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A review of “Shadows in the Night” by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s main strength as a recording artist is undoubtedly his songwriting, which is why it can seem like an odd decision when he decides to release albums of covers, like “Shadows in the Night”. It’s nothing new, though: before this, there was “Christmas in the Heart” (2009), “World Gone Wrong” (1993) and “Good as I Been to You” (1992). Several of his previous albums have also included a significant amount of covers: “Down in the Groove” (1988), “Knocked Out Loaded” (1986), “Self Portrait” (1970) and of course his debut album, “Bob Dylan” (1962). These previous cover albums have had varying amounts of success. To put it less politely, some of them have been a bit crap, most notoriously “Knocked Out Loaded” and “Down in the Groove” (I mean, even the names of those albums are terrible). “Christmas in the Heart”, the most recent album of covers, and Bob Dylan’s first Christmas album, was thought by many to be some kind of joke. To be fair to that album, it’s not unlistenable to, in the same way that amateur carol-singers are not unlistenable to, but it’s by no means great music. So when it turned out that “Shadows in the Night” was going to be another cover album, consisting of songs sung by Frank Sinatra, I think many people had some trepidation. It could have easily turned out quite badly. Sinatra, after all, was one of the greatest singers of popular music. Dylan, not so much. He’s never been a bad singer, he just has a style which can be divisive, but he’s obviously not in the same league as Sinatra, and now that he’s 73 it must be a lot more difficult for him to reach and hold his notes.

But there was a strong motivation for Dylan to make this album a good one, which wasn’t present on “Christmas in the Heart”: he had to make it an appropriate tribute to Sinatra, who died in 1998. It’s true that in their early days, Sinatra and Dylan were kind of at odds, since Dylan was seen as a kind of representative of the 60s counterculture, and to the members of this counterculture Sinatra was seen as a hopelessly unhip outsider. Sinatra, for his part, famously once described rock and roll music as “the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear”. But in the 1990s when they were both older, there was clearly mutual respect between them. For Sinatra’s 80th birthday in 1995, lots of famous performers—Bono, Ray Charles, etc.— were invited to sing his songs for a TV special. Bob Dylan was among them, but rather than singing one of Sinatra’s songs, he sang one of his own, “Restless Farewell”, apparently at Sinatra’s own request. And since then, Dylan’s musical direction and his Theme Time Radio Hour have indicated that he has developed a fascination with American music of the 40s and 50s, which was, of course, the time when Sinatra was at his peak.

(You might wonder why Dylan is making a tribute to Frank Sinatra in 2015 and not some other time, but I don’t think we can make too much of this. He seems to have a tendency to make tributes to people long after they’ve gone, rather than immediately afterwards. There was “Roll on John”, for example, a tribute to John Lennon, which was released 32 years after Lennon’s death in 2012. Most oddly of all, perhaps, he released “Lenny Bruce” during his Christian period in 1981, 15 years after Lenny Bruce’s death, on an album mostly made up of songs with religious themes.)

So has “Shadows in the Night” turned out to be a worthy tribute? In my opinion, it has. In fact, it may be the best album of covers Bob Dylan has released since his debut. It certainly beats “Christmas in the Heart”, that’s for sure. Of course, it’s hard to compare it to the albums with original content, because it is such a different kind of album. Compared to albums like “Tempest” and “Modern Times”, “Shadows in the Night” is more straightforward and easy to listen to. This is not to say that it is better or worse than those albums, because sometimes you might appreciate this quality and other times you might not. But if you haven’t listened to much of post-1997 Bob Dylan, this record might be a better introduction than those other albums, because it will help you get used to his voice.

The voice, of course, is one of the main problems people tend to have with post-1997 Bob Dylan. People have always had problems with Bob Dylan’s voice; it’s never been an especially pleasant-sounding one, except perhaps for a brief period in 1968. But lately, as he has become an old man, he has started to sound like an old man too, and his voice has become even harder to like than before. This is not to say that it’s impossible to like his voice. I mean, I like his voice. After you’ve listened to it a lot, it becomes familiar; all its flaws turn into endearing qualities. In fact, it seems in a way quite appropriate for the songs on “Shadows in the Night”. Dylan has wisely avoided covering the more confident, self-assured Frank Sinatra songs like “My Way” or “That’s Life”. The songs he’s picked are more subdued, introspective, and often rather sad ones like “Autumn Leaves” and “Why Try to Change Me Now”, and when you hear them sung by such an aged voice it adds a kind of extra texture to that mood. Expressions of regret carry more gravity, for example. You wonder how long ago it has been since the narrator of “Autumn Leaves”‘s “darling” went away—20 years, 30, 40?

Age has, however, also caused more serious technical problems to appear in Dylan’s singing sometimes, which are evident in his live performances. His voice sounds harsh enough already, but an unpleasant kind of growl often accompanies words that he stresses. He can’t hold notes for very long. He changes the melodies of his old songs, probably so he doesn’t strain his voice too much trying to reach notes which are now very difficult for him to reach, and while the new melodies can be nice they are not usually better than the original ones (after all, he probably put a lot more thought into the original ones). But on “Shadows in the Night”, he manages to almost completely avoid these technical problems. In fact, once you get past the voice, I think you’ll be able to see that he actually sings the melodies of this songs quite flawlessly. I can’t hear him singing any wrong notes, anyway, if I compare his renditions to Sinatra’s. This is remarkable considering a lot of these songs require him to hold notes for longer and use a wider range than he’s needed to for most of the self-composed songs on his other recent albums. Just listen to the first song, “I’m a Fool to Want You”; I think that high note the second time he says “fool” is the highest note on a released song of his that there’s been for years. It seems like he must have been putting in a stellar effort to sing well on this album. Or perhaps he’s just more interested in these songs than his recent stuff and finds it easier to sing them well.

Let’s have a look at the songs briefly. “I’m A Fool To Want You” is a good opener with a striking melody, and, as I mentioned above, it’s remarkable how well Dylan sings it. “The Night We Called It A Day” is a less striking, more subdued song, one of the less memorable ones on the album, but still quite pleasant to listen to. It still has Dylan singing some really surprisingly high notes. The third song, “Stay With Me”, is a highlight. This is the kind of somewhat bombastic song I associate with Frank Sinatra (not that I know especially much about his music, so that might not be an especially accurate association). Sinatra’s original version of this song has a very stirring orchestral accompaniment, to go with the rather stirring lyrics and melody. Dylan tones it down a little bit, using two electric guitarists rather than a full orchestra, and makes a more vulnerable-sounding version. I do think I probably prefer Sinatra’s version, though, just since it’s so compelling and powerful. By the way, you can listen to the song on YouTube (it’s been officially uploaded onto the site by Bob Dylan’s label to advertise the album).

The next one is “Autumn Leaves”. This was originally a French song, and it is quite famous in that original version, but Dylan sings the English translation, which is actually quite different. It’s a short song, with only 8 lines, although they are sung pretty slowly, and yet it is very powerful. As I mentioned above, it’s especially moving with an old voice singing it. Even if you are not into the songs of Sinatra’s era, you may still be familiar with this song, because Eva Cassidy released an excellent version of it.

“Why Try to Change Me Now”, which follows, is one of the more average songs on the album. It’s slow, melodically uninteresting and doesn’t really stand out very much. It is, however, one of the more interesting ones in terms of lyrics. I do quite like the line beginning the third verse: “why can’t I be more… conventional?” For Sinatra, the lyrics had a lot of personal significance, which made his own versions of the song a bit more compelling. You could certainly argue that the lyrics also apply to Dylan quite well, but I don’t think this is reflected in Dylan’s performance.

After that comes “Some Enchanted Evening”. This is a lovely romantic song, originally from the musical South Pacific. Sinatra’s 1949 recording of it is beautiful and it would have been hard for Dylan’s recording to try to compete with it. However, I think Dylan’s recording goes in a slightly different direction from Sinatra’s. Every other song on this album is rather melancholy; “Some Enchanted Evening” might seem like the sole exception. In the musical, the character who sung this song did seize the opportunity and ended up marrying his true love. But if he had never done so, that would make hearing his advice, “once you have found her, never let her go”, rather more heartbreaking. If you interpret the song this way, it fits in better with the album’s general mood.

