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...

Saturday, 26 September 2015

31. Oh Mercy (1989)

Last week when I wrote my post on Dylan & The Dead, the weather was cold and grey with nonstop rain.  The following morning as I listened to Oh Mercy for the first time, the sun came bursting out from behind the clouds. Talk about a frickin' metaphor.

Right from the off it's clear that Bob is more engaged than he's been for years.  Urgent opener Political World may be a weak start with it's repetitive Chris Rea chug and vague social commentary, but his singing is much more controlled.  The whine has been tamed, and because he's more closely miked, his delivery is more intimate with no sign of straining.  The addition of a chorus or a middle-eight might have livened it up some, and the lyrics are more Neighbourhood Bully than Masters of War, but to hear Dylan sounding like he gives a shit again is most welcome.

Oh Mercy was recorded in New Orleans and produced by Daniel Lanois, whose success with U2 led to Bono recommending him.  A tight group of musicians who'd recently played on the Lanois-produced Yellow Moon by the Neville Bothers were brought in, marking a big shift away from Bob's two previous studio albums that had consisted of material thrown together from a variety of sessions with dozens of personnel.  This, coupled with Lanois' trademark sound and his quite controlled - some say strict - way of working, led to Dylan's strongest, most cohesive and most satisfying album in a decade; clean yet "swampy", spacious yet submerged, heavy on reverb and light on percussion, with no famous friends, no cover versions, and no bloody backing singers.

Of course none of this means a thing without some decent material, and Bob's songwriting has taken a distinct turn for the better, too.  Where Teardrops Fall opens with some beautiful slide guitar and, oh my gosh, a TUNE!  A simple one, yes, but a pretty country tune.  It's accompanied by Dylan's gruff but tender vocal that's also more clearly enunciated than ever.  Maybe it was the music, maybe I was just having one of those days, but on the first listen I got quite misty-eyed, especially when the sax came in at the end.  At just two and a half minutes it's short but very sweet.

The chiming rock 'n' roll of Everything Is Broken is a list of complaints signalling the author's dismay at the modern world, rhyming "broken" with words like "joking" and "croaking" like only an American can.  The simple riff and propulsive beat are arresting, and there's a glimpse of a different harmonica sound, but as for the subject matter, well, we've been here before and this variant reveals nothing new.

It's the next three songs that for me are the beating heart of Oh Mercy.  Like the first rays of spring after a long, dark winter, it's lovely to hear the emotion returned to Bob's voice on the hymnal Ring Them Bells, which openly references his faith for the first time since the beginning of the decade. Despite the lyrics there's a hopeful quality that comes from both the solemn piano and the cracked beauty of his voice.  The up-tempo live version on Bootleg Series Vol. 8 is also worth a listen.

The Man in the Long Black Coat is a proper old-fashioned ballad of doom, its air of menace and tale of temptation putting me in mind of Nick Cave's murder ballads.  We can even hear the crickets chirping as the demon lover claims his bride, much like we did on Day of the Locusts from New Morning.  Bob delivers the words in groups of mainly three syllables, as Lanios' musical marsh provides a suitably grim backdrop.  It's remarkable that this particular song was written in the studio and then successfully recorded on the first take.

I'd already heard the bittersweet Most of the Time on the soundtrack to High Fidelity, and for me this defiant, weary account of coping with love lost, with its mournful wash of guitars and echoing drums, is the most moving song on Oh Mercy.  As elsewhere, the sympathetic instrumentation allows Dylan's words, here sung in a gentle, weathered croon, to hold the listener's attention.

The following trio of songs are less strong, but thanks to the consistent production they fit well. The piano, bass and acoustic guitar on the introspective What Good Am I? are led by a soft, heartbeat-like thud as Bob questions his own worth.  I'm not at all keen on the rather clunky mis-step Disease of Conceit (worst lyric: Conceit is the disease that the doctors got no cure, They've done a lot of research on it but what it is they're still not sure" - erk!); the far superior outtake Series of Dreams would have been preferable.  The verses of What Was it You Wanted? are separated by some harmonica that sounds very different to Dylan's previous style, so much so that I had to check the credits to see who it was playing.  Like the change in his singing, it displays more control, perhaps another consequence of the producer's discipline.  His faith rears its head again as the betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane is referenced for the first time since Saved.  Shooting Star, addressed to a former lover or perhaps his god - certainly someone to whom he's no longer close - is a beautiful bookend, summing up the combination of cynicism and vulnerability that is Oh Mercy, and the dissatisfaction and resignation of middle age.  

