on October 7, 2008
Thank goodness for the Bootleg Series; not only does it constantly present us with new ways of approaching our favorite Dylan songs and reveal his often fascinating creative process, it's also provided me with some of my very favorite Bob Dylan albums, which I return to again and again. This most recent installment rounds up unreleased, alternate, and live material from what can generally be called Dylan's "late" period--from 1989's Oh Mercy to his most recent studio album, 2006's Modern Times. When I first heard about this release, I was really excited. I've really enjoyed Dylan's more recent work; Oh Mercy is one of my favorite Dylan albums, and to me it really marks the beginning of his latest comeback in terms of quality, which has fortunately lasted until today. As always, Dylan's more prolific than the final studio releases would have you believe, and, as often happens, much of the material that ends up off the records is as good or better than the album cuts.
The collection opens with a stripped down acoustic take of "Mississippi," one of Love and Theft's most memorable tracks. It's a good choice as a lead-off--it's more buoyant and conversational than the official version, and sets the tone of intimacy and warmth that really permeates this entire collection. A lot of people can't stand Dylan's voice these days, but I really enjoy it--not only does it convey the sometimes world-weary tone of a lot of his later material, I think it's the perfect instrument for forcefully transmitting the tenderness and occasional anguish that also appears in his recent work (not to mention enhancing the live reinventions of his extensive back catalog). On many of the tracks here, his voice is also a tool for wringing dry humor and fun out of his ever-playful words. "Most of the Time" follows suit, sounding almost like a Blood On The Tracks outtake. "Dignity" is a priceless inclusion (we get two versions here with vastly different production)--after reading Dylan's extensive notes on this song in Chronicles, Vol 1, it's great to finally hear the song's stark and moving imagery.
Although these songs span nearly 20 years, it's remarkable how well they sit alongside each other--the compilation isn't sequenced chronologically, and it's all the stronger for it: in many ways, it plays like a brand new double album. Sure, the moody, murky Daniel Lanois production from Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind is noticeable, but the spirit and vibe of many of the songs is cohesive throughout. It seems that many of the best songs on this set simply weren't included in their original albums because they just didn't fit with the rest of the songs or mood--"Red River Shore" is a bit too playful for Time Out of Mind, while the driving "Dreamin' of You" was probably too fast for the album's languid pace.
This collection highlights a number of Dylan's other strengths, including slow blues--"Marchin' to the City" and the second version of "Mississippi" are weighty examples of his inimitable skill with preventing slow blues from being boring. It also shows that Dylan is still sometimes best experienced live--"High Water" (probably my favorite Love and Theft track) from 2003 rocks almost crushingly, and "Ring Them Bells" is achingly poignant, supplemented by the sounds of an appreciative audience. In addition, this set reminds us of Dylan's power as an interpretive singer--"32-20 Blues," "Miss the Mississippi" and "The Girl on the Greenbriar Shore" communicate this with humanity, and also act as a nagging reminder that he put out two excellent folk standard albums in the mid-90's (Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong), which are still largely neglected. Finally, tracks like the moving "'Cross the Green Mountain" demonstrate that Dylan the songwriter STILL unquestionably has something big to say.
I could wax poetic about each and every one of these songs, but it's a long album and this review is already long enough! I'll only mention that, like all of the other Bootleg releases, this one has excellent photos (charting the rarely-seen late 80's Dylan and into his more recent Col. Sanders cowboy outfit days) and exhaustive prose liner notes, as well as track-by-track notation. Unfortunately, I can't comment on the "Deluxe" edition, since I don't have $100 to spend on one more disc of material (not much of a value, by the looks of things), though it would be nice to hear more of the same. Whereas the No Direction Home installment sometimes begged the question "Haven't I pretty much heard all of these songs before?", this installment ties together unheard material with very fresh-sounding versions of more familiar tunes, making it a more necessary addition to a collection. If nothing else, this set is a resounding reminder that, as he turns his songwriting eyes on his cavernous past and to the strange and uncharted present and future, Dylan is producing some of the strongest material of his career.
