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...

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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  1. Never heard this one before, but just listened to the whole thing on youtube + the cringe inducing Nick Cave cover (thanks for that!)
    Well, Down In The Groove aint as bad as I'd feared... though I'm a long time fan short on any "new Dylan" while u (poor thing) are a newbie mired in a run of schlock albums. I see that next up is Dylan & the Dead, sigh... was that inclusion really necessary? My condolences.

    1. Ha, thanks. And you're welcome to the Nick Cave cover:)

  2. It gets better mini, it gets better. And then worse again....