Apparently only recorded at night, the album has a dark, sometimes gothic feel, suffused with melancholy and self-doubt. Daniel Lanois surrounds the songs with a dense, mysterious fog that's able to conceal the shortcomings of the weaker material, making what might have been a middling album into a great one.  He's said that he was going for a "swampy" sound and he achieved it; as well as giving the record a strong identity, it also allows me the pleasure of imagining a quiet, shadowy Louisiana mangrove forest, with Bob as a gnarly old snapping turtle, complaining that the frogs round here don't taste as good as they used to.

But much of the credit also belongs to Dylan.  His ability to write interesting, moving lyrics has returned, as has his knack for a tune.  The level of engagement with his material shines through; he sounds like he cares once more about what he's singing, no longer just going through the motions.  Long may it last.

Tomorrow will be another day
Guess it's too late to say the things to you
That you needed to hear me say
Seen a shooting star tonight
Slip away


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Wednesday, 16 September 2015

30. Dylan & The Dead (1989)

Dylan & The Dead is the sound of one man not giving a shit, and some others trying to follow him.  Recorded during a six-date stadium tour in the summer of 1987, this live album wasn't mixed until the following year, then sat in Columbia's vaults for another few months before eventually coming out in February 1989, by which time Bob's musical rehabilitation had begun with the release of Traveling Wilburys Vol.1.

Of the seven songs here, the most recent are two from 1979's Slow Train Coming, beginning with a funky Slow Train recorded on the 4th of July in Foxborough, Massachusetts.  It's pretty shaky, but the members of the Grateful Dead manage to just about hold things together.  Dylan's voice and phrasing are good and he seems to be enunciating well, but unfortunately it sounds as though he's doing so from beneath a thick blanket, such is the mix.  Its album-mate Gotta Serve Somebody is just as funky, even bouncy, and for a little while the band hit a groove.  But Bob's delivery is tired, lacking the fervour of the original, and he's seemingly unsure how to end the song, leading to a long, drawn out finish with the Dead just kind of petering out.  Guitarist Bob Weir's account of the rehearsals that describes Dylan as unwilling to work on each song more than a couple of times seems borne out by the ramshackle, aimless arrangement.

The rest of the tracks are drawn from much earlier, including two songs that have appeared several times before on official live albums.  The now-standard Hendrix version of All Along the Watchtower works pretty well despite Dylan's best efforts to drag it down with lifeless vocals.  He later wrote about this period in his autobiography (or as I prefer to call it, his sorta-biography) how he no longer felt able to relate to his old songs, which certainly explains a lot, although as a professional musician you'd think he could have faked it for all the money he was making off this tour (a reported 70-30 split with the Dead).  The Dead themselves come close to a jam, with a pleasant, if slightly awkward instrumental passage in the second half, but much like the rest of the record, their sound is too watery for the needs of the song.  The most that can be said for the leaden warhorse Knockin' on Heaven's Door is that at least it's not another bloody reggae version.

The worst example of Bob's inability to take ownership of his compositions is I Want You, recorded in Oakland, California on one of the last dates.  His singing is atrocious; enunciation is for the most part non-existent, and his embarrassing fluffing of the lyrics renders them meaningless.  The chorus suffers from too many "I wan-choo"s and it seems he just can't be bothered to even try and do justice to what is one of his loveliest, most yearning pieces of work. The band trot along at a sprightly clip, and there's a nice little guitar solo (though not exactly earth-shattering, as some Deadheads would have you believe), but that watery sound again lets things down.

Directly following this butchering, Queen Jane Approximately comes as a welcome surprise.  This is its first appearance on a live album, and is a real high point.  It's still a tad sludgy and it lacks the optimism of the H61R original, but Garcia provides sensitive guitar all the way through, and Dylan's indifferent vocals are unable to spoil such a wonderful song.  If you were wondering which single track makes D&TD worth getting, it's this.