I have to confess that the next three songs, “Full Moon and Empty Arms”, “Where Are You” and “What’ll I Do”, kind of start to blur into one, because they’re all examples of the slow, melancholy kind of song which, by now, you might be getting a bit bored of. To be honest, “Where Are You” and “What’ll I Do” are pretty miserable. It probably would have been a good idea to put something more positive in between those two.

But the final song, “That Lucky Old Sun”, is a very good way to end the album. I think it is actually the best song on the whole thing. In terms of its mood, this is one of those songs that has really depressing subject matter, but somehow listening to it makes you feel good anyway. I mean, it’s basically about someone who is tired of life and just longs to die. That’s a lot more gloomy than “Where Are You”, which is just about a lonely person. But the composition of “That Lucky Old Sun” gives it a lot of strength and power, making it less of a dirge. It has a kind of spiritual feel, too; in terms of its theme it’s very similar to “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”. There are lots of stirring high notes, and you might think Dylan would have difficulty reaching them, but he pulls it off. It’s his most amazing vocal performance on the whole album, for sure.

(The best version of “That Lucky Old Sun”, though, is probably Ray Charles’s. I don’t think “Shadows in the Night” is on Spotify yet, so I haven’t been able to link you many of the songs in this post. I’ll give you a link to Ray Charles’s version, just because it really deserves to be heard. Dylan’s version has a fair few differences from this, though, so check it out anyway!)

So overall, “Shadows in the Night” has been a really pleasant surprise. One thing I didn’t mention, although you probably gathered it from the song descriptions, is that it’s kind of a downer of an album, but that’s pretty much what you expect from modern Bob Dylan albums. There are different ways music can be downbeat, anyway—it’s not the cringy, self-absorbed kind of downbeat music. But if you prefer more upbeat music you may find it hard to like this album. If you find yourself unable to take old-fashioned music seriously, you’re probably not going to like the album very much either. And, of course, those who are new to Bob Dylan will need to have an open mind with regards to his voice; it’s probably best if you are already familiar with his music. With these caveats, I recommend that you give the album a listen. If you like what it’s doing, you’ll find that it’s good at what it does.


A review of “Hejira” by Joni Mitchell

There are three Joni Mitchell albums which most people, including me, consider her masterpieces. In chronological order, which is the same as the order of how well-known they are, they are “Blue”, “Court and Spark” and “Hejira”. There’s no point trying to judge which of these three is the best, since they all have their own distinctive qualities. As Joni Mitchell’s career progressed, the main influence on her sound gradually changed from folk to jazz (I’m characterising this change very crudely here, but it’s one way of describing it). “Hejira” hits a sweet spot on this progression where these two influences interact to create something wonderful. I always find it very difficult to describe sounds in words, so instead I’ll just show you a video. Listen to the opening track, “Coyote”, for just a few seconds and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

I didn’t fall immediately in love with this sound when I first listened to “Hejira”, but it didn’t take long for me to realise that there was something extremely attractive about it. It’s not the kind of sound that immediately grabs your attention—it’s more slow than fast, more relaxing than exciting, more content than emotionally charged either way. But it does have a kind of entrancing quality about it which is more than enough to keep you interested. I find “Hejira” makes excellent background music—although, of course, that’s not all it’s good for—because it doesn’t demand your attention, and you don’t have to devote much attention to the music to enjoy it, since the mere sound of it is so pleasant to hear.

Apparently, the dominating instrument on this album, along with Joni Mitchell’s guitar, is a bass guitar played by jazz musician Jaco Pastorius, which makes a significant contribution to the sound of this album. I don’t even know how to distinguish the bass guitar from the regular one, so I can’t really say much more about this. I can say something about Joni Mitchell’s voice, however. In accordance with the general atmosphere, her voice is somewhat restrained in its range. She doesn’t raise her voice to the absurdly high pitches she often raised it to on “Blue” and earlier albums. But this doesn’t make her voice dull; she makes up for the loss in range by putting much more power into her voice, and I actually think her voice sounds better on this album than on any previous one. It’s the voice of a mature woman, not the voice of a girl as it was on the albums up to “Blue”.

Finally, I should mention that the songs on this album, as well as all sounding similar, all touch on a similar theme, as most of them were inspired by Joni Mitchell’s experience of travelling for a long period, alone, across the United States. In fact, the title of the album comes from the Arabic word referring to Muhammad’s journey out of Mecca to Medina. While songs like “Hejira” and “Refuge of the Roads” deal with this theme explicitly, there are constant references to it scattered throughout the rest of the songs, such as in “Coyote”, where Joni refers to herself as “a hitcher, a prisoner of the white lines on the freeway”, or in “Amelia”, where Joni is “driving across the burning desert”.

As you might gather from these lines, the lyrics on this album are just as brilliantly attractive as the music which accompanies them. “Amelia”, “Hejira” and “Song for Sharon” are the most outstanding songs in this regard; in particular, “Amelia” seems to be many people’s favourite. I’ll admit that it took me a long time to get into “Amelia”—the songs which attracted me when I first listened to this album were the other two—but just recently, I’ve realised that there really is something especially beautiful about this song. I’m going to break from my usual practice of going through the songs on order on this album, and talk about “Amelia” first. Like any great song, everything seems to come together perfectly on “Amelia”. Its lyrics are reminiscent of a Bob Dylan song: they are somewhat ambiguous, and you listen to it without having any real idea what the song is about. The “Amelia” of the title is Amelia Earhart: the “ghost of aviation” who was “swallowed by the sky”. She is addressed throughout the song, and repeatedly told, as a refrain, “Amelia, it was just a false alarm”. Exactly what was a false alarm is not made clear. It’s up to the listener to interpret it, or just to appreciate the beautiful lyrics without feeling the need to understand exactly what they refer to. As for the music on this song, it’s one of the best-sounding songs here. While the lyrics are rather melancholy, containing words like “bleak”, “drone”, “hurt”, “cursed”, “foolish”, “strange”, I think the music tempers this tone a little; the various high-pitched noises in the background add a touch of hope to the whole thing.

“Amelia” may be the best song on the album, but it’s somewhat too weird to be the opening track. Instead, the album begins with “Coyote”, which is a little more ‘fun’. I’m not complaining about this—”Coyote” is a great song too, although it’s not in the same league as “Amelia”. The melancholy element is still there, and there’s a constant reminder of it in that memorable refrain of “a hitcher, a prisoner of the white lines on the freeway”. But there are some funny lines here. Well, there’s at least one funny set of lines. The “Coyote” of a title is a womaniser who Joni has become acquainted with: she remarks, “he’s got a woman at home / he’s got another woman down the hall / he seems to want me anyway”, changing her tone of voice in that last line as if to say “seriously?”. She doesn’t reject his advances, though; in fact, the song is a kind of reflection on how she sees him as a kind of fellow traveler.

The third song, “Furry Sings the Blues”, has an interesting story behind it. At one point in 1976, as she was travelling through Memphis, Joni paid a visit to the home of Furry Lewis in Beale Street. During the 1920s, Beale Street had been the centre of a flourishing blues scene in Memphis and Furry Lewis had been one of its stars. Of course, he didn’t have the kind of lifestyle later musicians like Joni Mitchell enjoyed—he still had to work as a sweet sweeper to make a living. This became his only means of living after the Great Depression, when there was no more hope of him making any recording deals. By the 1960s, Beale Street was a ghost of its former self; the old clubs and bars where the blues used to be played had been closed down. But Furry still lived in the same old apartment and still worked at the same old sweeping job. There was a revival of interest in the blues by this time—after all, it was one of the precursors of rock— and Lewis became a minor celebrity due to the fact that he was the last of the 1920s bluesmen who would still play music. So that was the context of the visit, and maybe you can see why Furry Lewis might have been a little bit bitter, especially in the presence of Joni Mitchell, who was by this time enjoying a level of success Lewis had never known. He couldn’t complain just about her visiting him, but he wasn’t particularly pleased to hear that she’d made a song about the experience. As he told Rolling Stone:

“The way I feel” says Furry “is that your name is proper only to you, and when you use it you should get results from it. She shouldn’t have used my name in no way, shape, form or faction without consultin’ me ’bout it first. The woman came over here and I treated her right, just like I does everybody that comes over. She wanted to hear ’bout the old days, said it was for her own personal self, and I told it to her like it was, gave her straight oil from the can.” He stares at the surrealistic photo on the Hejira cover. “But then she goes and puts it all down on a record, using my name and not giving me nothing! I can’t stop nobody from talkie’ ’bout Beale Street, ’cause the street belongs to everybody. But when she says ‘Furry,’ well that belongs to me!”

