Friday, October 29, 2021


The weirdest all-covers album of 2021 (so far) comes from the Fifth Dimension alumni and perennial pop power couple Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. What makes Blackbird: Lennon-McCartney Icons strange isn’t its contents—eight Beatles favorites plus one apiece from solo Lennon and McCartney hardly qualifies as eccentric—or its quality. Serious thought has gone into the arrangements, especially the gospel one that enables Davis to turn “Help!” into a prayer. 

What makes Blackbird bizarre is the attempt to pass it off as a Black Lives Matter soundtrack. The cover art surrounds the couple’s faces with names such as “Trayvon,” “Breonna,” “George,” “Emmett,” “Martin,” and “Malcolm,” implying connections that are tenuous at best, non-existent at worst, and misleading in either case. Strangest of all, the video for “Ticket to Ride” grafts the song onto Rosa Park’s Montgomery bus protest. Dedicating “The Fool on the Hill” to Maxine Waters would’ve been less of a stretch. 

Sunday, October 24, 2021


(A somewhat different version of this review appeared in WORLD magazine....)

What makes the five-disc Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 1980-1985 the most arbitrary of Columbia/Legacy’s Bob Dylan Bootleg Series installments to date is that what Dylan was doing in 1980 and ’81 had little to do with what he was doing in ’83, ’84, and ’85. 

Making it more arbitrary yet is that, having exhausted his ability or desire to write and sing exclusively about Jesus, he ended up writing and singing about practically everything else, leaving fans with a pile of recordings never meant to endure public scrutiny through which to sift in search of inexplicably discarded gems.

And, Dylan’s being Dylan, they’ll find some.


How many they’ll find on Disc One depends on how much they enjoy Self Portrait. Like that odds-and-ends collection, these dozen tour-rehearsal recordings plus one Shot of Love outtake find Dylan revisiting songs from his own catalogue and debuting the impressive forbidden-love original “Let’s Keep It Between Us” while trying on traditional numbers and other people’s hits for size. 


Some fit better than others. “To Ramona” blooms in a full-band context, “Mary of the Wild Moor” would’ve been at home on Good As I Been to You, and “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well” throws elbows. The songs originally made famous by Neil Diamond, Dion, Dave Mason, Little Willie John, and Michael Johnson, however, don’t fit at all.  


The highlight of Disc Two’s Shot of Love outtakes isn’t an outtake at all but an alternate mix of “Lenny Bruce,” raising the question of why more such mixes, which have long been known to exist, weren’t included. (Maybe Sony’s saving them for a copyright-extending 50th-anniversary Shot of Love bundle in 2031.) 


Also not bad: the “Willie and the Hand Jive” re-write “Price of Love,” the “Heart of Mine” B-side “Let It Be Me,” “Don’t Ever Take Yourself Away,” “Borrowed Time,” and “Is It Worth It?” (which probably got axed because of its resemblance to “Dead Man, Dead Man”—and because Dylan cracks up mid-song).


The pickings get slimmer on the last three discs as most of what they contain ended up on 1983’s Infidels and 1985’s Empire Burlesque with less arbitrary (that word again) lyrics, better production, or both. Even the Shadows in the Night-anticipating cover of Frank Sinatra’s’ “This Was My Love” suffers from Dylan’s not yet having learned to sing such material with the necessary sensitivity. 


In fact, knowing how to sing even his own material had by 1985 become an issue. Four years shy of the evocative lower register that he’d unveil on Oh Mercy, he often defaulted to the kind of braying that ruins both Disc Five takes of “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky.”


But sometimes he made the braying work. (See “Straight A’s in Love.”) And sometimes he reined it in. On both the alternate “Blind Willie McTell” and the full-length “Death Is Not the End,” his voice and harmonica generate a calm in the face of doom that truly passes understanding.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Nick Lowe SXSW Interview, Pt. V (March 21, 1998)

I wanted to ask you about the album Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit
Oh, yeah. I love that album. Yeah, that wasn't a bad one. What was on that? 

It had "Half a Boy and Half a Man." 

Oh, yeah. 

And a quite incongruous song--but one of my favorites nevertheless--"L.A.F.S."
Oh, yeah (laughs). 

That album got me back into you. Then, I was living in Seattle in '85, where KJET-AM had your redone "I Knew the Bride" in heavy rotation, further reigniting my interest in your music, which I'd lost track of from about 1980 to 1984. Did you ever do a video for that? 
Yeah, we did. We did do a video for it, actually, and quite a sort of fancy video--in England, yeah. I never saw it. I think it was sort of in between two stools then because--it was too sort of--it was too old fashioned for MTV, and I'm not sure whether VH-1 had started then. So it never really got much play as I remember. It was quite a good video, quite a good one. 

Back to "All Men Are Liars," I've often wondered what you think now about the Rick Astley verse. 
I've felt very sorry about that. I really do. I really do regret saying that. At the time, I thought that [the Rick Astley song] was so awful. I just hated the sentiment of the thing. I know it's--I mean, maybe I was a little oversensitive, because you hear awful music all the time--"I'm never going to do anything horrible to you." I thought, "What? Can anybody sawllow this, that I'm never gonna do anything--?" Sorry, that was a lie. So, then, I thought, because it was a big hit at the time and it seemed as if Rick was on his way--he was gonna be churning this stuff out. But I regret it because I've since found out that, one, he's a very nice man--I've never met him, but they tell me he's an extremely nice man--and the other thing is that he's down on his luck a bit now. So I do feel rather bad about it because at the time I wrote it, he was huge and about to do more of it, so I thought he was a legitimate target. 

Do you regret that in 1998 people may not follow the reference? 
Oh, no. No, I'm kind of glad that they won't follow the reference actually. And that does happen more and more. I blithely make references about bands and artists from my generations to--I mean, obviously, you're younger than I am, but to some journalists I make these remarks, and I see their faces go creepy blank. You realize, "You've gotta get your references a little more up to date, my friend!" That's the way it goes. 

What did you think of the John Hiatt song on Little Village, "Don't Think About Her When You're Trying to Drive"? 
Oh, I thought that was a really good one. I like it quite a bit. Yeah, that's a really good one. And it was a funny thing, that, because--that Little Village thing--because when we did John Hiatt's record, obviously it was John Hiatt's record. He was in charge, he had the songs, and we were there to back him up. When you take away the front person and you have four people in there trying to create something, people are very reluctant to step forward somehow. If it's somebody's actual record, then obviously they are questioned and asked, "How do you want this? How do we play this?" You know. But when it's four individuals, all rather edgy about it, you come up with a kind of compromise. So John got, I think rather unfairly, got castigated for that thing because he sang so many of the tunes on it that people thought he was stepping forward and hogging the limelight, whereas in actual fact he was doing us all a favor by coming forward and saying, "Well, I'll do it. I'll jump in there." So it was unfair, that, I think. 

You mentioned the way that old pop songs, like Cole Porter's, contained many subtle and sophisticated references. I wondered if when you wrote "Cruel to Be Kind" you were conscious of the phrase's Shakespearean roots. 
No, I didn't know that it was a Shakespearean quote until people started saying to me, "Oh, what a brilliant thing you made up! 'You've gotta be cruel to be kind'!" And I started to say that it's a very well-known expression. Where I come from, people say it all the time, "You've gotta be cruel to be kind." 

You didn't know it originated in Shakespeare? 
I didn't know it was a Shakespearean quote. It was then that somebody said, "Well, it's actually from--" Whatever it is. 


Is it from Hamlet

"I must be cruel only to be kind." 
Brilliant. That sounds so much better though, doesn't it" (laughs)?