Robbie Fulks revisits a scorned gem by Bob Dylan

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A few days ago I got an e-mail from Robbie Fulks letting me know about the next installment of his ever-changing, always inventive and entertaining weekly Hideout residency on Mondays, which is now into its fourth year. I had already noted the show and planned to write something about it here, but I was still surprised to read his message, which read, in part, "just wanted to let you know your comment on Street-Legal, way back when I was preparing Slow Train Coming, stuck in my head . . . for like a year . . . and now I'm doing it, finally." Fulks is referring to two consecutive albums by Bob Dylan made in the late 70s. In May of 2010 he and his band performed the music from his popular Slow Train Coming, the first product of the singer's short-lived born-again Christian phase. At the time I asked him what he thought about Street-Legal, the 1978 album that's one of the most reviled records in Dylan's deep catalog. It was the first record I bought by him with my own hard-earned paper route money, and it has always held a special place in my heart.

The biggest criticisms of the record are the muddy production by Don DeVito and the pop-oriented arrangements, which include ubiquitous female backing vocals—but at the time none of that bothered me. I originally purchased the album on cassette, so by the mid-80s it had fallen out of my musical rotation. I went well over a decade without hearing the record, until it was seriously remixed and remastered for CD release in 1999—with great sonic improvement. I think it opens brilliantly with the soulful "Changing of the Guards," one of the lengthy, verbose epics Dylan was favoring at the time on classics like Blood on the Tracks and Desire, and "New Pony," a nasty blues-rock with the immortal lines (for me, at least, and probably Kurt Vile, Will Oldham, and the Dead Weather, who've all covered it), "I had a pony, her name was Lucifer / She broke her leg and she needed shooting / I swear it hurt me more that it could ever have hurted her." There are some too-long love songs in "Baby, Stop Crying" and "Is Your Love in Vain?," there's no thematic coherence, and the second half of the record definitely sags, but it's still hard to believe how much critical scorn this record once attracted. It may not be one of Dylan's finest moments, but that doesn't mean it isn't good. Short of giving the record some close listens, hearing Fulks and company cover the record seems about as good an opportunity to give the actual songs on Street-Legal a fair shake as I can think of. Below you can check out "New Pony."

On a side note, while landing over at Fulks' website I came across this poignant and typically erudite appraisal of George Jones.

Today's playlist:

Ben Wendel, Harish Raghavan, and Nate Wood, Act (BJU)
Christina Kubisch, Night Flights (Important)
Various artists, Forgotten Guitars From Mozambique 1955-57 (SWP)
Andrew Cyrille With Greg Osby, Low Blue Flame (TUM)
Shirley Collins, Adieu to Old England (Fledg'ling)

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