Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

42. Side Tracks (2013)

And so we get to the last album in the BobBox, a little over a year since this blog began.  The 2-disc Side Tracks compilation was put together especially for the Complete Album Collection, and still hasn't had a separate CD release, except for a limited Japanese edition.  A 3-LP version was later put out for Record Store Day in the US, and a European release by 'Music On Vinyl' followed shortly afterwards.  If you fancy the vinyl version, I hear it sounds spectacular and will set you back around 45 quid.

Side Tracks does a similar job to The Beatles' Past Masters volumes, gathering together previously released material that doesn't appear on the studio albums.  So here we get tracks that have appeared on compilations like Greatest Hits 1 and 2, Masterpieces and Biograph, including single releases.  Unlike the very thorough Past Masters, it doesn't collect up every stray b-side, so although for a Dylan newbie like me it's absolutely great in rounding out the BobBox, it's probably not enough to satisfy the hardened Zim-head.

The material likely to generate most interest (certainly to me, anyway) are the album outtakes, which make up one-third of Side Tracks.  The earliest is Baby I'm In The Mood For You from Freewheelin', a charming, carefree ditty first heard on 1985's colossal Biograph set.  In fact 19 out of the 30 songs here are drawn from this game-changing 5LP compilation, including Blonde On Blonde outtakes I Wanna Be Your Lover and Jet Pilot (the latter merely a sub 1-minute sketch), and 'Times' outtake Percy's Song, which is heavily influenced by the folk song "The Dreadful Rain and Wind", and told from the point of view of a man whose friend has been sentenced to 99 years in prison.  I'll Keep It With Mine is an especially great unused track from BIABH, with Bob alone on piano and vocal, bookended with harmonica.  The original fuzzy demo recorded in '64 can be found on Bootleg Series Vol. 9, and a rough full-band rehearsal from the BOB sessions appears on BS Vols. 1-3.

A second outtake from 'Times', Lay Down Your Weary Tune, is particularly outstanding for lyrics like:

"I stood unwound beneath the skies
And clouds unbound by laws
The crying rain like a trumpet sang
And asked for no applause"


Even better is Caribbean Wind, recorded during the Shot Of Love sessions, and a good example of Dylan's baffling decision-making when it comes to picking album tracks, dropped as it was in favour of stuff like Trouble and Lenny Bruce (I know, right?).  But by far the best outtakes here are from the sessions for two of his very best albums: Blood On The Tracks and Desire.  The second I heard Up To Me I could tell it immediately that it was from the BOTT era, since it sounds like a hybrid of You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go and Simple Twist Of Fate.  It's as beautiful and consumed by loss as anything on BOTT, sharing the matter-of-fact narrative style and lack of self-pity that serves to magnify the heartbreak.  I can't believe I've been missing out on it all this time, and frankly I'm cross with the readers of this blog for not pointing me in its direction. Desire cast-off Abandoned Love is simply superb, its dumping in favour of the turgid Joey surely a bigger crime than any of which Mr Gallo was accused.  Written during the breakdown of Dylan's marriage to Sara, this song, along with Up To Me makes me yearn for a Bootleg Series volume concentrating on 1975-76.  Surely this has to be next?

As well as previously unknown songs from album sessions, there are a couple of other outtakes; a demo of Forever Young, an alternate version of Quinn The Eskimo from the Basement Tapes, and the magnificent New York take of The Song That Can Do No Wrong: You're A Big Girl Now. It really is lovely, although it still doesn't beat the Hard Rain version, quite possibly my favourite Dylan recording ever.

Three other Basement Tapes songs make an appearance in re-recorded form: Down In The Flood, I Shall Be Released and You Ain't Goin' Nowhere.  Bob had put forward the original versions for his Greatest Hits Vol. II in 1971, but they were deemed unsatisfactory by label boss Clive Davis. With the help of Happy Traum they were redone especially for the compilation (as well as a version of Only A Hobo, which wasn't selected, but can now be found on BS Vol. 10), and I must admit that I prefer these newer ones, mainly because The Band rather get on my tits, tbh.

Along with studio material, Side Tracks also includes half a dozen live cuts.  I'd heard a demo of Tomorrow Is A Long Time on BS Vol. 9; the one here was recorded at a 1963 concert at New York Town Hall.  As well as a rendition of I Don't Believe You in Belfast from 1966, a lovely solo acoustic Visions of Johanna from the (real) Royal Albert Hall the same year, and a much better Heart Of Mine than appeared on Shot Of Love, we get a fizzing Isis and a typically stop-start Romance In Durango from the Rolling Thunder tour.  The latter performance, recorded at the Montreal Forum, was also filmed, and appeared in 1978's Renaldo & Clara.

This collection boasts eight non-album singles, from 1962's US-only Mixed-Up Confusion, sung in his young man's old man voice, through to late-period material such as Oh Mercy outtakes Series Of Dreams and Dignity.  To those unfamiliar with the tribute to murdered Black Panther leader George Jackson, the rollicking Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?, and the acerbic Positively 4th Street which sees Bob at his bitter best, Side Tracks becomes essential.

