The Wallflowers are a band that became famous in 1996 for their release Bringing Down the Horse. They have not been the most productive band, recording only five albums from their self-titled album in 1992 to the present. Their lead singer, Jacob Dylan, is the son of the folk/rock sensation Bob Dylan. The father and son's styles are different from each other in some ways. The Wallflowers' music resembles more mainstream modern rock. The band purposely tries to be commercial where the elder Dylan has little interest in musical trends (but has set one or two in his day). Jacob Dylan writes the lyrics for the Wallflowers and creates a mixture of the surreal and clever wordplay. On this score, father and son hold similar beliefs and promote: the role of the poet in music. Besides Jacob Dylan, only the keyboardist, Rami Jaffe, remains a permanent member from their very first recording up until the most recent one. The band's multiple personnel changes have had a noticeable effect on their final product. The lead guitar on one album may sound better than on another one. It probably doesn't have anything to do with declining talent or standards. More likely , a new musician with a different style of playing may seem out of sync with the others at times. Something worthwhile to study, in some detail, are the relative merits and deficiencies of the five Wallflower recordings. Many people only know them for the hit songs off the 1996 release -- songs like "One Headlight" and "Sixth Avenue Heartache." This is a serious band with loads of talent. Just because the radio isn't playing their songs anymore doesn't mean they are marginally artistic. Radio also ignores Tom Petty and John Mellencamp, artists who the Wallflowers have toured with in the past. Blame it on the radio industry if you must. As this analysis will show, The Wallflowers still have broad appeal and as noted before, lots of talent. In 1992, the Wallflower's released their debut album. Two other bands' first releases in the same year were Stone Temple Pilots' Core and No Doubt's self-titled album. The albums added up to make a banner year for new rock and the Wallflowers were a big part of that. Their debut would eventually achieve gold status by the music industry. No hits took them to stardom from this album, though. The debut left rock fans with a good impression of the music and lyrics. This work presents a primitive production compared with their following records and what the pop/rock crowd might want to hear. The recording has three slow tempo songs in a row. That is not good for people who want to listen to the whole album. One song stands out as the very worst and is named "Be Your Own Girl." The song's lyrics are weak, badly sung and there is no pizzazz from the musicians. Many qualities may be found on the release, however. First, the use of the organ proves wonderful, including a song or two that have organ and piano both in them. The band sounds like a bar band -- rough and energetic. The guitarist knows how to carry forward the melody, alternating between chords and lead parts with practiced skill. He uses some distortion effects, but not too much. For the most part, the whole album contrasts from most modern rock in its simplicity, composed with a natural, untreated sound. This first Wallflowers album features Jacob Dylan's clear and sometimes imperfect voice.
The three songs from the album I would call the best are "Hollywood," "Ashes to Ashes" and "After the Blackbird Sings." "Hollywood" has very weird lyrics. The tempo changes in this song and boasts the outstanding organ by Jaffe. If you like organ in rock songs like "Whiter Shade of Pale" by the Righteous Brothers, you might want to give this album a listen. On subsequent recordings, Jaffe applies a more reserved approach with his talent, making the organ an instrument equal to or less than the others, rather than having an overpowering role like in this album. "Ashes to Ashes" has a fast tempo. The vocals come across as strong and convincing. The guitar intro amazes us and the player intersperses interesting parts throughout the song in places that are appropriate. "After the Blackbird Sings" is a mid-tempo song. The traditional rhythm guitar progression serves them well. What stands out most in this song is how the musicians blend their parts together. The organ sounds nice, but I would have liked to have heard stronger backup vocals. This album intrigues me. What a monumental task it would be to find another album by any band that sounds like this one. The lyrics are not as surreal as those on later albums of the Wallflowers. The album is not consistent in its strengths. One of the better songs, "Asleep at the Wheel" showcases Dylan playing guitar and singing without accompaniment. He is a good fingerpicker and this song alone had any bearing on future albums' song choices. Also the band would never again try to record 8 and 1/2 minute songs like "Somebody Else's Money." They broke the mold, nearly, when they recorded this album.
Four years later, in 1996, they recorded their most famous album, Bringing Down the Horse. This time the band had a world-class producer, T Bone Burnett. From this album forward, they would apply studio technology as an integral part of their music. They would eliminate notes sung or played that were slightly off pitch from that point to the present. This album centers around the vocals and guitar parts. The organ takes a lesser role, except on "6th Avenue Heartache". A certain dreamy quality works to their advantage on this album -- a certain atmospheric sound created either by keyboard or electronic device. Two songs have this effect: "Invisible City" and "Josephine." They use the steel guitar and dobro in certain songs. These instruments are rarely used in rock music. Not only was the band in the hands of a great producer, but they were experimenting with their sound. They explored possibilities that would not occur to anyone else. Their new sound was their own, their lyrics showed real improvement. Filler never found its way onto this album. Every song is good. Most are better than good.
The best songs on Bringing Down the Horse are hard to choose. Probably, good picks would be the charted songs, "One Headlight," and "Sixth Avenue Heartache." One more I would include would be "Three Marleenas." This song is contemplative with a subdued organ as an eery backdrop. Jakob Dylan's poetic lyrics really fit the music -- especially on this song. The vocals are the center of this song -- the guitar the heartbeat of the slow tempo. The lyrics are strongest with lines like this: "There's gotta be somthing we can trust out here among us." And what possibly is there more to say about the sensational hits off the album? The band stepped out of the shadows they were in while the first album was being recorded and released. Now there is color and definition. They shone more brightly than they ever would again. This was magical in the realm of modern rock. They ascended to the throne of pop-culture for the time being. Their album sales proved phenomenal to no one's surprise. "One Headlight" became the most popular song on the list. The rhythm sets the tempo at a brisk pace with the guitar more in the background playing some parts with effects. The dobro adds to the unusual nature of a song that you can sing along to and have fun with even though the song is a little weird. The lyrics of the Wallflowers never would have much continuity. Their song lyrics are poetic - sometimes abstract, sometimes surreal, sometimes like parts of a conversation. "Sixth Avenue Heartache" starts out with what sounds like a steel guitar, but it could be a slide guitar. A steel part concludes on the album's last track at any rate. "Sixth Avenue Heartache" is a mid-tempo song featuring piano and organ. The backing vocals are more effective in this song than any other. This thinking person's song lures us into its deeper meaning with musical hooks. Yet, it is unpretentious, straightforward rock. It seems a better song to me than "One Headlight" though it did not chart nearly as high. This album I would put in the top 5 albums of the 90's, maybe even number 1.
Having surpassed everyone's expectations in 1996, The band waited 4 years before releasing another album called Breach. Most people were disappointed this album was not more of what they had loved about Bringing Down the Horse. This album did not include dobros and steel guitars and the production was less extravagent. The atmospheric backdrops found no place on the track list. T Bone Burnett did not produce this release. So what did this album have going for it? First, the song tempos change throughout so there is no repetition. Some unusual things about the music make their appearance like the use of a xylophone on two songs. Also, one may find horns and a string ensemble on different songs. This album may not measure up to some people's expectations, but has some nice songs and nice surprises. Thankfully, the lyrics do not fail to puzzle and amuse us. The music compositions do not draw us in as much as the previous album. They needed advice and guidance no one gave them. The songs are still very good though, and it is difficult to find anything that offends the sensibilities. For myself, I do not care for the lyrics to "Hand Me Down," yet I find the music pretty good. Some people might not like how treated the vocals are in the first song. It makes Dylan sound as if he was under water. That doesn't bother me that much either. Everything is good. The problem strikes us that nothing reflects a band evolving bit by bit to greatness. They have found that greatness already and have nothing to motivate them further. These three songs, in my opinion, stand out from the others and approach being great, at least.
The first song in my favorites list is the first track "Letters From the Wasteland." They put it there first for a reason. It is the song I mentioned the vocals were so treated. This mid-tempo song has a bass part that does more than the guitar. The bass alternates through the song from soft to loud while the guitar plays mainly chords. The tune catches attention, but I would not say it would be easy to sing along to. Another song I like is "Sleepwalker." It has cool lyrics like the lines: "Cupid don't draw back that bow / Sam Cooke didn't know what I know." The handclaps between these lines make it fun. Stuff like that sends erudite scholars turned critics leaving packing. "How dare they have fun," they might say (wearing black clothing) as they sip from their lattes. Finally, the song "Up from Under" wins big, in my opinion. Dylan plays acoustic guitar and a backing string ensemble weaves into the composition. He continues his fascination with having something different that he likes to do and is good at. He is front and center, confident and experienced as he sings and plays without the clutter of the backing rock band. He would go on to make many recordings of this type and a solo album full of these kinds of songs. Check it out sometime if you like Dylan playing solo. It is called Seeing Things.
The next Wallflowers' album hit the record stores two years after Breach and was named Red Letter Days. In my opinion, this album assumes the status of weakest of the five Wallflowers' albums. There are three songs that are nothing but filler and another that has merits that I just didn't care for at all. The instruments that have been added for the first time are the synthesizer and flutes. A hidden track unlisted on the album must be found and noticed. -- "the Empire of My Mind." Some will recognize it as the theme song to the syndicated television show, "The Guardian." The lyrics fit the show perfectly. Here is a sample: "There is no order, there is chaos, there is crime. There is no one home tonight in the empire of my mind." This song puts all the others to shame on the album. The Wallflowers sing about a world so hopeless which emphasizes how powerless the human condition frequently is. Usually either the Wallflowers songs are fun or they don't mean much. The songs reveal the pensive and existential side of Dylan. It is alright to be that way once in a while, I suppose. Besides "Empire of My Mind," two other songs stand out above the others: "How Good It Can Get" and "Everybody out of the Water."
