Hard to believe it’s been 11 years since the first s/t album from The Good, The Bad & The Queen. The Damon Albarn lead group includes Paul Simonon (The Clash), Simon Tong (The Verve) and the expert drumming of Tony Allen. With the cloud of Brexit hanging over England, Albarn sings what at times sounds like a stream of consciousness lyrics over a bed of improvised music. “Nineteen Seventeen” has no chorus and the lyrics of “The Great Fire” have a free association feel. The title track is an anxious yet very wordy statement on England and its current politics.
Unlike most modern albums, the second half is more memorable. “Drifters & Trawlers” is an anthem for weary workers the world over and “The Truce of Twilight” features rough and ready gang singing in the chorus. Great bassline and horns, this sounds like a mature ska band banging out a classic tune. Albarn is at his best when softly and wistfully looking back on times that may or may never have ever existed. “Ribbons” is one of his most beautiful songs in ages and closer “The Poison Tree” says goodbye with a dreamy organ lulling you to sleep.
Produced by Tony Visconti, there is a dark and creepy aspect to the album. Like a fairground closing down but you can still hear music playing from somewhere. On Merrie Land; The Good, The Bad & The Queen chases down England’s ghosts that haunt the alleyways and cobblestone corners. Not all of it works but there are moments that will haunt the listener’s mind long after the stereo has turned off but magically still plays.
Even though I already had most of the classic 60s and 70s Bob Dylan discs, I couldn’t shake the “need” to own The Complete Album Collection Volume 1 from 2013. I could not continue to ignore all the fawning reviews so about a year ago I plunked down the money for the entire Dylan box of 47 discs. And this week marks my review journey into Dylan that will now take several years to complete.
First up is the s/t album from 1962. Debuts for many classic artists in the 60s were mostly covers and this is no exception. The two songs most likely recognized by rock fans that appear here would be “House of the Risin’ Sun” later made famous by The Animals in 1964 and “Man of Constant Sorrow” popularized by early 2000s movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. The upbeat “Freight Train Blues” features some nice harmonica playing and “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” is a folky love song.
Dylan does a very good job of displaying conviction and emotion when singing “Fixin’ to Die’” written by Bukka White. At just 20 years old when he recorded it, Dylan pulls off the hard-hitting track about a dying man leaving his crying children behind. “In My Time of Dyin’” is a dirty blues track that reportedly Dylan had never sung out loud until this recording. Bob Dylan features two Dylan originals. The first is a semi-autobiographical track “Talkin’ New York” about arriving in the great city and rising through the folk ranks. Possibly the only track from this album that would make it onto a Greatest Hits is his first notable original in “Song To Woody”. A touching lyric in honour of his hero, Dylan gives a nod to the past while looking toward the future.
When reviewing albums like this from major artists, it is hard to separate the work from the legend. Because of this I often think in terms of if the artist had just released this one album and a label re-released it today, what would I think of it. In Dylan’s case, it would certainly be a lost classic. Even though the debut is soon eclipsed by his other work, it still a thrilling ride through the mind of a talented and exuberant young artist. It is easy to see why he quickly rose through the folk scene and then kept moving far beyond it.
Comeback kid indeed. Sharon Van Etten is back with her first full length album since 2014’s Are We There. In talking with Uncut magazine, Van Etten noted that influences for this release include Portishead, Nick Cave, and Suicide. This shows through in tracks such as “Memorial Day” and “Hands”. Introspective lyrics with rough, dark and moody electronics. The former being more atmospheric and the latter being more distorted.
While the electronics add texture to a few of the tracks, it’s the more conventional songs that are the most memorable. First single “Comeback Kid” is propulsive and a standout song from 2018. “Seventeen” is a celebration of NYC and how its changes over the years. “Stay” closes out the album with tender lyrics about Van Etten’s one-year old son. While the electronics can at times sound too stark and rob Van Etten’s voice of some it’s warmth, her personality continues to shine throughout.