George Jackson was written during Dylan's relatively quiet stretch in the early '70s.  This period also produced two more singles, both under the guiding hand of Leon Russell, and seem to reflect Bob's feelings during what many perceive to be a bout of writer's block (relatively speaking of course).  When I Paint My Masterpiece has a sense of waiting for things to fall into place, with the lyric "Someday everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody", whereas on the blues-rock of Watching The River Flow (blues being something that Dylan would often fall back on in times of low creativity) the narrator complains "What's the matter with me, I don't have much to say...", while being content to wait, keeping an eye on the ever-changing waters.

The album wraps up with 2000's Things Have Changed, the Grammy and Oscar-winning single from the Wonder Boys OST and a fitting title to end this wide-ranging collection that spans almost four decades of Dylan's career.

(For some reason this video from Dylan's official
youtube channel cuts out the 8-second intro.  It's also
a great example of Bob's idiosyncratic miming style.)

Side Tracks does a great job of filling in some gaps, and for those who've yet to investigate the vast Bootleg Series it serves to demonstrate how frequently first class songs were left off Dylan's studio albums, either to become standalone singles or just left in the vault.  It's also enjoyable as an alternative whistle-stop tour of a lengthy recording career; sequenced in strict chronological order, it's possible to chart Bob's many styles and voices, from the husky folk troubadour, through the speed and electricity-fuelled rock star, country-loving family man and broken-hearted singer-songwriter, all the way up to the elder statesman at the turn of the century where the husk in his voice is real.  It's a little light on the 80s and 90s, but I'm certainly not going to complain about that.

For those who already have most of the albums in the BobBox but not the compilations from which this collection is drawn, I'd definitely urge you to seek out Side Tracks.  For those who have very little or nothing in the way of Dylan's work, and who have been reading this blog since it began on February the 5th last year - what are you waiting for?

*****BobBox price check***** - £123.64 (free postage)
Discogs - from £115.80
Spin CDs - £99.99 (free postage)
Bob Dylan Official Store - £175.99

All prices correct on 9/02/2016

Right then, I'm off to listen to Shadows In The Night :)

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

41. Tempest (2012)

This post is a little later than planned.  On January the 11th I was all ready to start listening to Tempest, Bob's 35th studio album and number 41 in the BobBox, when Dame Bowie shuffled off this mortal coil.  Inevitably I've spent much of the last couple of weeks revisiting his huge catalogue, and what with this, a lot of music received for Christmas, and some excellent new year album releases (including David's own incredible Blackstar), poor old Bob didn't get much of a look in.

So anyway, now I've made my excuses, let's finally have a look at Tempest.

Once again Dylan takes us back to a time before he changed the musical landscape, employing the same pre-rock 'n' roll palette as on his last few albums.  Charlie Sexton has returned to Bob's touring band, and multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo makes another album appearance.  Dylan is clearly happiest overseeing his own work these days, as this is yet another 'Jack Frost' production.  The familiar themes of love, sex, God and death are present, but overall Tempest is darker and more violent than anything that's come before.

Things start innocently enough with Duquesne Whistle, whose 43-second intro of cheery ragtime pedal steel and piano could be straight out of an episode of Theme Time Radio Hour, before it breaks into an engine-chug of brushed drums and thunking upright bass, Bob croaking malevolently "Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing, blowing like it's go' kill me dead". As opening tracks go it's a corker, and unsurprisingly was the lead single.  The video for it takes an equally black turn after its peppy start.

Soon After Midnight progresses in much the same way; this initially romantic ballad moves through lyrics about money-grabbing harlots, someone dragging a corpse through mud, and a disturbing mention of "the killing floors", the latter all the more chilling for the gentle way in which it is sung.  Dylan's voice on Tempest shifts between three main vocal styles: throaty gargle, soft growl and half-arsed drawl.  The gargle reappears on blues number Narrow Way, which sounds great against the saw-like riff as he snarls "If I can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me some day" at the end of each verse.  Long and Wasted Years is a wistful tale of a long-dead relationship, its achingly sad descending guitar riff perfectly expressing the regret and resignation of the couple painted as "Two trains runnin' side by side, forty miles wide".  

I've seen Pay In Blood described as "a bit radio-friendly".  I don't think this was meant as a compliment, but for me it's certainly one of the best songs on Tempest.  It's more expansive and hummable than its companions, but still fits in well.  It's written from the perspective of someone brutalised into becoming as though "made of stone", now only capable of "grinding my life out, steady and sure" and forever sleeping alone.  Bob's Old Testament growl is suitably grim.

Scarlet Town describes a desolate place filled with beggars, sinners, the dying and a "flat-chested junkie whore".  Violin, piano and picked banjo provide a rich deathbed, and Sexton's guitar break is just lovely.  Bob makes use of the riff from Mannish Boy for the workmanlike Early Roman Kings, angrily railing against the crooks (bankers?) " their sharkskin suits".  When he moans "I ain't dead yet, my bell still rings", it sounds as though he wishes it didn't.  Although the running time is around five minutes, its repetitive nature makes it start to drag early on, so it seems much longer.

