Friday, December 6, 2019

Shadows in the Night

Release Date: February 3, 2015
Shadows in the Night would be the first of Bob Dylan's string of mid decade albums to in his words "uncover" songs forgotten by the culture. Full of smooth arrangements, Dylan brings a distinct mood, both romantic and resigned. There's a certain pose, a certain way of looking at the world that gives these records a staying power. Shadows in the Night immerses the listener in mid-century culture and sentiment.

"I'm a Fool to Want You" begins the record, a song about a complicated romantic entanglement. Dylan's also changed his vocal style, enunciating clearly yet subdued at the same time. "The Night We Called it A Day" sets a film noir tone of things coming apart late at night. The video accompanying the song drives home the film noir ambiance, but also adds violence that's only suggested on the surface. 

"Stay With Me" is a gentle pleading for support. Walking and searching and recurring motifs in Dylan's canon, and this song stands perfectly alongside those. He would often close his shows with "Stay With Me' in 2015. "Autumn Leaves" is another melancholy tune about loss and seasonal depression (the night drops so fast in December). "Why Try To Change Me Now?" asks his lover to accept him despite his eccentric habits, reminding her "I was always your clown."

"Some Enchanted Evening" from South Pacific is performed with a light touch. "Full Moon and Empty Arms" ruminates on loneliness tied again to the moon as a recurring symbol. Wishes and dreams, all these songs are tied to interior life. "Where Are You" recollects on lost love, sheepishly asking where's my happy ending? 

"What I'll Do" written by Irving Berlin phrases each verse as a question about living with heartbreak. The songs Dylan chose to record accept accept deep hurt as a part of life and never cheapens those feelings. "That Lucky Old Sun" ends the record on an appropriate note of redemption and the promise of inner peace.

In an interview from 2001, Dylan spoke of internal worlds and for people to survive they are going to have to have one. Shadows in the Night takes emotion at face value and to the listener open to them a subtle emotional journey. They are first and foremost about the human heart.

Dylan's band are also to be commended for providing excellent support for him on the record:

Tony Garnier: Bass
Donny Herron: Pedal, Steel Guitar
Charlie Sexton: Guitar
Stu Kimball: Guitar
George C. Receli: Percussion

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge

Release Date, November 6 2015
From 1965-66 Bob Dylan's recordings encompassed three albums that continue to be dissected, deconstructed, taken apart, scrutinized, and put together all over again. On Bringing It All Back Home Dylan divided the album into an electric and acoustic side. The follow up Highway 61 Revisited released a few months later introduced a bigger sound courtesy of Dylan's handpicked session musicians. For Blonde on Blonde, Dylan changed locale from New York to Nashville where he found the ideal group musicians to bring his surreal lyrics to life. Despite all the books and articles on these songs, a record of the evolution of these records remains minuscule. The official Bootleg release The Cutting Edge excavated the vaults to provide insight into the evolution of these essential recordings.

Disc 1

A pleasant acoustic version of "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" opens the first disc. More lyrical and than the love songs on the early Beatles' records, Dylan's striking imagery paints a compelling portrait. Although Dylan gave "I'll Keep it With Mine" to Nico, his performance here on the honky talk piano is staggering. An acoustic version of "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" remains an underrated one from the era. "She Belongs To Me" sounds like Dylan putting the lyrics to music for the first time. "Subterranean Homesick Blues", "Outlaw Blues" and "On the Road Again" are also in the early stages. The somber "Farewell Angelina" is a transitional song from the romantic balladry of "Girl From The North Country" and the surreal "Gates of Eden." 

"If You Gotta Go, Go Now" is Dylan doing a playful rock song, a Beatles parody and a sophisticated jukebox number. "You Don't Have To Do That" is a mere fragment of a blues ballad. "California" has a smooth swagger that recalls "Black Crow Blues" from Another Side of Bob Dylan. An incomplete version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" backed by a The Band moves along well enough, but The Byrds would turn it into pop perfection. "It Takes a lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" captures the ramshackle blues Dylan was going for on Highway 61 Revisited, although he would modify it into a slow ballad on the record.

