Tracks: Most of the Time

I can smile in the face of mankind
Don’t even remember what her lips felt like on mine
Most of the time.

How on earth do you begin to chose one track to talk about by an artist like Bob Dylan? A man with thirty-eight studio albums, twelve instalments into the  Bootleg Series.. probably close to three hundred original compositions to chose from. Given that I can go on jags of listening to very little but Bob it’s a near impossible task to think of even a Top Five as that could change on a day-to-day.

Thankfully, that’s not the purpose of these infrequent Tracks posts. It’s more a case of highlighting particular favourites, those ‘always on the play’ songs and, in this instance, from the 1989 Oh Mercy album that’s ‘Most of the Time’. *

My first introduction to this shimmering, atmospheric beauty came via the film ‘High Fidelity’. We’re talking the year 2000. My Dylan awareness and collection is growing but there were – and still are – gaps. One of which was his work in the 80’s. You can’t blame me, I’m far from alone in not really digging his religious albums and while I now think Infidels is a pretty solid album, the three that followed it weren’t and that period didn’t exactly sit on the same priority-purchase list as Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited or Desire did at the time (I’ve still not added those missing 80’s discs to my collection).

So when John Cussack sat soaked on a bench in the pissing rain in a moment of cod-psychology realisation** and a slow-burner song with what sounded very much like Dylan singing over it came through the speakers I had to find out what it was. I mean, shit, they only used a minute of it at most in the film. I scoured the track-listing on the soundtrack when it came out and found ‘Most of the Time’ sandwiched between songs by Love and Sheila Nicholls. But… for reasons unknown didn’t buy it. Perhaps my student loan hadn’t arrived yet or perhaps I’d actually used it for tuition and course books. Either way, it was a few more years before I added Oh Mercy to my collection and fell in love with it all over again.

Oh Mercy is one hell of a fine album by anyone’s standards. For Bob Dylan it represented something of a comeback both commercially and critically. The songs one here are as good as his earlier high standards and Daniel Lanois does a bang up job with the production. Oddly enough, close to a decade later with Dylan’s appeal on the wane again after two albums of covers it would be Lanois who he turned to to produce Time Out of Mind to further acclaim.

Kicking off the second half of the album, ‘Most of the Time’ is perhaps the lushest track on it in terms of production  but the lyrics are what get me. That caveat… “I don’t even notice  she’s gone… most of the time” and it’s implications…. Direct, relatable, to the gut. Dylan (as he indicated in Chronicles Volume One***) was really on a streak, suddenly, with the writing on Oh Mercy – as  The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 would show; even the outtakes were strong – but for me ‘Most of the Time’ is the best thing on it.

 

*In another it could easily be ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ or ‘Love Sick’ but never ‘Wiggle, Wiggle’.

**I liked the film, though as I get older less so, soundtrack aside. The book on the other hand… the character is a complete and utter twat and I had zero interest or compassion for the prize prick.

***Though it’s been suggested that the Oh Mercy section of the book is pure fiction.

Tracks: Wots’…. Uh The Deal?

“Flash the readies
Wot’s, uh the deal?
Got to make to the next meal
Try to keep up with the turning of the wheel.”

Perched in the Pink Floyd discography between Meddle and The Dark Side of the Moon is the oft-overlooked Obscured By Clouds. I say oft-overlooked… fans will know of it, I’m sure, but it’s not one that really gets much of a mention and I don’t recall seeing any of its tracks appearing on any of the band’s compilations. Probably because it’s a soundtrack – to the French film ‘La Vallée’ – work more than it is an album proper, following their previous such efforts More and Zabriskie Point.

Now, between Meddle and The Dark Side of the Moon is an amazing place to sit, both stellar works. At the time the band were asked to create the soundtrack, work was already under way on Dark Side so I doubt the band were in a position to give it their all in terms of song-writing. Indeed from what I’ve read they weren’t too concerned at creating ‘songs’  and the sessions were somewhat rushed.

There is, though, some cracking songs on Obscured By Clouds that at least make it worthy of ownership if not constant rotation. ‘Mudmen’ is as massive, prism-shaped indicator as to what was in the Pink Floyd pipe as you could get, ‘Free Four’ is another cracker and got a bit of airplay Stateside and ‘Stay’ is quite lovely.

