Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-1971)

Release Date: August 27, 2013
Another Self-Portrait covers an often neglected era in Dylan's recording career. Between 1969-1971, Dylan released three albums that meant with mostly tepid responses. Nashville Skyline seemed the antithesis of Blonde on Blonde, a 30 minute record featuring Dylan singing in a croon, biding farewell to the amphetamine driven vocals of the mid-60s. Self-Portrait was the first Dylan release of 1970s, a double album of mostly covers, some engaging, others less so. Critics took the bait and declared Dylan finished, but the album aged well, prescient in its lo-fi style that dominated 90s indie rock. New Morning appeared in late 1970, a more focused album of all original material.  

Another Self Portrait is one of my favorites of the bootleg series. The original recordings included on the release sound fresh and vibrant, worthy improvements on the original versions of these songs, many of which were never released. Excerpts from the Isle of Wight concert and demos made with George Harrison are also highlights. The sound on these records weaves between the more "homespun" sound of the early Paul McCartney albums and the ambitious production Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Over Water

These are some of the highlights.

Disc 1

"Pretty Saro" An English traditional that features a a haunting vocal from Dylan.

"Spanish is the Loving Tongue" Set to piano, one of the best renditions of another tradtional, much better than the version on the 1973 "revenge" album released by Columbia (outtakes from Self-Portrait released in response to Dylan's brief time at Asylum records).

"Time Passes Slowly #1" One of the great songs on New Morning, here it sounds like a lost track from the Beatles White Album (George Harrison provided backing vocals).

"Only a Hobo" A song Dylan recorded many times in the very early days, this performance was intended for inclusion on Greatest Hits Vol. II.

"Thirsty Boots" Another pristine recording, a cover of Eric Anderson's 1966 song inspired by the Civil Rights Movement.

"This Evening So Soon" Another outtake from Self-Portrait, focused and well produced.

Disc 2

"If Not For You" Dylan's collaboration with Harrison includes a stately string arrangement. The song appeared on Dylan's New Morning and George's All Things Must Pass.

"Wallflower" A song Dylan passed on to Texan Doug Sahm, Diana Krall's version is also excellent.

"Sign on the Window" A magisterial version of a pivotal track on New Morning, possibly the best indicator of Dylan's state of mind in the early 1970s.

"Tattle O'day" A joyful tune Dylan about a dog with Harrison on guitar. 

"New Morning" The album's title track gets completely re-imagined as a four minute epic with horns reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel's "Keep the Customer Satisfied."

"Went to see the Gypsy" On an electrical piano, Dylan does a lounge act performance of a song about a mythical meeting in Las Vegas. I discussed this one on the podcast Pod Dylan.

"Time Passes Slowly #2" Another exceptional take with Al Kooper on organ.

Conclusion

Another Self Portrait does a great job of shedding light on an often misunderstood period in Dylan's career, the myth being he didn't care about the quality of the albums he was putting out. In many ways these records are a continuation of the Basement Tapes, a blend of traditional songs with new songs, often blurring the line between the two. The production on Another Self-Portrait are far more adventurous than what appeared on the official releases.


Friday, December 21, 2018

Tempest: Shine Your Light

Release Date: September 10, 2012
"We are such stuff that dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep." 

- William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act IV, Scene I

As of this posting, Tempest is the latest album of original songs released by Bob Dylan. Released in the fall of 2012, the collection of ten songs returns to themes familiar to Dylan's late period: time passing, mortality, romance, violence, and the ghosts of history. Does Tempest feel like a final album? One could say that about every Dylan album since Time Out of Mind in 1997, for a time considered Dylan's "death album." For all we know Dylan could release some new songs tomorrow, nevertheless one cannot deny sense of finality floating through Tempest from the title (considered Shakespeare's final play) to the achingly reflective opening track "Duquesne Whistle" to the elegiac tribute written for a contemporary "Roll On John."

Tempest begins with what sounds like calliopes that conjures sights from a distant past, a literary method Ray Bradbury used to great effect in the haunted nostalgia of his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Then "Duquesne Whistle" kicks in for real and we're back in Dylan's America of endless railroads and roving gamblers. The sound of the train "blowing at his Chamber Door" like Poe's raven conjures the past, moments that may have happened yet exist only in dream, "you smiling through the fence at me, just like you always smiled before."