Two rehearsals of "Like A Rolling Stone" speaks to how iconic the original recording remains. "Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence" sounds like a discarded single, a blues number dissected into several other songs as Dylan was wont to do. "Medicine Sunday" features fragments from "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "Temporarily Like Achilles" Two spare versions of "Desolation Row" follow, neither better than the electric version on the No Direction Home release.

Disc 2

An effective version of "Tombstone Blues" opens the second disc, while not as conniving, it's lumbering and potent. "Positively 4th Street" is performed without the iconic organ in the background. "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window" never quite took off as a single, it's always been a curio from this period. Lyrically I would argue it's one of Dylan's more surreal songs that's full of defiance, a masterwork of content matching the form. "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" is slowed down into a subtle calypso beat. An alternate "Highway 61 Revisited" flirts with a Phil Spector wall of sound feel; then a late night lounge act performance of "Queen Jane Approximately." An early version of "Visions of Johanna" has the feel of a psychedelic epic to contrast with the "late night country music station" style of the Blonde on Blonde version. 

"She's Your Lover Now" never made it on to Blonde on Blonde, but its manic point of view set the template for the album. A loose version of "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat" and "One of Must Know (sooner or later)" are not quite there yet, the thin wild mercury sound was still elusive. "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" was a jaunty pop song in its original incarnation. "Absolutely Sweet Marie" matches the original, but the tempo is a little slower. "Just Like A Woman" sounds a little awkward with Dylan's detached vocal and lazy support from the band. "Pledging My Time" is a bluesy highlight from Blonde on Blonde, the early take here is more rooted in R&B. "I Want You" sounds like a twisted love song emanating from that calliope in the Ray Bradbury novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Then a fragment of "Highway 61" with the police siren added in for good measure, Dylan and everyone in the studio are having a good time.

The Cutting Edge serves as en essential appendix to Dylan's music in the mid 1960s.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Bonus Post: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

A spiritual sequel to Martin Scorsese's 2005 film on Bob Dylan No Direction HomeRolling Thunder Revue follows Dylan on his tour of the East Coast during the fall of 1975. Dylan had been on hiatus from touring since 1966, but in 1974 he came back and toured for a few months with the Band. Those shows were played in large venues and are captured on the Before the Flood live album. The Rolling Thunder Revue would push against the arena rock scene of the 1970s. Spontaneity, variety, and theatricality would be the guiding lights. Besides being a great film featuring amazing music and performance, Rolling Thunder Revue is a stunning vision on the possibilities of art in a time fraught with cynicism and despair.

Scorsese's film mimics the carnival atmosphere of the tour. By piling on layers to the mythology, Scorsese jumbles truth, fiction, and reality together into pop art. A lot of the footage was also used in the Dylan's 1978 film Renaldo and Clara which starred himself and his then wife Sara - who's mysteriously absent in Rolling Thunder. If Renaldo and Clara, a four hour art film, attempted to tell a complex love story in the style of a Dylan song like "Visions of Johanna", Rolling Thunder takes an alternate approach, inviting the audience into the party. The cipher Dylan of Renaldo is reconstituted into a new identity, a swashbuckling troubadour from either an idyllic past or a dystopic future. He's also the man who drives the bus.

Literary allusions populate the film. Allen Ginsberg, a founder of the Beat Movement, joined the tour as a Socrates watching his student overtake the teacher. Dylan and Ginsberg visit the grave of Jack Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts. While the symbolism of the scene may appear a little too on the nose, it was all in the spirit of the Revue. Excursions into kitsch America like the Mayflower Museum or Niagara Falls were done with same sentiment - taking in the entirety of the experience. The Revue evokes On the Road, but also the showbiz savvy of a Bob Hope or Freddie Blassie. 

The band Dylan assembled gave the tour a unique sound and style. Some had a history of within Dylan's orbit like Joan Baez, Bob Neuwirth, and Ramblin' Jack Elliot. Dylan infamously jilted Baez on camera in the 1967 documentary Don't Look Back, but they appear to have mended their relationship here. Others ended in the tour through happenstance. Dylan spotted violinist Scarlet Rivera on the street and invited her to come along. Patti Smith appears at a key moment, sort of providing the overture. Larry "Ratso" Sloman provides comic relief as the sycophantic Rolling Stone reporter. 

