Posted in Album Reviews

Bob Dylan – Self Portrait (1970)

The first Bob Dylan album of the 1970s continues his leftfield turn that he took with both John Wesley Harding and Nashville SkylineSelf Portrait is made up of four sides of six songs per side, mostly two-three minute songs vs the epics he released through the 1960s. A mixture of new material, live tracks, and covers – it is an eclectic mix of songs that has confused and confounded fans and critics alike for over 50 years.

One of the most striking and memorable songs is the lead track, “All The Tired Horses”.  Using female singers, the song creates a hypnotic groove as they sing the same lines over and over again – “All the tired horses in the sun/How am I supposed to get any riding done?”. The only single released from the album is “Wigwam” that sees Dylan sing along “La dah dah dah” to a horn section that rises and falls. The live version of “Minstrel Boy” on the other hand is a chore to get through.  Other live versions include a laidback take on his own classic, “Like a Rolling Stone”.

“Days of 49” is one of the most Dylanesque tracks here, the midtempo song takes in storytelling over six verses. Dylan tackles a Gordon Lightfoot song in “Early Mornin’ Rain” then on side two, a country sounding version of a song made popular by The Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me”.  The sentimental “Blue Moon” makes an appearance but the most memorable cover is his version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”.  Sung as a duet with himself in two different singing styles, it is difficult to make out if it’s a tip of the hat to his contemporaries or a parody of one of their most beloved songs.

For listeners coming to Self Portrait for the first time, expectations will be low as the album has been maligned for years.  While certainly not a lost classic, there are several songs that are worthy of repeated listens.  It would have been hard at the time to make sense of what Dylan later described as a joke album and saying that the album is a pleasant background listen when it’s made by the voice of a generation is faint praise.  But all these years later, Self Portrait does indeed make for a pleasant listen.


Posted in Album Reviews

Janis Joplin – Greatest Hits (1973/1999)

Sadly, Janis Joplin is one of the founding members of the tragic 27 club of musicians who passed away at that young age.  Her heroin overdose sent shockwaves through the music community that is still felt today. Leaving behind just 4 studio albums, Joplin is nonetheless still regarded as one of the finest rock and roll blues singers to have come out of the psychedelic era.   The Greatest Hits collection starts with the anthemic “Piece of My Heart” that was recorded when Joplin was the singer with the band Big Brother and Holding Company. The guitars of Sam Andrew and James Gurley standout along with the raspy, whiskey-soaked Joplin vocals as she sings, “I’m gonna show you baby, that a woman can be tough”.

The Greatest Hits collection does a fine job of showing the many styles of Joplin including the funky soul of “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” complete with upbeat horn stabs. “Bye Bye Baby”, also recorded with Big Brother and Holding Company, takes in a sound from 1920’s vaudeville before the thump of drums and guitar announce the arrival of “Move Over”.  One of three songs written by Joplin that appear here, “Move Over” is a supercharged blues track that takes the sound to Vegas.

Released after her death, the Kris Kristofferson penned “Me and Bobby McGee” is Joplin’s only #1 US single and her most popular track. The country tinged song is added to by the organ playing of Ken Pearson as Joplin sings the devastating line, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”.  The 1999 remastered disc adds two tracks including the acapella “Mercedes Benz” from the posthumously released Pearl album.

Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits has sold 9 million copies in the US and has gone platinum in Canada. It was one of those ubiquitous albums of the 70s that made its way into nearly all rock and roll collections.  Joplin’s singing embodies the spirit of each song she tackles here, and she sings them like her very soul depends on it.  A true original, Joplin is a one of a kind maverick who can convey strength and vulnerability in just one verse.  Her music still deserves a spot in every home.


Posted in Album Reviews

The National – First Two Pages of Frankenstein (2023)

While the band has not released anything since 2019’s I Am Easy to Find, members of The National have been busy with solo albums and working extensively with other artists. Anytime the band gets back together is a reason for high anticipation.  And so arrives First Two Pages of Frankenstein with much talk about the writers block that singer Matt Berninger suffered through during the process.

Like their younger colleagues, this time around The National brings in a slew of guest vocalists including Sufjan Stevens, Phoebe Bridgers, and world conquering Tayler Swift. Stevens helps on the minimal album opener, “Once Upon a Poolside” but neither Bridgers tracks really hit.  Swift’s appearance is more memorable as she sings lines back to Berninger and adds her own style on lines like “The last thing you wanted/It’s the first thing I do”.

When it’s just Berninger, the songs tend to lean heavily on relationships moments.  “Eucalyptus” sees a couple splitting up their possessions during a break-up including the records. “New Order T-Shirt” has a cascading beat laying the bed for “split second glimpses and snapshots and sounds”.  This new release sees the band quiet and introspective, what’s missed is the band rocking out especially when they have a stellar rhythm section of brothers Bryan and Scott Devendorf.  They are only truly unleashed on “Tropic Morning News”.   Instead, the band opts for electronics that all start to blend into one another as the album continues.