Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Bob Dylan: The Golden Years 1962-1978

This documentary, covering Dylan’s start in music to his conversion to Christianity, brings two DVDs together into one package: Tales from a Golden Age: Bob Dylan 1941-1966 and After the Crash: Bob Dylan 1966-1978.

Interviews with Dylan, more footage of him performing and the use of Dylan’s own music are the only things that could have made this collection better. But since this is an unauthorized documentary, we only get a few seconds of Dylan performing at the Isle of Wight and with Johnny Cash on the second DVD. The background music sounds like Dylan but is not performed by him.

Aside from these minor drawbacks, Dylan’s life and career are fleshed-out by a variety of music critics, friends and fellow musicians. Hailing from the U.K. and U.S. they provide much more than dry analysis. We get warm reminiscing from people who appreciate Dylan’s work. In addition to showing how vital he was in shaping modern music, we see his humanity and the influences that molded him. The critics expertly dissect his every album.

What intrigues me is how much they see. Their work is utterly fascinating. Like prophets they amplify the message of the songs. This is especially helpful when dealing with a person as mysterious as Bob Dylan, who can keep everyone guessing.

The narration, editing and video of this British production are excellent. You don’t have to be a fan to appreciate the production quality and the insightful analysis. Why Dylan would not contribute and authorize these documentaries is a mystery. He’s not portrayed in a negative light, and this serves as a tribute to a productive career that continues to this day.

This leaves you wanting to know the rest of the story. Let’s hope for more installments.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music DVD

This DVD shows Johnny Cash during the heyday of his career in the late sixties. I want to say it shows him "in his prime," but that is a matter of debate. Even though he was not at the height of his powers physically, the series of recordings that he did at the end of his life with producer Rick Rubin is among his best work. This production highlights that phase of his career when he and June Carter Cash were riding the wave of hit songs that made him a household name in country music and beyond.

Raw concert performances of a number of those songs, including "Ring of Fire," "Daddy Sings Bass," "Folsom Prison Blues," and "Jackson," are found along with rare recordings of lesser-known songs. This includes a couple of gospel songs and some guest appearances, that include a solo performance by Carl Perkins on "Blue Suede Shoes" and a duet with Bob Dylan. Cash and Dylan clearly warm-up to each other, smiling as the song progresses from opposing microphones. It’s enjoyable throughout the DVD to see a healthy Cash singing in such a strong voice.

Footage of Cash backstage, on the road in a motorhome, and interacting with family and friends is also provided. Cash comes across as a down-to-earth guy who relates well with ordinary people. He doesn’t try to impress, and never postures for the camera. It’s an unadorned look with no narration or graphics.

The music is country with a little bit of folk and gospel. The sound and picture quality is a little more than acceptable, but the content is historic. This is the music that made him famous.
The varied settings—a prison performance, a concert on a reservation, a trip to Wounded Knee, a song sung at home, or in the woods with a wounded crow, provide moving moments in the life of a man, who despite his success was humble and kind to others.

This is a must for the Cash collector and worth exploring for those looking for a mix of documentary and performance from the early life of a music legend.

In an interview on the DVD, Cash says, "Singing seems to help a troubled soul." This DVD provides a glimpse of the many people and the man himself who were helped on their way through the singing of simple songs about everyday life.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Real - Jake Smith

Add Real by Jake Smith to the list of strong debuts on Rocketown Records. Formed in 1996 by Michael W. Smith and Don Donahue, the label has been responsible for the first recordings of Chris Rice, Ginny Owens, Watermark, and Alathea plus some other excellent albums, including Exodus, the worship project that became their best-selling title. This small family-like label has a knack for finding and introducing great talent.

This is equally true on Smith’s impressive offering where he seamlessly fuses a variety of styles (rap, funk, blues, pop, rock, soul) into what the label calls soulful, groove-based pop. It’s an apt description for this New Orleans native who turns tight arrangements, polished production and smooth vocals into a sound of his own that exudes energy and plenty of variety.

"Get Up" the opening song is carried along by a subdued rap that breaks into a joyous chorus that encourages us to get free from what holds us and "get ready for so much more." On "What I Plan to Do," without warning, a shameless piano takes off on a brief excursion through Dixie-land jazz.

In the straight-ahead pop/rock of "Breakdown" Smith addresses a troubled soul: "How can you say it’s better not to speak at all." Holding "it all inside" and saying "you’re fine," when "it’s just pretend." He speaks as a concerned friend when he warns: "You’re headed for a breakdown." The beautiful falsetto and the otherworldly vibe heard on "Run" are reminiscent of Coldplay at their best.

The production combined with excellent vocals and musicianship make it all work together for a cohesive sound.

It’s apparent from the lyrics that Real is full of honest reflections about life from a Christian perspective. The references to God and faith are subtle giving this crossover potential. What makes it rewarding are the optimism and hope that find their way into these songs.

This is a triumph not only for Jake Smith but for Rocketown Records in giving us another great debut.

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