The bootleg series has, if nothing else, provided an amazing document of some of the interesting side-roads that Dylan has taken. Some of the discs have been transcendental, showcasing little known or difficult to find songs; others have been full of alternate versions that have not been that different from versions that we know. Volume 8 is a revelation, shining a light on a period of Dylan's output that is much misunderstood for reasons that have never been completely clear to me. The 80's are a hard period for many musicians as they are changing from the 60's and 70's song craft that made them famous in the classic rock and roll or folk mold towards a more technology savvy and friendly time period. At worst, this decade has foisted an unconscionable amount of bad drum machine tracks onto otherwise amazing artists. At best, it has pushed legends like Dylan to find something genuine and timely. The early years of the 80's (not covered by this disc) found him searching--spiritually, musically, stylistically. By the late 80's and into the 90's, Dylan had reclaimed his visionary status.
This disk is an essential companion to some of his most listenable albums of his career. The opening track, Mississippi is an unreleased track from the Time Out of Mind album. For those who were agog at Daniel Lanois ability to coax more Bob out of Bob, this will be continued vindication of that period. Red River Shore, also from the same sessions is possessed of a languid beauty, and a raw power that is palpable.
In general, the rest of the tracks on this album are of similar quality--genuinely revelatory takes on pieces that you may have heard before in bootleg format or perhaps live, but always something new. Bob's gravelly baritone is shown in all its rough glory, and the production value on the tracks is generally high. The live tracks are, in my opinion, equally good, and show some of the live music spark that makes a Dylan show something special.
Probably none of this is revelation to you, if you are reading this. You probably already love Dylan, and are probably chomping at the proverbial bit to get this disc. You won't be sad that you did. For those of you who don't know much about Dylan, there are a lot worse places to get your feet wet than here. Sure, it isn't one of his albums, and therefore won't give you that sense of togetherness that his best vinyl collections give you, but the songs are uniformly strong. If you find yourself enjoying these songs, you've got some realy treasures yet to explore. Overall, it was all that I had hoped for from this much anticipated release, and I'm certain that Dylan fans will generally rank this among the most indispensable of his bootleg releases.
on October 12, 2008
This set was a very nice play to my surprise. It's a combination of early takes, developed takes, soundtrack one-offs, and live performances all of which date from March 1989 or later. The 1989 takes are particularly fine and make me wonder at the sheer cussedness of an artist who leaves songs like "Series of Dreams" and "Dignity" in an unfinished condition, and then puts out a 39-minute compact disc like "Oh Mercy." On quite a few of these songs Dylan even sings with his old "unruined" voice and it would seem that the Howlin' Wolf growl was something he chose to strain toward (perhaps there's no choice anymore). The "Time out of Mind" sessions are well represented with a couple interesting takes of "Mississippi" and a fabulous bloozy alternate version of "Can't Wait." With Dylan the lyric is the (nearly) fixed part of the song, while melody and arrangement are almost infinitely flexible.
The live "High Water" features a great turbulent rhythm from drummer George Recile and fine guitar interplay from Larry Campbell and Freddy Koella. "The Girl from the Greenbriar Shore" is Dylan solo from 1992 and I don't believe he's sung without accompaniment much since then. And there's a duet with Ralph Stanley where Stanley almost sounds more Dylanesque than Dylan. Or makes clear how much of Dylan's singing style was borrowed from bluegrass singers in any case.
on October 9, 2008
Listening to Bob Dylan's new release Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series #8, I am reminded of a classic quote often attributed to Dennis Miller regarding Axl Rose... "What the hell does someone have to do to get thrown out of Guns `N Roses?" Put within the Dylan frame, "How the hell did any one of these songs miss the original release of his last four studio cd's?"
Far from the usual half-baked throwaways that clog the arteries of most alternative cut "retrospectives" Tell Tale Signs is anything but, containing fully-realized music that if not for the "Bootleg" banner would be considered a double cd of staggering beauty - easily cracking the top ten (or top five) of his prolific original catalog.