Things get bloodier on murder ballad Tin Angel, whose story of a love triangle is similar to that of Black Jack Davey on Good As I Been To You, only this time all three come to a sticky end. Bob's menacing barks are underpinneded by wonderfully doomy bass.  Tin Angel is almost twice as long as Early Roman Kings, but is much more engaging both musically and lyrically.

The title track and centrepiece of the album (actually second-to-last song, but you know what I mean) is a 14-minute epic telling of the sinking of the Titanic 100 years before.  Over 45 verses Dylan combines historical fact with the 1997 movie version, plus a good deal of his imagination, describing acts of desperation, treachery and sacrifice, as all the while the ship's watchman lay asleep at his post, dreaming of the vessel sinking.  There's no chorus, but Bob's expressive delivery and arresting imagery make it compelling to the end, and the Irish melody played by Hidalgo on accordion and Donnie Herron on fiddle keeps it rolling along.  Musically, it would have benefited from more frequent instrumental breaks - there are only three very short ones - but I suppose that would have made it even longer!

The only turd in the swimming pool is final song Roll On John, a mawkish, rather hackneyed ode to Lennon that references Beatles and solo lyrics as well as autobiographical details.  It's not as bad as his awful tribute to Lenny Bruce, but it's a piss-weak ending to an otherwise very good album.

Tempest is full of one-way journeys into oblivion, from the Duquesne train that "Sounds like it's on a final run", through the husband pursuing his errant wife, to the death of Lennon on distant shores.  These songs of finality are populated with heroes and villains, where quite often it's the women who are portrayed as the least appealing; as well as the aforementioned junkie whore, there's an adulteress, reference to "a bitch and a hag", and a "greedy-lipped woman".  Dylan's world was once inhabited by goddesses and redemptive figures, but here the pedestals sit empty.

Musically, Tempest treads the same water as his other 21st century work, drawing on folk, pre-war pop and (snore) the blues.  The band play beautifully, though the repetitive nature of the melodies makes for monotony in some cases, and the lack of instrumental breaks and interesting fills means that a couple of songs drag quite badly.  But apart from the odd predictable rhyme, his lyrics are engrossing, and as long as you're a fan of his shredded voice, there's much to enjoy here.

I'd rate Tempest as not as good as "Love And Theft", but better than Together Through Life. There are no new revelations, but at this point in his career Dylan is a collector and an historian, and Tempest further consolidates his millenium renaissance, adding to his legacy rather than taking away from it.

This is the last new album of Bob's own material and I'm a little sad to have come to the end of his career (so far) as a songwriter, but I'm also excited about listening to the final album in the BobBox: the 2-disc collection of previously released non-album songs Side Tracks.

*****BobBox price check***** - £128.63 (free postage)
Discogs - from £113.26
Spin CDs - £99.99 (free postage)
Bob Dylan Official Store - £175.99

All prices correct on 26/01/2016

Thursday, 17 December 2015

40. Christmas In The Heart (2009)

In October 2009, just five months after the release of Together Through Life, Bob took his fans by surprise and released a Christmas album.  Christmas In The Heart is a collection of popular seasonal songs, traditional carols and a couple of slightly more obscure festive covers.

On their own, both Dylan and Christmas can be very polarising subjects, so you can just imagine how the combination of the two split the opinions of critics and the public at large on its release.  Happily, I'm a huge fan of Christmas music, and since I began the BobBox blog back at the start of this year I've steadily become a fan of Dylan too, so you won't be surprised to hear that I loved CITH, which is the most surreal, fun, shmaltzy, likeable and daft thing he's ever recorded, and reveals Bob to be the coolest of Christmas cats, albeit one that sounds as though he's trying to dislodge a series of massive furballs from his airway.

He's joined by the same members of his touring band as appeared on his last album (including David Hidalgo from Los Lobos), with the addition of Patrick Warren on a variety of keys, R&B guitarist Phil Upchurch, and a Mike Sammes Singers-style vocal group of wholesome sounding guys and gals.  Bob, producing under his suddenly very appropriate moniker of Jack Frost, plays it absolutely straight with smooth, traditional arrangements and an old-fashioned, sweet, but not sickly sound.  Steel guitar and violin lend a gentle country air, and occasional sleigh bells add a bit of tinsel about the place.  Those familiar with his most recent work will know that his singing voice is now very gruff and phlegmy, which for me contrasts wonderfully with this conventional backdrop, although it may come as a shock to those unaware that his vocals these days resemble the gargle of someone who's swallowed a packet of razorblades and washed them down with a bottle of Harpic.