It can’t have helped that “Furry Sings the Blues” is a brutally honest song, to the point of rudeness. In terms of his appearance, she describes him as “propped up in his bed with his dentures and his leg removed”; in terms of his performance, she remarks that “it’s mostly muttering now and sideshow spiel” (although “there was one song he played that I could really feel”). Of course, these remarks come from a place of sympathy, and she does display some self-awareness in the last lines of the song: “why should I expect that old guy to give it to me true … while our limo is shining on his shanty street”. As far as I know, Joni has never said anything about Lewis’ reaction to the song, but I imagine her feelings on it would be that the song is an expression of the truth, and she wasn’t going to tamper with the truth to protect Furry Lewis’s ego. Nevertheless, if I was her, maybe I would have released the song after Lewis had died.

You may be interested in all this background, or not, in which case you’re probably thinking “yes, very interesting, but what does it sound like?” Well, my opinion is that “Furry Sings the Blues” is one of the less remarkable songs on the album, musically. It still has that lovely “Hejira” sound, but it doesn’t stand out among the rest. And you can imagine what Furry Lewis’s opinion of the song was: he hated it.

The next song, “A Strange Boy”, is also one of the more unremarkable songs on this album. In fact, it sounds very similar to “Furry Sings the Blues”. I do find it somewhat more interesting, mainly because I love the way Joni sings this song; at some points her voice goes really deep, and at some points her voice goes really high, and either way, it’s pretty sweet.

After these two more average songs, there is a very impressive string of three highlights: “Hejira”, “Song for Sharon” and “Black Crow”. I find it hard to pick a favourite on this album, but if I did pick one, it’d be one of these three, or “Amelia”. The first of these is a fitting title song, since it epitomises the whole album both in terms of its theme and its sound. That entrancing, mysterious “Hejira” sound is turned up to eleven on this song. The melody is also excellent and it fits the theme very well; it seems to wander, if that makes any sense, just as Joni herself is wandering on her travels. Although it’s a long song (nearly 7 minutes), with little variation from verse to verse, it’s rare that I don’t want to listen to it all the way through. In fact, this was the very first song I fell in love with from “Hejira”, after I saw this amazing live performance, in which she puts a little more power into the words than she does on the album version.

“Song For Sharon” is another long song: in fact, at 8 minutes, 38 seconds, it’s the longest song Joni had released (“Hejira” and “Refuge of the Roads” were also longer than every song she had released except “Harry’s House-Centerpiece” from “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”, which was only a few seconds longer). Like “Hejira”, it’s long simply because it has a lot of verses; the same melody is repeated throughout. That sounds like a recipe for boredom, but just as with “Hejira”, I very rarely get bored listening to this. Within each verse, the lines gradually build up in power, before reaching a climax with the last line which is seriously impressive, so you end up looking forward to the end of the next verse when you’ll get to hear something similar again. The last lines of the first and sixth verses are especially awesome because, unlike the other verses, they have an additional unstressed syllable after the final stressed syllable, and Joni sings this last syllable at a higher pitch and holds it for a little while. I think it sounds really cool: “SOME girl’s gonna see that dress and CRAVE that day like cra-zyyyyyy”.

In terms of the lyrics this is one of the most interesting songs on the album. It’s a monologue addressed to a childhood friend, the “Sharon” of the title, essentially on what Joni is doing with her life and where she is trying to go, inspired by her observation that while Sharon now has “a husband and a family and a farm”, all Joni has to show for her glamorous rock-and-roll lifestyle is “the apple of temptation and a diamond snake around my arm”. I suppose it can be seen as a song about loneliness—Joni wants to “FIND another lov-errrrrrr”—but there aren’t any conclusions made her, and it’s not really clear what she wants.

Now, the mood of “Hejira” is, overall, pretty calm (although it’s not exactly a cheerful or hopeful song), while “Song For Sharon” is a bit more ill-at-ease, but on “Black Crow”, the mood becomes positively despairing. You can see this from the very start of the song where she begins singing by wailing the first word at a really high pitch, higher than any pitch you’ve heard her singing at so far on this album. She only reaches that note again briefly in the last line of this song, but the singing throughout is similar in its emotional tone. The weariness and frustration in Joni’s voice when she sings “I’ve been travelling SO long” is especially striking. In line with its general sentiment, this song is faster and more eerie-sounding than the others on this album. It’s only about 4 minutes long, which makes it one of the shortest songs here (along with “A Strange Boy”). Despite its general sentiment, it’s still a beautiful piece of music—it’s not unpleasant to the ears.

The mood changes somewhat in “Blue Motel Room”: this song is, actually, basically comic relief. While the other two love songs on this album (“Coyote” and “A Strange Boy”) are more introspective and about Joni herself rather than her lovers, this one is of a more straightforward kind. It’s just a simple seductive song, which isn’t to be taken very seriously. It has some hilarious lines—well, at least one hilarious line, which I’ll leave for you to discover. Joni’s singing here is very impressive: clearly she hadn’t lost the really high-pitched, feminine singing voice she had on her early albums, but she had learned to only use it when it was really appropriate.

Finally, we have “Refuge of the Roads”. This is the most difficult song on the album for me to write about, because it’s never really stood out to me when I listen to the album, so I don’t feel like I have given this song a proper listen. In my experience, it often takes repeated listens to start being able to appreciate the music of a song and not just see it as an unfamiliar sequence of sounds. Once you can appreciate a song properly you often end up liking it better than songs which are immediately appealing. Still, it can’t be denied that for me, at least, “Refuge of the Roads” is more difficult to appreciate than the rest of the songs on the album. It’s another lengthy personal song along the lines of “Hejira” or “Song For Sharon”. This melody of this song is one of the more upbeat ones on the album; the lyrics aren’t exactly overtly upbeat, but they are more confident: there’s no trace of regret for taking refuge in the roads. So it’s a good ntoe to end the album on; the song is hardly unwelcome in the context of the album, even though I may not be much of a fan of it in isolation. After all, “Hejira” is an album from the 1970s, when albums were made with the expectation that people would listen to all the songs in sequence, so they had to function as cohesive units.

To summarise: this is an excellent album, one of Joni Mitchell’s best, and certainly better than any of the albums which came after this one1. It does have a consistent mood and sound which tends towards melancholy and introversion, so you may prefer “Court and Spark” (if you want to hear something more cheerful) or “Blue” (if you fancy a more extroverted kind of melancholy).


  1. ^ I can’t really state this for sure since I haven’t listened to much of Joni’s output after the 70s. Based on what I’ve heard, though, it doesn’t seem likely that it will turn out otherwise.

A review of “Bringing It All Back Home” by Bob Dylan

[Since Bob Dylan videos tend to disappear quickly from Youtube, the videos in this post are live versions. You can hear the original album versions on Spotify.]

I can summarise this post in one sentence: “Bringing It All Back Home” is awesome, brilliant and possibly Bob Dylan’s best album. The only reason it’s not definitely Bob Dylan’s best album is that the two albums released after it—”Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde”—are also amazingly good, and I can’t really say that any one of them is better than the other. There’s also competition from “Blood on the Tracks”, but that album came later, during a different phase of his career, and it has such a different tone and style that I don’t think it’s very meaningful to compare it with these three albums. Together, these three albums are known as the ‘electric trilogy’, because it was on these albums that Bob Dylan first started using electric instruments, thus distancing himself from his folksinger roots. The story of this shift in genres is interesting, if you’re interested in the development of popular music, but it doesn’t really have much relevance to listeners of the album today. “Bringing It All Back Home” wasn’t completely electric—the songs on the second side were done in the old acoustic style—but the difference between the two sides isn’t particularly striking, at least to a modern listener. It makes you wonder how people could have made such a fuss.

I’m no expert on this—I mean, this album was released 40 years before I was born—but I don’t think the change in instrumentation was what really made some of Bob Dylan’s old fans annoyed with him. It was actually more about the abandonment of ‘protest songs’, which had already happened with the previous album (“Another Side of Bob Dylan”) but I guess at this point, people still thought Bob Dylan might want to go back to making political statements and being the ‘voice of a generation’. They were wrong, of course, and thank God for that! Now, I have some sympathy for the people who were disappointed in him for this. I’m not against political art. And I like Bob Dylan’s political songs. But I think for Bob Dylan, political art was just a passing interest. His debut was apolitical; then there were two albums with political themes, and then he lost interest. Any political songs he made afterwards would have been insincere—he wouldn’t really have believed in their message, he would have been just writing them to please his fans. And nothing is worse than insincere political art.

