Saturday, September 22, 2012

Album review: Giving Bob Dylan's "Tempest" a spin

Some artists seem forever chained to their pasts, no matter their efforts. Sure, there are revivals. There are periods of renaissance. There are reinventions. But all of those phases seem to go back to an original idea of what an artist is, or represents.

Bob Dylan is one such artist. His name is forever tied to folk and the folk tradition, roots music, the songs of the past. And with a new album out, called "Tempest," much of his history is being discussed by rock critics and fans ... and non-fans, too. And some of that history is seemingly embraced, as Bob performs material that evokes "old-time" music from long-gone eras when wax and radio were magic and spiritual and life-affirming and scary ... Music wasn't just streamed, picked and chosen, praised for hooks or breasts or being bizarre.


Mention Dylan's name to passive fans or non-fans, they'll at least know some of the Sixties stuff. From the folk poet of "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are a-Changin'" to the speed-driven surrealist of "Desolation Row" and "Like a Rolling Stone."


If these folks have a little more depth, they might also know of "Tangled Up in Blue" or "Shelter from the Storm" from the classic "Blood on the Tracks" album. Or maybe they've heard "Hurricane" from the "Desire" record. Surely they'll recognize "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" ... but maybe not.


And maybe, just maybe, they'll know about the so-called "Born Again" period that produced such classics as "Gotta Serve Somebody" and "Every Grain of Sand." Maybe John Lennon wasn't too impressed by this period, but hey ... it was controversial, so some folks have surely heard some of this music.


Or maybe the use of some of Dylan's songs in popular films will bring a couple of obscurities to mind. "High Fidelity" and "The Big Lebowski," among other flicks, used some Bob songs that were far from being chart toppers ("Most of the Time" and "The Man In Me," respectively).


And there's the chance some might remember his "Time Out of Mind" album, which won album of the year and other honors against his son's band, The Wallflowers. The Wallflowers were big in the late 1990s, especially on the strength of their sophomore album "Bringing Down the Horse," and songs like "One Headline" were all over the place. So Bob winning those awards (especially the Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocalist for the song "Cold Irons Bound") brought his material to some younger listeners, undoubtedly.


Or folks might just know Dylan's name from being the guy who wrote some songs covered by Peter, Paul and Mary. Songs performed by Manfred Mann. Songs brought to the radio by The Byrds. Maybe folks know Stevie Wonder's version of "Blowin' In The Wind" and have no clue that some nasally white boy from Minnesota has the songwriting credit. It's safe to suggest that many are aware of Dylan's history through the songs that others covered.


Mention Dylan's name to critics, and thousands upon thousands of words will be shared. Folks will discuss his origins in Minnesota, or bring about the old chestnut of him passing himself off as Bobby Vee early in his career to secure work, the travels to New York, how he met Woody Guthrie, his first go-arounds with Joan Baez, his marriages, his times with The Band, the motorcycle accident that tamed the "Blonde on Blonde" maniac and turned him into the contemplative bard of "John Wesley Harding," and so much more.

Some will be quick to call him an American Shakespeare, others a tired usurper and plagiarist. Is he the greatest observer of the human condition, or is he just one of the luckiest guys to strum a guitar? I guess it all depends on the person listening.

But even with all of that, the surface of Dylan's career is just barely scratched. Some of the above is fact, certainly. But as is often the case with history, much of it has been distorted or exaggerated. But the recorded material stands the test of time for listeners to discover for themselves when they are ready.

But sometimes that isn't enough. Sometimes having a body of work isn't enough. Sometimes having awards, critical plaudits, presidential honors, congressional honors, honorary degrees and being in Halls of Fame isn't enough. It's hard to live up to your reputation, especially if you're not ready to give up, die and let your legacy take over.

Bob has had to deal with criticisms, fair and unreasonable, since the beginning. From accusations of being a Woody Guthrie copycat, to ripping off contemporary folk artists, to stealing the spotlight from better artists, to ripping off music and lyrics ... to being accused of cluttered productions, sterile productions, slapdash productions, sparse productions ... to being accused of having too nasally of a voice, to NOT having a nasally ENOUGH voice, to having a rattled old cigarette-shredded gravelly voice ...

I mean, seriously, it's all enough to give FANS a complex ... and they aren't the focus of those judgments.

For the last several albums, Bob has been treading some familiar grounds. Rockabilly, blues, 1950s roots rock, touches of blue grass, some gospel ... From "Love and Theft" to "Tempest," Dylan's albums have almost been collections of Americana unto themselves.

But this has come with criticisms along with praise. Guitar riffs, melodies, chord progressions, lyrics (from phrases to whole lines) have been tied back to artists from the 1920s. Or from artists from across the world. Many times, those artists weren't credited as co-writers, and some have nailed Bob for that.


