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