What is this album about, then? It’s hard to say, really. Sometimes people say that Bob Dylan relies on his lyrics—and this is kind of true—but it’s misleading too, because it makes you think the lyrics are meant to be understood as a story, or poem, perhaps. But really the lyrics are just like another instrument in the song. They’re part of the music, not separate from it. And they don’t have a meaning any more than a guitar riff has a meaning. I don’t mean they’re meaningless: like a guitar riff, they can communicate a certain emotional atmosphere, but not much more than that. The line in “Gates of Eden” about “the motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen” isn’t there to introduce a new character or something like that. The only reason it’s there is to make you go “What a really cool-sounding phrase!”, or maybe even “What a ridiculous line! What was he on when he decided to put that in the song?”, which, if it makes you laugh, is probably a reaction Bob Dylan would be happy with you having.

Of course, some of the songs do have more definite meanings: “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” is a love song, for example, “She Belongs to Me” is something kind of like a love song, “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” is kind of political. I can even accept the argument that “Maggie’s Farm” might be an allegory for Bob Dylan’s relationship with the folk movement, although personally I prefer to think of it as a song about a guy who really hates his job at a farm. But the lyrics still act as an instrument to some extent in these songs as well. For example, there’s the line in “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”: “in ceremonies of the horsemen, even the pawn must hold a grudge”. What on earth does that mean, and what does it have to do anything? Well, those are the wrong questions to ask. It just sounds good.

But let’s go through the songs. The first one is “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, and this is a really great, interesting song. In fact, pretty much all the songs on this album are great and interesting. You can just take those adjectives as implied for all the other songs! “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is pretty much a rap, although that term wasn’t in use when it was released. The lyrics consist of descriptions of things going on in around the narrator, together with various warnings addressed to a “kid”, such as “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters” and “Don’t wanna be a bum, you better chew gum”. These lyrics, together with the instruments, give the song has a sort of chaotic, bustling feel. It’s a very fun song, and an excellent way to draw you into the album. It also has one of those lines that seems like a well-known phrase, although it’s actually Dylan’s own invention: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”.

The next two songs are, in my opinion, slightly weaker but still very enjoyable. “She Belongs to Me” is a love song of a somewhat vague and ambiguous nature. It’s not even very clear whether it should be thought of as a love song since the lyrics could be interpreted as gently mocking. It does have some great lyrics like you’d expect from Bob Dylan: “she can take the dark out of the night time and paint the day time black”. After this song, you may get a feeling of déjà vu as “Maggie’s Farm” sounds, at the beginning, almost exactly like “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. This is one of the most famous songs on the album, and its lyrics awesome. Some of the lines are great countercultural aphorisms (“I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them”) and some of them are just hilarious (“she’s sixty-eight but she says she’s fifty-four”). Unfortunately, the song also has kind of a terrible melody, and Dylan’s voice, which is often kind of drawling and unpleasant, is especially like that here. So I’ll admit I find it hard to listen to this song all the way through.

“Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, which follows “Maggie’s Farm”, is an improvement. This is the best song on the first side of the album. It comes across as a much nicer love song than “She Belongs to Me”, although this is really due to the sweet melody rather than the lyrics. The lyrics start out lovely and heartwarming, then during the last three verses they get rather weird—I already mentioned the “ceremonies of the horsemen” line—and they no longer sound so pleasant: “the cloak and dagger dangles”, “the wind howls like a hammer”, “my love, she’s like some raven at my window with a broken wing”. The main attraction of the song, for me, is that it’s simply a really nice tune.

After this there are two more ‘average’ songs: “Outlaw Blues” and “On the Road Again”. “Outlaw Blues” is one of the many ‘generic blues songs’ Bob Dylan has done, so its melody is very similar to other songs like “Down the Highway” and “Meet Me in the Morning”. Hence it can be a little bit forgettable. But like all the songs on this album, it has some cool lines, like “I might look like Robert Ford, but I feel just like Jesse James” and “don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’, I just might tell you the truth”. “On the Road Again” is a comic song about a house with some very strange, dysfunctional inhabitants: there are lots of wonderfully ridiculous lines in it, but the best part is the refrain, and the way Dylan delivers it perfectly: “and you ask why I don’t live here… honey, I can’t believe that you’re for real!” Even so, the song can be a little forgettable just like “Outlaw Blues”. I couldn’t really say why, but it took me a long time to appreciate it.

The first, electric side of the album finishes with “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”, which is another highlight. The funniest moment on the album is probably the start of this song: Dylan sings the first line in his usual ultra-confident style, but just as he’s almost finished, he realises that he’s started too early, his band have been taken by surprise and haven’t started playing yet, so he breaks out into laughter along with all his band members, which lasts for a good 20 seconds before they start the song properly. The lyrics of the song itself are funny themselves, by virtue of being completely ridiculous. It actually succeeds quite well in creating a dream-like narrative, where new things just keep appearing out of left field and everything seems to make sense until you give it 2 second’s thought. By the way, the melody of this song is exactly the same as “Motorpsycho Nightmare” on “Another Side of Bob Dylan”, which is also hilarious. I’m not complaining, since it’s a pretty good melody. Another thing to note about this song, which I never used to notice since I was paying too much attention to the words, is that the instrumental accompaniment here is really awesome. It was definitely worth waiting for the band to get into gear!

So that’s the end of the electric side. The acoustic side begins with “Mr. Tambourine Man”, a classic and probably the most well-known song off this album due to the Byrds covering it and making it into a big hit. Personally, it’s this song that really got me into Bob Dylan. It was after hearing the final verse that I could say to myself: “Yeah… this guy is really good.” I’m going to have to quote it in its entirety so you can see what I mean.

Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time
Far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees
Out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, let me dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow…

For some reason, in their famous cover, the Byrds decided to omit the last two verses, which are the best ones! So I think I can say quite objectively that Dylan’s original is better. Of course, the first two verses are wonderful as well.

“Mr. Tambourine Man” is really quite a change from the rest of album, which may be due to the fact that it was first recorded as part of the “Another Side of Bob Dylan”. You can actually hear an outtake of it from these sessions on the “No Direction Home” soundtrack, where he sang it as a duet with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (and, yeah, that didn’t really work). For most of the album, Dylan is putting on his hipster persona—he’s trying to sound cool, trying to impress you. Then on this song it’s like the shades have dropped; he’s stopped all his pretenses, and simply inviting you to share in his awe at the beauty of existence.

The next song is “Gates of Eden”. It’s this song where what I said earlier, about the meaning of Dylan’s lyrics, really applies the most, because the lyrics make absolutely no sense in any straightforward way. I already mentioned the line in here about “the motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen”—well, that’s what all the lines in this song are like. “Gates of Eden” is kind of like the evil twin of “Mr. Tambourine Man”. Both are evocative, full of vivid imagery, but whereas “Mr. Tambourine Man” is charming and upbeat, “Gates of Eden” is sinister and ominous. This is due just as much to their respective melodies as their lyrics.

“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, which comes next, is also a rather ominous song. Like “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, the way Bob Dylan says the lyrics here is more like rapping than singing. His delivery is absolutely excellent: it’s quite impressive how he manages to get all the words out so clearly, yet so quickly, with stress in all the right places. In fact, everything about this song is impressive. It’s known as having some of the best lyrics of any Bob Dylan song. In a way, it’s political, but it’s hard to say what politics it’s advocating. I think the main thing he’s trying to get across is that he’s against falseness and insincerity in all of its forms (the commercialisation of what was once sacred, the lies adverts tell you, the false ideas people have about you, the false beliefs people adopt just due to peer pressure, the hypocrisy of moral guardians…) There are so many memorable aphorisms among these lyrics: “he not busy being born is busy dying”, “others say don’t hate nothing at all except hatred”, “not much is really sacred”, “even the President of the United States must sometimes have to stand naked”, “it is not he or she or them or it that you belong to”, “obscenity, who really cares”. Not to mention great poetry too, such as in the line about “one who sings with his tongue on fire, gargles in the rat-race choir”. The structure of the song is also absolutely perfect; during the verses the lines are short and quick, the same rhyme is repeated all the way through the verse, and meanwhile a spooky descending riff is played on the guitar, which breaks out into a jarring, loud refrain between the verses. There’s also a lyrical refrain every three verses which serves to release some of the tension. In later interviews Bob Dylan has said that this is one of the songs he’s most proud of writing. Listening to it, you can see why.