On first listen, my main reaction was that of hilarity, from the opening Here Comes Santa Claus with its ching-ching-ching sleighbell intro, brushed drums and Jordinaires-style male backing chorus, to the end of final track O' Little Town Of Bethlehem with its closing "amen", as Dylan weakly croaked his way through all forty-two minutes like a drunken hobo crashing a carol service.  Indeed, the album's comedy value is absolutely priceless.  But this sense of amusement - which didn't wane over subsequent listens - was soon joined by a glow of sentiment and admiration when it became clear that CITH is no tongue-in-cheek, countercultural exercise in irony, but a sincere, heartfelt attempt to share some beloved childhood songs and actual Christmas cheer.

On nearly all of the songs, the boy-girl choir not only provides backing vocals, but also trades lines with Dylan, sometimes taking an entire verse or chorus before handing the reins back.  The best example of this is Winter Wonderland, where the ladies sweetly sing,

"In the meadow we can build a snowman,
And pretend that he's a circus clown,
We'll have lots of fun with Mr Snowman..."

before Bob gleefully chips in: "Until the other kids all knock him down!".

This image of model Bettie Page appears
inside the jewel case version of the CD,

and is included in the hardback book
accompanying the BobBox set.
On a small handful of songs he sings alone.  I was in stitches the first time I listened to his rasping solo rendition of Do You Hear What I Hear?, but accompanied by a marching beat, twinkling piano, swooping violin and velvety guitar, he hits all of the important notes (just), and further listening revealed the croak to be tender, vulnerable, and ultimately moving.  On The Christmas Song Jack Frost tugs at your heartstrings just as hard as he nips at your nose.  There's pathos aplenty in the devastatingly lonely I'll Be Home For Christmas, and on Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas Bob reinstates the line "But 'til then we'll have to muddle through somehow", adding a tinge of sadness.

He comes over surprisingly well on the carols, and even seems to have cleared his throat for the recording of Little Drummer Boy, a suitably solemn performance accompanied by military drum rolls and chiming guitar.

His Latin pronunciation in the first verse of O' Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles) needs a bit of work, but it's charming nonetheless, as are the warmhearted renditions of The First Noel, where the choir take the middle verse, and Silver Bells, which Dylan sings alone.  Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is rather a hoot, with the soft female bvs bringing Bob's wheezy yelp into sharp relief as he strains to hit the high notes.

The most fun to be had is from the less traditional numbers.  "Aloha-ay, aloha-ay" coo the ladies as Dylan sings on Christmas Island of spending the holiday away across the sea.  The gals counter with lines about stockings hung on a coconut tree and presents arriving in a canoe, while Donnie Herron's steel guitar sways in the background like a hula girl.  The Christmas Blues is a tremendous whisky-soaked Dean Martin cover where all Santa brought our hero was a case of the blues.  There's even a now-rare snippet of harmonica before a repeat of the last verse.

Best of all though is Must Be Santa, a demented polka on which Bob plays to his strengths of singing fast and cramming loads of words into each line without tripping up.  He uses the Brave Combo's arrangement (which he played on his 2006 Theme Time Radio Hour Christmas special), pairing furious accordion with jolly call-and-response lyrics, with his own twist of substituting the names of past American Presidents with some of Santa's reindeer.  It's awesome, and the video is pretty great, too.

Christmas In The Heart has been on heavy rotation chez moi over the last week and a half, along with Bing, Frank, Gene Autry and the other usual suspects, and I've come to love it as much as them all.  In fact, I'd put it right up there with my two favourite seasonal albums, Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift For You and the cheesy but fabulous Tijuana Christmas by the Torero Band (if you're a reader of my other blog, you'll know this is high praise indeed!).  It's clear that Dylan is sincere, and I love the way that he's thrown himself wholeheartedly into the album, which is full of Christmas cheer, good will to all men, and an endearing affection for the music of the 40s and 50s.

Yes, his voice these days makes Shane MacGowan sound like Andy Williams, but if you can get past this and surrender yourself to the curious mix of asthmatic lead, angelic backing vocals and traditional instrumentation, it's joyful and triumphant.  Christmas music is now a kind of folk music in itself, including the many secular 'pop' tunes that have become part of the Great American Songbook, so it should have come as no surprise when Dylan chose to record his own set.  He's been doing this kind of thing for the whole of his career (not least on Self Portrait), and those expecting 'Dylanised' reinterpretations may have been disappointed with the straightforward versions here, but as the man himself said during an interview in 2009, "There wasn't any other way to play it.  These songs are part of my life, just like folk songs.  You have to play them straight, too"

His festive spirit extends to the donation of all royalties in perpetuity to various charities around the world, which is another great reason to buy it.  I'll almost certainly be getting it on vinyl before next year - if indeed I haven't already succumbed by the time you read this.  I have to admit that last week, the prospect of listening to this album not only filled me with excitement, but also a small amount of fear; I love Bob and I love Christmas, but what if I hated Christmas In The Heart?  Luckily, it's no turkey at all, but the icing on the (Christmas) cake of my Dylan-filled 2015. As Tiny Tim (almost) said: Bob bless us, every one.