"Soon After Midnight" has easy going doo-wop and late night ambiance, except that part about dragging two-timing Slim's corpse through the mud. "Narrow Way" could be outtake from either Love & Theft or Modern Times with its steady blues rhythm and vortex of emotion, "if can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday." "Long and Wasted Years" tells the story of a failed marriage, one that's lost all meaning except for what it used to be. "Pay in Blood" was rated the best rock song of the year by Rolling Stone. Uncompromising in its old world values, Dylan sings "I pay in blood, but not my own." Here Dylan's the unrepentant judge/prophet/outlaw archetype, he's been through hell, "but what good did it do?"

With "Scarlet Town" starting off the second half of the record, the tone of Tempest begins to shift with Dylan leaning towards an omniscient perspective. Now Dylan's the storyteller, the songs are full of references to ancient poetry. Thematically, the songs take on greater weight.

"Scarlet Town" has inspired the most analysis of all the tracks on Tempest, a song that must be important to Dylan since he's played it live over 300 times. "Desolation Row" comes up as an immediate comparison, as the places Dylan describes are in stasis. Musically, the mournful strings recall "Ain't Talkin'." Life goes on, but moves slowly and sadly: 

In Scarlet Town you fight your father's foes
Up on the hill a chilly wind blows
You fight em' on high and you fight em down in
You fight em with whisky, morphine, and gin

The town's full of the good, the bad, and the ugly wading through the quagmire of an eternal conflict going on since before recorded memory. Lyrically "Scarlet Town" is rich with metaphor and open to many interpretations. For myself, the song conjures the Graham Greene novel The Power and the Glory, dealing with spiritual dearth in a fallen paradise. "Scarlet Town" could be a purgatory, "I'm staying up late and I'm making amends/while the smile of heaven descends." It may not the be the type of place to visit , you don't have to, you're already there. 

"Early Roman Kings" lifts a Muddy Waters riff from "Mannish Boy" in a song about Bronze Age gangsters. "Tin Angel" returns to Dylan's fascination with complex love triangles prevalent in songs like "Visions of Johanna" and "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts." "Tin Angel" is a lengthy 9 minute song of a shadowy triangle that ends in bloody violence. I like the hypnotic melody, but the narrative gets convoluted.

For those who survived the Jacobean theatrics "Tin Angel," the last two songs are surprisingly sentimental. "Tempest" retells the sinking of the Titanic, a historical tragedy Dylan referenced on "Desolation Row," imagining Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain's tower. "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" gave a comical account of a shipwreck. Dylan positions the Titanic's sinking as the precursor to 20th Century chaos:

It was the fourteenth day of April
Over the Waves she road
Sailing into tomorrow
To a Golden Age Foretold

A cinematic account follows with characters appearing, mostly archetypes from previous Dylan songs and one that came before him. The definitive film about the Titanic, A Night to Remember, came out in 1958 when Dylan was in High School, the 1997 James Cameron film Titanic is also referenced.

"Roll on John" eulogizes the life of John Lennon, a key figure in Dylan's life and the 20th century. Many have speculated on the influence Dylan and Lennon had on each other. If Dylan had a musical soulmate in the Beatles it would be George Harrison since they recorded and wrote songs together many times, most notably in The Traveling Wilburys. 

Dylan and Lennon spent time together occasionally in the 1970s and would sometimes attend each other's concerts. In 1980 Lennon recorded a demo titled "Serve Yourself" when he parodied Dylan's Christian song "Gotta Serve Somebody." Lennon's murder in 1980 shook up the rock community and I'm sure Dylan felt the loss. Despite the slights Dylan always spoke kindly of Lennon. Despite their differences in style and temperament, Dylan, the survivor, pays homage to a friend and friendly rival. A connection bound by fate.

Thus ends Tempest, a weighty record with a bit of everything. Tempest may not have the sonic punch of Love & Theft nor the rollicking sweep of Modern Times, it's the words that are placed front and center. The songs are less grounded in Americana, concerned more with the convergence of mythology, history, and literature.




Sunday, November 18, 2018

Bob Dylan: In Concert Brandeis University 1963

Release Date: April 11, 2011
A tape of a Bob Dylan concert performed on May 10, 1963 at Brandeis University was found among the belongings of Rolling Stone co-founder Ralph Gleason and the quality was good enough for Columbia to release it as an album. In a few months The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan LP would be released and propel Dylan to fame. A wonderful historical artifact, the record provides insight into Dylan's early performing style, specifically, his blending of humorous and serious material. 