Robert Altman's Nashville would make a perfect double bill with Rolling Thunder. Released in 1975, Nashville is a panoramic view of America in the mid 1970s, specifically the country music scene as the Bicentennial beckoned. Ronee Blakely starred in the film and was also part of the Revue. Clearly Scorsese is paying tribute to Altman with all the references to his unverse in Rolling Thunder.

Rolling Thunder treads the line between being a cinematic Rube Goldberg machine and a poignant statement on art and politics in America then and now. Dylan remains as enigmatic as ever in his interview, shedding another layer of skin to reference his 1983 song "Jokerman" as he downplays the importance of the Revue. The film challenges anyone who watches not to be moved by the words and by the rock and roll. Music is the instrument to take on everything from corrosive power structures to the conflicts of the human heart. "Hurricane" and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" are achingly relevant, targeting the systems of injustice. The personal songs "Simple Twist of Fate" and "Tangled Up In Blue" project into the universal.

Dylan rearranged his material from the Sixties into anthemic rock and roll, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna-Fall" gets reworked into a fever dream vision; "Isis" a hallucinatory journey into  a land of pyramids of ice. Dylan's duets with Baez recaptured the spirit of the folk revival of the early Sixties. In a showstopping scene, Joni Mitchell performs a spellbinding version of "Coyote" with Dylan supporting her on guitar. Songs from the 1975 record Blood on the Tracks, also took on a new life through live performance. The energy from the Revue led to the recording of Desire, another classic album in the Dylan canon.

Narrative shenanigans aside, Rolling Thunder Revue points the way to new possibilities. In terms of profit the tour was not a success, while the second leg of the tour in 1976 played bigger venues, but excess and exhaustion set in. For a brief moment the possibilities and the ideal were in harmony - that's the magic the Rolling Thunder manages to conjure.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Basement Tapes Raw:The Bootleg Series Vol.11

Release Date: November 4, 2014
The fall of 2014 finally saw the release of the Complete Basement Tapes, close to 50 years since their initial recording. While the complete set consisted of nine discs, the Raw collection was more affordable, featuring 38 tracks considered highlights.

The 1975 release opened a new aspect of Dylan's work that had only been available through bootlegs. Many of the songs had already been covered by other artists, popularized by The Band. The sessions began with Dylan and the Band performing some of their favorite songs, but as the sessions evolved more original work worked its way in. 

Here are some of the new tracks that stood out for me.

Disc 1

Open the Door, Homer - One of the most moving songs from the Basement Tapes: haunting harmonies with poignant lyrics.

One Too Many Mornings - A song that was a staple of Dylan and the Band's live set during their 1966 tour. In this striped down version, Dylan's weary vocal is complimented by Robbie Robertson's guitar. 

Tears of Rage - A dark, strange song that appears to deal with a parent/child tragedy (on the surface anyway). Richard Manuel provides back up vocals, and would sing lead on it for The Band LP in 1968.

I'm Not There -A song that came to prominence in the 2007 Todd Haynes film of the same title. Another dark love song about a mysterious women that has the narrator caught between divine ecstasy and insanity. Griel Marcus wrote at length on how the song is about the failure of language to express the most deep seated of feelings. 

Quinn the Eskimo - The only song from the sessions to produce a Top Ten hit (for Manfred Mann), captures the jocular atmosphere of the sessions.

Disc 2

You Ain't Goin Nowhere - Two different versions appear. The first was an early take with different lyrics that were more grotesque, more gallows humor than warmth. The second version sounds more familiar, a sure fire camp fire song for decades to come. There's a multitude of awesome covers of this one as well!

Goin' to Acapulco - Not to dissimilar from other releases, still one of Dylan's best vocals ever.

900 Miles From My Home - Great folk song, with some nice harmonies from the Band.

Blowin' in the Wind - Dylan revisited one of his early songs and transforms it into lumbering blues piece and transforms into gospel in the fadeout. One of the most unique renditions of the song Dylan has ever performed.

