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...

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 café 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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All prices correct on 30/11/2015

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*.

*****BobBox price check***** - £108.90 (free postage)
Discogs - from £85.69
Spin CDs - £119.99 (free postage)
Bob Dylan Official Store - £175.99
All prices correct on 23/11/2015

*I expect some readers will know better :)

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

36. Time Out Of Mind (1997)

Time Out Of Mind arrived seven years after Under The Red Sky, an unprecedented gap between albums of original material.  This post arrives over a fortnight since the last, an unprecedented gap in the short history of the BobBox blog.  Dylan's reason was likely a lack of inspiration; my excuse is that it took me a long time to get a grip on TOOM (although 10 days of domestic upheaval, plus the arrival of the Bootleg Series Vol. 12 also played their part).

Producer Daniel Lanois returned to oversee this album of brooding modern blues and love songs, his soft, dense music bathing the mostly painful words in a haze of echo, distortion and compression.  At times this drains the songs of energy, but it also lends heft to the weaker material.  The overarching theme of Bob's 30th studio album is loss; that of love, of friends, sometimes of his sanity, of youth, and of time.  There's fear, too, of being left behind, left alone to face what's coming.  It's a record only an older person could write, although I had to remind myself that he was actually only 56 when it was recorded, a mere spring chicken compared with the man currently touring Europe.

His constant touring is reflected in the lyrics - there are many references to traveling: riding trains, being Dixie-bound, wanting to take to the road, people on platforms waiting, walking in the middle of nowhere (there's a LOT of walking), as well as trying to get to some distant place or other.

Love Sick begins with some brief tuning up, then an organ stabs from left to right (TOOM is really a headphones album) before Dylan informs us that "I'm walking, through streets that are dead". His voice is close-miked and growly, dialled up to at least Medium Phlegm. Engineer Mark Howard explained that Bob wanted a retro, '50s sound to his voice, like it was coming out of a radio or a gramophone.  Using old microphones, his vocal was run through a distortion pedal into a small amp, which was itself miked, to provide an "old sound".  This was blended 50/50 with the "clean vocal" to achieve a vintage feel, one that Dylan described as "spooky".  It works well, and sounds like nothing he's done before.

Dirt Road Blues is a fidgety rockabilly number with criss-crossing guitars and a bluesy choogle. It's generic, but enjoyable nonetheless.  After endlessly walking down a dirt road, the motion continues in Standing In The Doorway, which sees the protagonist walking through summer nights and riding a midnight train after losing at love.  Slide guitar, churchy organ and Shadows-style strumming help amplify the hopelessness, and we leave him "...standin' in the doorway cryin', blues wrapped around my head".

The hopelessness lingers for Million Miles, a funky crawl through the dirt with slinky, jazzy guitar chords, and Bob plagued by voices in the night, trying in vain to bridge the gap between himself and his lover.  Distance is again the enemy in ballad Tryin' To Get To Heaven, as heartbroken and alone he wearily seeks salvation.  The music is a dense fog of compressed harmonica, organ, violin and a whole bunch of guitars.  We're back to the blues for 'Til I Fell In Love With You, boasting jazzy electric piano courtesy of Jim Dickinson, and a sinuous guitar riff.

"Time is running away" during Not Dark Yet, for me the most affecting song on TOOM.  A ghostly tambourine rattles in the distance as Dylan looks over the past while keeping one eye on the future, the end seeming much too close for comfort.  It finishes with the moving "Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer, it's not dark yet, but it's getting there".

Clattering percussion, thunking bass and a cloud of guitars provide the backdrop to Bob's woes on Cold Irons Bound.  He's losing his mind over love, and losing himself in the process: "I'm beginning to hear voices and there's no-one around" and "God, I'm waist deep, waist deep in the mist, it's almost like, almost like I don't exist".  The whole thing is submerged in cavernous, intimidating echo.