The first side begins with "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance," which would appear on the Freewheelin' LP. "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" was performed much to the college crowd's amusement, a song Dylan planned to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show but walked off when the CBS requested a less controversial song. The Midwest Gothic "Ballad of Hollis Brown" followed. The first set closed with the stunning "Masters of War."

The second set features Cold War themed "Talkin' World War III Blues,", the introspective "Bob Dylan's Dream," and the comical "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues." 

With Dylan about to reach a national audience, the set featured his early folk influences and newer compositions that addressed contemporary concerns.



Friday, November 16, 2018

The Bootleg Series Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964

Release Date, October 19, 2010
The Witmark Demos were recorded by Bob Dylan from 1962-1964 for the Leeds and Witmark publishing companies. These recordings were never intended for public consumption, but were produced to attract other artists to Dylan's original material. And it reaped major benefits. Dylan's early career got a major boost when his song "Blowin' in the Wind" became a smash hit for Peter, Paul, and Mary. While some of the performances are pedestrian at times, they're a crucial artifacts that dosument Dylan's development as a songwriter.

Two versions of "Man on the Street" appear, an early Woody Guthrie pastiche inspired by New York street scenes.  "Hard Times in New York Town" is a jaunty composition about life in New York sung in a 1930s cadence. "Poor Boy Blues" is about a young person struggling to survive in the city, the type character that would be on the receiving end of "Like A Rolling Stone." "Ballad for a Friend" laments the loss of someone close who bought it on a Utah highway. A tall tale song, "Rambling, Gambling Willie" is about a gambler who's exploits were known all over, he gave all his winnings to the sick and poor and meets a tragic end. 

"Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" was based on an actual incident Dylan read about in The New York Herald-Tribune. A ship overloaded due to counterfeit tickets, Dylan spun the incident as a series of tragicomic imagery told from the point of view of a hapless survivor. The version here is improvised, cluing us into Dylan's early performing style, although "Bear Picnic" was left off his debut album with Columbia, Bob Dylan. According to Clinton Heylin, "Standing on the Highway" was a reworking of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads," an artist Columbia producer John Hammond brought to Dylan's attention. 

The early recording of "Blowin in the Wind" is the sound of history in the making, one he would perform over 1500 times live (and counting). "Long Ago, Far Away" has a drive to it, the lyrics are similar in theme to "Blowin' in the Wind," but sang with more anger and irony. Dylan's direct, almost child like vocal, gives it power. "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna-Fall" displays his ability to create memorable imagery. "Tomorrow is a Long Time" was an early love song. 

"The Death of Emmett Till" dealt with the brutal murder of a 17 year old African-American man from Chicago who was visiting relatives in the South. It was claimed Till whistled at a white woman, which was grounds for justifiable homicide in the Jim Crow South. Dylan's concern with social justice is at the forefront of his compositions from this era, an issue he would return to many times. The first four verses retell the awful crime and its aftermath, while the last two address the listener. 

"Let Me Die in My Footsteps," proselytizes existentialism towards the nuclear threat. "Hollis Brown" would appear on The Times They Are-a-Changin' LP, a tragic tale set in Dylan's Minnesota. 

"Quit Your Low Down Ways," "Baby, I'm in the Mood For You," "Bound to Lose, Bound to To Win," "All Over You", and  "I'd Hate to be you on that dreadful day" are all nods to the blues. "Long Time Gone" has a Western flavor. "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" lampoons Cold War paranoia, a stand by of Dylan's early concert repertoire. "Masters of War" prophesied the coming of Vietnam. "Oxford Town" commented on Civil Rights, specifically the ordeal of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. "Farewell," another folk standard, would be immortalized at the end of Inside Llewyn Davis

Disc Two begins with "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," sounding very similar to the Freewheelin' version. "Walkin Down the Line," features a jaunty guitar and harmonica. "I Shall be Free" was always an early favorite of mine, a comical snapshot of the early 1960s. "Bob Dylan's Blues" and "Bob Dylan's Dream" both continue in the Guthrie condition. "Boots of Spanish Leather" was another stunning early composition written about Suze Rotolo, the version on this disc is especially striking. "Girl From the North Country" appears in a more subdued performance. More folk and spiritual ballads appear including: "Gypsy Lou," "Seven Curses," "Whatcha Gonna Do," and "Ain't Gonna Grieve." "Hero Blues" sounds like an early version of "Black Crow Blues" from Another Side of Bob Dylan.

