While reading No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan several months ago, the fact that Bob Dylan grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota struck a nerve with me. Not that I didn’t already know Robert Zimmerman’s hometown; what caught me off guard was the way author Robert Shelton described Dylan’s disdain for small town life. Being a fellow small town Midwest boy who couldn’t wait to escape, I felt a spiritual connection to Bob, like maybe that internal yearning for bigger things is what has always drawn me to his music. On the first page of the biography, Shelton encapsulates the mining town: “Hibbing had dug its own grave with sixty years of mining shovels, now only good for burying miners.” This description reminded me of my hometown that imploded when the Morrell’s meat packing plant left town three decades ago. As the book went on to describe the very familiar scene of empty storefronts and prevalent backwater conservatism, I decided I had to visit Bob Dylan’s hometown, a seven hour drive north from where I grew up.
Tag Archives: Woods
On this month’s episode we jump between new music from Woods, Hamilton Leithauser, Spoon, and Open Mike Eagle to classic tracks from Soundgarden, Aimee Mann, Wugazi, and Bob Dylan. Check out the new episode HERE or suscribe on iTunes (search keyword: BDWPS).
Woods “Moving to the Left”
Hamilton Leithauser “11 o’ clock Friday Night”
Soundgarden “Girl U Want”
Spoon “You Do”
Aimee Mann “Save Me”
Open Mike Eagle “Golden Age Raps”
Wugazi “Another Chessboxin’ Argument”
Bob Dylan “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind”
We are almost to the mid-point of 2014, and there have already been some outstanding releases. With a promising second half of the year ahead of us, I’d like to take a moment to spotlight some of my favorite albums from the year so far. To try to keep some semblance of control, I’ve limited my list to albums released prior to June 1st.
With Light and With Love
Five albums in and not much has changed with Wood’s music, at least on the surface. The band still has that lo-fi Americana, stoner groove that people (including myself) first fell in love with five years ago with Songs of Shame, but upon closer inspection, their latest release With Light and With Love reveals the band’s immense growth as both musicians and songwriters.
Back in the beginning, the band was best known and appreciated for its lo-fi production and ramshackle performances. Wood’s sloppiness also served as its strength – a band whose recordings often sounded like live performances captured on an old, dusty tape recorder buried in the couch cushions next to a long forgotten joint.
A few days ago I posted the first 20 in my Top 40 Albums of 2012 (check it out here). The first half of the list is always easier to compile than the final 20. With this, the top half of the list, I find myself swapping albums from one spot to the next, trying to refine my list to the perfect order. Of course, this “perfect order” is never truly found. On one day I’d much rather listen to my number 17 than my number 5 and vice versa. I can promise you, all of these albums are fantastic. In order to come up with a definitive order, I took into account the overall significance of an album, not just which has the best collection of songs, but which is the perfect album – the themes, the order of the songs, the cultural significance. Within those parameters, I had no doubt what would be the number one album of 2012. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
As with all movements, the lo-fi trend has tapered off over the past couple years. In its wake, many of the artists who found their niche within the genre have had to step outside the tape hiss and attempt to tread water on the strength of their songwriting. The entire ethos of the lo-fi movement was the idea that great songs will always be great, regardless of the production (this is the gospel of Robert Pollard). As the dust has settled, some have found success moving away from the 4-track recorder (Ty Segall, Wavves, Times New Viking) while others have been exposed (Male Bonding, Matt and Kim, Psychedelic Horseshit).
After the release of Wood’s 2011 album “Sun and Shade,” I felt that they belonged in the latter category. Without the amateurish production, the band seemed lost. Many of the songs come off as lazy, while others meander aimlessly from one guitar solo to another with several songs stretching past the seven-minute mark. The band’s knack for melodies seemed all but gone and the charm of the past erased.
James Blake “S/T” [A&M/Atlas; 2011]
When I first heard that Kanye West’s “Dark Twisted Nightmare” would feature Bon Iver’s Justin Veronon, I was skeptical to say the least. The combination of Vernon’s haunting, tragic voice alongside Kanye’s robust wall of self-celebration seemed like a match made in a…well, a dark twisted nightmare. Then of course I heard “Nightmare” and realized Kanye’s turn toward a wide-open self-evaluation worked surpisingly well with Bon Iver’s signature sound. Kanye’s loneliness amidst the bitter vacuum of celebrity is the perfect parallel to Bon Iver’s “For Emma, Forever”, secluded in a log cabin with it’s combination of misery and building a still.
At the same time, the song “Lost in the World” and the album’s success made me wary that Justin Vernon may take a turn toward R&B, relying more heavily upon digital technology. I can’t deny that I did enjoy his first foray into auto-tune with “Woods”, but part of what made it a fun listen was it’s tongue-in-cheek nature, taking this overly processed crutch in modern music and creating something real and honest. Yet I didn’t feel like there was much more that needed to be explored in the voice-processing world.
Then I heard James Blake’s 2011 self-titled release, and I realized I had been so wrong. On the album, Blake creates that same haunting, sparse atmosphere and takes it fully into the realm of the digital to a level that Vernon only touched upon on “Woods”. The connection with Bon Iver only goes so far though with Blake stepping out of Vernon’s cozy cabin into the frigid Wisconsin cold.
Cold is the key word here; this album reminds me of walking through a blizzard, the howling wind creating a pocket of isolation, the blank white snow creating a curtain, hiding you from all other surroundings. Despite this setting of solitude, the synths and vocals send shivers up your spine like an arctic gust. On “Wilhelms Scream” Blake’s soulful voice sings of giving up on love, dreams, and simply falling into a drift of isolation.
This bleak message continues throughout the album, and the background music only furthers the message, creating icy sheets of echoing reverb. The synths and drum machine aid this disconnect, distant from Blake’s world of wallowing. The vocodor makes several appearances as well for the same reason: to represent this feeling of being solitary, of being inhuman, lifeless, heartless, like a machine. On a song like “Lindesfarne I” this is most evident, but even more apparent in the song is the use of silence. In fact, the moments of complete quiet are Blake’s best weapon.
An onslaught of silence on “Lindesfarne I”, followed by “Lindesfarne II”:
I connected with this album deeply upon first listen because of its forlorn outlook, but also the strange jolts and jerks that pop up from start to finish. Every song will take you in an unexpected direction, yet they all remain in that great white expanse of winter cold. Listening to Blake’s self-titled album almost makes me wish I could be back in the snowdrift laden plains of my home state Iowa…almost.