Random Musings: December 17, 2021 (Emily Scott Robinson, Charlie Rich, Travis Tritt, Stacy Dean Campbell, Bob Dylan)

Random Musings is a recurring series in which we discuss some of things we’ve been listening to in an informal, conversational manner, as opposed to giving them a full-on, conventional review.

Emily Scott Robinson – American Siren (2021)

Zack has already discussed this album extensively so I won’t go into great detail here, but I will say without hesitation that I share his enthusiasm.

There’s about three or four “Song of the Year”-caliber songs in the first half alone. “If Trouble Comes a Lookin'” is a first-rate story song that tells of a woman stuck in a loveless marriage and a clergyman unable to resist his earthly impulses who find kindred spirits in one another. “Let ‘Em Burn” describes a dutiful, church-going housewife who is growing tired of playing the part and is strongly considering asserting herself for the first time. “Hometown Hero” is the account of a PTSD-suffering veteran’s death by suicide and its far-reaching consequences.

No, this kind of subject matter is hardly new to country music, but they’ve seldom been done this well – I put forth that “Hometown Hero” and “Let ‘Em Burn” can stand right alongside John Prine’s “Sam Stone” and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “He Thinks He’ll Keep her”, respectively, for example. The songs are exceptionally well-written and contain some killer lines, and Robinson possesses one of the most affecting and emotive voices in country/Americana music today.

The album loses a bit of steam for me with its last three songs – not to say they’re not enjoyable, but just the ones before evince a level of quality that would be extraordinary difficult to maintain. Overall, this is top-shelf stuff, and is easily among the finest albums of 2021.

Charlie Rich – Pictures and Paintings (1992)

When it comes to examples of artists releasing great albums in the twilight of their careers, one album I don’t see mentioned very often is Charlie Rich’s 1992 final album Pictures & Paintings. A sprawling mosaic in which Rich explores all of his various influences – country, pop, jazz, blues, gospel – to a degree like never before on one release, it’s become a favorite late-night album of mine.

Some of the tracks include Rich’s unique take on Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” and a jazzy reworking of the country standard “You Don’t Know Me”. Rich’s own new composition “Somebody Broke My Heart” is another particular favorite. This overall style of music is a little out of my wheelhouse and I’m not even going to pretend I know how to describe it, but I can’t get enough of it.

Charlie was an extremely talented and versatile performer with a great catalog, and it’s a shame that the only thing he’s remembered for nowadays is the infamous incident at the 1975 CMAs. As someone who’s been trying to expand his knowledge beyond country and into other genres like jazz and R&B, this feels like an excellent gateway.

Travis Tritt – Set In Stone (2021)

Like Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt is another veteran returning from a long hiatus this year. I’ve always been a big fan and thought he made excellent music pretty much throughout the entirety of the ’90s. I’d even go as far as to proclaim 1991’s It’s All About to Change as one of the best mainstream country albums of its era.

I’m sad to say I’m in complete agreement with Zack’s review of Tritt’s latest release. There’s too much completely forgettable fluff like “Ghost Town Nation” and “Southern Man”, and not much struck me as very interesting. It’s nowhere close to being in the same ballpark as his best work.

“Smoke in a Bar” is such a frustrating song. Personally, I think an intelligent song could be made that examines the way the world has changed so profoundly in recent decades to a degree that is completely without precedent in human history. As someone who’s just old enough to remember what the world was like before the Internet, social media and smartphones came to dominate society, I definitely relate to the sentiment that it feels like the world used to turn much slower, and I’m not convinced all of these technological developments have been entirely for the better.

However, it’s a shame the song doesn’t really explore that subject matter outside of a line or two, and is based around a horrible example (is he seriously arguing for more cancer caused by secondhand smoke?), succumbs to specious “good ol’ days” thinking (were men really better fathers a generation or two ago?), and ventures into current hot button culture war territory that will cause the song to age like milk. I have to admit that I find that soaring, “When I Call Your Name”-esque power chorus to be chill-inducing and feel that it deserves to be in a much better song sung by a vocalist in their prime.

The title track and “Better Off Dead” are very solid tunes, so it’s not all bad. Here’s hoping Tritt’s next album won’t take nearly as long and that it will be of significantly higher quality.

Stacy Dean Campbell – Ashes of Old Love (1999)

The 1990s were such a creatively fertile and commercially vibrant period in country music, that the competition among artists for radio slots was extremely stiff. As a result, there are so many under-the-radar artists who released an album or two and whose careers never really took off, but have become cult favorites. One name I’ve heard mentioned occasionally over the years is Stacy Dean Campbell, and I decided to try out his third album, 1999’s Ashes of Old Love.

