The Great Music Poet Releases Long-Awaited New Album

I deliberately let this one simmer for a while. As a more casual listener of Bob Dylan, I felt giving Rough and Rowdy Ways more time to sink in was the right thing to do. Dylan’s 39th studio album, his first with original songs since Tempest from September 2012, appeared yesterday on Columbia Records.

To be very clear upfront, I’m not trying to compete with clever music critics, so if you’re hoping for any sort of interpretation what the maestro’s lyrics mean and to what extent they are autobiographical, you can probably stop reading here. Frankly, I’m not sure anyone on the planet can fully figure out the man – I certainly can’t and won’t pretend I can!

When Dylan released the album’s first single Murder Most Foul in late March, I didn’t quite know how to feel about it. Clocking in at just under 17 minutes, my first thought was it’s massive. I also wondered whether we really needed yet another account about the murder of JFK, one of the most widely covered stories – not to mention all the crazy conspiracy theories around it!

Of course, I fully realize Dylan’s timing in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t look like coincidence and points to a broader meaning. But we’re getting into interpretation, which is exactly what I said at the outset I didn’t want to do!

Weirdly, the more often I listen to Murder Most Foul, the better I like it. To some extent perhaps it’s simply getting more used it. Another factor could be that Dylan without any doubt in my mind is one of the most significant contemporary music artists, so I kind of feel a bit reluctant to “dismiss” it outright. I mean who am I after all to judge him!

The next single was the record’s opener I Contain Multitudes, which came out in mid-April. While I didn’t exactly jump up and down, I felt that tune was easier to process. But it really did take the May 8 release of the third single, False Prophet, to get my full attention. I can’t deny the fact it probably helped that the track is a blues, one of my favorite music genres. Plus, at that time it also became clear we weren’t just looking at a series of one-off singles but a forthcoming new Dylan album.

Photo by Chris Pizzello/AP/REX/Shutterstock (6261732a) Bob Dylan Bob Dylan performs in Los Angeles. Fifty years into his career as a recording artist and a week away from release of an extraordinary new CD, Dylan spent his Tuesday evening where he seems to feel most comfortable – on a stage Music Bob Dylan, Los Angeles, USA

Generally speaking, when it comes to songs, I primarily pay attention to the music and the vocals, viewing great lyrics more like nice icing on the cake. Otherwise, how could I possibly explain that I love songs with lyrics like I want to hold your hand; she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah; or love, love me do, you know I love you! Nothing wrong with silly love songs, but that’s what they are: Silly, at least from a lyrical perspective!

So how about the remaining tracks on Rough and Rowdy Ways? Well, let’s get to some of them!

Here’s My Own Version of You. A lyrical excerpt: All through the summers, into January/I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries/Looking for the necessary body parts/Limbs and livers and brains and hearts/I’ll bring someone to life, is what I wanna do/I wanna create my own version of you…cheerful stuff! Somehow as I’m reading this, I’m picturing the video of Tom Petty’s Mary Jane’s Last Dance.

Next up: Black Rider, a quiet ballad. Is it about death? No idea! But a cheerful tune it certainly is not. Black rider, black rider, all dressed in black/ I’m walking away, you try to make me look back/ My heart is at rest, I’d like to keep it that way/ I don’t wanna fight, at least not today/ Go home to your wife, stop visiting mine/ One of these days I’ll forget to be kind. As Max from PowerPop and I were joking earlier today, one would hope these lyrics aren’t autobiographical!

Crossing the Rubicon is another blues-oriented track. I kind of like the slow burning groove of that tune. And, yes, you guessed it, there are more cheerful lyrics here: …I feel the bones beneath my skin and they’re tremblin’ with rage/I’ll make your wife a widow – you’ll never see old age/Show me one good man in sight that the sun shines down upon/I pawned my watch and I paid my debts and I crossed the Rubicon…Jeez, don’t mess with Bob!