But my own personal favourite on this album is the very final song: “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. I find Dylan’s voice here really captivating. He constantly switches between a strikingly high-pitched whine and a calm, level tone, and this makes it possibly the most emotional-sounding song on the album. The melody and lyrics are also wonderful: there are some more brilliant, surrealistic lines like “the empty handed painter from your streets is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets” and “leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you”. Yet it’s not quite as opaque as some of the other songs like “Gates of Eden”; the message of the song is clearly evident from the refrain: it’s simply that it’s all over now for Baby Blue, although exactly who Baby Blue is, and what’s over, is left to interpretation. It’s been a year since I first listened to “Bringing It All Back Home”, and still, whenever I listen to “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, it leaves me in awe, and I think my life richer for having listened to it.

I’ve already talked about “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” because it was covered by Joan Baez on “Farewell, Angelina”. That cover, while good, doesn’t really do justice to the amazing original. One cover which does is this one by Them.

A review of “Joan” by Joan Baez

Joan Baez’s first few albums are all very similar musically, with all the songs having sparse arrangements rarely involving anything other than an acoustic guitar. But on “Joan”, and the Christmas album “Noël” which preceded it, Joan Baez collaborated with the composer Peter Schickele (who is, apparently, mainly known for making humorous music), who arranged orchestral accompaniments for many of the songs, meaning the album has a somewhat different song. That said, there are still a few songs on this album of the old guitar-based kind, and it doesn’t sound drastically different from the earlier albums. This is still an album following the usual Joan Baez formula, just with a little distinctive quality.

I don’t consider this to be among Baez’s best albums, but it’s more to do with the song selection than the instrumentation. The only songs on this album I really look forward to hearing are the last two—”Annabel Lee” and “Saigon Bride”. The others have their interesting qualities and certainly aren’t bad songs, but having listened to them a few times, I don’t think I’ll be regularly listening to them. If I compare this album to “Joan Baez/5”, another one I think of as decent but not among her best—well, that one has “There But For Fortune”, “So We’ll Go No More a-Roving”, and “The Unquiet Grave”, which are all perhaps better than anything on this album.

Perhaps part of the reason the songs here don’t appeal to me so much is that they are mostly by contemporary singers. There is only one traditional song, “The Greenwood Side”, which is a Child ballad but it isn’t as good as earlier examples of Child ballads like “The Unquiet Grave” or “The River in the Pines”. It’s not that contemporary songs are less good than traditional ones, but they are less likely to have the kind of enchanting quality I want to hear when listening to folk music. Also, some of them, like “Eleanor Rigby”, are perhaps too over-familiar to me for me to be excited about Joan Baez covering it. Although really, I’m not sure why some covers seem to work and others don’t. I mean, I’m far more familiar with certain Bob Dylan songs like, say, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, than “Eleanor Rigby”, yet I really love Joan Baez’s cover of that song. To some extent this may be due to the fact that Baez brings something different to the song—to some extent it may simply be due to the fact that I’m more able to be interested in covers of songs that are among my favourites, rather than those of songs I merely like.

There are two more songs on the album which aren’t by a contemporary singer—”North” and “Saigon Bride”. The lyrics for these were written by a woman called Nina Dusheck who is a little obscure. Googling for her just gets you to pages about these two songs. The liner notes for the reissued album have this to say about her:

The lyrics to “North” and “Saigon Bride” were sent to Joan by a woman she never got to meet, Nina Dusheck. “She was an obscure lady,” the singer remembers. “I don’t even know if she’s still alive. She gave me these two poems, and I just wrote the melodies. I can tell you where I was sitting. It was in the upstairs room of my home in Carmel Valley. And I was very excited because I was actually writing a tune.

I’d definitely be interested in seeing if Nina Dusheck made any more of her writings public, because these two songs are excellent. In fact, they are among the best on the album. I already mentioned “Saigon Bride”, but “North”, although it may not stand out on a first listen, is also excellent. Schickele’s orchestration really shines on these songs, too.

So, let’s go through the songs. The album opens with “Be Not Too Hard”. It was written by a poet, Christopher Logue, but I don’t think the lyrics are particularly great. Its tune doesn’t do that much for me either. There are people commenting on Youtube saying they love it, but I just don’t find this song very appealing. “Eleanor Rigby” is a good song, but as I said above, I didn’t need to hear Joan Baez covering it. In general, the first half of the album isn’t great—all the good songs seem to be stacked towards the end.

However, the next two songs, “Turquoise” and “The Dove”, are definite improvements over the first two: I actually enjoy listening to these two. “Turquoise” is a really beautiful song, although it passed me by on the first few listens since it is a little understated. The instrumentation and the melody just work really well. Listening to this one makes me think Donovan might actually be worth listening to, because he wrote this song (as well as “Colours” from “Farewell, Angelina”, but that one didn’t impress me very much). As for “The Dove”, well, it would be hard for this to pass you by on the first few listens. This song is very grand and impressive and it really uses the orchestration—it wouldn’t work at all without it. It was originally a French song, “La Colombe”, written by Jacques Brel, who is quite famous although this song was my introduction to him. I haven’t listened to much else by Brel, but his “Ne me quitte pas”, which is his most well-known song, is definitely worth listening to.

Anyway, the next song on “Joan” is a cover of Paul Simon’s “Dangling Conversation”. I liked this song a lot when I first heard it, and it does have a slightly catchy tune, but I’ve come to find it a bit boring. Like “Eleanor Rigby”, it’s just as good as the original, but doesn’t really add anything to it. For some reason, Joan Baez felt the need to change the line “Is the theatre really dead?” to “Is the church really dead?”. Why? Well, here’s what the liner notes say:

But she had a problem with one of the words. “I know. It was just so sort of New York: ‘Is the theatre really dead?’ is sort of like opera talk, which I don’t engage in. But, ‘Is the church really dead?’ is a pretty serious question”.

So there you go. No, I still don’t really understand it either. But anyway, if you buy this album, you’ll find a little disclaimer in the liner notes stating the original version of the line, which Paul Simon insisted be included.

The next song, “The Lady Came From Baltimore”, is one of two Tim Hardin songs on the album. This has quite a nice tune and tells a neat little story, but it’s a little forgettable nonetheless. After that is the first Nina Dusheck song, “North”, which, as I’ve already said, is really good. It’s a kind of melancholy song, and the melody and instrumentation work together really well to amplify that effect.

“Children of Darkness” is another one of the highlights of this album. It was written by Richard Fariña, a folk singer who married Joan Baez’s sister Mimi and thus became her brother-in-law. A year before the release of this album, Fariña had been killed in a motorcycle accident, so this song was a kind of tribute to him. The arrangement on this is excellent and gives it a kind of epic, stirring feel. It’s meant to evoke the marching of soldiers, since this is one of three anti-war songs on the album (“The Dove” and “Saigon Bride” are the others). Listening to this reminds me that I should listen to Richard Fariña sometime.

After “Children of Darkness” is “The Greenwood Side”, a very depressing traditional ballad about a mother who murders her babies. It’s nearly 8 minutes long, which I think longer than anything Joan Baez had released earlier, but this makes it a bit difficult to listen to all the way through. The other Tim Hardin comes next, “If You Were a Carpenter”. This is a very sweet song, although the sweetest version is the duet by Johnny Cash and June Carter. There’s a little high-pitched tune you can hear at the start which makes this version extra-sweet, perhaps to the point of being a little cheesy. I do like it, anyway.

“Annabel Lee”, the next song, was originally a poem by Edgar Allen Poe; in fact it’s one of his most famous poems, and it was the last one he completed. It’s a wonderful poem, set to wonderful music. I think this song would sound better if it was sung at a lower octave, perhaps, because sometimes the high notes can be a little grating. But this is just a minor quibble—I can forgive imperfect singing when it’s these words that are being sung.

“Saigon Bride”, of course, was originally a poem too, though Nina Dusheck doesn’t have quite the same stature as Edgar Allen Poe. As a poem, I find this one inferior to “North”: some of the lines just come across as a little clumsy. But Baez’s melody, singing and Schickele’s orchestration on this track are excellent and make it one of the best on the album. Possibly the best, but “Annabel Lee” might be better. It’s definitely a great way to end the album.