His voice is very much on the generic side, which is normally a huge drawback for me, but surprisingly, the songs were strong enough that I didn’t mind too much. His cover of Jamie O’Hara’s magnificent “Some People (Just Can’t Walk the Line)” is excellent and one of my favorite discoveries of late. “I’m Gonna Fly” is a memorable prison song that I could have imagined Johnny Cash recording. “All the Winters We’ve Known” is a nice “looking back” love song reminiscent of Alan Jackson’s “Remember When”, and “One False Move” is a well-executed outlaw story song. The production can get a little sleepy a times, and some of the songs could benefit from a more distinctive vocalist, but overall it’s a solid set.

Bob Dylan – Love and Theft (2001)

While I’m very familiar with Dylan’s ’60s work and and have heard most of his ’70s output, this was my first foray into “modern” Bob Dylan. I had heard his voice had declined with age, but I never would have imagined just how steeply. He sounds like a frog with throat polyps. He sounds like Mark Hamill’s Joker if he was about ninety years old and a heavy smoker. If I wasn’t already emotionally attached to Bob’s music, I would have bounced off of this pretty hard. He makes Willie Nelson’s singing late in his career sound like Chris Stapleton. Check out this performance of them covering Hank Williams together if you don’t believe me.

I’m glad I stuck with it though, because it absolutely stacks up to his earlier work. It’s one of those albums that reveals new elements with every listen, and the songs that initially didn’t do much for you gradually become your favorites. And I actually began to quite like Bob’s new voice once I got used to it. He’s like your eccentric, slightly off-kilter but also extremely smart grandfather who’s gonna provide you with some pearls of wisdom.

Summarizing a Bob Dylan song is a daunting task more often than not, and boy is that true for the opening track “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum”, a mind trip if I’ve ever heard one. The lyrics are replete with all kinds of literary allusions, some obvious and some not, and seem to describe two men whose lives are entwined, perhaps as best friends or brothers, and their experiences and adventures together over the years. Bizarrely, mundane activities like running a brick and tile company and retiring to the country are juxtaposed without comment with numerous fantastical endeavors.

However, it would appear that there is a sense of resentment between the two men that is beginning to simmer, and by the last verse, it’s implied that they’re ready to murder one another. It says a lot about human relationships in a roundabout way, and is just a really cool story that creates vivid images in your mind. Musically, it’s pretty memorable as well, featuring bongos and a vox organ, and the production includes all of these harsh, discordant sounds that create a palpable sense of dread and anxiety. This song is a lyrical Rorschach test, but personally, I interpret it to mean that there are people in the world who are not very nice and it is in your best interest to avoid them. In the couple months or so since I’ve first heard it, I confess this song has completely enraptured me as it’s unlike anything I’ve heard before.

Another favorite is the call-back-and-forth blues number “Lonesome Day Blues”. Like a lot of Bob Dylan songs, each verse is like a small vignette that tells a short story or makes a funny observation. I like all twelve, but my favorite has to be:

“Samantha Brown lived in my house for ’bout four or five months
Don’t know how it looked to other people, I never slept with her even once”

None of this is ever elaborated or followed up on, and you’re left wondering who these people are and what their situation is. That’s why Bob Dylan is one of my favorite songwriters; he’s a master of making a suggestion and letting your imagination run wild.

Another great one:

“Well, my captain, he’s decorated, he’s well-schooled and he’s skilled
He’s not sentimental, don’t bother him at all, how many of his pals have been killed”

Dylan manages to communicate so much about the nature of war and those who fight in it in so few words. While it might be a little sad that this military leader has developed a hardened heart, he almost certainly has to be that way in order to remain effective at his job.

All right, indulge me with one more:

“Last night the wind was whispering something, I was trying to make out what it was
I tell myself something’s coming but it never does”

Damn. Who among us can’t relate to that in some fashion?

Yet another highlight is “Mississippi”, a rootsy, country-esque ballad. Lyrically, it’s my favorite song on the album, as just about every line is brilliant (“Some people will offer you their hand and some won’t, Last night I knew you, tonight I don’t”). It employs very simple language yet is devoid of cliche – a masterful balancing act.

“High Water (For Charley Patton)” instills a great sense of unease in the listener and has some terrific banjo. “Honest With Me” is a rollicking rocker with a killer hook (“You don’t understand it my feelings for you, you’d be honest with me if only you knew”). Closing track “Sugar Baby” is an eerie dirge with a captivating refrain. Overall, there’s about 4-5 songs here I’d grade as 10/10. There are a couple of sleepy ballads I respect but can’t really get into that much (“Moonlight”, “Bye and Bye”).

I don’t have as much to say about the other songs, but each one has a lot to offer, and are peppered with lyrical gems. One of the qualities I enjoy most about this album is how every track feels completely distinct from all the others, not only in overall sound but also lyrical style and thematic scope. So many albums (including plenty of other releases by Dylan himself), even ones regarded as great, feel like they repeat themselves or go over the same territory multiple times, but that’s not the case here.

This album was released on 9/11, and a lot of people inexorably associate it with that day. Johnny Cash reportedly called this Dylan’s best album, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I absolutely regard it as an above-average entry in his discography, and a very strong album in general.

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