The one least worthy of your cash I'd say is the ten-minute bore-fest Joey.  This turgid ode to gangster Joey Gallo formerly polluted the exotic sands of 1976's Desire, and here it stinks the place up once again.  Whereas on Desire I felt that it should have been ditched for superior outtakes such as Catfish or Golden Loom, here I'd have preferred it to make way for a couple of more interesting songs from the tour such as The Ballad of Frankie Lee & Judas Priest or Wicked Messenger, both John Wesley Harding tracks that the Dead apparently wanted to include but were rejected by Dylan.

According to Garcia, Bob made his selections for D&TD by listening to cassettes on a $39 boombox, which may go some way towards explaining the final tracklist.  Like many of his live albums, the songs chosen from what is always a wide pool are somewhat questionable.  Why Knockin' and Watchtower AGAIN?  Why not Chimes of Freedom, or even better John Brown which appeared at a Bob Dylan concert for the first time since 1963?  Like Real Live, it represents another wasted opportunity to let us hear lesser-heard live versions, those songs that usually make concert albums so attractive.

On paper, the coming together of the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan sounds like a good match, not least because the Dead already frequently covered Bob's songs at their own concerts.  But instead of an acid-drenched celebration of rock, blues and Americana, what actually results from this great meeting of musical giants (both past their peak, true) is the sound of a jam band not jamming, and one of the most - if not the most - influential singer-songwriters of the 20th century forgetting his words and carelessly mumbling those ones he can remember, his unique gift for phrasing now a thing of the past.

Bob has always benefited from a strong, cohesive backing band, but here it just doesn't work. That they fail to gel is no doubt due to the limited rehearsals, but Dylan's lack of direction and inability to lead is probably why they do this so miserably.  Neither party exudes much energy or emotion; I didn't exactly expect lots of between-song patter, but for those onstage to have at least sounded vaguely awake would have helped to make this live document less, well - boring.  I'm not familiar with any of the Grateful Dead's other music, but the pleasing backing vocals they contributed to Silvio on Down in the Groove are miles better than what they provide on D&TD. Whoever's job it was to produce and mix the album can also take a small amount of the blame for the absence of atmosphere, as there's very little audience noise to be heard, but by and large it's Bob who must take the flak for this wretched little record.

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Monday, 7 September 2015

29. Down in the Groove (1988)

After a couple of years of procrastination that saw Bob touring with both the Grateful Dead and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, undertaking a multitude of different recording sessions, and appearing onstage with folks as diverse as Taj Mahal and Michael Jackson, he finally put out Down in the Groove in the first half of 1988.  After a few days of procrastination that saw me do almost anything than deal with Down In The Groove, I set aside my now perfectly organised sock drawer and finally got stuck in.

Like its predecessor, DITG is a product of lots of different sessions in a variety of studios with another dizzying array of musicians; in fact I believe that no two songs here come from the same recording session. Although it was essentially finished in 1987, Dylan's constant fiddling with the tracklisting and Columbia's reluctance to put it out meant that it didn't hit the shelves until the following May, by which time Bob was getting his mojo back with the Traveling Wilburys.

What's apparent from the outset is the improved production; gone is that tinny, reedy quality of the last few records, to be replaced by a richer band atmosphere, and the 80s special effects are now banished.  With a better sound it's a shame that better songs couldn't be mustered.  It's clear from the number of cover versions that Dylan's ability to write had almost entirely deserted him; of the ten songs here only four are originals, and two of these were co-written with Dead lyricist Rob Hunter.  Three covers kick off the album, followed by the four self-penned songs, then three more covers bring things to a close.  First up is a turgid rock-by-numbers Let's Stick Together, which boasts some meaty guitar but suffers from a bored-sounding vocal and some rubbish one-note harp blowing.  A nicely moody synth intro (courtesy of Madelyn Quebec) begins When Did You Leave Heaven?, but once Bob's aimless 'singing' and seemingly random guitar twanging commences, it's rendered a horrible, tuneless mess that's barely a song.  After two minutes or so of meandering nothingness it just sort of gives up and comes to and end.  Compared with Big Bill Broonzy's tender version or Tony Martin's romantic original, it comes across as lazy "that'll do" filler whose inclusion is baffling and yet depressingly familiar.

