November 26, 2020

Second Quarter Listening Report

By Chaplain Mike

It is time for my quarterly update on new popular music to which I’ve been listening. I don’t have a lot of money to spend on music, so I try to pick and choose what to put on my iPod. Like everyone, I have my favorites from whom I’ll buy an album just because they put one out. Occasionally I’ll try something new but it’s usually in a genre I’ve enjoyed before.

Whatever I may find, I’m happy to talk about music here at IM with you. Music is one of those “grace” aspects of my life in which I always find comfort, joy, and encouragement.

This quarter, we focus on new releases from a few of my constant musical companions.

Paper Airplane
Alison Krauss & Union Station

Another solid and eminently listenable, if unspectacular, effort from AKUS. I always appreciate their craftsmanlike musicianship, the democratic sharing inherent in their approach to music, Jerry Douglas’s unparalleled dobro playing, and, of course Alison Krauss’s angelic voice. Highlights include the title cut, the haunting “Lie Awake,” and the songs on which Dan Tyminski sings, recalling the roots of Americana. Do you know what I’d like to hear from AKUS?—a record that features Krauss’s fiddle playing. She has always kept that somewhat subtle, with occasional moments of jaw-dropping virtuosity. I’d love to hear her cut loose for an extended session sometime.

So Beautiful or So What
Paul Simon

Paul Simon’s albums are always marked by exquisite songwriting, fascinating rhythms, and sonic brilliance. They have, at times, been a bit uneven. Not So Beautiful or So What. This is his most complete and consistently excellent album since Graceland. Many reviewers have wondered aloud why Paul has gotten so interested in spirituality all of a sudden, since the record is filled with references to God and ultimate questions. As a long time listener to Simon, I don’t find this unusual at all. He has been serving up a mix of religion, philosophy, cultural commentary, love/sex, and fifties NY street corner melodies from the beginning, with differing measures of each on every record. All these characteristics come to the fore here in great songs like “The Afterlife” and achingly beautiful pieces like “Love and Hard Times” and “Questions for the Angels.” Every song is a winner, and the cumulative effect is remarkable. Along with another I’ll mention below, this is the best of the bunch this quarter.

Hard Bargain
Emmylou Harris

Emmylou’s latest record contains the usual combination of down home stories and social commentary presented through her iconic voice in combination with a lot of friends. I especially appreciate the stark and brutally realistic reminder of Emmett Till, the black boy from Chicago who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955, the reflective and melancholy “Lonely Girl,” the testimony of love’s perseverance in “Hard Bargain,” and Harris’s touching tribute and farewell to the late folk-singer Kate McGarrigle, “Darlin’ Kate.” Sometimes the production on Emmylou Harris’s records sounds muddy to me, which I find distracting, but she remains an outstanding artist with a lot to say.

Codes and Keys
Death Cab for Cutie

This is high praise, but I have always found DCFC’s music to have a quality reminiscent of artists like the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and Paul Simon. Each song is like a small chamber piece, a narrative world that draws me in and makes me feel like I’ve traveled somewhere unique and interesting. Their newest effort is taking me new places each time I listen, and I can hardly say anything better about music than that. This band has set themselves apart from the ordinary and is developing into a guild of true craftsmen. Along with the Paul Simon release, I recommend this record wholeheartedly. Right now, my favorite pieces are “Codes and Keys,” “Doors Unlocked and Opened,” “Monday Morning,” and “Underneath the Sycamore.” But stay tuned. Like I said, I’m hearing new things all the time.

Classic Reviews
Each quarter I like to remind us of a “blast from the past” recording or two in addition to the new recommendations. This June, there is, and there can only be one album to talk about, and it’s one of the all-time best.

Blonde On Blonde
Bob Dylan

The Jokerman turned seventy years old recently, so this report could not be written without paying homage to one of his recordings that stands among the greatest rock records ever. Released forty five years ago this month, in 1966, the story of this album’s recording sessions, which put Nashville on the map to become the place to make records, is the stuff of rock ‘n roll legend. HERE is an article that tells that tale.