I don't know where Make You Feel My Love came from, but it's like nothing else Dylan has written before.  Perhaps its stands out so much because of the the songs that surround it, but this sentimental love ballad has an enormously strong melody.  The lyrics are straightforward, and Bob accompanies himself on piano, joined by just quiet bass and funereal organ.  Depending on your point of view it either nicely breaks up what can be a rather stodgy album, or kills the mood entirely.  I've not quite made up my own mind, but whatever you think of its place on TOOM, its beauty and strength cannot be denied. Little wonder that it's been covered by Billy Joel, Garth Brooks and of course Adele, among others.

Can't Wait is another song of lost love, and a minor one in comparison to the many similar songs here.  With our hero "...walkin' through stormy weather" and strolling through the graveyards of his mind (he must be exhausted by now), it acts as a stepping stone between the moonstruck Make You Feel My Love and the rambling epic that is album closer Highlands.  Partly indebted to Robert Burns' "My Heart's In The Highlands" (1789), once it finds its groove it stays there, drifting airily over a gentle blues riff for 16½ minutes.  There's mention of the king of long songs Neil Young, and a lengthy detour into a restaurant resulting in an odd conversation with a waitress (but thankfully not as baffling as Neil's "hip-hop haircut" in his 28-minute Driftin' Back).  The rest of the time is spent describing a sense of disconnection and a yearning to be elsewhere in both time and space: "I wish someone'd come and push back the clock for me", "Well, I'm lost somewhere, I must have made a few bad turns".  It's an odd combination of depression and playfulness, and the hypnotic quality of the music means that even at over a quarter of an hour it doesn't drag, although I'm glad he didn't use the rumoured 35-minute original!

In an interview for Newsweek in 1997 Dylan confessed that "I don't feel in tune with anything", and this out-of-time figure haunts TOOM with his archaic turns of phrase and fixation on loss and finality.  The death of Jerry Garcia may have influenced the songwriting; although Bob's not exactly fixin' to die just yet, it sounds like mortality has been weighing on his mind.

Lanois' production, though skillful, is sluggish for the most part.  His tasteful soundscapes are like a thick soup, and it took me many listens to appreciate all that was going on beneath the murky surface.  The lack of "fills and frills" can make for a rather shapeless musical experience, which only took on an interesting form with much concentrated listening under headphones - I'd recommend this tactic to those unmoved by first impressions, as the rewards are rich.

Of course the critics went over the top at the time of release, hailing it as a masterful return to form.  I suspect that this had more to do with the prospect of confronting the reality of a world without Dylan (due to a serious illness he suffered between its recording and release) than the actual content of TOOM, as although it marked one of his best albums in years, I don't think it quite deserved the hyperbole it attracted.

TOOM's sense of utter loneliness reminds me a lot of Blood On The Tracks, except that now Bob has been around for much longer, and has lost an awful lot more.  It's often said that the greatest art comes from the deepest pain, and although I really hope he feels happier soon, in a selfish kind of way, I really don't.

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I'd love to know what you think of TOOM.  Do tell me in the comments below.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

35. MTV Unplugged (1995)

During the early 1990s stars as big as Clapton, McCartney and Rod Stewart benefited from their appearances on MTV's Unplugged series, both in terms of sales and how they were perceived by the generation below, so when Dylan was asked to take part it must have been an easy decision for him to make.  But of course nothing is simple in Bobland, and his desire to perform a solo set of traditional music à la Good As I Been To You/World Gone Wrong was rejected by MTV bods as not being suitable for a mainstream television audience.  Instead he brought the hits, with a couple of curveballs thrown in for good measure.

In another typical Dylanesque move, he turned up to record his episode of a show entirely based on acoustic values with what can only be described as a semi-electric band; we have John Jackson playing acoustic-electric guitar, Bucky-Baxter skillfully switching between pedal steel, dobro, steel guitar and mandolin, Tony Garnier on upright bass, Winston Watson thwacking a full rock drum kit, and Brendan O'Brien sat behind a vast Hammond.  Bob himself sticks to his trusty acoustic guitar and gob iron.  These musicians constituted his touring band at the time, and this shows in the almost effortless way they gel, and there's the sense that they know exactly what Bob is about to do at any point.  After the Dead's all-at-sea floundering on the previous live album, it's absolutely heavenly.