Whether in studio or in concert, Dylan's songs are never really finished. Their role has always been one of artistic baseline, original renderings that have spawned thousands of permutations of lyric and arrangement answerable only to his mood or circumstance on any given day. The deleted work from Time Out Of Mind and Oh Mercy (Dreamin' Of You, God Knows and Series Of Dreams among others) is ample illustration of just how deep his reservoir of material really is. The release itself is extraordinarily well done - the sound is brilliant and the expansive liner notes by Dylan acolyte Ratso Sloman brings real texture to the proceedings.
Almost fifty years in Dylan has mastered his role as changeling to perfection and honestly, that's what makes his enormous body of work so damn interesting - sobering when you consider that the seventeen-year "period" represented by Bootleg #8 would encompass four and a half careers given the popular half-lives of most contemporary artists.
As anyone who has followed Dylan live or on disc can attest, he is quite capable of "mailing it in" (and has done so frequently) so the fact that this is a stunner right out the box makes it all the more enjoyable. Jump in.
I will be very brief in describing what I feel is a terrible disservice to Bob Dylan fans everywhere. To expect fans to shell out $100.00 or more for a 12 song bonus disc, and a small book with a collection of single cover photo's, that most fans will never look at again after one glance is outrageous. The alternative 2 cd set is a fabulous collection of unreleased gems at a fraction of the cost. You also get a very informative booklet with that set as well. My hunch here, is that in usual record company greed, they will release a new set sometime after the new year, that will have the third bonus disc included. By doing that, they will try to bait all those who already purchased the 2 cd set, but couldn't afford the deluxe set, into considering buying again. I will not fall for it, and neither should you. These are tough economic times, and for Dylan's record company to market a product to his fans in this fashion is a disgrace!!!!!!
on October 9, 2008
"Tell Tale Signs," the Bootleg Series Volume 8, is a better installment in the series than Volume 7. At least, it holds together as an album better than that set did. There are a lot of essential tracks on these two discs, and even some of the alternate versions are spectacular, giving a whole new perspective on the songs. Can't think of many artists besides Dylan who are able to offer such a wealth of unreleased material, most of which rivals the official releases (though this too is now an official release).
The absolute highlight of the set for me is "Red River Shore," possibly one of Dylan's finest compositions. It is definitely one of his most carefully crafted set of lyrics ever. The way the first and last verse parallel each other, the many great lines throughout. It is such a great piece of writing, and really hard to overestimate. And of course, the musical backing is superb, with some great accordion playing, and a truly wonderful vocal by Dylan. The song manages to be both haunting and touching at the same time. I just listened to this song about 5 times in a row, and I could keep listening to it all day. I am usually not able to do that with any song, but this song really works its way into your mind.
Well, after that rave, I just want to point out that there are many other superb songs on here, but "Red River Shore" is really something magical. Some of the other highlights include the two versions of "Mississippi," the acoustic version of "Most of the Time," the alternate version of "Someday Baby," the cover of "Miss the Mississippi," and the live version of "High Water," which really cooks. There are some more excellent songs on here, and both discs make a great listening experience. However, Disc One is probably stronger than Disc Two and makes a more cohesive album.
Note: For anyone who is wondering, I think Disc 3 is the weakest. The only true revelations are the 3rd version of Mississippi (which has substantial lyrical variants) and the unreleased cover of "Mary and the Soldier." The live versions are not that interesting, and all the alternate versions of tracks on the Discs 1 and 2 are inferior, particularly "Red River Shore," which is disappointing in comparison to the epic version on Disc 1. I suppose "Duncan and Brady" is a revelation in a way, in that its overblown sound shows why Dylan scrapped the Bromberg seesions and released an all-acoustic album in 1992.
