New Music Through Old Ears: Imagine Dylan, Moody Manson

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It’s new music time, as entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out recent releases from Las Vegas popsters Imagine Dragons, folk legend Bob Dylan, goth king Marilyn Manson and Australian/Canadian chanteuse Ruth Moody.

New Album by an New Artist

Imagine Dragons: Smoke + Mirrors

Located in the Mormon heartland of Utah, Brigham Young University is one of the largest religious universities in the world, with alumni including former presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, author Orson Scott Card and animator Don Bluth. It is also the place singer Dan Reynolds met drummer Andrew Tolman, forming a friendship that would beget the band Imagine Dragons.

After moving from the conservative state of Utah to the moral wasteland of Las Vegas, the band recorded a bunch of independent EPs, including 2010’s Hell and Silence and 2011’s It’s Time. After signing with label Interscope in late 2011, the band recorded debut album Night Visions, including the breakout single Radioactive.

Driven by the success of Radioactive, Night Visions went to number one around the world, and the single spent an impressive 87 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. This led to an extended world tour, which ran throughout 2013 and 2014, winning fans around the world and working on songs for a new album.

The album in question is Smoke + Mirrors, released on 5 February after months of teasing via social media. An unashamedly pop album, Smoke + Mirrors displays a slightly heavier sensibility than Night Visions, but still doesn’t include anything that is likely to alienate their core teen fanbase. The first single from the album was I Bet My Life, written about the difficult relationship lead singer Dan Reynolds has with his parents.

Slickly produced and proudly bombastic, Smoke + Mirrors is an album designed to be performed in stadiums to hordes of screaming fans. Perhaps a little light on subtlety and nuance, this album is nonetheless a step forward in the band’s musical evolution.

Best tracks: I’m So Sorry, I Bet My Life

Sample lyric: ‘Breaking me down to my knees in the dead of night, I keep on praying to see the light.’ (The Fall)

Verdict: 7/10 — a catchy if somewhat disposable pop album.

New Album by an Old Artist

Bob Dylan: Shadows in the Night

Generally accepted as one of the best songwriters of his generation, the man born Robert Allen Zimmerman has been playing music for more than fifty years. Hugely influential, Bob Dylan has sold over 100 million albums over the course of his career and is responsible for iconic songs, including Blowin’ In The Wind, Like a Rolling Stone and All Along the Watchtower.

Taking his influences from a wide range of sources, including literature, politics and philosophy, Dylan has never strived to be popular, rather choosing to follow his own path even when it alienated his existing fans. He has collaborated with artists from many genres, forming the "old man supergroup", The Travelling Wilburys, with fellow veterans George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. On a personal note, he is also responsible for one of my favourite songs, the biblically influenced Highway 61 Revisited.

A testament to his contrary approach, Dylan has chosen to release an album of pop standards made famous by Frank Sinatra, taking one of the most famous crooner voices in history and reinterpreting it through his own unique vocal stylings.

Recorded in studio B at Capital Studios, where Sinatra recorded many of the original tracks, Dylan puts his spin on songs including The Night We Called It A Day, Some Enchanted Evening and What’ll I Do. It would be fair to say that he does not improve on the originals. Indeed, to my ears, not to put too fine a point on it, the result is absolutely awful.

To me, the appeal of Bob Dylan has always lay in his songwriting rather than his performing and many of his most famous songs have been sung better by other artists — notably Jimi Hendrix on All Along The Watchtower and, less famously, Pearl Jam on Masters of War. Dylan singing covers takes away his greatest strength, leaving us with his distinct but frankly average voice.

Best tracks: Try the Sinatra originals, and I say that as someone who is not really a Sinatra fan

Sample lyric: ‘Fools give you reasons, wise men never try.’ (Some Enchanted Evening)

Verdict: 2/10 — only for diehard Dylan fans.

Album I Expect to Suck

Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor

It was once rumoured that Marilyn Manson was a grown up Josh Saviano, who played the nerdy Paul Pfeiffer on The Wonder Years. In the canon of Manson rumours (Satanism, animal sacrifice, hermaphroditism) this is one of the less outlandish, but unfortunately is far more interesting than his latest album.

Achieving success in the 1990’s with albums including Mechanical Animals and Antichrist Superstar, Manson earned the ire of mainstream media for his controversial stage shows, which featured nudity, horrific imagery and simulated sex. In interviews, however, he demonstrated a high level of intelligence and self-awareness, also evidenced by his appearance in the Michael Moore documenary Bowling For Columbine.

With hits such as The Beautiful People and The Dope Show, combined with interesting covers including The Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams and Soft Cell’s Tainted Love, Manson used his music to further his other interests including acting (Lost Highway, Party Monster) and art. Unfortunately, these distractions did little to enhance his musical output and, as time progressed, he became more famous for trying to shock than the music he released.

The Pale Emperor hits all of the standard Marilyn Manson tropes, including death, religion and demonology, but doesn’t really add anything new to the legacy he has built to date. It’s not actively horrible, but by the same token it’s not terribly interesting either.

While this album will probably appeal to old-school goths and those who don’t like to go out in direct sunlight, most other listeners will be better served listening to one of the other albums released this week. Oh, except the Dylan album — that one really sucks.

Best tracks: Deep Six, The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles

Sample lyric: ‘Can’t laugh the darkness away, too many pills and not enough kills.’ (The Devil Beneath My Feet)

Verdict: 4/10 — he’s not the devil, he’s just a very naughty boy.

Ch-check It Out…

Ruth Moody: These Wilder Things

Born in Australia, but raised in Winnipeg, Canada, Ruth Moody was classically trained in music from the age of four along with her two sisters and one brother. In her teens, she started vocal training, forming the folk band Scruj MacDuhk in 1995. The band remained together and toured extensively through Canada until 2001, winning a Juno nomination along the way.

After the breakup of Scruj MacDuhk, Ruth concentrated on her songwriting, also taking the time to learn the guitar to add to her repertoire of piano, accordion, banjo and bodhran. In 2002, she formed The Wailin’ Jennys with Nicky Mehta and Heather Masse, releasing the acclaimed albums 40 Days in 2004.  

In April 2010, Ruth released her first full length solo album The Garden, but remained on good terms with her Wailin’ Jennys bandmates releasing the album Bright Morning Stars the following year. The trio toured extensively off the back of this album, gaining new fans and rave reviews around the world.

New solo album These Wilder Things showcases Moody’s ethereal vocals and strong songwriting skills, featuring guest appearances from Mark Knopfler and Jerry Douglas, along with bandmates from The Wailin’ Jennys. Along with nine original tracks, the album features a stunning cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark, reinventing the track as soulful ballad.

Currently touring Australia including appearances at the Nannup Music Festival in WA and the Port Fairy Folk Festival in Geelong, Ruth Moody is worth checking out for fans of modern folk and those who appreciate unique voices.

Best tracks: Dancing In The Dark, These Wilder Things, One Light Shining   

Sample lyric: ‘Well I have this pain deep in my heart, that’s why I sing.’ (These Wilder Things)

Verdict: 7/10 — a beautiful album from a talented artist.

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