The last track I’d like to call out is Key West (Philosopher Pirate). I think this is actually becoming one of my favorite songs on the album. I find Dylan’s singing here strangely pretty in spite of his less than opera quality vocals and the lyrics:…‪I was born on the wrong side of the railroad track/Like Ginsberg, Corsi and Kerouac/Like Louis and Jimmy and Buddy and all the rest/Well, it might not be the thing to do/But I’m sticking with you through and through/Down in the flatlands, way down in Key West

In addition to Dylan (vocals, guitar), who is also listed as producer, Rough and Rowdy Ways features Bob Britt (guitar), Matt Chamberlain (drums), Tony Garnier (bass), Donnie Herron (steel guitar, violin, accordion) and Charlie Sexton (guitar). These musicians make up the band that has been backing Dylan on his Never Ending Tour, which is currently on hold due to the coronavirus. Additional musicians/guests, among others, include Fiona Apple (vocals) and Benmont Tench, founding member, keyboarder and vocalist of Tom Petty’s former band The Heartbreakers.

I thought I give the final word to Dylan, so naively went to his website to see whether there is any statement there. Since that would have been the obvious thing, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that my search came up empty. Instead, one of the first things you see is a news item titled Bob Dylan remains an immeasurable and inimitable force, a review by The Line of Best Fit, which by its own description is “the UK’s biggest independent website devoted to new music.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Bob Dylan website; The Line of Best Fit; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

This latest installment of the recurring new music feature must acknowledge two albums that dropped today by two of the most influential music artists of our time: Bob Dylan and Neil Young. I already covered Young’s record in my previous post, so I’m skipping him here. There is also a new band of veteran session musicians who recently released their first single in the U.S., a great rock tune by an Australian band and a song from a German blues singer-songwriter and guitarist.

Bob Dylan/Goodbye Jimmy Reed

Goodbye Jimmy Reed is a tune from Rough and Rowdy Ways, the new and widely anticipated album by Bob Dylan. It’s his 39th studio record and the first with original material since Tempest from September 2012. In-between, the great music poet put out three cover albums with standards from the American Songbook. I was going to add all that’s missing is a Christmas collection when I just noticed Dylan already checked off that box in October 2009 with Christmas in the Heart. If you’re frequent visitor of the blog, you probably know my sentiments about Dylan range from outstanding to less than brilliant and everything in-between. Regardless, there’s no doubt Dylan is one of the most important singer-songwriters of our time. I also give him huge credit that age 79 instead of releasing yet another cover album, he dropped a collection with brand new songs. Goodbye Jimmy Reed is a tribute to the American electric blues guitarist who influenced Elvis Presley, Hank Williams Jr., The Rolling Stones and many other artists who I have no doubt include Dylan.

The Immediate Family/Cruel Twist

The Immediate Family is what you could call a super group featuring five veteran session musicians: Danny Kortchmar (guitar), Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Leland Sklar (bass), Russ Kunkel (drums) and Steve Postell (guitar). Between them, they have worked individually and together with artists like Jackson Browne, Carole King, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Nicks, Keith Richards, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Joe Walsh – and the list goes on and on. It’s yet another illustration that great musicians like to play with great musicians. But throwing together a group of top-notch musicians doesn’t automatically guarantee the outcome is as great as their skills. In this case I have to say I really like what I’m hearing! Cruel Twist is the group’s first U.S. single released on June 12. As reported by Rolling Stone, an EP is planned for October, followed by a full-length album next year.

Datura4/Give

According to their website, Datura4 are a Western Australian band combining full-tilt boogie, heavy psychedelia, blues and classic rock’n’roll for a sound heavy on riffage and mind-bending wig-outs – okey dokey. Founded in 2009, the band includes Dom Mariani (guitar), Bob Patient (keyboards), Stu Loasby (bass) and Warren “Wazza” Hall (drums). They released their debut album Demon Blues in 2015, followed by sophomore Hairy Mountain in 2016. Give is a great rocker from Datura4’s most recent album West Coast Highway Cosmic, which appeared on April 17. I dig the harmony guitar playing and the keyboard work. These guys are cooking – check it out!

