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  • Writer's pictureNeil Rajala

ALBUMS WORTH A SPIN: Spring Harvest Has Surely Come, Pt. 2

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

Batch number two of my spring new music favorites. To follow along, start with the biggest one and go counterclockwise this time, 'cause I'm contrary like that.

Bob Dylan, Shadow Kingdom - Bob's been performing his classic 60s and 70s songs live in ways that make them all but unrecognizable for decades now. Keeping things fresh for himself, I presume, and keeping things unpredictable, sometimes confounding, for the ticket buyers. The pandemic was the only thing that kept him off the road since sometime in the late 80s, so he took the opportunity to re-imagine his back catalog in the studio this time. The results are another example of Bob's late-period genius.

Long story short, Bob recorded new versions of old songs in the studio with a band assembled specifically for the sessions, including T-Bone Burnett on guitar, Don Was on upright bass, and the superb Greg Leisz (Charles Lloyd and the Marvels) on pedal steel. He mimed the songs with a completely different group of musicians (wearing covid-style masks) for a black & white smoky noir-style film called Shadow Kingdom, available to watch online for about a week in July of 2021. The studio recordings were finally released this month and they are a delight.

Yeah, the band is great - supple, inventive but tasteful, beautifully supportive of the song's fresh new arrangements - but it's Bob's singing that blew my remaining hair back, and makes Shadow Kingdom yet another essential in a catalog stuffed with 'em. It's not the same singing voice as his "thin, wild, mercury sound" days, but I would argue that his vocals now are every bit as dramatic and effective as they were then. Bob's 80-year-old voice is deeper and narrower of range, but he not only makes up for the difference with brilliant phrasing and sly humor, his ability to caress and emphasize the song's amazing lyrics in new ways makes them sound remarkably fresh and, against all odds for songs fans have heard a thousand times, surprising. "Tombstone Blues" as a slow-burning ballad is a revelation, the woozy, bluesy take on "Pledging My Time" replaces the amphetamine brashness of the Blonde on Blonde original with a deeper dive into the song's back country roots. "Forever Young" takes on new dimensions of meaning sung without sentiment by a man of Bob's advanced years.

Never count Bob out, is the lesson to be learned here. Shadow Kingdom is an early contender for my favorite album of 2023. I expect to dive in many more times before the years runs its course.

EARWORM: "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" - Most days I think of this as my favorite Bob Dylan song. The more casual, swaying arrangement replaces the original's spiky paranoia with a more lived-in perspective and sense of humor.

Rufus Wainwright, Folkocracy - I wonder sometimes why Rufus isn't a bigger star than he is. He's a compelling lyricist, creative arranger, outstanding pianist, and his singing voice is a wonderful instrument. If I were to hazard a guess, I'd have to say it's a combination of embracing song styles that are more baroque (with a nod toward showtunes) than what's usually popular, and the loss of a few key creative years to substance abuse. His debut and its followup Poses are longtime heavy-rotation favorites of mine. I can't say I love all of his records - I've never been able to fully wrap my head around the faux-Judy Garland record or the Shakespeare-set-to-music one - but I've heard most of them, many several times and can easily get swept up in his singing and lyrics.

Speaking of singing, Folkocracy is even more focused on it than his previous work. There's only one original song, "Going to a Town," an older one at that, and a reworking of a Franz Schubert piece. The rest are covers, inspired by his younger days of attending folk festivals. Folkocracy is also a guest vocalist album, just about every song features at least one other remarkable singer. I can't say I've ever knowingly listened to John Legend, to be honest, but his duet with Rufus on Peggy Seeger's "Heading for Home," banjo and all, is incredible. Chaka Khan turns the cover of "Cotton-Eyed Joe" into a jazzy, earthy delight. Rufus, Chris Stills (son of Stephen), Susanna Hoffs and Sheryl Crow make a more than passable Mamas and Papas on their lesser-known "Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)." A few songs later, Stills reappears with Andrew Bird for an exquisitely loping take on Neil Young's "Harvest." Overall, Folkocracy is yet another fascinating and satisfying Rufus Wainwright record, newcomers to his music could start here just fine.

EARWORM: "High on a Rocky Ledge" - David Byrne joins Rufus on this obscure Moondog cover and their unique quirks blend seamlessly.

Rancid, Tomorrow Never Comes - "Mama's little baby likes it short and sweet." I arrived at my appreciation for Rancid a little backwards. I mentioned in an earlier post that I never spent much time and attention on the west coast punk movement back in the day. I heard their names but I didn't follow Rancid, their predecessor Operation Ivy, Germs, Black Flag, or the Circle Jerks. If I heard them it was in passing. I first discovered singer/songwriter/guitarist Tim Armstrong through his excellent solo album A Poet's Life, followed him forward through the Tim Timebomb releases and finally went back to investigate Rancid. And Out Come the Wolves quickly became a record I played to death. Short, catchy as hell, slamming punk songs with reggae and dub seasoning, the same musical stew The Clash cooked up. Tomorrow Never Comes is more of the same - if it ain't broke don't fix it, I say. A touch less reggae and dub this time out, but their gift for loud and fast songs that immediately stick in your skull remains intact. Caveat if you're a physical media music buyer: Tomorrow Never Comes is 16 songs clocking in at a mere 28 minutes, 44 seconds. Not unlike the glory days of The Ramones, right?

EARWORM: "New American" - One of the longer ones at 2:37, but it races along at top speed and damn, those guitars are a pure dopamine rush.

Decisive Pink, Ticket to Fame - If I'm being totally honest, I really have no words to describe why I like this record so much, but I'll give it a try. Ticket to Fame is austere, artfully electronic, with an abundance of bleeps and bloops where you'd be expecting verses and choruses, topped off with detached, airy vocals. This style of music can sometimes grab my attention intellectually, but tends not to stick around long because there's no emotional hook. And yet, I just keep playing this one. I play it for focused listening, I play it while I'm writing or at the art table, I play it in the car. I've come to enjoy every glitchy minute of it.

Decisive Pink is Russian musician Kate NV and L.A.-based Angel Deradoorian (Dirty Projectors). The two apparently got together in a German studio with every manner of old-school electronic keyboard and synthesizer they could get their artsy hands on. Paste described it as a "guided tour of loneliness, consumerism and fate" but that's putting too fine a point on it to my ears. Ticket to Fame works a fun nerve for me, and I find I don't much care what their lyrics are on about. The words are just another color on the palette, not unlike Brian Eno's approach on his brilliant run of 70s pop albums. I don't know if this one will spend the rest of the year, or even the summer, on my personal playlist but it's not slowing down yet.

EARWORM: "What Where" - This one stands out as a favorite on the album and I couldn't begin to tell you why.

That's it for new releases for the time being. I'll jump back in as the year goes on with whatever new stuff grabs me and won't let go. In the meantime, feel free to bring stuff to my attention - multiple ears are better than two.

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