Monday, February 12, 2007

Five Best...Bob Dylan albums (#5)

For my first post, I'm not exactly going for the most clever list in the world but hey, you've got to start somewhere. So over the course of the next five days, I'll be counting down the Five Best Bob Dylan albums, with the first being...

5. John Wesley Harding

- Released in 1967, a long 18 months since the completion of Blonde on Blonde, Dylan went out to prove to the Sgt Pepper-loving world that he could still make music that matters. Or something like that. In fact, the bare-bones Harding (the only musicians being Dylan, Pete Drake on steel guitar, Charlie McCoy on bass and Ken Buttrey on drums) sounds less dated and more fresh than most other albums from the same year. That in itself is pretty remarkable considering it was supposed to sound rustic. The key tracks are "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" (modeled after the protest song "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night"); the soon-to-be Hendrix classic, "All Along the Watchtower"; the underrated classic "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," which is, for my money, the best song on the album; "I Pity the Poor Immigrant" and "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," a magnificent pre-cursor to Nashville Skyline.

What makes the album so good is, among other factors, the form of writing that Dylan began with this album and didn't really pick up again until Blood on the Tracks in 1975. Much text has been put on that album (rightly so) for his use of the concept of 'time,' and while Harding doesn't do that, it does have a conversational tone to it.

For instance, here's a verse from "Drifter's Escape":

"Well, the judge, he cast his robe aside,
A tear came to his eye,
'You fail to understand,' he said,
'Why must you even try?'"

And here's "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts":

"He moved across the mirrored room, ‘Set it up for everyone,’ he said,
Then everyone commenced to do what they were doin' before he turned their heads.
Then he walked up to a stranger and he asked him with a grin,
‘Could you kindly tell me, friend, what time the show begins?’”

Different situation but same style. Same brilliant style.

Although Bobby hasn't touched much of the material on the album live--with the exceptions of "All Along the Watchtower," "Down Along the Cove" and the occasional "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight"--here's a performance of "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" from 2000 in Cardiff.