The BobBox will be taking a Christmas break now, and will return in the New Year to finish off the two remaining albums.  I hope you can join me then.  Merry Christmas!  xxx

*****BobBox price check***** - £119.99 (free postage)
Discogs - from £86.98
Spin CDs - £99.99 (free postage)
Bob Dylan Official Store - £175.99
NEW: Sony Legacy UK - £70.00 (plus £10.00 p+p)
All prices correct on 17/12/2015

Friday, 11 December 2015

BobBox Price Drop Alert 11-12-15

It's been drawn to my attention that the BobBox is currently available in the UK on the Sony Legacy website for just £70 (plus p&p, presumably).

Now's the time to strike if you've been waiting for a decent price.  It's unlikely to get lower than this!

***Update: UK shipping is £10.***

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

39. Together Through Life (2009)

Dylan's 33rd studio album came about after a request from filmmaker Olivier Dahan for songs to soundtrack his new movie My Own Love Song.  Bob roped in former collaborator and Grateful Dead lyricist Rob Hunter to give him a hand with the words, and between them they came up with nine tracks, plus a tenth written by Dylan on his own.

I have to say that after the previous three albums, Together Through Life came as something of a disappointment to me.  In its favour, the songs are generally shorter than those on Time Out Of Mind, "Love And Theft" and Modern Times (the longest song clocks in at 5:53), but compared to all of these, TTL is less interesting both musically and lyrically.

Bob continues his 21st century tendency to be tangled up in the blues, but this time there's a more exotic edge.  Three of the musicians from his touring band are joined by Heartbreaker Mike Campbell on guitar and mandolin, and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos on accordion and guitar.  The sound is essentially a bluesy bar band with a Tex-Mex flavour, sometimes with a romantic Cajun atmosphere.  Multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron contributes to the spicy mix by adding trumpet to his armoury, but sadly the album lacks standout songs and catchy tunes.  Subject matter is mainly love and lust, with a smattering of old man's melancholy.  There seems to be a lot less "borrowing" of others' words, which may have pleased some, but the lyrics are poorer for it.

Opener Beyond Here Lies Nothing gets things off to a decent start, its swampy blues rock recalling 'Black Magic Woman', Bob gruffly proclaiming "Well I love you pretty baby"and Herron's trumpet jostling with Campbell's lead guitar for top billing. Unfortunately the sequencing means that this initial energy is immediately squandered by it being followed up with Life Is Hard, a beautifully wistful but slooooow lament on lost love.  Dylan sings each syllable carefully and deliberately (struggling with the high notes), accompanied by trilling mandolin and sleepy Hawaiian steel.  It's a very pleasant song, but really belongs at the end of the first side at the earliest.

My Wife's Home Town is next, and it was at this point on my first listen that exasperation set in, firstly due to the placing of another excruciatingly slow song so early on, and secondly because of the lyrics, of which the expression "lame-ass" would be a charitable description.  I enjoy Dylan's sandpaper voice, but the music is sparse, dull and sounds bored with itself.  The tune is clearly that of 'I Just Wanna Make Love To You', and writer Willie Dixon is given credit in the sleevenotes, perhaps due to the litigious nature of his descendants, not to mention previous criticism of Bob's appropriation of material.

Hidalgo takes centre stage on the accordion-led If You Ever Go To Houston, which has a much fuller sound thanks to the combination of pedal steel, organ (played by Dylan) and mandolin.  It also provides a welcome increase in pace after the last two draggers, although the accordion riff becomes wearing long before the song fades out after nearly six minutes.  Much better is Forgetful Heart, which begins in a shambling manner with a sour, Neil Young-ish guitar chord and shimmering percussion.  The accordion takes more of a back seat, embedded in the dense mix of fuzzy guitar, organ and violin that's almost Lanois-esque but not as soupy.  Despite the slight melody it's the best song yet on TTL, and shares a darkness with Time Out Of Mind.

The band really gel on Jolene, Dylan's mucoid ruckle underpinned by a solid rhythm section, his own organ-playing and a fabulous Bluesbreakers riff from Campbell.  The lyrics are perfunctory, but just right for this lusty blues number.  This Dream Of You is my favourite track on TTL.  It was written by Bob alone (yet bears more than a passing resemblance to Save The Last Dance For Me), and I must say that this shows in the lyrics, which are the most interesting on the album. The subject matter is again of a love lost, and has a romantic Parisian street cafĂ© feel, with violin and accordion swooning and swaying together like tipsy lovers.

Shake Shake Mama is another sleazy blues song, with lyrics as simple and earthy as Jolene.  It's followed by I Feel A Change Comin' On, a meditation on relationships late in life that's plastered in accordion and shot through with Dylan's lusty snarl.  It's a great-sounding song with an almost funky rhythm and licks aplenty from Campbell, but there's not much of a tune to be found.  The best line is "Some people they tell me, I've got the blood of the land in my voice", to which I can't help adding "Yes, and the phlegm of the world in your throat".  Final track It's All Good marks a brief return to social commentary, with a vague list of the world's ills summed up with the sarcastic title line.  It's a well-played, groovesome blues, but not the best song to end with, recalling for me his feeble socially conscious material from the 1980s.

