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Bob Dylan - Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006 Print E-mail
Monday, 20 October 2008
ImageThis review is going to make AVRev founder Jerry Del Colliano roll his eyes and probably groan out loud. Despite his self-proclaimed… OK, deserved, reputation for great taste in music, even the most expert of us have mysterious holes in our perceptions. Steely Dan never did anything for me, and I’m still trying to figure out the fuss over Conor Oberst (good, but no Next Dylan). Jerry can’t stand Bob Dylan. He’ll hate this review.

The world has Bob worshippers and Bob haters and those who, if truthful, would admit they couldn’t care less. The latter is probably the majority, for whom music is likely a minor part of their lives or they pay only surface attention to it. But with each release of the last 11 years (17 of them), Dylan’s making it harder and harder to justify being in the latter two camps, and Tell Tale Signs might be the clincher.

Every new Dylan album at first comes at you a seemingly untidy heap of mixed messages (and messengers) that takes a while to fully sort and critically position, and when it’s two (or three) discs of alternate and live versions from the last 20 years, good luck. But after more than a week of off-and-on listening I can say a few things for sure.

Tell Tale Signs is often stunning in the subtle beauty of its musicality and heart-rending in the delivery of its lyric poetry. The first disc is one of the finest sides of music Dylan has ever released, front-loaded with five songs that will just knock you out. There are lots of cuts throughout that are crucial and needed to come out of the vaults. There are some missteps but they’re few – in 39 cuts. Bob still likes to croon the occasional lounge number… but not many here. He still alters the lyrics often. Although a collection of old songs revisited, it hangs together as a statement (of some sort) from the Minnesota Mumbler about the state of the world and the state of his mind 2008, neither one looking particularly cheery, but he’s not throwing in the towel yet. (A welcome sign considering that the first time I heard his “Everything is Broken” 19 years ago I worried about what he might know that I didn’t that left him so bereft of hope, but his take on it here opens with beautiful shimmering guitar and is conveyed with bemusement in a nicely moving tempo. Different words too, but an alternate set that he’s used before.) “Dignity” (two versions) and “Mississippi” (three) have jumped into my Dylan Top 30 on the strength of their revelatory reinventions here, and how did we ever exist without the exquisite, mysterious, deeply resonating tale “Red River Shore”? His voice may be on its last larynx (or not) and a small handful of numbers here are edging close to unlistenable, but his astonishing skill as a singer has never been more evident, especially for what he pulls out of that diminishing instrument. Few indeed wrest the range of emotion and meaning out of a lyric or even a syllable like Mr. D. But while the two subtitles for Tell Tale Signs – The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 and Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006 – will be enough to make many groan out loud and decide to wait for the next studio album, that would be a mistake, for several reasons.

All you mortal pop stars, don’t try this! Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley are the only other artists I can think of (Deadheads will disagree) whose tons of bootlegs, official and not, are endlessly fascinating, and… (this is the important part…) of real artistic merit. There’s no evidence I’ve heard that Hendrix ever played one false note (even with drugs and drunk Morrisons distracting him), and my severe reservation a few years back when reggae/Marley authority Roger Steffens told me his completed project of gathering unreleased Marley songs was going to total eight (!) CDs – turned to delight as I ran through all eight with a natural mystic grin on my face.

Maybe that’s a measure of really extraordinary and rare musical genius: Are your rejects and leftovers and live stuff way better than everyone else’s best studio efforts?

“Bootleg” usually means released without the artist’s and label’s permission, of course not the case here. This series title is ironic reference to the unending stream of unauthorized albums that have shadowed Dylan’s recording/performing career since the granddaddy of  all boots, 1969’s Great White Wonder. But this is official Dylan/Columbia “bootleg” #8; most of them have been double-disc, and the total now is 14 discs. Isn’t that more than a bit much? Spreading it a bit thin, man? (Not at all.)

Dylan’s half-century career has certainly had some long near-fallow periods, going years and albums with only the occasional memorable composition.
Yet there were always those bootlegs surfacing to demonstrate his creative longevity, and yes, consistency, because even when the current crop of songs was boring, he would rework old chestnuts and obscurities with unpredictable but sometimes electrifying results. I’ve had “Masters of War” puzzle me as to what drugs Bobby Z must be on that night as he musically and vocally droned me to sleep, and other times knock me out of my chair like I hadn’t heard the song ever in its decades of existence. Bootleggers like Trade Mark Of Quality, Toasted, Q, Yellow Dog, NTB and Swingin' Pig actually did more for Mr. D’s standing at times than did his label Columbia, and his own pen and voice. So don’t fear the boot.