But what an album! From the opening raucous strains of “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” (Dylan was enamored of obscure titles), Bobby the court jester thumbs his nose at conformity, saying essentially, “Do what you want. This generation is going to have its pipe and smoke it too.” Blonde on Blonde is one wild ride as we try to keep up with Dylan during the most productive and creative period of his youth. There are lovely folk and pop songs—“Visions of Johanna,” “One of Us Most Know (Sooner or Later),” “I Want You,” “Just Like a Woman,” and “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (which, at over 11 minutes, filled a whole LP side). There are straight ahead, in your face blues and rock tunes—“Pledging My Time,” “Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat” (his classic screed on materialism and pretension), “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” and “Obviously Five Believers” (which has one of my favorite blues licks of all time).

The combination of Dylan’s outrageous creativity, a band of outstanding musicians, a site for recording that unleashed new possibilities, and the energy of sixties youth culture gave birth to this masterpiece of incredible music, imaginative poetry, and indelible attitude.

“The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album”, Dylan said in an interview in 1978. “It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up. That’s my particular sound. I haven’t been able to succeed in getting it all the time.” So, Bob Dylan himself recognized this record as the best representation of the sound he has sought to capture and present.

A thousand other highlights have marked Dylan’s career over the years, but it has never been better for an entire album than it is on “Blonde on Blonde.”


  1. +1

    You are SO RIGHT about Blonde on Blonde. There’s a reason that it and Blood On The Tracks are considered his best.

  2. I heard Alison Krauss perform with a group of fiddle players when she was seventeen, and she was amazing. Michael Doucet, of Beausoleil, and a great old guy named Louie Bluie were also among the players. Good stuff.

    And don’t forget Dylan’s Infidels, too.

  3. Add Gillian Welch’s new album to your list to try next. Sad, determined, hopeful. Beautiful!
    I also like Josh Garrels’ great new album, and he’s giving it away for free!

    • I am awaiting my UPS man any moment now with the new one from Gill and Dave. Eight years is way too long to wait between albums!

  4. Based on your mention of Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss, and that video of the Wailin’ Jennys you posted a while back, I’ve got a suggestion for you: Sarah Jarosz. Great voice, quite good at the mandolin. She just released her second album.

  5. Ah…Allison Krause & Union Station…the best! My hubby & I have them in the car whenever we go on a trip…to & back. 🙂

  6. Yes, let’s hear some extended fiddle from Alison Krauss.

  7. I would throw out a suggestion of Mumford & Sons album, Sigh No More.

    With their Thistle and Weeds lyrics like this:

    Corrupted by the simple sniff of riches blown
    I know you have felt much more love than you’ve shown
    And I’m on my knees and the water creeps to my chest

    But plant your hope with good seeds
    Don’t cover yourself with thistle and weeds
    Rain down, rain down on me
    Look over your hills and be still
    The sky above us shoots to kill
    Rain down, rain down on me

    But I will hold on
    I will hold on hope

    I begged you to hear me, there’s more than flesh and bones
    Let the dead bury the dead, they will come out in droves
    But take the spade from my hands and fill in the holes you’ve made.

  8. Kenny Johnson says

    Here’s some of my 2011 picks:
    Sarah Jarosz – Follow Me Down
    Flogging Molly – Speed of Darkness
    David Wax Museum – Everything is Saved
    Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2
    The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart

    Some things I’ve enjoyed but haven’t spent much time with:
    The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
    Bright Eyes – The People’s Key
    Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys
    Gillian Welch – The Harrow & The Harvest
    Brandi Carlile – Live at Benaroya Hall With The Seattle Symphony

    I’m really loving David Wax Museum. Check them out. That’s a great album too.

    Some stuff from 2010 that I’m still enjoying:
    Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues
    Mumford & Sons – Sign No More
    Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig

  9. Louis du Plessis says

    Recently listened to Levon Holm’s ,” When I go away” and some other’s like;” I was born on this mountain”, led me to “Fire on the mountain”my the Marshall Tucker band” and some other stuff like this.Liked E L Harris and ol ‘Mark singing “I dug up a diamond” I am not so clued up with lots of genres , but liked it.
    Currently in The Middle Kingdom”, so youtube has to be accessed through other ways. My office computer “broke down” and was taken away and “fixed”,now it seems more difficult , especially for somebody from the stone age , like me.There are ways and means.

  10. I’m probably the umpteenth person to say this, but Allison Kraus has the voice of an angel. I will listen to her sing anything. When we get to heaven, she will have a solo on every song. And Union Station is just a fun group to listen to. I’m not really into a whole lot of bluegrass, but I have most of their records at it always makes me want to learn banjo and practice my mandolin more.