"John Brown" never appeared on an album, but Dylan resurrected it in the late 1980s, his striking performance for the 1994 MTV Unplugged special is a highlight. "Only A Hobo" is another 1930s tune Dylan sings with wistful defiance. A piano accompanied version "When the Ship Comes In" is another masterpiece Dylan wrote, one that will always be relevant. A priceless early version of "The Times They Are-A-Changin" also on piano follows. Although less quoted, "Paths of Victory," also invokes the Civil Rights Movement. "Guess I'm Doing Fine" sounds like a classic Hank Williams record.

"Baby Let Me Follow You Down" appears minus the talking introduction. Disc Two ends with piano versions of "Mama, You've Been On My Mind," "Mr. Tambourine Man," and "I'll Keep It With Mine." 

The Witmark Demos are essential listening for anyone interested in Dylan's development as a songwriter, as he moved away from the early influences and discovered his own voice.



Works Consulted

Heylin, Clinton. Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2012.

Untold Dylan - https://bob-dylan.org.uk/


Thursday, July 5, 2018

Christmas In The Heart: Mid-Century Oasis

Release Date: October 13, 2009
When Dylan released Christmas in the Heart many wondered if it was serious. Was he cajoling the public by releasing a mostly kitsch collection of Christmas carols? Considering his recent immersion in the American songbook, the answer is a clear No! In actuality, the album signaled the next era of Dylan's career. The majority of the fifteen carols are from the middle of the 20th century, including four traditional songs rooted in Christianity. The sweet nostalgia spirit on these songs evoke an endearing retro warmth of holidays long gone by. 

The festivities open with "Here Comes Santa Claus," a hit for Gene Autry back in 1947. The mood is light hearted and nostalgic. "Do You Hear What I Hear" was written during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker, a plea for peace that became a staple for Christmas seasons to come  -written around the same time as "Blowin' in the Wind." Dylan's performance is dramatic with production value projecting grandeur and majesty.

On "Winter Wonderland" Dylan delights in the subversive subtext of the song, backed by a coed choir. "I'll Be Home For Christmas" was a hit for the Christmas season of 1944, a quintessential World War II song and certainly one Dylan heard on the radio as a youngster. "The Christmas Song" written by Mel Torme and Bob Wells and most famously performed by Nat King Cole also calls back the WWII era. "Have Yourself a Merry Christmas" debuted in 1944, a hit from the film Meet Me in St Louis. "Silver Bells" originated from the 1950 Bob Hope comedy The Lemon Drop Kid. "Little Drummer Boy" is another perennial favorite. Check out the Norman Rockwell/psychedelia video for Dylan's version.




Novelty Christmas songs also get their due. "Christmas Blues" was once performed Dean Martin for all the Christmas lonely hearts. "Christmas Island" pays tribute to Christmas in Hawaii, a 1946 chart topper for the Andrew Sisters. Perhaps "Must Be Santa" is the most obscure track on the album, one with an interesting recording history, a German drinking song that Mitch Miller performed in 1960 and made popular by the Texas Band Brave Combo. Dylan made it into one of his best music videos - and added some of his own lyrics.




The traditional songs on Christmas in the Heart include "Hark, The Herald Angels Sing," "The First Noel," O, Come All Ye Faithful," and O Little Town of Bethlehem" are less compelling than the other tracks, but provide substance. 

Dylan's fascination with the American song book was no passing phase, for the past decade he's worked on keeping the standards alive and introduce them to a new generation mostly unfamiliar with pre-rock and roll culture. 

All proceeds from the Christmas in the Heart were donated to charities dedicated to ending hunger. 





Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Together Through Life: Shadows and Doors

Release Date: April 28, 2009
After recording three albums with enough depth for countless doctoral dissertations, Bob Dylan's 2009 LP Together Through Life appears a smaller scale effort at first, yet carries more heft almost a decade later. There's a satisfaction in its existential despair, a despair assuaged through earthly joys and staying low when things get out of control. Working with The Grateful Dead's lyricist Robert Hunter on nine of the ten tracks, the locale shifts to the fringes of American civilization. The first verse of "Beyond Here Lies Nothin" captures this spirit:

Oh Well I love you pretty baby
You're the Only Love I've ever known
Just as long as you stay with me
The whole world is my thrown
Beyond Here Lies Nothin'
Nothin' we can call our own

The world may be cruel and meaningless, but love makes it worth saving. 