Michael van Merwyk/We’re Human

Michael van Merwyk is a blues singer-songwriter and guitarist from Germany. According to this biography, he has become famous as one of only a few lap steel guitar players in the blues business. Michael performs and entertains fans at large festivals and also smaller clubs throughout Europe, either together in an acoustic duo with a blues harp player and singer Gerd Gorge as Delta Boys or his own band called Bluesoul. The (German) website of Bluesoul also notes van Merwyk started playing guitar at the age of 15 and has been an active musician for almost 35 years. I had never heard of him before. We’re Human is from what appears to be his most recent CD The Bear released on May 8. According to Discogs, the CD was recorded live in studio in December 2019 and January 2020.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; Last.fm; Bluesoul; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

This latest installment of the recurring feature presents yet another new tune by Robert Allen Zimmerman, who finally revealed there will be a new album with original music, probably providing some relief among die-hard Bob Dylan fans. The piece also includes a new song by a German singer-songwriter who happens to be a yuge Dylan fan and has led my favorite German rock band for more than 40 years. There’s also a melancholic track by Norah Jones. And how about rounding out things with some smoking hot blues by an indigenous artist from Canada? Let’s get to it.

Bob Dylan/False Prophet 

False Prophet, released today, is the third new song by Bob Dylan that appeared in recent weeks. He probably thought three make a charm and also finally confirmed what many fans had hoped for: All these tunes appear on a new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, set to come out on June 19. It’s Dylan’s 39th studio album, per Rolling Stone’s count, and his first release of original music in eight years since Tempest from September 2012. False Prophet, a guitar-driven bluesy tune, definitely speaks to me more than the previously released I Contain Multitudes and the nearly 17-minute Murder Most Foul. In fact, I kinda like it!

Niedeckens BAP/Ruhe vor’m Sturm

BAP or, since September 2014, Niedeckens BAP have been my favorite German rock band for now close to 40 years. I’ve covered this group from Cologne around singer-songwriter Wolfgang Niedecken on various past occasions, most recently here. One of their characteristic features is they sing all of their songs in Kölsch, the regional dialect spoken in the area of Cologne. Ruhe vor’m Sturm (calm before the storm), the first tune from the band’s next album scheduled for September, has rather dark lyrics, drawing a bridge between Germany’s past Nazi era and the growing influence of right-wing extremist ideology in Germany and other countries. “Everything that has happened in previous years, the populists that step by step are gaining power and those who are still in their starting positions…are developments that can frighten you and make you think, ‘how is it supposed to continue’,” said Niedecken during an interview with German broadcast station SWR1. “I’ve had many sleepless nights. I have now grandchildren…and don’t simply want to say, ‘ do whatever you want’ – I won’t accept that.” Niedecken who writes all of the band’s lyrics has spoken up against racism for many years. The song was deliberately released today, the 75th anniversary of Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allies and the official end of World War II and one of the darkest chapters in human history.

Norah Jones/Tryin’ to Keep It Together

Every time I listen to Norah Jones, which for some reason I hardly do, I somehow feel at ease. There’s just something about the singer-songwriter’s voice I find incredibly powerful. Tryin’ to Keep It Together is a bonus tune on Jones’ upcoming eighth studio album Pick Me Up Off the Floor, which will appear on June 12. “I didn’t intend on releasing it early, but it kept running through my head,” said Jones in a statement, as reported by Rolling Stone. “It’s very much how I feel in this moment, so it felt appropriate to release it. Maybe it’s how others feel as well.” The song was co-written by Jones and Thomas Bartlett, a.k.a Doveman, who also produced it. Jones released the official video for the tune today. In a tweet she wrote, “The official video for ‘Tryin’ To Keep It Together’ was filmed at home and is out now. Thanks to my quaran-team house-mate, Marcela Avelar, for making this video.”

Crystal Shawanda/Church House Blues

Crystal Shawanda is an indigenous country-turned-blues artist. According to her website, she grew up on Wikwemikong reserve on an island in Ontario, Canada. While her parents exposed her to country music and taught her how to sing and play guitar, her oldest brother introduced her to what became her ultimate passion, the blues. She started her career in country music and her debut album Dawn of a New Day was released in June 2008. But while country music apparently brought her some success, she started feeling like a fish out of water and decided to take off some time. Shawanda returned in September 2014 with her first blues album The Whole World’s Got the Blues. Her new record Church House Blues was released on April 17. According to this review in Glide Magazine, it was produced by Shawanda’s husband and collaborator Dewayne Strobel, who also plays guitar on the record. The review notes influences from Shawanda’s heroes Etta James, Koko Taylor, The Staple Sisters and Janis Joplin. Regardless whether you agree with their take or not, one thing is crystal clear to me: That woman has mighty pipes and great energy. Check out the title track!

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; SWR1; Crystal Shawanda website; Glide Magazine; YouTube