For me, though, this album is all about ‘Wot’s… Uh, the Deal?’ and it’s a Pink Floyd song that – were I to sit down and make it – would certainly be on my ‘Top Twenty’ or even ‘Top Ten’ PF songs.

There’s so much I love about this song – the rolling piano, the gentle melody and lyrics that touched on lyrical themes that would be explored greater on DSOTM and some wonderful vocals and guitar work from David Gilmour (and a great bit of lap steel). It’s a beautifully sedate piece of a style that’s somehow so very English they did so very well (see also ‘Grantchster Meadows‘ from Ummagumma) and would later come back to so spectacularly with ‘High Hopes’.

At what was undoubtedly a peak time for the band, even their rushed soundtrack work contains some great material.

Shame Roger Waters would cock it all up.

David Gilmour, while touring his On An Island album dusted the song off and gave it the odd airing, which is also worth sharing. I think. Not least because it bought about a rediscovery of the song for many and it includes Richard Wright on piano.

Tracks: 5.15am

He thought the man was fast asleep
Silent, still and deep
Both dead and cold
Shot through
With bullet holes

This is an odd one and probably the least ‘cool’ track on this list which is strange and mumble-worthy in itself… Of all those bands revisited and touted as influences, given the remaster treatment and dusted off in the wake of nostalgia revivals, Dire Straits remained immune. Perhaps it was down to Knoplfer’s unfortunate headband / hair combo during the Money For Nothing era or that Harry Enfield sketch, or the over-presence of Sultans of Swing on the radio but, for a band that shifted over 100 million records (30 million shifted by Brothers In Arms alone), Dire Straits are still one of those bands that are sneered at though I’m sure there’s an awful lot of guitarists and bands influenced by Knopfler’s playing.

I’m willing to bet, though, that Knopfler himself couldn’t give a rat’s arse about it. Likely contributing to that lack of attention is the fact that, having quietly dissolved the group in 1995 having become uncomfortable with the scale of the tours and productions, Mark Knopfler has resisted any and every urge (if he even has them) to revisit the group having forged ahead with his solo career and no calls for the ‘Legend’ spot at Glastonbury are likely to change that.

I grew up with the sound of Dire Straits thanks to my Dad and the same is true of Knopfler’s solo material – it’s one of those common tastes we share. While I’m not a big enough fan to own anything beyond a Best Of comp I do know the songs and will keep an ear out when I hear them, if only for sentimental reasons. That and the fact that Knopfler’s guitar phrasing and tone is an absorbing an beautiful thing all by itself, especially on his solo albums. Shrangri La – Knopfler’s fourth solo record – is a different story though.

Recorded after a seven-month break from the guitar imposed by recovering from a motorcycle accident, I’d state this is my favourite thing Knopfler has put to tape and certainly his most-consistent. The slow-burn, blues tone is dominant, gone are the celtic/folk leanings of his earlier efforts and his laid back phrasing and story telling is leant to a much wider range of subjects including Elvis (Back To Tupelo), the founding of McDonalds (Boom Like That) and those uniquely British tales like the plight of the modern fisherman in The Trawlerman Song and the One-Armed Bandit Murder in what has to be my favourite Knopfler composition; 5.15am.

It’s an atmospheric tune that begins with a gentle strum that builds into a real bluesy tone as it tells both the story of the discovery of “one armed bandit man (who) came north to fill his boots”‘ body and its impact on the local coal-mining community where “generations toiled and hacked, for a pittance and black lung”.

Tracks: Tunic (Song for Karen)

Dreaming, dreaming of how it’s supposed to be
But now this tunic’s spinning – around my arms and knees
I feel like I’m disappearing – getting smaller every day
But when I open my mouth to sing – I’m bigger in every way

I’ve mentioned before how huge Sonic Youth are/were for me. Every now and then I still get bummed when I realise that I won’t hear ‘new’ material from them again. That being said it’s not as though there’s a shortage of songs to listen to; 15 studio albums, 9 SYR instalments and a number of post-dissolve releases trickling through.

