Three albums – Brandy Clark, The Civil Wars, Bob Dylan

In the dog days of 2013, I downloaded a couple of albums that appeared on other critics’ “best of” lists, and in at least one case I’m right glad I did.

Brandy Clark - 12 Stories
Brandy Clark – 12 Stories (Photo credit: Leo Reynolds)

I don’t know how I missed Brandy Clark’s album at the time of its release. Well, I do know. It’s because following Country music “news” sites and accounts is largely pointless, as they either regurgitate all the shit that gets played by the conglomerate-owned radio stations, or they tell you about stuff that’s hard-to-find in the UK. So I generally don’t bother keeping up with things, because I’m so often frustrated at its lack of (legal or non-imported) availability. iTunes is pretty crap at keeping you informed, too. For example, it’s “New and Noteworthy” section has had the Nashville TV show soundtrack album on it for about nine months, and it remains in first position, to boot. Tim McGraw‘s Two Lanes of Freedom has been smack at the top/middle since March, too. And so on.

So anyway, Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories hasn’t ever been featured under New and Noteworthy, and why would it be? I mean, it’s only one of the better albums released in 2013, and one of the few by a female artist to gain attention above the barrel-scraping likes of Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line.

So what do you get for your £7.99? Twelve songs, written with the wit and verve of Kacey Musgraves and/or Ashley Monroe, with a strong singing voice, great production, and fairly commercial Country sound. Opening up with “Pray to Jesus” (which you might think was a bit too religionist, but you’d be wrong), it features songs about living a life of quiet desperation, bad relationships, bad decisions, and all the other stuff of life that makes up the great tapestry of Country music, proving it doesn’t actually consist of songs about trucks and beer and girls in cut off jeans.

For example, the single “Stripes” is a funny take on the, “I’d kill you, but…” genre, while “Illegitimate Children” is a classic of the drinking and fucking genre (in waltz time, natch). The melodies and stylings sound fairly traditional, but the edginess of the best country music is there. “Hungover” is another classic take on a song genre (in this case, the woman getting stuff done while the guy feels sorry for himself). Like all the best country songs, it comes with a sting in the tale. Buzz!

Anyway, can’t recommend it highly enough.

Next up, The Civil Wars by The Civil Wars. This is less my kind of thing, but it was ex-mas, and I was bored enough to want something fresh to my ears. This duo caused quite a stir with their first release and then announced their breakup with this second, eponymous record. It’s more folk-rock than Country, and majors too much in the ethereal shoe-gazy side of things for my taste. At the other extreme comes the heavy rock stylings, which is, in the words of the song, too loud, man. So it’s all right, if you like that kind of thing, but I’m indifferent. Don’t hate it, but…

Cover of "New Morning"
Cover of New Morning

Finally, New Morning, Bob Dylan’s 1970 release that formed the third of his trilogy of country releases at the end of the 60s. The next release after this was Pat Garrett and Billy the Kidand the first proper record after this was Planet Waves in 1974. In between, he may have been suffering writer’s block and/or been pissed off with his record company. Planet Waves was one of two records released on Arista. Anyway, I first bought New Morning in 1983 while I was in Rotterdam. I sold it fifteen years or so ago when I got rid of all my vinyl.

Since the most recent Bootleg Series release, it has been on my mind. I finally caved in and downloaded it this morning, for the princely sum of £5.99. I’d forgotten just how much I love this record. It’s so mellow, you might be forgiven for sticking it on as background music. Most of the songs seem to have been written on piano, which gives it a very different sound. His voice has that delightful gruffness which contrasts with the smoochy croon he adopted for Nashville Skyline.

You might imagine there are no classic songs on this album. “If Not For You”, written with George Harrison, might be familiar. The title track has a great guitar solo. But the rest of it seems to consist of gnomic lines, obscure references, and twiddling. “Went to See the Gypsy” is Dylan’s version of “Sexie Sadie”, while “If Dogs Run Free” features a spoken lyric and scat singing, “Winterlude” is another waltsy love song. It’s different all right, but allow it to grow on you and you’ll discover that it has an ageless quality. It’s witty, relaxed, and fun. Hearing the tryouts and demos on the Bootleg Series, you realise just how much work goes into sounding so spontaneous and casual.

Give or take Nashville Skyline, this might well be my new favourite Bob Dylan record. If you’ve never had it, give it a go! Six quid!

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