Sally Sue Brown was soul singer Arthur Alexander's debut single, and here Dylan enlists the help of Paul Simonon and Steve Jones to record a passable cover.  Bobby King and Willie Green provide excellent "ah-umm" backup vocals, but unfortunately Madelyn Quebec's bvs are beyond irritating, tunelessly shadowing Dylan's competent lead all the way through.

Death is Not the End was a Dylan original left over from Infidels, so features Mark Knopfler as well as Sly and Robbie.  Overdubbed are some vocal harmonies from New Jack Swing artists Full Force, although like Simonon and Jones' contributions to the preceding track, you'd never know it without being told.  The song starts promisingly with gentle harmonica and a lone drum beat, but once again it all goes pear-shaped as soon as Dylan opens his mouth. The lyrics are trite, the melody is embarrassingly sing-song in nature and repetitive, and Bob's ability to condense and stretch words to fit a line, displayed as recently as Brownsville Girl, has vanished, at its worst resulting in an uncomfortable "law ab-id-ing citizen".  At one awful juncture it suddenly gets louder, threatening to erupt into a mawkish crescendo, but thankfully it doesn't, and just returns to dirge, his weary vocal eventually fizzling to a close.  I'd read that Nick Cave recorded a decent version on his Murder Ballads album, accompanied by PJ Harvey, Kylie and Shane MacGowan.  I googled it hopefully, but found it to be acutely toe-curling by comparison, so kudos to Bob for simply boring us.

Had a Dream About You, Baby written for the straight-to-video movie Hearts of Fire in which Dylan starred, features Ronnie Wood, Kip Winger and Eric Clapton (the version here being an alternate mix to the one used in the film).  As you'd expect, the playing all round is great, including some very lively organ, and Dylan is in good voice too, but none of this is enough to make up for the distinct lack of a tune.  At least Bob sounds awake here, which I suppose is something.

The lowest point of the album, and possibly of the entire decade (the competition is fierce, mind), is the co-write Ugliest Girl in the World, which with it's generic blues-rock and dreadful one-joke lyrics is certainly a contender for ugliest song in the world.  Dylan quite often runs out of words entirely, finishing one line with "mmm, yeah", as if he can't even be bothered to sing it properly - and this during a song that's barely written in the first place.  Much better is the bouncy Silvio, which jogs along with a Wilburys breeziness, possibly because the genius that is Nathan East plays bass.  Members of the Grateful Dead provide backing vocals, their lighthearted "come on, wooh-wooh"s contributing to the energetic, collaborative atmosphere on which Bob actually sounds like he's having fun.

With its tambourine shaking, melodramatic piano and soulful male and female backing vocals, Bob's take on Hank Snow's song of a doomed affair Ninety Miles an Hour (Down a Dead End Street) sounds like the extended intro to a gospel belter that never comes.  His vocal is committed and mournful, making this a high point of the album for me.

The final two covers feature more sparse instrumentation; the traditional song Shenandoah is just Bob on guitar, vocals and harmonica, backed by East's bass and a female vocal trio.  The Stanley Brothers' Rank Strangers To Me is even more stripped down, with Dylan's lonely voice and guitar accompanied by just Larry Klein on bass, matching the loneliness and alienation of the lyrics beautifully.

As pleasant as the last few tracks are, there's nothing on Down in the Groove to make it a worthwhile purchase, let alone an essential one.  Most of it is utterly forgettable, due to the uninspired arrangements and sub-par songwriting.  Although several illustrious guests appear, for the most part they could be anyone, anonymised as they are by the generic sound that characterises much of the album.  That's not to say it's terrible - there are no arse-clenchingly awful moments like on Knocked Out Loaded (although mine remains somewhat tense since the gruesome choir of kiddies on They Killed Him) - it's just... not very good.  As a whole it beats its predecessor, but unlike KOL there's no single track that I'd recommend downloading.

Ah, well.  I'm led to believe that things pick up soon.  Please tell me they do.  Please?

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