They begin with Tombstone Blues.  Although I love the garage-band original, the country flavour given to it here suits it well, and the swirling organ is wrapped round a surprisingly good lead vocal.  Dylan is clearly in fine voice right now, and sounds engaged and energised.

We hop from 1965 straight to 1989 next for a beautiful Shooting Star, the final track from Oh Mercy.  Bob provides a decent enough harp solo, and the instrumental outro from the band as a whole is just gorgeous, O'Brien's Hammond gently tangling with Baxter's weeping slide.  With no pause for breath, they're straight into a rendition of All Along The Watchtower that's midway between the acoustic original on JWH and the searing electric Hendrix reading.  Dylan's lead guitar is impressive, but his voice sounds as though it's beginning to falter.

The Times They Are A-Changin', once sung in youthful defiance, is transformed into a country ballad delivered with the weary resignation of a man now on the other side of the generation gap. But Bob is able to reach into his guts for a bitter performance of anti-war song John Brown, which he first recorded in 1963 under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt for a compilation called Broadside Ballads.

An otherwise dreary version of Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 is elevated by drunken lap steel replicating the woozy brass of Blonde on Blonde, and a truncated Desolation Row replaces Charlie's McCoy's delicate counter-melody with a rich, busy sound that's able to remain suitably mellow. The pace picks up again with Oh Mercy outtake Dignity, first heard on Greatest Hits Vol. 3 in its original rockabilly incarnation.  This rockier MTV version was released as a CD single.

The set isn't marred by the annoying audience noise that plagued Neil Young's Unplugged episode, but the European version of Knockin' On Heaven's Door was apparently overdubbed with a section of whooping and whistling, on a repeated loop.  Luckily the CD in the BobBox is the US album, so is free from the 'whoop loop'.  Dylan sounds pretty nasal here, but at least he decided against doing a reggae version.  There's a nice harmonica break, and the heavily textured backing is glorious.

On Like A Rolling Stone he bunches the words up at the beginning of each line, and the phrase "do you want to make a deal?" seems like it's reluctantly forced out - quite amusing from the former King of counterculture as he sells his services to a cable channel.  (I wonder how that feels?)  The remainder is sung with more intensity, and goes on to fill over nine minutes.

The set was recorded over two nights in November 1994 in NYC's Sony Music Studios, and final track With God On Our Side is the only recording from the first night used on the album.  Like Desolation Row it's shortened by a couple of verses; in this case the ones mentioning the Holocaust and the Russians are omitted, and like 'Times' there's a resigned weariness in Bob's voice.

As well as being a relief after the horrors of Dylan & The Dead and Real Live, it's good to hear Bob in full-band mode after two pleasant but rather minimalist studio albums.  The public seemed to feel the same way, rewarding him with his first gold album for six years; I expect the fact that there were no wildly altered melodies or arrangements had something to do with it.  Other songs recorded at the sessions but not used included Hazel, Absolutely Sweet Marie and My Back Pages.  The concert DVD (of course I bought it, I'm not MAD) boasts an additional performance in the shape of a fairly underwhelming Love Minus Zero/No Limit (also included on the European CD release) which again sees him bunching up his words at the beginning of each line.  There's almost no between-song chat and Dylan remains inscrutable behind his shades for the duration. The 80s mullet and designer stubble are gone, and with his spotty shirt and dark jacket he rather resembles his mid-60s self, much as the mixture of organ and Nashville twang resembles his mercurial mid-60s output.

Verdict: A highly enjoyable set of mellow but stirring country rock. More plugs than expected. Opt for the DVD if you can.

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Tuesday, 20 October 2015

34. World Gone Wrong (1993)

World Gone Wrong is essentially Good As I Been To You Part 2, with baffling liner notes.  Arriving on the shelves one year on from its predecessor, this shorter, 10-track collection of covers is more blues-based, and for the most part sustains a more subdued atmosphere.  It too was recorded over a short space of time in Dylan's home studio (reportedly without a single change of guitar strings!), but this time no producer other than Bob himself is credited.

Perhaps because of the outcry over the lack of song credits on GAIBTY, here Dylan provides lengthy, fairly comprehensive and (I suspect) deliberately bewildering sleeve notes, citing his sources and explaining them in his own inimitable style.  These are playfully titled "About the Songs (and what they're about)".