Together Through Life was recorded with the whole band live in the studio, Dylan's favourite way of doing things and one that suits this kind of material.  Like much of his recent work it's fairly reliant on standard blues templates, which coupled with the more straightforward lyrics co-written with Hunter makes for an amiable but somewhat generic sound.  It does represent a dip in quality after the last few records, but comparison is probably unfair, as it was a quickly-evolving project instigated by a soundtrack request, with no songs or even ideas stashed away in the bank to make use of.  Taken on its own terms, it's not a great album by any stretch of the imagination (no matter what some breathless critics would have had you believe on its release), with no real musical hooks or memorable lines, and of the latter, certainly none that have the power to move. I'm sure I'll listen to it again, but it won't be among the first to be pulled out of the BobBox.

I'm expecting no shortage of tunes in the next album, as it consists of many well known and much-loved songs.  Yes - up next, and just in time for the festive season is Christmas In The Heart!  As a fan of Christmas music both good and wonderfully dreadful I've been looking forward to this for some time, and have had to be very strict with myself since December the 1st in not adding it to my seasonal listening.

*****BobBox price check***** - £108.90 (free postage)
Discogs - from £86.41
Spin CDs - £119.99 (free postage)
Bob Dylan Official Store - £175.99
All prices correct on 08/12/2015

Monday, 30 November 2015

38. Modern Times (2006)

A suitable alternative title for this record might be "Bob Dylan Rocks, But Gently".  Like its predecessor "Love And Theft", Modern Times sticks firmly to the pre-rock'n'roll era, mixing sedate tea-dances with frisky, polished blues and stately ballads, only here the sound is more restrained. Dylan retains Tony Garnier on upright bass (plus on this occasion cello), and they are joined by the latest touring band comprising Donnie Herron on steel guitar, viola, violin and mandolin, Stu Kimball and Denny Freeman on guitar, and George G. Receli on drums.  Once again the words are cherry-picked from a wide variety of sources, including Civil War poet Henry Timrod, Roman poet Ovid, and many snippets of song lyrics, but this time Bob caused some eyebrows to raise with his wholesale lifting of some of the arrangements and melodies without crediting their originators.  Whether you believe that this is simply a part of the long-standing "folk tradition", or in actual fact taking the piss a bit, hopefully shouldn't affect your enjoyment of Modern Times, for it's a very fine album indeed, continuing Dylan's late-career hot streak.

A terrific old-fashioned guitar intro launches the steady R'n'B of Thunder on the Mountain, whose Chuck Berry riff underpins a baffling set of verses, including references to his faith and a startling mention of Alicia Keys.  Six minutes later it ends with a flourish, and we're into the Western Swing of Spirit on the Water, a gentle love song that at twenty verses and nearly eight minutes unfortunately outstays its initial welcome.  This style of song was my favourite on L&T, but there they were all around the 3-4 minute mark, so never got the chance to become this tiresome.  Also the music is a little thin, sounding unfinished or perhaps under-rehearsed.  It's a lovely number though, and the final chorus,

"You think I'm over the hill,
You think I'm past my prime,
Let me see what you got,
We can have whoppin' good time"

is followed by a pretty outro featuring creamy guitar and for the first time in a couple of albums, Bob's harmonica.

On Rollin' and Tumblin' Dylan re-interprets and significantly extends a blues song best known for the version by Muddy Waters.  This is one of the tracks that by being credited solely as 'written by Bob Dylan' got the critics in such a tizz, but when he cries "I've been conjuring up all these long dead souls from from their crumblin' tombs", it strikes me that this is exactly what he's doing on Modern Times; bringing the words of the long dead into the 21st century - albeit using the music of some not-so-long-dead folks.  When the Deal Goes Down appropriates the melody of Bing Crosby's trademark song Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day), marrying it to new lyrics that could be read as devotion to either his god or perhaps a lover, a long familiar theme.  There's no ambiguity as to what 'the deal going down' is, though; clearly the end of life is still a preoccupation for this 65 year-old man, though not on the same scale as on Time Out Of Mind.

Bob further muddies the waters of copyright with Someday Baby, a re-working of the blues song Trouble No More.  Over a shuffling beat and brisk guitar the narrator threatens to kick out, even murder, the woman he hates to love, with the refrain "Someday baby, you ain't gonna worry po' me any more".

He moves from murderous to defiant yet hopelessly resigned on piano ballad Workingman's Blues #2.  There's a rather clunky first verse about the "...buyin' power of the proletariat" and America's low wage economy, that has echoes of the abysmal Union Sundown from Infidels, and it has the same demo-ish quality as Spirit on the Water where the band don't quite gel, but overall it's a classic-in-waiting with a haunting chorus:

"Meet me at the bottom, don't lag behind,
Bring me my boots and shoes,
You can hang back or fight your best on the front line,
Sing a little bit of those workingman's blues".

