Five underrated Bob Dylan songs from oft-forgotten albums
As the excitement continues to grow for Bob Dylan's first Twin Cities performance in four years Wednesday night in St. Paul, fans are surely gearing themselves up for the show by digging through Dylan's prestigious back catalog and taking pleasure from the countless number of hits spread throughout his acclaimed 50-year musical career.
But there are certain records in Dylan's past which have never quite gotten their due from a majority of his fans and critics alike. For one reason or another, some of Dylan's albums just didn't get taken to heart in the same way as landmark works like the universally lauded The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde, and Blood On The Tracks. But that doesn't mean that there aren't truly great songs to be found tucked away on these oft-ignored albums, and here are five wonderful songs from some underrated Bob Dylan records that, at least in some circles, still haven't found a wider audience.
5. New Morning - "Went To See The Gypsy"
Released just four months after the divisive Self Portrait, New Morning was widely regarded at the time (1970) to be a strong return to form for Dylan. But these days, the thoughtful album doesn't receive nearly the attention that it deserves. It's a quietly assured, unguarded record that is packed with stirring songs. The bold portrait on the cover perhaps playfully mocks the blurred painting on the Self Portrait sleeve, and clues the listener in that this collection of songs will be more forthright and genuine than its predecessor. Dylan's sprightly piano rolls color much of the record, giving these songs, including "Went To See The Gypsy," a soulful bounce and vibrancy that still resonates today. "Gypsy" is the grand musical statement of the strong first half of the record, and is a rollicking little number which finds Dylan delivering his impassioned vocals in fine voice. And for local fans who love when Dylan namechecks his birthplace, the triumphant final verse will assuredly win you over: "And that pretty dancing girl/She could not be found./So I watched that sun come rising/From that little Minnesota town."
4. Planet Waves - "Tough Mama"
After a number of fruitful jam sessions with the Band the year before, Dylan joined with his longtime collaborators to record what would become Planet Waves in 1974, an album which inspired Dylan and the Band to tour together (subsequently documented on the live record, Before The Flood). While "Forever Young" justifiably gets most of the attention given to the album, much of the other songs sadly tend to be forgotten. "Tough Mama" is a raucous, feisty rocker, with both Dylan and the Band sounding fully invested and engaged in the song's churning melody, and Dylan's acerbic lyrics ringing loudly over the slowly building din that Robertson, Helm and co. were generating behind him. It's the sound of friends getting down together, and the results are as spirited and raw as anything Dylan generated so far that decade, and confidently started him on his legendary run through the rest of the '70s which would begin with his celebrated next record, Blood On The Tracks.
3. Street-Legal - "New Pony"
After the commercial and critical triumphs of Blood on the Tracks and Desire, Street-Legal is viewed (incorrectly) by some as a bit of a failure and too pop oriented. While the addition of female backing vocalists permeates much of the record, the songs are strong and have an immediacy to them that was produced by a remarkably short 4-day recording session that Dylan scheduled between two large-scale tours. Dylan was coming off of a divorce from Sara the year before, giving these songs a searching, unstable edge that occasionally gets lost in the pop bombast of the recordings. But "New Pony" shines assuredly amidst the glossy clamour, with the seductive, bluesy strut of the melody ringing bold and true, and certainly signified Dylan's newfound freedom to sow his wild oats. There isn't a recording of Dylan's version on YouTube, so here's the Dead Weather's raucous, untamed cover of the track.
2. Shot of Love - "The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar"
Originally the B-side to "Heart of Mine," "The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar" has since been included on 1981's Shot of Love since it was first issued on CD a few years later. And while the album wasn't a commercial hit by any means, many die-hard fans hold tight to this album's frequently boisterous charms. "Altar" is a straight ahead rock song, and finds Dylan in fine voice and fighting spirit throughout. While much of the album gets bogged down by Dylan's born-again lyrical focus, the songs still retain an inventiveness and a bite which his previous "Christian" albums lacked. But sadly, the hideous artwork found on the sleeve continued the terrible trend of frightful cover art which started with Saved and has continued straight through to this year's Tempest.
1. Oh Mercy - "Political World"
It's quite fitting for fans to rediscover this still topical song on Election Day 2012, especially with Dylan speaking out at his performance last night in Madison: "We tried to play good tonight since the President was here today. Don't believe the media, I think it's going to be a landslide." And while Dylan typically lets the lyrics to his songs speak for his social and political beliefs, it's encouraging to hear him speak out so boldly during one of his performances, where typically he does nothing other than introduce his band.
Back in 1989, Dylan spoke boldly about the uneasy state of affairs in this country and throughout the globe in "Political World," a determined, insightful gem from the frequently ignored, Daniel Lanois produced, Oh Mercy. As with nearly all of Dylan's songs, the lyrics ring as true today as they did the moment he wrote them: "We live in a political world/In the cities of lonesome fear/Little by little you turn in the middle/But you're never sure why you're here." Certainly anyone struggling to find their way towards prosperity in this country can identify with those acerbic words, today and every day. Since all of Dylan's original versions of this song have been taken down from YouTube, here's a not half-bad cover by a band called the Sensitives -- but I urge you to track down the original.
Just don't expect Bob to dust off any of these nuggets at his show Wednesday.
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