I have no dogs in that fight, so I won't comment on it further than acknowledging that those situations exist. But they've always existed, and the folk medium (of which Bob has been related to for the entirety of his career, in the purest sense of passing material down the line) is strongly based on artists performing old classics or borrowing from those classics in their own adaptations. I guess, as far as I'm concerned, it's nothing new so it isn't much of a controversy for me. Whether he's updating a Child ballad or tackling a Japanese poet, it doesn't much matter to me. What matters to me is whether or not the material is GOOD. And exposure for any other artist's materials kind of keeps that artist alive, I think.

It seems to me that Bob has found a sound and a feeling that he enjoys, that he finds comfortable and encouraging. If he isn't blazing new paths of sound and fury, he certainly has found a blend that grabs the ear and suits the imagery and tone of his words (and his vocals).

With critics ranging from those who want more protest music, to others wanting surreal raps, to others wanting some spiritual material, it's just so hard to please anything close to a majority. And with music criticism growing and growing, as more magazines emerge and more blogs (including this one, I suppose) espousing opinions on his work, Bob might find himself in the position of realizing that there are no CORRECT choices to make in his career. There is no golden answer, no guaranteed decision, no perfect formula to please a varied fanbase (and even if there was such a thing, he's a bit of a contrarian and wouldn't necessarily want to bow to it anyway ... "Blind Willy McTell," anyone?). He may no longer be trying to serve somebody ... perhaps he's following his old friend John Lennon's advice to "serve yourself." If that's the case, well, it's led to some good music on the last handful of records.


This is a lot of preamble to get to discussing the new Dylan album, but I feel it's fairly worthwhile to bring it all up. Why? Well, I think it sets a scene.

Dylan's "Tempest" is another self-produced album (Jack Frost Productions being Dylan himself), and he is relying on his touring band (which he's used on previous works) to get that groove, that feel that he has grown comfortable with.

Some folks may find "Tempest" and the records before it rather ... uniform. While I disagree with the general assessment, I can understand that listeners -- especially those who thrive on popular music that can, at turns, offer Katy Perry or Lady GaGa or Kanye West or Jay-Z or Beyonce or Miley Cyrus -- may be flat out BORED by hearing guitars, piano, the occasional mandolin, a harmonica, maybe some tambourine or accordion. It isn't peppy music (well, actually, sometimes some of these songs kind of are), but there's variety in them thar tracks.

I've yet to give "Tempest" a listen. I intend to rectify that ... tonight. I haven't done a live blog in a long time, and I figure this album is certainly worthy.

I intend to go into this record with a pretty open mind. I have respect for Dylan the poet, Dylan the singer, Dylan the interpreter, Dylan the performer, Dylan the entertainer and Dylan the curmudgeon. He has a sense of humor, a certain swing, and an appreciation and insight to the human experience that often reminds me (and many others) of Mark Twain.

And even when he tackles decidedly odd topics (as he does on "Tempest" with a song apparently devoted to the Leonardo DiCaprio "Titanic" film), Bob's tracks are seldom one-dimensional or lightweight. This doesn't mean I overlook weaker work, or that I like everything he's done on his last few albums. I dearly love "Love and Theft," and I have a huge appreciation for "Modern Times." But "Together Through Life" didn't charm me nearly as much as I had hoped it would, and his Christmas album was a bit ... unexpected (though I like a handful of the tracks more than I thought I would). Still, I'm hoping "Tempest" will outshine its predecessors.


Many have pointed out that "The Tempest" was William Shakespeare's last play. And with "Tempest" being Dylan's 35th album and it coming out 50 years after Dylan's first album ... well, many think this collection of songs could be the last Dylan intends to issue. Bob himself has gone on record to dismiss this notion, so I'll choose not to listen to the record with any preconception that this could be a final testament by Robert Zimmerman.

All right, I think I've blathered on long enough. It's time to pop the disc into a player and find out just how great (or poor, or mediocre) the stuff really is. I've only heard a few of the tracks that were previewed in the weeks leading up to the album's release ("Early Roman Kings," "Scarlet Town" and "Duquesne Whistle"), so the rest is virgin territory to my ears.


The plastic has been removed from "Tempest," and I'm ready to take the album in as a whole, letting the tracks build upon each other.

Let's dive in, shall we?

I'll use the comments field to give my thoughts as I listen. Please feel free to give your thoughts, as I'm always interested in what others think / feel from music.

80 comments:

  1. The first track is "Duquesne Whistle," a song written with Robert Hunter. Hunter is a lyricist, and may be best known for his work with The Grateful Dead. He co-wrote a lot of Dylan's 2009 "Together Through Life" album, so maybe "Whistle" is a holdover from those sessions.

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  2. I love the jaunty intro to the track. It's so upbeat, love that guitar. The piano and guitar work together to at times suggest horns. It's almost got a summer festival vibe.