Together Through Life sounds more contemporary in theme and content than Love and Theft and Modern Times, Dylan's addressing the current state of the nation. Released a few months after the inauguration of President Obama, at the height of the bruising Great Recession, these songs allude to the decline of Middle America, something Dylan witnessed firsthand during his tours through the decades, playing venues most of his status would not play. 

The closing track "It's All Good" revels in gallows humor, hinting at a dormant populism pining not for a savior, but a destroyer:

Big politician telling lies
Restaurant kitchen are full of flies
Don't make a bit of difference, don't see why it should
But it's all right, cause it's all good
It's All Good
It's All Good

A later verse projects visions of cities on the down slide:

People on the country, people on the land
Some of them so sick they can hardly stand
Everybody would move away if they could
It's Hard to Believe, but it's all good
Yeah

Hidden in plain sight by a myopic media and pop culture, the middle of the country is suffering innumerable economic and social ills. The land has always been hard and torn between forging newer, better communities or devolving into conflict, a tension running throughout the Together Through Life.

"Life is Hard" was written for the 2010 film My Own Love Song in which post-Katrina New Orleans plays a peripheral role. "My Wife's Hometown" provides comic relief, but taps into the angry mood cascading the world, "State's gone broke, the county's dry/Don't be lookin' at me with that evil eye." "If you ever Go To Houston" hits the nostalgic sweet spot, a play on Leadbelly's "The Midnight Special" as an aging desperado recalls the Mexican War as he searches for his gal through Texas. "Forgetful Heart" continues the intense woe of "Life is Hard" with one of Dylan's bleakest closing verses:

Forgetful Heart
Like I Walk in Shadow in My Way
All Night Long
I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain
The door has closed thru forever more
If indeed there ever was a door

"Jolene" lightens the mood with a bluesy ride through Beale Street. "This Dream of You" is  a Mexican influenced love song, melancholy and eloquent. "Shake Shake Mama" reverts back to swaggering blues. 

"I Feel a Change Comin' On" is a highlight of Together Through Life. For years I thought Dylan sang his baby was walking with the "village priest," but it's beast! Dylan's vocal performance is top notch, channeling Fats Domino. 

The dystopian tone of Together Through Life stays rooted in the blues, the form Dylan returns to again and again. Carlos Hidalgo and Mike Campbell were a welcome addition to Dylan's studio band, each bringing their musical ingenuity to the album. 




Friday, June 8, 2018

The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006

Release Date October 6, 2008
With Tell Tale Signs Bob Dylan released a wealth of material recorded from 1989-2006, one of the most productive periods of his career. 

Disc 1

A stripped down version of "Mississippi" opens the disc, a song first recorded during the Time Out of Mind Sessions. Dylan later gave the song to Sheryl Crow for her 1998 album The Globe Sessions. "Most of the Time" is more upbeat than the "swampy" production that appeared the official release on Oh Mercy. An early version of "Dignity" features Dylan on piano with some early lyrics, my favorite being, "soul of the nation is under the knife." A far more effective song without the snappy production that appeared on Greatest Hits Vol. III. "Someday Baby" is more restrained than the straight blues entry on Modern Times. "Red River Shore" was another outtake from Time Out Of Mind, a Western epic within the folk tradition, that tale of an elusive muse.

Almost under the radar, Dylan wrote many songs for films during this period, even winning an Oscar for "Things Have Changed" from the 2000 movie Wonder Boys. "Tell Ol' Bill" was written for North Country starring Charlize Theron. A smoothed out version of "Born in Time" from his 1990 album Under the Red Sky is another highlight. An alternate version of "Can't Wait" minus the Daniel Lanois production lacks the sense of existential dread of the album version. "Everything is Broken" sounds similar to what appeared on Oh Mercy, only less intense and angry. "Dreamin' of You" was recorded in during the Time Out of Mind period, snippets of the lyrics would appear on "Standing by the Doorway" and "Can't Wait," providing a brief glimpse into Dylan's songwriting process. "Huck's Tune" was another one written for filmmaker Curtis Hanson, in this case the forgettable 2006 film Lucky You. The gospel tinged blues of "Marchin to the City" is a throwback to the Christian era with an updated sound. Disc One ends with a live version of "High Water (for Charley Patton)" displaying Dylan's ability to chisel his songs during the never-ending tour.