It’s close-to impossible for me to choose a favourite Sonic Youth album but when it comes to an individual song it’s always Tunic (Song for Karen). I can’t recall my first hearing of it – I have some idea it involved something being smoked – but I know I was instantly hooked.

Yes; it’s a song about Karen Carpenter. Kim Gordon has said ‘I was trying to put myself into Karen’s body. It was like she had so little control over her life, like a teenager – they have so little control over what’s happening to them that one way they can get it is through what they eat or don’t. Also I think she lost her identity, it got smaller and smaller.’ In the instrumental breakdown in the middle of the song Kim and J. Mascis are singing Carpenters songs  – it’s buried deep in the mix but on the demo version (included in the 2005 Deluxe Edition) you can hear this more clearly.

The music certainly carries a dark edge appropriate to its subject matter but it’s pure hook and driving rhythm pinned down with guitar squeal. The collapse in the mid section, pulled out by the re-start of the drums and rhythm, is heaven to my ears.

 

Tracks: Round-Eye Blues

Last night I closed my eyes and watched the tracers fly
Through the jungle trees
Like fireflies on a windy night, pulled up and onward by the breeze…

 

Kids In Philly remains a high water mark for Marah, and it was only their second album. Marah are one of those bands that shoulda, woulda, coulda been so much more but, following their second album, they were dogged by line-up changes and the ever-diminishing press interest and promotion that comes from a band that sign to a seeming merry-go-round of record labels. Back in 2000, though, the band with the Bielanko Brothers Serge and David at its core were coming off the enthusiastic critical response to their début Let’s Cut The Crap & Hook Up Later on Tonight – which saw them signed to Steve Earle’s now-defunct label – when they released Kids In Philly. The response was hugely positive.

Upon release critics lauded the band and the album for its originality and recasting of musical touch stones. References to Springsteen abounded along with phrases such as “imagine The Clash taking on Born to Run” documenting the album’s energy and lyrical call outs. Calling the album relentlessly infectious, AllMusic calls it stunning “in its diversity, and even more stunning in its ambition. The album forges its own confident, note-perfect rock & roll sound, while practising the type of effortless stylistic hopping that hadn’t been executed to such wonderful effect since the heyday of the Fab Four.”

Kids In Philly is an absolute blinder of an album and one that makes my own Essential 100 list (which I’m still miles from returning to let alone completing). It’s not only compellingly addictive in its urgency and song-writing craft but the lyrics come across as hugely authentic and miles away from the phoned-in, play-acting that was rife in so music at the time – 2000 was peak landfill-indie on the radio. Rolling Stone cited how the album “lives and breathes the streets where it was made.”

I found it, as with so much music at the time, via one of Uncut Magazine’s Unconditionally Guaranteed cds glued to the cover (I wonder if I ought to start buying that magazine again). I’ve got an odd soft-spot for these war story songs (Goodnight Saigon serves as another example and even Stand Ridgway’s Camoflauge for other reasons) that try and put something so inhuman into a human context. It’s tricky, though, to get it right – find the balance between affective lyrics, a good tunes and a song that works in its own right. In that respect Round-Eye Blues exemplifies everything that makes the album it’s from great; instantly catchy, full of hook, biting lyrics and great craftsmanship in both the tune and the lyrics.

Somehow these guys manage to make a bitter tune sung from the point of view of a Vietnam vet (another little nod to Bruce) convincingly genuine despite the fact that they would only have been in their early 20’s at the time  – “But late at night I could still hear the cries of three black guys I seen take it in the face, I think about them sweet Motown girls they left behind and the assholes that took their place.”

From here it was a bit of a stalling, down hill tumble for Marah. Their follow-up was made by Owen Morris (who was known for producing Oasis so Be Here Now should have served as a red-flag in terms of suitability), the over-produced (so much so that they later released a “de-constructed” version) and aimless Float Away With The Friday Night Gods failed to capitalise on the doors opened by Kids In Philly (or the practically-buried cameo from Springsteen himself) and led to the previously mentioned label-hopping and line-up changes. I stuck around for a few more albums hoping for a return to form but, while they remained capable of turning out the odd little reminder of their song-writing charm the energy and urgency of Kids In Philly eluded them and lack of effective record distribution made it harder to get hold of their work. Still, I understand that they’ve since ‘reformed’ to celebrate the album’s 15th anniversary so who knows.