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  3. Drums kick in about 42 seconds in to really jumpstart the song, and Bob's voice ... cracked and thick ... has some fire to it! This song is one that I'd heard before the album came out, and I really love it.

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  4. Bob's voice is really raw, but it's so bluesy and animated too. Talk about adding color.

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  5. "You're the only thing alive that keeps me going / you're like a time bomb in my heart" at about 2:30 ... Love it. :)

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  6. At 3:50, the music changes a bit and adds a little bit of pomp ... it's only about 10 or 12 seconds, but it serves to really grab the ear.

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  7. Love the guitar stuff at 4:50, with a lot of good rhythm. Some lead lines that don't steal the show.

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  8. "Duquesne Whistle" has to be one of his best songs in years. It grabs me more than any track on "Together Through Life," for sure.

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  9. "I'm searching for phrases / to sing your praises" ... great intro to track 2, "Soon After Midnight."

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  10. I really like the instrumental bedding on this track.

    It almost sounds like a Buddy Holly kind of tune.

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  11. the lyrics are nothing Buddy Hollyesque, that's for sure ... Sounds restless, and more than a little spiteful. Good stuff.

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  12. "It's now or never, more than ever" ... don't know why, but that is as poignant as I need tonight. Great song! Fairly short, but a good 'un.

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  13. Track 3 starts off more raucous. "Narrow Way" is a good bar song, a stomper.

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  14. "look down angel, from the skies / at my weary soldier eyes"

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  15. "Narrow Way" would have fit comfortably on "Modern Times," and that's a good thing. The song has a good groove. Bob's backing band really knows how to support him. There's not anything fancy, but it's a great noise. Know what I mean?

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  16. "I've got a heavy stacked woman with a smile on her face ..."

    just when you think the song might be getting too long, he slips in some fun stuff.

    Bob doesn't seem to take himself too seriously these days, as willing to mock himself as he mocks others.

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  17. the outro, with the violin screeches ... man, I don't know why that makes me think of the county fairs I'd go to as a kid, but it does. Love it.

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  18. track 4 starts off with some great guitar work

    "Long and Wasted Years" is the name of the song

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  19. Bob's in pretty good voice here, and his delivery is playful

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  20. "Shake it up baby, twist and shout / you know what it's all about / what you doin' out there in the sun anyway"

    heh

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  21. I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes / there're secrets in them that I cannot disguise ...

    You know, that seems remarkably honest, probably true for him

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  22. I like this song, it's a good thinking song. Seems pretty personal, direct.

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  23. "Pay in Blood" is up next. Uptempo, almost poppy (not quite the right word).

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  24. Bob really pours himself into the vocals

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  25. song has an irresistible pull to it, his vocal is coarse to a bright instrumental backing

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  26. this is the kind of song that if people had it running in the background, they'd be enjoying it and nodding their heads along

    and if they listened to the lyrics, I think they'd be surprised


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  27. a very solid song, I've liked them all so far

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  28. Track 6 is "Scarlet Town," which I'd heard before the album was released

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  29. the backing track is really intricate, lots of picking ... banjo has a good tone

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  30. I've liked this song since I first heard it, reminded me of "Love and Theft," in a way. "Love and Theft" has been my favorite of the 2000s albums.

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  31. I'm going to have to listen to this song again tonight, after the live blogging ... I find myself really glued to the song, drawn into it. It's a long tune, lots of images, lots of pronouncements, like some of the "Time Out of Mind" material.

    The guitar work is tasty, suits the theme. Serious props to his band. They sound fantastic here.

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  32. there's no particular lyric that is kicking my butt, but I love the whole feel ... from clear skies to whores, the song just packs a wallop

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  33. "Early Roman Kings" is the next tune, and it's another that had been previewed before the album was released. I like the classic progression of it.

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  34. rests on a basic blues motif, but has a nice li'l organ trill on top of it

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  35. crap, that's an accordion ... My bad!

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  36. If you see me coming / and you're standing there / wave your handkerchief / in the air / I ain't dead yet / my bells still ring / I keep my fingers crossed / like the early Roman kings

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  37. I bet Bob and his band kick ass in smaller venues, where it isn't so much about volume or playing the hits as much as it is getting the vibe. This album has so much atmosphere and color to it.

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  38. ding dong daddy, you're coming up short / gonna put you on trial in a Sicilian court / I've had my fun, I've had my flings / gonna shake them on down like the early Roman kings

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  39. woman leaves man, man seeks woman, woman is with another man

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  40. insomnia raging in his brain ... yeah, man, I hear that

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  41. Bob has really packed this with song emotion, a bitterness and detail that suggests that there's more than a little of himself in this song. Considering what's been written about him and his relationships, I imagine the setup isn't purely a fiction to his experience

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  42. the big confrontation between the man, the woman and her lover

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  43. hold your tongue and feed your eyes

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  44. what a story song ... pretty cohesive, very linear

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  45. in the cradle, you'll wish you'd died

    gunshots!