Disc 2

Another version of "Mississippi" kicks off the bonus disc in an effective mid tempo performance. "32-30 blues" from the World Gone Wrong sessions pays tribute to Robert Johnson. "Series of Dreams" sounds similar to the version on Bootlegs Vol. 1,2, and 3. "God Knows" also appears, although I wish they had included the stunning live version Bob and his Band performed at Woodstock '94. "Can't Escape From You" is a masterful song (written for a film that was never made) from Modern Times is melancholy and beautiful, more akin to the songs that would appear on Tempest a few years later. Then a finished version of "Dignity," that lacks the urgency of the piano demo on Disc 1. A stirring performance of "Ring Them Bells" from the legendary New York Supper Club shows Nov. 16-17 1993. The murder ballad "Cocaine Blues" was recorded for a 1997 show. A guitar driven version of "Ain't Talkin" made me think the song would be right at home on a Metal album. "The Girl on the Greenbrier Shore" and "Miss the Mississippi" from the Good As I've Been To You illustrate Dylan's re-engagement with folk during the 1990s. A blistering version of "Lonesome Day Blues" follows. A jaunty duet of "The Lonesome River" with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley is another highlight. "Cross the Green Mountain" was written for the Civil War film Gods and Generals, an era that's long fascinated Dylan. A live performance of "Love Sick" closes the second disc. 

Tell Tale Signs is comprehensive yet at the same time feels like the tip of the iceberg. While it's compelling to hear these songs develop in the studio, as Dylan has said many times, it's in the live performances where they take shape. On a more profound level, the collection places Dylan's evolution in some perspective: culture hero of the 1960s, searching for meaning in the 1970s with obsessions ranging from I Ching to The Late Great Planet Earth, adrift in the 1980s, and, finally, a wistful seeker into the New Millennium. 





Friday, June 1, 2018

Modern Times: The Writing's on the Wall

Release Date: August 29, 2006
Recorded over a few weeks in early 2006, Bob Dylan's Modern Times stands as a worthy follow up to "Love and Theft" from 2001, building and expanding upon the themes of the latter album. Replete with historical references and nods to ancient poets, Dylan also inserted commentary on the 21st Century and where it's going. As the title suggests, Dylan took inspiration from Charlie Chaplin's 1936 film Modern Times, Dylan despairs and revels at life in the 21st Century. 

"Thunder on the Mountain" gets things off to a rousing start, featuring a retro intro that invokes the birth of rock and roll. The first verse heralds the coming of end times, then the second pays tribute Alicia Keys. The final lyrics may be a direct reference to Chaplin's 1918 short A Dog's Life. The attitude, sound, and imagery of "Thunder on the Mountain" suggest an alternate way of looking at the modern world, one for staying sane.  

"Spirit in the Water" is an epic love ballad. An epic tale of unrequited love that's been going on for centuries that's much akin to Dante's Beatrice. Each verse packs a punch that alternates between humor, violence, desire, hope, loss, and melancholia. 

"Rollin and Tumblin" returns to the blues, a tribute to Muddy Waters. "Someday Baby" continues along in the same vein of classic blues. 

"When the Deal Goes Down" and "Beyond the Horizon" are theological laments on mortality, produced in the style of 1930s Cole Porter, foreshadowing Dylan's work in the next decade.  

"Workingman's Blues #2" encapsulates the class struggle, a preoccupation of Dylan's going back the early Woody Guthrie influenced material.The first verse proclaims "the buying power of the proletariat gone down" refers back to old left 1930s politics. Along with "Thunder on the Mountain" there are numerous references to the tragicomic adventures of Chaplin. 

I always find "Nettie Moore" to be the most impenetrable song on Modern Times, perhaps due to Dylan's repetitive delivery. The imagery is bleak, full of regret, betrayal, and tragedy. 