Tracks: Beware of Darkness

Quick fact: George was the best Beatle.

Just look at the list of Beatles songs that are his… If I Needed Someone, Taxman, I Want To Tell You, Within You Without You,  Something, Piggies, that perennial herald of warmer weather Here Comes The Sun and While My Guitar Gently Weeps(!) to name but a few…

Granted, he happened to be in band with two other blokes who were quite handy with a tune so songs that would otherwise have been guaranteed single selections weren’t considered worthy enough. So instead of a scathing swipe at HMRC and a catchy-as-the-flu hook or a beauty of a tune about the dangers of overloading your brain with too many ideas at one time they released the one where the drummer intoned about living in a questionably-coloured underwater boat.

Still, after a couple of non-traditional solo releases while the band were still active, when the Beatles officially called it a day in 1970 (Lennon had called it quits the previous year) the foot had been taken off the hose pipe for George and he released the triple album All Things Must Pass – itself a gorgeous song that the rest of the Beatles had passed on (the berks) –  in October.

All Things Must Pass is full to the brim with great songs, some of George’s very best are here: I’d Have You Anytime, My Sweet Lord, Isn’t It A Pity, What Is Life, All Things Must Pass, Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll) and, of course, Beware of Darkness.

Beware of Darkness has some pretty dense and dark imagery in the lyrics, wonderfully offset by some beautiful yet complex instrumentation (with a shift from G major to G sharp minor that really shouldn’t work but does so brilliantly) and George’s genuinely affirming words. Harrison was himself on a perpetual quest for peace and, religion aside, his spirituality and the solace he seeks to find within it are at the forefront in this one and whether you get on that wave yourself or not there’s no denying the sincerity of his vocal.

I can’t express how much I love this song, to be honest. It’s one of my go-to tunes when I hear that black dog barking in a far off field and is one of my own coping techniques when I worry it might get closer. I’ll drop this on and then, if it’s one of those days, follow it up with another Harrison related tune from the Python boys.

Tracks: La Cienega Just Smiled

It was Come Pick Me Up that I heard first. Again on a monthly music magazine’s free CD. It seems a lifetime ago that I clogged my bookshelves with the print of the music press but there was some golden discoveries made there nonetheless and Ryan Adams’ first album was one.

As such I grabbed his second album Gold upon day of release. It’s one of those aiming-for-great albums that, while it doesn’t quite make it, you can’t help but feel the quality and ambition and think, fuck, there’s a whole lot of talent and potential here that’s only going to get better. But then the hype for this ‘next best thing’ derailed the train and it was some time before the dust settled, if it ever did.

Now Adams’ musical career, it’s ups and downs (though Rock ‘n’ Roll isn’t too bad), battles with Lost Highway and directions has been well and better documented elsewhere so I won’t assume that I can do is justice. There’s a few versions of Ryan Adams – there’s the alt. country of his début Heartbreaker, there’s the Cardinals-leading swagger of Cold Roses, the hushed acoustics of Ashes & Fire and even the heavy metal of Orion – all of which seemed to meld (save the latter) in the confident and hugely accessible recent, self-titled album.

For me, though, it’s those seemingly-simple but gently and subtly sneaky songs like Come Pick Me Up (with lyrics like “I wish you would, come pick me up, take me out, fuck me up, steal my records, screw all my friends….) that lure the listener in to something darker lurking beneath the surface that are his best.

My favourite is La Cienega Just Smiled.

Such a gentle, growing melody. Instantly hooking and soothing but there’s so much more there. The imagery is instantly simple and casual “on with the jeans, the jacket and the shirt” but then there’s the lines like “I’m too scared to know how I feel about you now” and “one breaks my body and the other breaks my soul”… all brushed off with “see you around”.

Ryan Adams has an arsenal of songs about being broken by love and/or drink/drugs but none of them, to my mind (and it’s my blog) as beautifully crafted and affecting as this: