it is perfect. Frankly, that’s pretty amazing because none of the musicians knew the song was going to be so lengthy which is why you can hear the group hitting their peak about three minutes in and constantly trying to top it for the next eight.

For releasing this, I thank you Bob Dylan. And to my father, I thank you for playing it so consistently when I was young and even more impressionable than I am now.

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