Beyond the Horizon is another leisurely love song, this time with a darker undercurrent and set to the tune of Red Sails in the Sunset, a standard recorded by the likes of Guy Lombardo and Bing Crosby in the 1930s, and Nat King Cole and Big Jim Turner in the '50s.  It's followed by probably my favourite song on Modern Times, Nettie Moore.  This moody acoustic ballad uses the title, the first line of the chorus and a partial melody from a 19th century folk song.  Receli provides a simple, heartbeat-like thud as Bob sings of being  "...the oldest son of a crazy man, I'm in a cowboy band", and the "Blues this morning fallin' down like hail, Gonna leave a greasy trail". Muted strings join him on the achingly beautiful chorus, where the quiet yearning and depth of sadness in his voice are devastating:

"Oh I miss you, Nettie Moore,
And my happines is o'er,
Winter's gone, the river's on the rise,
I loved you then, and ever shall,
But there's no-one left here to tell,
The world has gone black before my eyes".

Flood is probably a metaphor for the End Times on The Levee's Gonna Break, the third reworked blues cover on Modern Times (When the Levee Breaks).  Having said that, it's given a very chipper musical backdrop, with some excellent work from the two guitarists accompanying Dylan's piano and croaky drawl.

Like so many albums before it, Modern Times concludes with an epic closer.  Ain't Talkin' is nearly nine minutes long and the chorus borrows its tune from the finger pickin' Highway of Regret by Dylan's beloved Stanley Brothers.  There's finger picking here too, but much more delicate, as well as mournful violin and the occasional soft 'chink' of tambourine.  It's the only song on the album where the music is as unsettling as the lyrics - no chirpy blues or sentimental supper club whimsy accompany this chilling struggle of faith.  The narrator walks endlessly through a world gone wrong, in search of an elusive peace.  I love the phrase "Walking with a toothache in my heel", and feel a bit bad for wondering where Bob might have pinched it from. Faint hope remains as "The fire gone out but the light is never dyin'", and after seventeen verses we leave him still traveling, still searching this garden of Eden that even the gardener has deserted,

"Ain't talkin', just walkin',
Up the road, around the bend,
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
In the last outback at world's end".

Modern Times continues the mood set by "Love and Theft", but has a more mature, dignified air. The band never let loose, but their sensitivity complements Dylan's now frail voice and the most stirring moments are more likely to be provided by the words and their delivery than by the music underpinning them.  Bob no longer pushes his voice; his growl is now a purr, and his phrasing is used to great emotional effect, in particular the odd tiny whimpers that are so expressive and so moving.  The new relaxed, comfortable style that began on L&T suits him in the strange way that his cowboy hat and pencil 'tache do; it doesn't for a moment diminish his ability to powerfully ruminate on sin, love, God, loss and this terrible, wonderful world in which we live.  Some criticised Modern Times for the length of the songs; to begin with I agreed, but as time went on this no longer bothered me as much, and in the case of Ain't Talkin' I'd be quite happy for it to last as long as Highlands, the 16-minute closer on TOOM.  If I were feeling mean I might describe MT as "Love And Theft Lite", as sometimes it feels more sleepy than sparkling, but from an artist of now pensionable age, and after a career of more than forty years, I'm both astounded and grateful for the fact that he's still putting out material of such high quality.

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Monday, 23 November 2015

37. "Love And Theft" (2001)

Well he's certainly perked up, hasn't he?  Where on Time Out Of Mind Dylan seemed mostly preoccupied with death, on "Love And Theft" he is very much alive.  He's shed the weariness of the last few albums and sounds vital and more comfortable in his skin than he has in a long time. This has resulted in a record that's witty, confident, relaxed and for the first time in ages fun.  He and his touring band plus organist Augie Meyers (who played on TOOM) are clearly having a heck of a good time, and their mixture of roadhouse blues, swing, country, folk and jazz is for me one of Bob's most immediately enjoyable albums in years.

The lyrics are his most interesting in years, too.  Less personal (overtly at least), they are full of outcasts, criminals and lunatics, plus characters like Fat Nancy, Black-eyed Susan, Aunt Sally and phony Mr Goldsmith, as well as more recognisable names like Charles Darwin, Big Joe Turner, and figures from Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll.

He kicks off the new millennium with rumbling retro-rocker Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, a nursery rhyme song better than any on Under The Red Sky.  After a fade-in, this comic, sinister tale begins with:
"Tweedle-dee Dum and Tweedle-dee Dee
They're throwing knives into the tree
Two big bags of dead man's bones
Got their noses to the grindstones",

and the grotesque imagery continues with "Brains in the pot beginning to boil, they're dripping with garlic and olive oil".  Guitarists Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton trade licks easily and naturally, and it's clear that the band's ultra-tight yet laid-back vibe is a consequence of months spent relentlessly touring.  It's a great start, but is immediately upstaged by instant classic Mississippi, an unused song from the TOOM sessions, here re-worked and recorded anew.  This beautiful song sounds like it's always existed, and at the same time, despite it's history, is the freshest, youngest-sounding track on the whole album.  Bob's not fibbing when he sings "Stick with me baby... things should start to get interesting right about now".  It shares the same feeling of disconnect that dominated its intended parent album, thanks to lines like "Your days are numbered and so are mine", "Sky full of fire, pain pourin' down" and "Feeling like a stranger no-one needs".  I love it.

