Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Wallflowers Album

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

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The Wallflowers (1992, Virgin)

C –

“False start” is the phrase that most quickly comes to mind to describe this disc, which is the biggest anomaly in the band’s catalog. Not only is it the only album they made for Virgin Records and the only one they would cut with producer Paul Fox (best known for his work with 10,000 Maniacs), but it’s also practically the work of another band: only Jakob Dylan and organist Rami Jaffee would return for later records. (The band’s rounded out here by lead guitarist Tobi Miller, bassist Barrie Maguire and drummer Peter Yanowitz, the latter two of whom would go on to play with Natalie Merchant.)  Nor does the disc seem to be all that highly regarded by the band – nothing from it was included on their first career anthology, nor has anything from the disc been a fixture in the band’s set list for quite some time.  Dylan’s insistence on recording the album live in the studio means that this disc is noticeably much rawer than the band’s later records, which lends the album some home-spun charm, but while the band certainly exhibits a whole lot of potential here and the record sounds perfectly fine while it’s on, there’s just not a whole lot here in the way of especially immediate or engaging songs, and even the single “Ashes to Ashes” isn’t terribly infectious or easy to remember afterwards. It’s by no means a terrible album, simply a largely forgettable one. The record didn’t sell, and Virgin would cut the band loose shortly after. It’d take over a year for the band to finally find a new label to call home, but the wait would be worth it in the end.  

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Bringing Down the Horse (1996, Interscope)

A

Four years is typically a near-suicidal length of time to let lapse in between your first and second records, but in the case of the Wallflowers, there was little to lose since their first album really hadn’t been successful and they were a virtual non-presence on the radio dial.  Even in spite of losing three band members during those quiet years, the band not only survived but miraculously improved – and radically so – in that time away. The band’s debut for new label Interscope finds T-Bone Burnett (who had helmed Counting Crows’ August and Everything After) taking over as producer, and he gives the band’s brand of roots-rock just enough gloss to make them seem a bit more conducive to radio play without overdoing it (it’s to the credit of Burnett and mixer Tom Lord-Alge that they managed to make a song with, of all things, a dobro solo, sound as sonically fit for Top 40 as it does), but the real story here is the leaps and bounds Jakob Dylan has made in the years since their first record. The songs are considerably tighter and the hooks are undeniably remarkably stronger, and the first half in particular is just crammed with one highly infectious song after another, from the career breakthrough of “One Headlight” – easily one of the greatest rock songs of the late ‘90s – to such underrated sides as “6th Avenue Heartache” (featuring Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz on harmony vocals), “Three Marlenas,” and the hard-driving rocker “The Difference” (boasting the brilliantly clever lyrical hook “The only difference that I see / Is you are exactly the same as you used to be”). But while many listeners likely never got past the album’s first five songs, the unsung back half is actually a good listen in its own right with such minor gems as the Michael Penn-featuring “Angel on My Bike,” the heavily country-tinged “I Wish I Felt Nothing,” and the rocker “Laughing Out Loud.” It may not be a debut album, but this band is nonetheless playing with the vigor of a hungry newcomer.  

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(Breach) (2000, Interscope)

A

That the band waited another four years to put out its third album likely negatively impacted its sales somewhat, since the band’s most recent radio hit had been in early 1998 with the Godzilla soundtrack contribution – and David Bowie cover – “Heroes.” The disc still went gold, but it failed to yield any hit single and, compared to its quadruple-platinum predecessor, was inevitably deemed a commercial disappointment. Artistically, however, the disc is a real triumph – every bit as good as, if not perhaps even a tad superior to, the previous album. Singer-songwriter Michael Penn (of “No Myth” fame) produced the disc along with Andrew Slater, and he tones down the rootsier elements of the band’s sound ever so slightly, resulting in a disc that feels a bit harder-rocking than Bringing Down the Horse. The band itself is playing with greater confidence, too, to the extent that Jakob Dylan is even willing – for the first time – to playfully address his status as the son of one of rock’s greatest legends, which he does with great humor and biting wit on such cuts as “Hand Me Down” and “Sleepwalker.” Jakob’s melodic gifts are still very much in top form here, and if this disc had only come out a few years earlier, it’s likely that at least three or four songs would have been sizable alternative-rock hits, particularly “Sleepwalker” (the chorus of which is every bit as infectious as that of “One Headlight”), “Letters from the Wasteland,” and the swirling groove of “I’ve Been Delivered.” Even the album’s uncredited bonus track, “Babybird,” has got a remarkably immediate hook for a hidden song, while no less than Elvis Costello pops up to serve as Dylan’s duet partner on “Murder 101.”  If you only own Bringing Down the Horse, do yourself a favor and pick up this one, too, because this one deserved just as much attention.