But wait! There are bonus tracks too! On the reissued version, released in 2003, you can also hear Joan Baez really stretching her voice on “Oh, Had I a Golden Thread”, a song written by Pete Seeger which is quite well known in a version by Eva Cassidy. I wonder if Pete Seeger got the title from the line in “Poor Boy” (on “Joan Baez, Vol. 2”):

If I had a golden thread and a needle for to sew
I’d stitch myself to my true love’s side and down that river we’d go

The other bonus track, “Autumn Leaves”, is sung in French. Like the other French song on this album, “The Dove”, it makes heavy use of the orchestration and is very dramatic. Although the bonus tracks are good, they are a little unwelcome, in the context of the album, since “Saigon Bride” should really be the final song. If you get the original version rather than the reissued one, it’s not a great loss.

A review of “Court and Spark” by Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” has the distinction of being her most commercially successful album. I think this is one instance where the popular taste has proved to be correct: “Court and Spark” really is her best album. “Blue” seems to be the most critically-acclaimed one, and it’s certainly a very strong contender, but I know that I like “Court and Spark” better because I simply want to listen to it more often. I think of the two albums as counterparts as well. “Blue” is instrumentally (though not lyrically) a folk album, while “Court and Spark” has too much production to be called folk; it’s clearly pop music. Both albums, like all Joni Mitchell albums, convey a good variety of emotions, but in “Blue” the general impression is of someone who’s sad, lost and doesn’t know what to do, while “Court and Spark” gives the impression of someone more self-confident.

The song which begins the album and bears the same name has a definite introductory quality; the melody feels like it’s building up to something. The lyrics describe how the narrator met a new man, and there are some great lines here describing the connection they have, but in the last two lines it turns out to be just something that never developed, since she “couldn’t let go of L. A.” (whatever that means). Because this song works as a kind of introduction, “Help Me” had to go in second place, but it was definitely recognised as hit single material and placed as high as possible for that reason. It worked too, and reached the top 10 in the Billboard charts, probably due to its really catchy and remarkably complex melody. In terms of the lyrics, it’s a slightly cheesy love song—she wants you to help her because she’s falling in love—but the lyrics are really clever nonetheless. “Free Man in Paris” was placed next; it too was a hit single, although it didn’t do quite as well as “Help Me”. Like that song it has a great, catchy, complex melody and that’s what makes the song.

Next we have “People’s Parties”, which is probably the song on this album that would be the biggest failure as a hit single, simply because its melody is a bit unremarkable. This is one of the more melancholy songs too. However, the lyrics are as good as ever. Really, this song should be regarded as a prelude “The Same Situation”. In fact, the song ends while Joni’s in the middle of singing, and the singing continues at the start of “The Same Situation”, so the two songs are clearly meant to be listened to one after the other. If we view the two songs as a single song in two parts, the song is one of the better ones on the album, because “The Same Situation” is really good. It’s a piano-driven song with a lovely melody and some great introspective lyrics.

“Car on a Hill” is another one which sounds like it could be a single, although this one wasn’t actually released. It has probably the catchiest melody of all the songs on the album, and it sounds quite upbeat, although it’s actually about Joni being stood up by her lover, waiting in vain for his car to show up. It was probably inserted in this position to prevent “Down to You” being listened to right after “The Same Situation”, since both are introspective piano-driven songs. “Down to You” doesn’t really have a memorable melody, but somehow it’s quite captivating regardless. I find it very hard to say which is the best song on this album since they’re all of evenly high quality, but “Down to You” is a definite contender.

“Just Like This Train”, which comes next, is most notable for the way that due to the way it is produced, and the way Joni sings, it has a remarkable kind of hazy, dreamy, relaxed quality. The album as a whole has this kind of quality, especially on songs like “Help Me” earlier and “Trouble Child” later on, but “Just Like This Train” is where it is most noticeable and effective. I really love the way she sings the refrain of “if you can’t find your goodness / ’cause you lost your heart”, especially. The following song, “Raised on Robbery”, is completely different. This one isn’t relaxed at all! It’s probably one of the most energetic songs Joni has made. When this track comes on, I always feel like I need to turn the volume down a little, because it seems a lot louder than the preceding songs. It is a lot of fun, though, and one of the most overtly humorous songs on this album (although most of the songs have some witty lyrics). You even get to hear Joni call someone a son of a bitch.

“Trouble Child” is another song of a similar kind to “Down to You”; it doesn’t have a catchy melody or anything, but it is kind of captivating regardless. This song was the one it took the longest for me to really enjoy hearing, but I do enjoy hearing it now. You may need to make sure you listen to the lyrics to enjoy this one, since musically it’s not quite as interesting as most of the other songs. It’s this one which I think of as the real final track of this album; “Twisted” (a cover of a song by the jazz singer Annie Ross) is just like a little joke at the end. The lyrics to this song are extremely silly but great fun to hear, and occasionally you can hear Joni trying to stifle giggles while singing them. Rather than the piano and guitar which have been around for most of this album, the main instrument here is a saxophone. The melody on here is slightly mad, just like the narrator of the song.

A review of “Joan Baez/5”

Joan Baez’s fifth album, released in October 1964 and simply called “Joan Baez/5”, was among her most commercially successful, charting at #12 in the USA and #3 in the UK. Its title track, “There But For Fortune”, was released as a single and became a hit in the UK singles chart at #8, although it only charted in the USA at #50 (where it probably suffered due to its political message). It was written by the contemporary folk singer Phil Ochs, and was one of a number of contemporary songs on the album including Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” and Richard Fariña’s “Birmingham Sunday”. The other 8 songs on the album were the traditional folk tunes that people were used to hearing from Baez, but as her career progressed, she gradually moved away from such songs and towards more contemporary songs—so this album was the first step on the path. This album is a great introduction to Baez, since it shows both of those sides. If I was going to recommend someone an album, I’d go for “Farewell, Angelina”, the album released after this one, but the two are very close in quality.

“There But For Fortune” is clearly the most successful of the contemporary covers here, and it deserved its success. The idea of the song is to get you to empathise with the unfortunate and downtrodden people of the world—prisoners, drunkards and so on, and to realise that “but for fortune”, you could be one of those people. Even if you don’t approve of this message, you have to admit that musically, this is a pretty good song. I really like way the guitar sounds here, in particular.

The next song is a light-hearted 19th-century ballad about a horse called “Stewball”. This one has a nice melody, so nice that John Lennon used it for “So This is Christmas”. So if it sounds familiar to you… that’s where you heard it. The last line might make you laugh. After this is “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, a Bob Dylan song which seems to have been quite popular to cover at that time. Johnny Cash and The Turtles both released well-known versions. Joan Baez’s version isn’t really anything special; I don’t think it really works as well as most of her Dylan covers. But if you’re not comparing it to other versions, you’ll probably like it—it’s one of the catchier Bob Dylan songs and like many of his songs and regrettably few of Joan Baez’s, it has a touch of humour to it.

“The Death of Queen Jane” is a stone-cold serious traditional folk song about Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife. It’s one of the Child ballads, collected by folklorist Francis James Child during the 19th century. These are generally high quality: “Silkie” and “Barbara Allen” on “Joan Baez, Vol. 2” were Child ballads as well. I don’t think “The Death of Queen Jane” is quite as good as those two—after all, they’re pretty amazing—but it continues the run of good songs which begins this album.

The next one is something different: it’s called “Bachianas Brasileiras”, it was written by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. For the first three minutes it’s basically an instrumental, with Joan Baez using her voice to accompany the instruments. Then there’s a kind of break in the music and she starts singing very strikingly in Portugese. She sounds a lot like an opera singer to my uninformed ear (though take note that I have never intentionally listened to opera, so I’m not sure if I know what opera singing actually sounds like). It’s definitely a skilled performance, and not unpleasant to listen to between “The Death of Queen Jane” and “Go ‘Way From My Window”, but it’s not like I’m ever going to listen to this song in isolation. But if you’re more interested in classical music than me, you might like it.

“Go ‘Way From My Window” is a nice traditional song with some great high-pitched singing. The following song, a cover of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”, is mostly sung at a much lower pitch, but Baez can sing both kinds of songs really well. Baez’s version is very similar to and just as good as the original; it’s just in a different voice. Next is “When You Hear Them Cuckoos Hollerin'”, a more guitar-driven traditional song; this one is a bit forgettable. The final contemporary cover on the album is Richard Fariña’s “Birmingham Sunday”. I’ve never heard the original version of this song—it doesn’t seem to be on Spotify—but I’d certainly like to, because it has a wonderful sort of mysterious-sounding melody. Joan Baez’s voice is very good at singing that kind of melody, so this is one of the best songs on the album.