on October 7, 2008
yes..the price is a disgrace..what on earth sony are thinking is mind boggling..what is worse is there is a single disc version just to confuse everyone...why on earth sony didnt release this 3 disc version as the only version and retail it for 40 to 60 dollars is pathetic..HOWEVER,im sure its just as silly to give it a one star reveiw just because of the price..and have those who have canned this actually heard and seen it?? because the third disc is definetley 4 or 5 star...Marching to the city..why was this left of any album???, its a shuffling sleazy boogie number that should be heard and and and man the version of 'trying to get to heaven" is AWESOME..BEAUTIFUL..SENSATIONAL...as is the rest of the disc..and the lavish books have beautiful thick covers and lovely quality paper and printing...so please folks lets not let the price distract you as this is a truly awseome release..the packaging is beautiful and the music..well..its just wonderful..mississsipi..someday baby.an awesome slow haunting,much diferent CANT WAIT.and one of bobs greatest ever songs cross the green mountain...essential....
on March 23, 2010
Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series has set an unprecedentedly high standard for outtake collections. It is a testament to his artistry - and often dubious judgment - that the collections have had many songs on par with, as good as, and even better than previously released ones. The big question mark, though, had always been recordings from the last twenty years, as very little was known about them. However, the excellent Tell Tale Signs proves that these outtakes are as good as prior ones. Tell quite simply has some of the best music of the last few decades and is absolutely essential.
It makes more sense to discuss the album categorically rather than track-by-track, especially since, unlike prior entries, the running order is not chronological. Drastic differences in songs, especially vocals, are occasionally jarring, but it generally flows well and is certainly more interesting than a chronological order would have been. The first group is Dylan songs previously unreleased in any form, though a snatch or two may have turned up elsewhere, of which there are four. One might have expected more, but superb quality - far higher than one could have ever hoped for - more than atones. "Red River Shore" is nothing less than one of Dylan's best songs, an absolute masterpiece that would be nearly anyone else's peak. A Time Out of Mind outtake, it has much of that album's feel plus a Tex-Mex undercurrent pointing to later Dylan. "Marchin' to the City" is nearly as good, one of Dylan's best blues. It is also a Time outtake, and like several others, is notable in being recorded early in the sessions and thus free of the heavy Daniel Lanois production values that turn off many. The same goes for "Dreamin' of You," which while not quite as good, is excellent and noteworthy in being very uptempo - a distinct contrast to every other known Time recording. "Can't Escape from You" is a 2005 song and yet another near-masterpiece. A fully new venture, it mixes an R&B feel with the Rat Pack balladry Dylan has lately been fond of and has one of his most interesting vocals.
The second category is alternate studio versions of Dylan songs so different that they are practically new, of which Tell generously has nine. "Mississippi," Dylan's best latter-day song, is here in two versions; neither are as good as Love and Theft's, but both are very high quality. The first is simply amazing - a spare acoustic cut with a very different feel. The second is a Time sessions take with a very large band. "Most of the Time" is solo acoustic with substantially different lyrics - a drastic contrast to Oh Mercy's Lanois-drenched piece that many will prefer. The first "Dignity" is a solo piano demo with a highly gospel feel and somewhat different words - so excellent that its truncated nature is highly frustrating. The second is a full band take with a sort of rockabilly feel and many altered lyrics; it is inferior but quite good and a very interesting contrast. "Someday Baby" is also piano-led but with a band; a dramatically different vocal and alternate lyrics give a vivid contrast to Modern Times' straight blues version, and many will prefer this. The already obscure "Tell Ol' Bill" is here in an infinitely better version. Dylan shows his unparalleled ability to sing the same words so differently that the whole meaning is altered. His vocal blows the first out of the proverbial deep blue sea, and the music is also almost totally rewritten and greatly improved; what was pedestrian has moved into greatness. An Oh Mercy "Born in Time" predating its Under the Red Sky makeover is one of the few cuts to have circulated in bootleg form; diehards have long raved about how much better it is, and here is proof. The music, vocal, and words are so superior that the song moves from forgettable to near-sublime. "Can't Wait" has almost nothing in common with the Time song; the lyrics and vocal are better, and most will prefer the music. This may be the most revealing example of how Time might have sounded sans Lanois - a genuine revelation.
Category three is live versions of previously released Dylan songs, of which we get three. Two are Love and Theft songs, presumably to make up for the lack of studio outtakes from that album. "High Water" is a truly incredible 2003 version; Dylan's band then was perhaps the best he had had since 1975, and they truly rip it up on this jazzy blues jam. "Lonesome Day Blues" is closer to the original and less great but still very worthwhile. "Ring Them Bells" is another amazing performance; the music is totally remade, and Dylan gives one of his best latter-day vocals, leading the band through crescendo after crescendo. The cut comes from the legendary 1993 Supper Club acoustic shows, increasing the already strong desire to have the full concerts released.
The fourth category is live versions of traditional folk songs, of which two are here: "Cocaine Blues" and "The Girl on the Greenbriar Shore." They are the least remarkable tracks, and some may question their inclusion, but they are important in representing the many such songs Dylan has played in the last twenty-plus years.
In the fifth category are alternate studio versions of previously released Dylan songs that are not substantially different; four are included. "Everything Is Broken" has more prominent bass and altered words - a slight improvement. "Series of Dreams" is the same take as on Bootleg 3 but with later overdubs removed and a complete outro - small but telling distinctions making a notably better cut. "God Knows" is the other Oh Mercy song redone for Under; the lyrics are somewhat different, but it otherwise changed little and is comparable in quality. "Ain't Talkin'" seems early and incomplete - the only cut far inferior to the first release. The arrangement is not nearly as epic but has strengths all its own, and alternate lyrics make it worthwhile.
Category six has two previously unreleased studio covers. Though of course known for writing, Dylan is one of the all-time great interpreters, and these are milestones. Robert Johnson's "32-20 Blues" is better than anything on the World Gone Wrong album from which it was withheld - a truly memorable solo acoustic rendition. Even better is Jimmie Rodgers' "Miss the Mississippi," which is one of the album's highlights. Featuring some of Dylan's best recent harmonica, the acoustic arrangement is beautiful, and the vocal is profoundly moving. The cut comes from the full-band, David Bromberg-produced acoustic sessions preceding Good as I Been to You. It has long been rumored that the sessions were better than the two solo acoustic albums that followed, and this certainly suggests it. We seem to be getting a peek at the Great Lost Dylan Album, whetting already substantial appetites for full release.
The seventh and final category has previously released tracks, of which there are notably only three, all somewhat obscure. "Huck's Tune" and "Cross the Green Mountain" were buried on soundtracks to flop films. The former is one of Dylan's weakest recent cuts but not without strengths, and diehards will be glad for its wider release. Conversely, "Cross" is a monumental epic of true greatness. Dylan's intense Civil War interest has recently become known, and this is the best evidence - eight-plus minutes of nostalgic, history-drenched mastery that may well be the best Civil War song ever. Many reviews have touted it as the true highlight, and it is easy to agree. It is a major song and definitely deserved more exposure. Finally, we get "The Lonesome River," a bluegrass classic Dylan did for a Ralph Stanley album before O Brother, Where Art Thou? gave him renewed fame. Dylan reminds us that he is a great country singer, and Stanley joins on the choruses for a truly hair-raising duet. Some Dylan fans will be turned off by Stanley and the bluegrass music, but they are very well done as far as they go.
One can unfortunately not discuss Tell without mentioning the ultra-expensive three-disc version with extra songs. My review is restricted to the two-disc because I strongly believe the three-disc is a great rip-off - so much so that I did the unthinkable and did not buy it. This is truly remarkable in that I have nearly everything Dylan has released on album and in print plus bootlegs, have seen multiple concerts, own several related books and other merchandise, and have even written a book about him. The three-disc is simply not worth the cost and is one of the most shameless examples in the long, sorry record company tradition of milking hard-cores. I boycotted it and urge all others to; this is the only way such travesties will cease. It will hopefully be re-released in cheaper form, at which point I urge everyone to buy it; if not, I strongly suggest obtaining it by whatever means possible. Columbia deserves such deviousness and does not deserve our money; Dylan fans are some of the most loyal of any artist and should be treated with more respect and decency.
As for the two disc, it is in Dylan's top tier, which is to say that it has some of the greatest music ever made. This is really all that need be said. No fan can be without it.
on October 8, 2008
Bob Dylan's "Tell Tale Signs" - The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 is an impressive package, the music, as others reviewers have noted, flows together wonderfully with brilliant sound quality, and Dylan's choice to have Larry "Ratso" Sloman (the author of the excellent "On The Road with Bob Dylan" which chronicled the Rolling Thunder Tour) write the liner notes, song analysis and history, was a wise move as Sloman brings it all back home. Dylan has lived more musical lifetimes than any major artist I've ever known. The notion that he was born again certainly applies to more than just his spiritual beliefs, Dylan has taken the notion of being prolific to new levels, and these cds document the high standards of the material Dylan has been working with in the late 80's, 90's, and on into the 21st century. Some purist still cling to the idea that Dylan never wrote as well after his socially reflective songs during the 1960s. Dylan addresses this issue head on in his "Chronicles" book when he points out that during the "Oh Mercy" sessions, producer Daniel Lanois implored him to write more anthem like 60's songs. But Bob was true to his art, and realized that what he needed was not to mimic his past music, rather he reached deep into where he was at in the present time: and the next night he wrote "Shooting Star," which blew Lanois away when he recognized the sheer beauty of the song.
Dylan has moved with the pace of a poet and musician who is evolving and continually creating new forms of expression. Yes, Born Again, and I can't wait for the next time Bob's muse inspires him to do it all over again in whatever style that feels right. A long time ago Bob's film "Don't Look Back" provided us with a forecast for Dylan's future, he has never looked back. Spend some time with "Tell Tale Signs," listen, read, and appreciate that Bob Dylan was the right artist for our times. He's proven it time and time again.
on March 16, 2011
When the original Bootleg 1-3 came out I listened it grooveless (or bitless). How amazing, I thought, that a collection of a man's self-assessed garbage would have made an impressive career for anyone else. Too bad, thought I, that those days are over. How wrong I was. Now, less than 20 years later, comes a perhaps even better set of cast-offs.
I admit I'm late coming to this party, despite picking up all the other bootleg series day of release. The No Direction Home soundtrack was a bit off-putting - as in "this is all they have left to give us? alternate vocals on From A Buick 6?" Not that it sucked or anything, but they did seem to be mining the dregs. So when I saw this release I thought, how good can this dreck be when it is getting released AFTER the Subterranean Homesick Blues with the harmonica solo in the other speaker.
Then I picked this up whilst ordering volume 9, the demos, just as an aside. I think it sat on the CD player for a few weeks before I got bored enough to pop it in. Holy carpoleum! Amazing track after amazing track. The whole thing would be worth it for "Red River Shore" alone - truly a song you hope will never end. And do we need 2 alt versions of Mississippi? Turns out we do, we really do. Also the live tracks - usually I'm reaching for the old FF button when the live track hits a compendium. Filler deluxe they are. Not so here. "Ring Them Bells" which just floats on Oh Mercy (not a bad thing) becomes a completely different beast here - no longer a plea, more of a command. And my favorite is "Cocaine Blues", just for its ragged ying to the Van Ronk yang that has previously defined the tune.
Dylan's voice runs the gamut here, from sounding tired and worn out to sounding full and powerful. And all the shades are well suited to the songs and the instrumentation. It gives the album a variety show false front, which would normally be expected on a compilation album. But that's the weird thing about this collection or orphans - despite being produced in all manner of ways over 2 decades, it actually sounds like a planned coherent whole. You'd be tempted to think that Dylan excised and suppressed these tracks with the plan that they would one day come together to constitute an unexpected cannon shot across the bow of a world that has almost forgotten what the big deal with rock and blues was in the first place. Hope we can get a worthy sequel in 20 years.