"The Levee's Gonna Break" was recorded with Hurricane Katrina fresh on everyone's mind, another track about a flood and tragedy on a biblical scale in a call back to "High Water" on "Love and Theft", here the tone is less defiant and more resigned to fate. The last lyric, "some people are still sleeping; some people are wide awake" reads like a warning.

"Ain't Talkin" revels in apocalyptic imagery, seemingly a continuation of the motif set up in "Thunder on the Mountain." A spiritual warrior walks through a desolate landscape and reflects on many things and speaking of "practicing a faith long abandoned." The past was glorious, the present is depressing, and the future lays in the balance. 

Although Modern Times lacks the electric swagger of "Love and Theft" and borders on being derivative at times, it contains some of Dylan's best work . "Thunder on the Mountain," "Spirit on the Water," and "Workingman's Blues #2" are all diamonds in his catalog. All ten songs would sustain Dylan's live concerts in the years to come, an impressive feat in itself. 

The old world perspective, feelings of loss and faint hope, and a sense of the mythical American landscape all define Modern Times.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Bob Dylan Live At Carnegie Hall 1963

Released November 15, 2005
In 2005, Columbia Records released a six song EP composed of songs from Dylan's Carnegie Hall concert that took place on October 26, 1963. The year had witnessed Dylan's meteoric rise with the release of the The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and his historic debut at the Newport Folk Festival. "The Times They Are-A-Changin'" opens the disc in a sedate, but earnest, call to arms for the new generation. "Ballad of Hollis Brown" followed; a version that matched the stark intensity that would appear on the LP The Times They Are-A-Changin. Dylan introduced the melancholy "Boots of Spanish Leather" as a song about "settling for less." Next "Lay Down Your Weary Tune", which according to Dylan's official website is the sole live performance. The version here is slower and more meditative than the studio recordings available on the Bootleg Series. It's deeply moving and effective. Then "North Country Blues," a song that paints a portrait of the mining industry's decline in Dylan's hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. Interestingly, Dylan wrote the song from the perspective of a miner's wife who watches her family come apart after the company decides to close the mine because in South America people "work for almost nothing." An intriguing song to compare with Dylan's 2006 track from Modern Times "Workingman's Blues #2" as a foreshadowing of globalization. The EP concludes on "With God On Our Side." War's always been a fascination with Dylan, in his memoir he credited Von Clauswitz's On War as an influence on his songwriting. Few songs better encapsulated the horror of 20th Century conflict (and the scourge of Cold War propaganda). Overall, a worthwhile record of Dylan performing his early songs as he was finding his voice as an artist.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack

Released August 30, 2005
The Documentary

Martin Scorsese was called into service to edit the documentary that would cover the first 25 years of Dylan's life. No Direction Home is arguably the best documentary made about Dylan and offers an excellent introduction to anyone unfamiliar with his work. Dylan granted over ten hours of interviews with his manager Jeff Rosen, adding compelling commentary to his own life story. Many who knew him in the early days also appear: friends from Minnesota, Suze Rotolo, Dave Von Ronk, Liam Clancy, Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, and many others. The true magic in No Direction Home is Scorsese's impeccable editing skills. The film begins with footage of Dylan performing in 1966 with the Band at the height of his powers, then shifts back to the early years. The effect builds a suspense and significance to the narrative. Access to Dylan's archive allowed for lots of rare footage never seen by the public.

The Soundtrack

Overall, a worthy addition to the Bootleg Series. Although a few of the tracks had appeared on previous releases (and would appear on future ones), there's a wonderful collection rare recordings and alternate versions. Highlights on the first disk include "When I Got Troubles," one of the earliest Dylan recordings. A live version of Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" is another highlight, with Dylan beginning the performance sounding melancholy, but gradually adding a majesty to each verse. "Dink's Song" is another stirring early performance. An early version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" with Ramblin' Jack Elliot providing on backup vocals. Several live tracks are included, including an early performance of "Chimes of Freedom," with Dylan delivering a soulful vocal.

The second disk illustrate's Dylan transition into folk rock, symbolized by the performance of "Maggie's Farm" at the Newport Folk Festival. An alternate version of "Desolation Row," played with electrical instruments adds a psychedelic quality. "Visions of Johanna" is also supported by the Band, casting light on the early version of Blonde on Blonde. Much more would come on the 2015 release The Cutting Edge, but the No Direction Home soundtrack is a worthy companion piece to the series and its narrative arc.