With "How Good it Can Get," we find a dreamy guitar part, drums that are crisp and carry the mid-tempo beat, as well as a wall of organ in parts. The chorus goes: "You wont believe how good it can get / We'll make a lover out of you yet." Yes, the Wallflowers have a bona fide love song on their hands. It is a song about consoling a lover who is being restless. Afraid to lose her, he makes promises that it is going to get better than she will believe possible. One of the more coherent of the Wallflowers' songs, it still does not near perfection. The other outstanding song is titled "Everybody Out of the Water." This track, fourth in the list, is a faster tempo song. A straightforward song about natural calamity in one place compares the mayhem to love. But near the end, the song lyrics veer off in an unexpected direction. "Like shooting ducks / In a barrel of honey / Got to learn how to pray / Won't be enough / Admit it now / Your information sucks." These verses illustrate that the Wallflowers lyrics are often obscure, something that cannot be overstated. The music in this song rocks out, though. The guitar effects are wild which helps liven up the repetitive structure of the song. The drums find a respectful place in the song, especially in the chorus. It is a catchy tune with steady, hypnotic rhythm. Your foot might start tapping on this one.
The Wallflower's released their newest album in 2005 and was named Rebel, Sweetheart. This album is more commercial than all the others with the exception of Bringing Down the Horse. Compared to Red Letter Days we find it an undeniable improvement. The song choices are better. The album has a much higher production value and lyrics that are interesting and sometimes funny. Not since their old release "God Don't Make Lonely Girls" has a song of theirs been as funny as "Here He Comes" off this latest release. The lyrics demonstate this: "There at the bar, pulling smoke to his lungs / He says: who will ignore me when you're gone," which later turns into "Who will forgive you when I'm gone." The album's biggest flaw is an overabundance of fast-tempo songs, notably the first three in a row. There are only two slow-paced songs out of the twelve on the recording. Four songs on this album stand out as noteworthy: "The Beautiful Side of Somewhere, God Says Nothing Back, Back to California, and From the Bottom of My Heart". The songwriting on this release excels to greatness. A closer look at these songs explains why the band is still around with the faith and loyalty of their label.
In "The Beautiful Side of Somewhere," the Wallflowers play a very beautiful song. Dylan's voice has never been stronger, never more captivating (except in his solo work) than it is on this third song -- the third fast-tempo song in a row. The instruments blend well and the guitar compliments the vocals skillfully. "God Says Nothing Back" has little backing music. The vocals and lyrics are the main features. Occasionally a kettle drum interrupts the quiet music and adds a fuller sound. The lyrics are poetry. The poetry contemplates the loss of love. Many vital stanzas serve as well-crafted, serious and soulful reflections of life. Despite the subject matter of the song, it is played in a fast tempo. The poetry is unsurpassed by Wallflowers' lyrics. It is beyond powerful and original. That radio could ignore this song just confirms the conception that modern rock radio has no appreciation for variety, no appreciation of art and accomplishment. The same goes for many other Wallflowers' songs. "Back to California" is full of hooks, a fast-tempo song that leaves marks where it has been. The clever lyrics appeal to anyone who wants to get away to someplace fun. The songwriter believes that place is California. "From the Bottom of My Heart" -- a song with Dylan by himself , doesn't pack a whallop the way "God Says Nothing Back" did. That being said, "From the Bottom of My Heart" proves to be a prettier song and is more abstract lyrically. The vocals are completely natural -- no effects treating them. Dylan proves that he can stand tall all by himself and goes on to prove it definitively if no one believed it yet.
The Wallflowers enjoyed success based on their work, Bringing Down the Horse. The profound success caused such a stir that was never hard for people to realize why that album was accepted by radio. What is more difficult to fathom is why the two songs that charted well on Billboard were the only ones and why the next three albums would not yield a high charted song. I have listed songs that were either artistic achievements, radio-friendly or both. Radio is famous for not being loyal to much of anyone. Radio famously desires no variety, which means the elimination of competition. Our listening choices are made in advance, tailored by the assumptions of lawyers, businessmen and consultants. The Wallflowers are in good company, though. Dylan and Jaffe, the only permanent members, have been at this a long time. I think it matters very little to them that radio is shallow and caters to the tastes of teenagers. Rumours are, they will soon go to work on another album. It would be nice to see them recognized again for their achievements before they call it quits. Long ago, they won two grammys for Bringing Down the Horse. They are a remarkable band and all these songs I have mentioned involved a great deal of work. When a band has that kind of talent and works hard to produce great music, there ought to be a reward. This band occupies the heart of rock. It is not out of reach or trying to find some way to shock you. Try a listen and see.
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