The album opens with the title track, a blues lament learned from the 1930s version by the Mississippi Sheiks.  Dylan's voice is a little clearer on this song than it was on the previous album, but this doesn't last long, as by the second track, Love Henry, it's back to the familiar slur. For some reason I didn't mind so much, perhaps because I'd grown used to it, or more likely because I made sure I had the lyrics to hand from the outset this time.  Whichever it was, I really enjoyed his telling of the murder of Henry at the hands of his treacherous "pretty girl", particularly the last verse about the deeply (and rightly) suspicious parrot, witness to murder and refusing to approach his mistress lest he suffer the same sticky end.

After Willie Brown's Ragged and Dirty is another Mississippi Sheiks number, the lustful Blood in My Eyes.  A video for this was shot in Crouch End, London, with Bob wandering around and signing autographs in the street.  The album's cover image was taken in a cafe during the video shoot.

Bob rounds off Side 1 with a song by Blind Willie McTell, one of his biggest heroes.  He covers Broke Down Engine which he describes in his notes as "a masterpiece" and "about variations of human longing".  It does indeed contain all the blues tropes: poverty, a woman who done left him, and a reference to the Georgia crawl.  He also writes that "it's about trains", which is less clear. The line "Can't you hear me, baby, rappin' on your door?" is illustrated with a few knocks on the body of his guitar, and the croaking delivery is suitably desperate.

Side 2 begins with more loss and betrayal in the form of murder ballad Delia, a story of gambling and unrequited love that ends with the heroine shot down "with a cruel forty-four".  Dylan's voice is tender, and he sings the heartbreaking "All the friends I ever had are gone" mournfully, communicating the loneliness perfectly.  There's more murder next with Stack A Lee, a traditional song also known as 'Stagger Lee' and 'Stack O' Lee'.  This starts with brisk strumming and cheerful harmonica (the only time this instrument gets an outing on WGW) before we learn of Billy Lyons, shot dead in a bar by his friend over a John B. Stetson hat, and going on to haunt his killer's jail cell.  Less seedy but equally tragic are the deaths in Two Soldiers, a war ballad learned from Jerry Garcia, where battlefield promises cannot be kept.  Like Bob, Garcia was a repository for obscure American folk music.  Unlike the rest of the album this song had actually been present in Dylan's live shows for a few years, and he describes it as being from "...before the Wild One, before the Children of the Sun - before the celestial grunge, before the insane world of entertainment exploded in our faces".  For some reason the songs from WGW are not currently available on Youtube (at least in the UK), so here's Two Soldiers on Spotify.

Like Canadee-I-O from GAIBTY, the Tom Paley ballad Jack-A-Roe tells of a young woman disguising herself as a man and following her true love to sea.  It's nice after all the bloodshed to have a story with a happy ending, with the couple marrying after her lover narrowly escapes death.  But the sadness returns for final track Lone Pilgrim, learned from Doc Watson.  Bob sings softly of the pilgrim's death from "contagion" on this most sombre of songs.

Although World Gone Wrong suffers from Dylan's same lack of diction as on GAIBTY, and the mood is darker and more sorrowful, I enjoyed it a little more.  Perhaps the more dominant blues theme suited his rough style; the unvarnished, lo-fi approach is certainly preferable to the ham-fisted attempts at modern production that plagued most of his output in the decade before.  Also, his voice sounds less strangulated, which was a surprise - perhaps he'd warmed up a little. Things might have been improved with the inclusion of a couple of more upbeat songs; there's no Froggy Went A-Courtin' here to lighten the load, which makes for hard going at times.  For this reason I feel that like some of the other less outstanding albums in his catalogue, the songs on World Gone Wrong would work best as part of a mixed playlist.

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(I'm sorry that this isn't a more interesting blog post; at this stage in the BobBox I'm definitely flagging a bit, plus after its very similar predecessor I'm finding little to say about World Gone Wrong that I haven't already said about Good As I Been To You.  Hopefully these two albums served their purpose as a recharging exercise for Dylan's songwriting.  I guess I'll find out).