“Rare and Unreleased” gives you pause? Bob’s no shrinking violet (not to be confused with his penchant for privacy), so if it’s rare because he kept that tape stashed away in a basement somewhere, isn’t that because he didn’t think it was worth releasing at the time and maybe he’s just cashing in now on inferior material, like so many pop stars? In a word, no. That might be the case for almost everyone else, but now that we’re getting to hear more recent vault gems, this is emerging as Dylan’s long-established game plan.

Some sycophant or label dude is always inveigling musician cash cows: Those leftovers of yours are sooo good, you have to put them out! You owe it to your fans! But even the Beatles, who still have a few fans, left songs off albums (and kept them missing) for good reasons, as anyone who has heard those songs on illicit bootlegs knows. If they had 15 excellent songs that worked and this was the 16th- or 17th-best, out it goes. Move on. (The Stones, on the other  hand, kept that 16th-best song, and 17-20, and recycled many on later albums, understanding early on that their writing powers were quickly diminishing so what was crap for a 1972 album became the great song!/return to form! 10 or 15 or even just a few years later.) An alternate take, while interesting and good, was indeed (now that we can compare them) not the best version, and therefore wisely left off the album. But not so for Dylan, whose alternate versions are often so different as to be at least emotionally almost unrecognizable from the “originals.”  

So if you’ve been skipping The Bootleg Series for any of those reasons, now you’ve been hipped: go back and listen to them all (especially #s 1-3, 7 and 8) and be amazed and delighted and prepare to ratchet up your appreciation for Bob, but if your funds are limited (that’s a Depression-of-‘08 joke, folks) you couldn’t start any more rewarding place than #8. That is, the superb and very reasonably priced two-disc release, not the outrageously priced three-disc Deluxe edition that retails for somewhere between $130 and $170 (over $200 in the UK), which means you pay as much as 150 bucks extra for a third disc that’s really good but decidedly inferior to the other two, and oh yeah, you also get a book of photos of all the original sleeves of his singles, worth seeing for the charming, random dated art and the ever-changing look of the chameleon troubadour (the Japanese ones are especially cool). But c’mon… for that much, everyone will go instead to their local bootlegger to get the third disc, and you can look at the photos on line. Can’t you control these marketing people, Bob?

I’m trying (unsuccessfully) to mostly review the two-disc set here because that’s what 99.9% of our readers will be interested in, but it becomes confusing to write about the two unreleased versions of “Mississippi” and
not mention the third one on disc 3, or rave about the brilliant, heretofore unreleased “Red River Shore” when there’s another very different version of it on disc 3. Some cuts are listed as “unreleased” rather than “alternate version,” along with the referenced album, but “unreleased” usually means unreleased at that time and while one song was on the album listed, another was recorded during that session but released on a later album. Got it? Trying to compare them all to their original released versions or place them in the context of when/for which album they were recorded versus where they wound up becomes practically, logistically impossible.

These official boots are beginning to persuade me that for all the landmarks you can name, the most remarkable element of Dylan’s entire groundbreaking career may turn out to be not some particular event or album or song, but the ridiculously high quality and creative elasticity of his mammoth songbook.

No one else has done what Dylan has with vault vestiges and live loose ends; no one else could because no one has this kind of catalogue. And perhaps no one else has the combination of artistic curiosity and vitality, philosophical insight, long career overview and vocal legerdemain to pull it off.

And that’s another of the several reasons you shouldn’t wait for the next studio album: I could be wrong, and I dearly hope I am, but I think Mr. D’s voice has turned that bend in the road beyond which there may be no direction home. When I saw him live at the Austin City Limits music festival a year ago, I was embarrassed for him and anxious for all the thousands there who had never seen him live and were so looking forward to it. His croak was so bad and his performance and band so bland that I didn’t even stay for half of his set.