Another good song follows called “So We’ll Go No More a-Roving”; this was actually originally a poem by Lord Byron, so the lyrics are excellent. The words are set to a pretty good melody too. However, it’s very brief at just 1 minute 45 seconds. The next song is in Spanish, so I can’t judge the lyrics; unfortunately, unlike “El Preso Numero Nueve” on the debut album, the singing here isn’t interesting enough to compensate.

The album finishes with another Child ballad called “The Unquiet Grave”. It was wise to choose this as the closing track, because it’s probably the best song on this album, although it may not stand out to you at first. It simply has a great melody and wonderful lyrics. Many people have interpreted this song—it’s deservedly popular—but I don’t think anyone sings it more beautifully than Joan Baez.

Of course, if you get the reissued version there are two more bonus tracks for you: “Tramp on the Street” and “Long Black Veil”. But these are probably the worst bonus tracks so far; it’s not really essential that you get them. I don’t mean to say they’re bad songs, but they’re simply mediocre. “The Tramp on the Street” is probably most well-known from the version by Hank Williams; it compares a tramp on the street to Jesus. Hank William’s whining voice makes the song, and without it, Joan Baez’s version just isn’t interesting enough. “Long Black Veil” is also most famous for a version sung by a country legend, Johnny Cash in this case. It’s better than “The Tramp on the Street”, but again, Baez’s version isn’t particularly appealing to me.

A review of “Farewell, Angelina” by Joan Baez

“Farewell, Angelina”—the first Joan Baez album not to be named something along the lines of “Joan Baez, Vol. 2”, and the first Joan Baez album I really got into—is, in my opinion, her best album of all. It was released in 1965, the same year that her friend Bob Dylan went electric. You might not have realised that Joan Baez actually went electric at the same time, with the release of this album. Well, she included an electric guitarist (Bruce Langhorne) as a backup musician, and she included a bass guitarist too for the first time. Even so, the extra instrumentation is subtle and the album still sounds very similar, musically, to the preceding ones.

With this album she also continued to progress towards interpreting contemporary folk songs rather than traditional ones, particularly the songs of Bob Dylan: no less than four of the songs on this album were written by him (five if you include the bonus tracks). Although Bob Dylan’s songs are very popular choices for covers, I find that surprisingly few of these covers are successful. If they try to imitate Dylan’s style, they inevitably fail, since nobody can really do that as well as the man himself. If they try to do something different with the song, it often just doesn’t work, though there are exceptions like Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower”. However, Joan Baez does justice to nearly all of the Dylan songs she covers, and I often even prefer her version to the original. For example, her version of “Mama, You Been On My Mind”, which is the second track on this album as “Daddy, You Been On My Mind”, will always be my favourite one.

The first track, though written and first recorded by Bob Dylan, was never released officially until 1991 as part of his “Bootleg Series”. So it’s Joan Baez’s version of “Farewell, Angelina” which has become the definitive one. It’s a very typical Dylan song, full of interesting turns of phrase, with the melody stolen from a traditional folk song (“Farewell to Tarwathie” in this case). Though it’s not a bad song at all, I prefer the two Dylan covers which follow this one: “Daddy, You Been On My Mind” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. The first is also a song more associated with Baez than Dylan: it wasn’t released until 1991, and although Dylan did perform it live a few times, it was only as a duet with Joan Baez, and presumably it was she who requested it. You can hear an example duet on Bob Dylan’s “Live at Philharmonic Hall” album. I don’t know if they were always like this, but this duet was kind of a disaster; the vocal styles of the two don’t mix well, and it doesn’t help that Baez has to remind Dylan of the words at the start of the last two verses. It was certainly an entertaining disaster, though.

Anyway, Baez sings the song alone on this album, without Dylan there to mess it up, allowing you to hear it for what the song actually is: a rather melancholy, introspective song, with some thought-provoking lines, and a lovely descending melody. It’s a highlight of the album, and always seems too short to me. After this, we have “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. This is one of Bob Dylan’s most famous songs and there are some other great covers of it out there, such as one by the Animals. I don’t think any of them can be considered superior, though, to the original recording on “Bringing It All Back Home”. Bob Dylan’s voice is just perfect for this song. I’m supposed to be talking about Joan Baez’s version here though—well, it’s still pretty great, and the way she alternates between high and low pitches is very impressive. While Dylan’s version sounds kind of like a taunt, and has an element of meanness, Baez’s version is simply sad.

After three Bob Dylan songs in succession, the next song is one of a more familiar kind: a traditional folk song. Baez’s vocal performance on “Wild Mountain Thyme” is possibly the most beautiful vocal performance she’s ever done. After this, Woody Guthrie’s “Ranger’s Command” may seem dull in comparison. But the vocal performance on this song is still great: notice how long she holds the notes for! And the melody is one you might find yourself humming. After this we have another contemporary song from Donovan, who’s often seen as an inferior British version of Bob Dylan. I haven’t heard enough of his songs to judge whether this is fair, but “Colours” isn’t very promising. It’s one of the two songs on this album that I find a little boring.

“Satisfied Mind” is up next; this was written in the 1950s by Joe Hayes and Jack Rhodes, who were both fairly obscure artists mainly known only for writing this song. It’s a song with an interesting message, which probably appealed to Joan Baez’s left-wing political sympathies, although it does come across as a little smug. The melody is nice, but it’s not one of the best songs here. “The River in the Pines” is much better; this is another traditional folk song with a haunting melody. Baez’s excellent singing on this song will give you chills. After this is another traditional folk song called “Pauvre Rutebeuf”. This one is entirely in French, and it has an interesting history. It was originally written by a 13th-century poet known only by the pen-name “Rutebeuf” (or “rude cow”); Léo Ferré, who was apparently a famous French singer-songwriter contemporary with Baez, set it to music and it became one of his most famous songs. I find its melody a little boring though, and I can’t find any translation of the lyrics on the Internet, so I can’t judge them.

The next song is an interpretation of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, which is a very famous folk classic. In order to further show off her language skills, perhaps, Joan Baez decided to sing the song in German and therefore it appears on this album as “Sagt Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind”. Or perhaps she just thought it sounded really good in German, in which case I’d agree with her. I really like this version, perhaps because I can actually understand the German to a limited extent. However, the lyrics are slightly different in meaning due to the rhymes needing to be preserved.

To finish the album, Baez included a recording of Bob Dylan’s amazing 7-and-a-half-minute-long epic, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, and did an extremely good job. I think this version is just as good as Dylan’s, if not better. She adds some lovely little vocal flourishes, like when her voice suddenly goes from a higher pitch to a lower pitch in the middle of the word “rain”, that weren’t present in the original. One thing that is missing is the simple but very effective guitar riff that Dylan plays throughout his version. In case you haven’t heard Dylan’s version before, I should tell you that the poetic imagery in this song is wonderful.

Of course, if you pick up the album today you’re going to have three extra bonus tracks, which is kind of a pity because “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is a perfect song to end an album on. But these bonus tracks are excellent. First there’s “One Too Many Mornings”, a melancholy Dylan ballad similar to “Mama, You Been On My Mind” that was first released on “The Times They Are a-Changin'”. I don’t think Dylan’s original version works very well; it seems like he’s trying very hard to sound apologetic and vulnerable, and in the process forgets to sing the tune properly. Joan Baez sings the song more properly, and it turns out to have quite a nice melody, although I would say it’s probably the least good Dylan cover on this album. Secondly there’s “Rock, Salt and Nails”. This is a rather bitter love song—in a good way—written by Utah Philips. Apparently he was speaking directly to a former lover of his, and after singing it once to his friend and fellow folk singer Rosalie Sorrels, he never sung it again because he thought it was no nasty. It’s not any nastier than a lot of Bob Dylan’s love songs, anyway, and Baez’s performance on this song is excellent. Both of these bonus tracks were done again by Baez on later albums, but with more instrumentation.