For some reason the "Love And Theft" songs aren't on YouTube, so here it is on Spotify:

Ringing guitar introduces the jump-blues rhythm of Summer Days, and drummer David Kemper sounds as though he's pounding on a dustbin lid - in a good way.  Dylan's attitude is as full-tilt as the music; he's "...drivin' in the flats in a Cadillac car", spending all his money and using all his gas - little wonder as he's " eight carburetors and boys, I'm using 'em all"!  The album is a groan-orama of bad puns and worse jokes, and on Summer Days we're told of a politician who's " on his jogging shoes, he must be running for office".

On Bye And Bye Bob is "...sittin' on my watch so I can be on time", accompanied by Hammond organ and a breezy soft-shoe shuffle.  There are a few of these old-fashioned jazzy smoochers on L&T, and they are probably my favourites.  Dylan crams an unbelievable number of words into the lines of Floater (Too Much To Ask), while slide guitar and fiddle swoon together in the background.  The lilting, swaying ballad Moonlight is set to brushed drums and lap steel, and the romantic, lullaby lyrics take a dark turn as Bob creepily croons:

"Well I'm preachin' peace and harmony
The blessings of tranquility
Yet I know when the time is right to strike
I'll take you 'cross the river dear
You've no need to linger here
I know the kind of things you like",

which made me think of my favourite Dylan meme:

Another old-timey ballad suitable for a tea-dance is Po' Boy, whose lyrics are also packed in tight, seemingly without effort.  The melody struck me as extremely familiar, and made me wonder where he pinched it from.

There's plenty of blues on L&T; he snarls and growls his way through Lonesome Day Blues, over Sexton's meaty, menacing guitar riff and Campbell's buzzing interjections.  The verses don't seem to have anything to do with one another, except they all refer to some sort of loss, or something that's missing.  The most poignant phrase, which seems to come out of nowhere and stands out like a sore thumb, is "I wish my mother was still alive".  Beatty Zimmerman had died the year before, aged 84.

It struck me during High Water (For Charley Patton) what a beautifully produced album L&T is, and I was quite surprised to find that it's a 'Jack Frost' production, Dylan's psuedonym.  Here he pays his debt to Patton (also referencing a couple of other bluesmen) with a doom-laden tale and a country-folk backing featuring banjo and mandolin.  There's dirty schoolboy humour too, my favourite line being the saucy "Jump up into the wagon, love, throw your panties overboard!".  His voice is somewhat drowned out by screeching guitars and thunderous percussion on bluesy rocker Honest With Me, and at almost six minutes it's a bit too long.  Misplaced loyalty and betrayal are lamented on Cry A While, which alternates between a chug and a swing.  To my mind it's the least essential song on the record, as by now there have been several similar sounding ones and it adds little.

Final track Sugar Baby has more in common with TOOM than its stablemates on L&T.  There's no percussion, but lots of atmosphere, with the echo of distant slide guitar and a haunting vocal performance, as well as faint hiss and a few barely discernible crackles.  The dirge-like melody, Lanois-style production and helpless lyrics end the album on a bit of a downer, but it showcases Bob's voice for what it has once again become: his finest instrument.  Not only are his tone and phrasing better than ever, the gravel is now authentic, lending further weight to his words.

I read that Dylan had poached words and melodies from all over the place to make "Love And Theft", including the title, which is acknowledged by the quotation marks.  This patchwork of stolen and original language gives the lyrics a jumpy cut-up feel that matches the energy of the music.  Bob continues with his homage to early music, in this case American music of the first half of the 20th century, but it's unmistakably a Dylan record.  It has more shape and colour than TOOM; the instrumentation is more distinct, there's more melody, and the whole thing is wonderfully lighthearted.  It's as though he's finished grieving for his youth and all that disappeared with it, and is now revelling in late middle age.  Elder wisdom is mixed with a youthful puerility; he's plenty to say regarding age, but now there's a wicked grin and two fingers up to the Grim Reaper.

Apart from some songs being a tad too long, and Cry A While perhaps being superfluous, there's really nothing to complain about on "Love And Theft".  I read that Bob was much happier with this album than the last one; perhaps its rootsy, pre-rock'n'roll sound was the one he'd been shooting for on TOOM before Lanois got his box of tricks out.  It doesn't matter whether this is the case or not; TOOM was a fine album in its own right, and after all the "comebacks" and false dawns in Dylan's storied career, to have it followed up with an ever better record was an unlooked-for joy. If he keeps this up, the final stretch of the BobBox is going to be plain sailing*.

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