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Red Letter Days (2002, Interscope)

B +

In an unusual twist, guitarist Michael Ward parted ways with the band after (Breach) while the group’s original, pre-Bringing Down the Horse guitarist Tobi Miller returned – as the band’s producer! (Most of the guitar duties here are instead helmed by Dylan, with occasional assists from guests like Rusty Anderson and Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready). The disc did nothing to reverse the band’s commercial slide, peaking at #32 and garnering little attention at radio, but it’s an underrated album. Dylan and his bandmates may not sound quite as hungry here, nor is the record quite the album piece or mission statement that (Breach) – with its many references to Jakob’s son-of-Bob background – was, but the quotient of hooks is roughly the same. The band’s also wisely broadening its sound somewhat, to the extent that the disc – and its lead-off single – begins with the sound of gurgling synths, which would be more jarring if the song weren’t so good, but “When You’re on Top” is one of the band’s most fun cuts to date with its hypnotic verses, singalong chorus, and a sunny vibe throughout that makes it a great song to cruise down the road to with the top down. Though nothing else here is quite as utterly brilliant as that song, cuts like “How Good It Can Get,” “If You Never Got Sick,” “Too Late to Quit,” and “Everybody Out of the Water” are all still fairly well-crafted songs for a writer who’s now turning out memorable melodies with much greater ease and frequency than he was in the earliest part of his career.   

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Rebel, Sweetheart (2005, Interscope)

B +

The band has recoiled a bit here and is playing up its roots-rock side slightly more here, so the sonic experimentation of “When You’re on Top” from the last record is nowhere to be found here. The disc consequently feels just a tad bit too safe and by-the-numbers, but on the bright side, Dylan’s still in fine form here as a writer, and if it seems like maybe there’s one or two fewer memorable melodies this time around, he makes up for it with his sharp wit as a lyricist, this being the best batch of lyrics he’s brought to the table since at least (Breach), and it’s hard to deny the brilliance – either musical or lyrical – of such songs as the meditative jangle of “The Beautiful Side of Somewhere,” the biting “God Says Nothing Back,” and the playful “The Passenger,” while “We’re Already There” and “I Am a Building” are nearly just as engaging. 

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Glad All Over (2012, Columbia)

B

Technically, the hits-to-misses ratio here isn’t all that much different than that of Rebel, Sweetheart, but it’s obscured by one very glaring flaw: the lead-off single from this disc, “Reboot the Mission,” is arguably the worst single the band has put out since its self-titled debut, in part because it’s just too self-referential for anyone else to ever cover the song but mostly because it’s also just a blatant rip-off of the rock-disco of “This Is Radio Clash,” not exactly one of the The Clash’s more respectable moments. [The rip-off is partly excused by the fact that Clash guitarist/songwriter Mick Jones himself is on hand here as a featured guest on the track, but, still, the Wallflowers have no business playing disco.]  But however cringe-worthy that song may be, Dylan makes up for it with the wickedly fun and very infectious “Misfits and Lovers,” the second of the two tracks here featuring Jones and the catchiest song the Wallflowers have issued since at least “When You’re on Top.” [Strangely enough, the song didn’t even get released as a single at all.  Go figure.]  The disc is peppered with enough other cuts deserving of a listen (most notably, the breezy “Love Is a Country,” the snappy “Hospital for Sinners,” the dramatic “First One in the Car,” and the barn-burner “Have Mercy on Him Now”) to still make it another solid outing from one of rock’s more consistently dependable acts to come out of the ‘90s, but there is just an ever-so-slightly fuzzier focus that prevents this disc from feeling quite as coherent an album piece as such masterful and unified outings as Bringing Down the Horse or (Breach).

Compilations:

The band’s lone best-of to date is the 2009 release Collected: 1996-2005. As you might guess from the title, there’s nothing included from the band’s self-titled debut (but, then, that’s also no great loss, either), nor is “Heroes” here (likely simply due to licensing issues with Sony), but as a summation of the band’s four albums for Interscope, it’s just about perfect (they even take a break from the barrage of singles to include the top-drawer album cut “I’ve Been Delivered” from (Breach)), with Rebel, Sweetheart’s “The Passenger” being the only omission of any real note.