As far as I know, Joan Baez never released the final bonus track, “The Water Is Wide”, on any of her main albums, although I think she did perform it live fairly often. This is surprising, since it’s an incredible song. I said earlier that “The Wild Mountain Thyme” is possibly Baez’s most beautiful vocal performance, but it’s facing severe competition from “The Water Is Wide”. You can find a few other versions on Joan Baez compilations, but none of them are quite as impressive as the bonus track here; her voice doesn’t reach the same heights. The lyrics of this song are also some of the best of any of the traditional songs she’s covered. You really can’t afford to miss out on this song, so make sure you get the bonus tracks if you buy the album.

[Unfortunately this video is low quality, but it’s the only one I could find which plays the version of the song from this album.]

A review of “Joan Baez, Vol. 2”

As the name suggests, Joan Baez’s album is a simple continuation of what she was doing on the first album: singing traditional folk songs accompanied by an acoustic guitar (well, actually I think there are a few more instruments here, like a banjo on “Pal of Mine”). Musically, it’s exactly the same. Her voice is just as wonderful. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the quality of the songs: it seems like Baez had already included all the most interesting songs she knew on the first album. In comparison, the songs on this album are somewhat forgettable and boring, and I’ve found it a lot harder to really listen to them. When I do listen to the songs with careful attention, I can find lots of positive things to say about them, but as a whole they simply don’t seem to be able to hold my interest as much as the songs on the first album. That said, there are some which stand out, like “Barbara Allen” and “Plaisir D’Amour”, and would have held their own among the songs on the debut.

The opening track, “Wagoner’s Lad”, exemplifies these problems. It’s sung a cappella, but it isn’t interesting enough for this to work. She sings it extremely well, as ever, but the song doesn’t give her an opportunity to really show her voice. The only thing it has going for it are the sort-of-feminist lyrics, which is probably the reason she put it at the start of the album, to get your attention. The next one, “The Trees They Do Grow High”, I find slightly amusing, although it’s probably not intentional. It’s about a girl who’s married to a boy who’s too young; she reassures herself that he’s “young, but daily growin'”. If you’re familiar with how these traditional songs usually go, you might be able to predict how it ends. Musically though, it’s not that interesting either.

“Lily of the West”, on the other hand, will grab your attention with its really fast, energetic guitar playing. Joan Baez reaches a really high pitch at some points in this though, to the extent that it can sound unpleasant. It’s an excellent song, but not done perfectly by Baez. In fact, I’ve never heard any version of this song I’m fully satisfied with. My personal favourite is actually Bob Dylan’s version, from his notoriously terrible 1973 album “Dylan”. But I don’t expect everyone to agree with that.

Somehow, on my first few listens to this album, I didn’t really notice “Silkie”. I don’t know how this could have happened, because it’s an absolutely beautiful, mysterious Orcadian ballad, and possibly the best thing on this album. The next three songs are more unremarkable. “Engine 143” is a train wreck song by the Carter Family. Since this is a country song, Joan Baez adopts the sort of nasal, quavering style typical of country singers, and she pulls it off pretty well, but this just isn’t that much of an interesting song. “Once I Knew a Pretty Girl” and “Lonesome Road” are standard folk songs. “Lonesome Road”, in particular, has a very nice, catchy melody.

Now, I think “Banks of the Ohio” is one of the best songs on this album, up there with “Silkie”. But Don Ignacio, the only other guy I can find who has reviewed this album on the Internet, thought it was so terrible he had a kind of textual fit of rage while listening to it. I can sort of understand where he’s coming from—it’s probably true that Baez and the backup singers who accompany her on this track are all singing off key, though I don’t know enough about singing to judge for myself. Even so, I don’t think it sounds bad. The thing is, if you listen to the lyrics, this is a very bleak, depressing song and the slight dissonance just accentuates that feeling, without making the song unlistenable.

“Pal of Mine” is another song sung in the country style. The backup singers from “Banks of the Ohio” are still here for this one, and now there are added banjos! It’s a nice country song, but nothing special. “Barbara Allen” comes next. This is one of the most famous traditional folk songs, and Joan Baez’s interpretation is one of the best. Her voice sounds really beautiful here. After this, there’s a Christmas carol! “The Cherry Tree Carol” is pleasant enough. “Old Blue” is a nice fun song about a dog, which sounds like it was fun for her to sing. “Railroad Boy”, in contrast, is a sad, serious folk song. I find all three of these songs a little boring, though.

Thankfully, the album finishes on a good note with “Plaisir D’Amour”. This isn’t actually a folk song, it’s a beautiful 18th-century French chanson written by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini. Some verses are in French, some in English, but the melody and the singing are extremely pretty. By the way, if the melody sounds familiar to you—that’s right, Elvis used the melody for “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You”!

Like the rest of Joan Baez’s early albums, you can get a reissued version with three bonus tracks. These are worth getting, since they’re pretty good. If she’d replaced some of the more forgettable songs on the album with these tracks, I might like it better! “I Once Loved A Boy” is lovely; her voice is especially spellbinding on this one. “Poor Boy” is another good one. Note the last verse, with its slightly sinister lyrics. “Longest Train I Ever Saw” has a nice melody, but I don’t think it’s as good as the other two; her voice grates a little when it hits the high notes.

A review of “Joan Baez”

Joan Baez’s debut is a classic folk album of the purest kind: interpretations of traditional ballads, with no instrumentation other than an acoustic guitar. It’s probably one of the best such albums there are. It’s true that if you’re not really into this kind of folk, you may think all the songs sound the same. However, considering the limitations of the genre, this is actually a quite diverse collection of songs. There are much more memorable songs here than on “Joan Baez, Vol. II”, for example. I would say that if you are accustomed with traditional folk music, you should be able to immediately appreciate this album. But if, like me, this is one of the first albums of traditional folk music you’ve come across, it may take a few listens for you to appreciate it properly.

One thing anyone can appreciate immediately about this album is Joan Baez’s voice, which is a thing of beauty. There are few singers of popular music of comparable technical quality. I always find it very hard to describe the quality of singers’ voices, so I won’t try to: just listen to the song below and you’ll see how amazing it is. The only flaw in her voice is that she can sound unpleasant when she hits really high notes. Most of the time she pulls them off really well—it’s actually one of her strengths—but sometimes she does seem to overexert herself. I think this album, however, is pretty much free of that problem; it’s “Joan Baez, Vol. II” where it first appears.

As for the songs—the opening “Silver Dagger” is an excellent ballad which became one of Baez’s signature songs. “East Virginia” and “Fare Thee Well (10,000 Miles)” (which isn’t really a traditional song, but it sounds like one) are equally captivating. Both of these songs feature particularly stunning vocals, even for a singer who regularly has stunning vocals. Her interpretation of “House of the Rising Sun” is not the most famous one, nor the best one, but it’s still great. “All My Trials”, which follows, is possibly the best song on the album. It has a slight political slant, too, with the line about a “book with pages three” whose “every page spells ‘Liberty'”.

Next is a version of the Carter Family’s most famous song, “Wildwood Flower”, with its characteristic guitar riff, played perfectly here. This is probably the most fun song; the rest of the album has a rather sombre tone (and in fact, the lyrics of “Wildwood Flower”, as opposed to its tune, aren’t very cheerful). “Donna Donna”, a more modern song, is a highlight with its memorable, haunting melody. After this song, I find the album a bit less accessible: “Rake and Rambling Boy”, “Little Moses” and “Henry Martin” are less memorable than the rest, and “John Riley” and “Mary Hamilton” are great songs, but they may take repeated listens to appreciate. “Mary Hamilton” is a long ballad with a historical theme; you need to pay attention to this one and listen to the lyrics. As for “John Riley”, I first thought it was a bit boring, but it’s grown on me. The guitar on this track plays a little flourish over and over again which is striking and a little alarming, while Joan Baez sings slowly and mysteriously. And there’s a twist ending. Expect goosebumps. The album ends with “El Preso Numero Nueve”, sung in fluent Spanish. I don’t understand Spanish at all, but the song is sufficiently exciting musically that I can enjoy it.

If you can, get the new edition of this album, which contains three additional bonus tracks. In particular you will want “I Know You Rider”, a blues with an excellent melody that’s played on the guitar as well as sung. The other bonus tracks are “Girl of Constant Sorrow”, a nice but somewhat unremarkable, and an extended version of “John Riley”, which is identical to the original except that it has an extra verse. I think the extra verse was cut because it’s kind of ridiculous and might ruin the atmosphere for you. It remarks that John Riley has “fingers both great and small”. Well… doesn’t everyone?