I hope it was just a terribly off night – he’s known for them – and that he was doggin’ it. I know people have been making that excuse for years, no, decades. I have a vivid memory of my own introduction to Dylan, as a wee lad, when I knocked on the door of my neighbor buddy Mike McPherson (an incredibly musically precocious kid) and asked his mom if he was home, and Helen, despite being quite the hip artist/intellectual/probably-closet-beatnik, made a face and said “Yes, come in – he’s in his room listening to the worst singer I’ve ever heard in my life.” I initially agreed with Helen, but little did we know we’d look back on earlier days and wax nostalgic for what a great voice he had then.

Great singers don’t always have great voices, sometimes kind of terrible ones, but there is a line and Dylan may have crossed it. Listen to “Someday Baby” and a few others and parts of several more; listen to “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven (disc 3),” live in London – and that was nearly a decade ago, in 2000. He’s still packing the emotion in, but the voice is so raw the nuance can barely scratch through. Sometimes the roughness is just a hair this side of awful, and actually adds to the atmosphere. Is Bob playing with us? Wouldn’t surprise me. Time will tell, but I’m concerned a gift is fading, so that makes each of these releases all the more precious. And makes us grateful there’s probably so much of the good Bob still waiting for us. More than 14 discs? As my bootlegging buddy Relix Rick assured me, “…you have no idea.”

I listened, for this review, to mixed formats. To get a jump on the release date I listened to the advance stream they offered at the NPR web site, of the two not-Deluxe-release discs. So I could listen in other places besides my computer, good ol’ Relix Ricky G downloaded the stream for me and burned it onto two discs (each with one continuous hour-long cut – a little inconvenient but he couldn’t grab it any other way). He tried in vain to discover the format, but I think it’s got to be some lossless WAV or FROG or FLAC type, ‘cause it sounds so good. Really good.

Which is one of the joys of this set. When you get a new studio album from Bob with a set of new songs, you don’t protest too much if the music is less than thrilling or inventive, which is often the case. But I’ve always complained about it. People rationalize that they listen to Dylan for the words, and even for the artistry and impact of his vocal delivery. But I say, no deal. If it’s not going to be great music as well, just publish a book of verse, don’t cut a disc. Even when he finds a cool groove he tends to riff on it without much variation for most of an album, which may be for his own revelation or vision, or it may be because he’s simply lacking in that area, of musical creativity (hard to believe) – or maybe he’s just lazy sometimes. He’s pulled it off occasionally – Blood on the Tracks pops immediately to mind – and though he’s never since written such a collection of memorable tunes, he does have an underused talent for strong arrangements, displayed scattershot all over Tell Tale Signs. Opener “Mississippi” glistens, “Red River Shore” effectively employs a Tejano setting, “Series of Dreams” is memorably pushed by incessant, heavy-movin’ syncopated drumbeats, one “Dignity” is a tasty light shuffle while the other is an intense piano-only demo that effectively partners with Bob’s vocally ripping the roof off to leave you, strictly through the altered presentation, stunned and reassessing… the song, the world, your beliefs. He can do that, in one song or one line, and that’s why we call him genius and anticipate every note. The live cuts, of course, don’t have the same aural clarity, spaciousness, precision, but there’s a noteworthy reliability through an exceptional (for Dylan) variety of styles on Tell Tale Signs, covering nearly two decades and God-knows-how-many producers and musicians.

The third disc Ricky G had to steal for me the old fashioned way, and the one he grabbed is MP3, and sounds it. Going back and forth between the high and the low quality formats reminded me how much MP3s suck. Really suck. I hate them and try to avoid them. They’re art aborted. Like listening to your great system’s speakers with blankets thrown over them. Like… old AM car radios. LIKE THERE’S A LOT OF INFORMATION MISSING ON BOTH ENDS, and not at all like the way the musicians recorded it.

Bob sounded off in an ‘06 Rolling Stone interview by Jonathan Lethem, prior to the release of Modern Times. “I don't know anybody who's made a record that sounds decent in the past 20 years, really. You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like – static. Even these songs probably sounded 10 times better in the studio when we recorded 'em. CDs are small. There's no stature to it. I remember when that Napster guy came up across, it was like, 'Everybody's gettin' music for free.' I was like, 'Well, why not? It ain't worth nothing anyway.' "

Listen to The Bob, and listen to me: God please give us Blu-ray music catalogues and save us from a stunted, feeble, ignorant listening future.

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