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  46. it'll take more than needle and thread, sure

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  47. lover kills husband, wife gets pissed, she decides to settle things, stabbing the lover in the heart with a knife

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  48. oooooh, now she just stabbed herself after a moment of tenderness with the dying husband

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  49. pretty dark, and the music is just relentless, keeps going with the story

    I dig it :)

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  50. now the title track, "Tempest"

    this is the "Titanic" song, I believe

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  51. you know, it's not bad. It's pretty lively, and Bob sounds like he's having a bit of fun

    I think the length is what will be the issue, as it's almost 14 minutes long

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  52. all the lords and ladies heading for their eternal home

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  53. I wonder of Bob just wrote this as he was watching the movie, and took images from the movie and strung them together. Describing chandeliers, etc.

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  54. Leo took his sketchbook / he was often so inclined / he closed his eyes and painted the scenery in his mind

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  55. he's going through each step of the sinking, which is fine ...

    but it's the same situation I had with the movie, I know the ship is sinking and that a sad number of folks died in the incident.

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  56. I guess this could be traditional bard kind of material ... taking something established, embellishing it and telling the tale. Nothing necessarily new, but not offensive for that.

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  57. this man and his companions were nowhere to be seen / in silence there he waited for time and space to intervene

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  58. there are parts of this song that almost sound like a more orchestrated, ornate version of "Every Grain of Sand"

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  59. the rich man Mr. Astor kissed his darling wife / he had no way of knowing it'd be the last one of his life

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  60. I'm a little better than halfway through the song. I find myself thinking of Harry Chapin's "Dance Band on the Titanic" and how that song handled the same situation and also attempted to provide imagery of the ship going down.

    I think Chapin's was a bit more engaging, but again ... this "Tempest" isn't a bad track. It's just a little too long.

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  61. Leo said to Cleo, "I think I'm going mad" / but he lost his mind already, whatever mind he had

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  62. the watchman, he laid dreaming / the damage had been done / he dreamed the Titanic was sinking, and he tried to tell someone

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  63. eh

    it's OK ... it's probably my least favorite track on the album so far, as I really like the rest of them.

    This one isn't bad, it just seems to exist for the sake of existing. The imagery is good, but I can't imagine why this would be the song that would earn the album title

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  64. last song is up now, "Roll On John"

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  65. kind of a different instrumental bedding here

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  66. I've read that this song is about John Lennon

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  67. from the Liverpool docks to the red-light Hamburg streets, Quarrymen references ... yup, it's a Lennon song

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  68. you burned so bright, roll on John



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  69. I heard the news today, oh boy ... nice "A Day in the Life" reference

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  70. seems very sincere, he's not being clever ... it's a pretty nice ode to Lennon

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  71. I know Dylan and Lennon had a respect for each other and were sometimes able to hang out, but I figured Dylan and Harrison were the close ones. Near as I can tell, he's never done an ode to the late George. Wonder what brought this Lennon song on?

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  72. the tiger tiger burning bright and lullaby imagery being intertwined in the last two minutes is oddly affecting, it hits me pretty good

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  73. that's the end of the album, ends on a respectful and moving note to another music legend

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  74. well, here's my first impression of the album after giving it the first complete run-through:

    I really, really, really like it. I love it. It's great. The only song that didn't grab me was "Tempest," which is only because it is overly long and there really isn't much to it. It's not a bad song, it's just not anything near the best on the album.

    It's no "Brownsville Girl" or "Highlands," and it sure doesn't need to be. The other 9 songs on the album range from the good to the great, with nothing on it that I would term bad or boring. He sounds pretty good, he puts some emotional investment into the delivery on a couple of tracks, and there's more than a little mischief and melancholy when they are called for.

    I like it better than "Together Through Life," and I like it at least as much as "Modern Times." It doesn't quite dethrone "Love and Theft" ... at least not yet.

    Let's see what some repeat listens do for me. :)

    I strongly recommend this album to anyone who digs Dylan, digs good rock and roll, digs stories and images and groovy sounds ... It's a winner. I'm pleased, and I consider it a great investment. It'll get plenty of listens for years to come!

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    1. when I say "it's no 'Brownsville Girl" ...," I was referring to the track "Tempest" and not to the album in general.

      This album sounds fantastic, very alive. It was vivid with headphones, and I can't wait to give it a listen in the car and at my desk. It'll be a good disc for just about any occasion.

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  75. Finally, and as always, I welcome your thoughts with this album. Any favorites? Any tracks you didn't care for? Have some background on some of the material that would add to the appreciation of this music?

    Anything and everything, bring it on. :)

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