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...

Friday, 8 May 2015

13. Dylan (1973)

'Dylan' is a collection of nine songs, all cover versions, released by Columbia Records after Bob left them in 1973 to sign with David Geffen's new label Asylum.  It seems as though this was an act of revenge as well as a quick cash-in, as Dylan claims that none of the tracks were ever intended for release, being a cobbled-together bunch of rough cuts and warm-ups from the New Morning and Self Portrait sessions in 1969 and '70. It was deleted from the catalogue on his return to Columbia in 1974, and the album contained in the BobBox represents its only US outing on CD.  I'd read that it's one of his most reviled albums (not least by the man himself) so I gritted my teeth and pressed Play.

The first seven tracks are all from the New Morning sessions.  The original plan for New Morning had been to put together a collection of originals and covers in the same fashion as Self Portrait, but as we know this didn't go down too well, and so the covers were dropped.  'Dylan' starts with murder ballad Lily Of The West.  The vocals are slightly buried in the mix, but the guitar propels things along at a galloping pace and the harpsichord flourishes and harmonica add to the dramatic air.  Surprisingly, so far so good.

Next is a cover of Elvis's I Can't Help Falling In Love With You, boasting a sweet little harmonica intro and a great organ/guitar break halfway through.  Bob's voice sounds fantastic.  After this is the exuberant Sarah Jane, and when Dylan follows the opening la-la-la-las with "I've got a wife and five little children!" I can't help but smile.  Despite the poor sound quality of this track, it really is a belter, and a more polished version would have livened up New Morning considerably. Another high point comes immediately with The Ballad Of Ira Hayes, about the death from alcohol poisoning of the Pima Native American who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi at the Battle of Iwo Jima during WWII.  I already knew Johnny Cash's more up tempo version; this is a slow lament, with mournful backing vocals and restrained accompaniment from piano, organ, bass and what sounds like a cocktail shaker.  Wait a minute - this record's supposed to be rubbish, isn't it? I can't be the only person to like it though; it got to no.17 in the US and went gold.  So why the terrible reputation?

The reasons for this become a little clearer on what would have been Side 2, which begins with Mr Bojangles.  This is a much-covered song (the most moving I've heard is Nina Simone's) and although Bob does a fair version in a gorgeously husky voice, it pales in comparison with others. I still blubbed at the dog dying, though.  A nasal rendition of Mary Ann comes next, which is spoiled by some Self Portrait-style backing vocals that are just a bit much.  The worst, however is Big Yellow Taxi.  It's my least favourite Joni song by a mile already, and Dylan does it no favours at all.  The nicest thing I can say is that it's the shortest song on the album and at least there's no awkward little chuckle at the end.  Also, the "Chooo, bop-bop-bop-bop" b/vs never fail to bring these vintage collectible bubble gums to mind:

Things get better again with the final two tracks, both from the Self Portrait sessions.  The country funk of A Fool Such As I (Elvis, Hank Snow) is sung in his Nashville Skyline voice, and although this is a bit low in the mix, the whole thing is a soulful, gritty joy.  The full-on NS country croon is employed for cowboy poem Spanish Is The Loving Tongue (written by Charles Badger Clarke and later set to music by Billy Simon).   La-la-las, maracas and Spanish guitar compose the landscape for this tale of lost love.

Aside from commenting on the individual tracks, there's not much to say about this album as a whole, as Dylan himself had no input at all and so it doesn't represent any particular idea or vision.  I really liked Self Portrait, so found this rag-bag of sloppy covers mostly very enjoyable, although I can understand how many fans and critics, patiently waiting through the late 60s/early 70s dry spell might have felt short-changed.  Anyway, I'm glad it was seen fit for inclusion in the BobBox; perhaps this will give it the opportunity to be more kindly reappraised, especially in light of more recent archive diggings such as Another Self Portrait.

What do you think of this album?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below (for which I've now altered the settings, so no need to sign up to Blogger or Google+ first).

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