This Wheel's On Fire - Another song full of coded imagery with mystical overtones. Somewhere between counterculture alchemy and millennial apprehension. 

Sign on the Cross - One of the most anticipated Dylan songs to finally get a release. With some heavy Christian themes, a tale of redemption from the colonial days in the wilderness.

A worthwhile collection, but a dream come true for the Basement Tapes completist. With the growing number of releases fro  the Bootleg Collection, the line between musical archaeology and Dylan appreciation starts to blur. Nevertheless, these songs are no longer in the vaults. 

Monday, February 18, 2019

Bob Dylan: Fort Collins Stadium Radio Broadcast, Colorado, May 23rd 1976

A 2017 limited release vinyl for the EU market, the Fort Collins Stadium Radio Broadcast, features material left off Hard Rain live album 1976, as well some extra tracks from the concert. The penultimate show of the second leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue, it was taped for a TV special that aired September 14, 1976 on NBC to disappointing ratings. The album was released on the same day, except four of the tracks from a concert at Fort Worth performed a week before. Although the limited release does contain the full concert, all the material is from that particular show.

Side A

A Hard Rain's A-Gonna-Fall
Blowin' in the Wind
Railroad Boy
I Pity the Poor Immigrant 

All five of these tracks did not appear on the original release. Joan Baez contributes background lyrics, all of which have a political bent. A plodding version of "Hard Rain" hints at the exhaustion setting in on the tour, this was actually the closing number. An acoustic version of "Blowin' in the Wind" follows. "Railroad Boy" tells a tragic love story, a song usually credited to Baez. "Deportee" was a Woody Guthrie song dealing with the use of Mexicans for hard labor by wealthy Americans. Here's a verse

Some of us are illega, and others not wanted
Our work contract's out and we have to move on
But it's six hundred miles to that Mexican border
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

"I Pity the Poor Immigrant" from John Wesley Harding is given a more upbeat arrangement

Side B

Shelter From the Storm
Maggie's Farm
One Too Many Mornings
Idiot Wind

With the exception of "Mozambique" all these tracks appeared on the 1976 Hard Rain release. "Shelter From The Storm" is a far cry from the Blood on the Tracks version, here Dylan is full of anger, hope, and desperation. "Maggie's Farm" features some ferocious guitars. "One Too Many Mornings" is a reworked into a soulful rock ballad accompanied by Scarlet Rivera's violin. "Mozambique" is played at a Ramones style pace. "Idiot Wind" borders on emotionally draining, perhaps the purest expression of that song.

Most critics agreed the excitement of the fall '75 tour had collapsed into excess and backstage drama for the '76 tour. After one last performance in Salt Lake City, Dylan would take a 21 month hiatus from touring. 

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Bob Dylan: The New York Tapes

A limited release from 2015, Bob Dylan: The New York Tapes features some of Dylan's earliest studio recordings as well as his first single for Columbia, "Mixed Up Confusion." Many of these tracks would appear in a more polished form on the debut record Bob Dylan, while others are rare outtakes, including some radio performances from the early 1960s.

Side A

Smokestack Lightening - A blues traditional made famous by Howlin' Wolf.

You're No Good - Another blues recording, would be the first track on the first album.

Roll On, John - Not the tribute to John Lennon that appeared on Tempest, but another blues number.

Talkin' New York - One of Dylan's first originals that's appeared on many releases.

Hard Travelin' - Sounds rough, but features a passionate vocal.

HIghway 51 - The guitar riff sounds like a primordial version of "It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"

Standing on the Highway - A rushed and fragmented Guthrie pastiche. 

Side B

House of the Rising Sun - A favorite from the early days that according to Dave Von Ronk Dylan stole from his repertoire, but the Animals would record the definitive rock version.
Dylan's rough vocals are almost in the grunge style made popular in the 1990s.

Mixed Up Confusion - The first single that features guitar, bass, and drum that never quite took off upon release. Still a fun record with Dylan making an early attempt to stretch his sound.

The Death of Emmett Till - Performed on a radio show, the song's power grows with each verse.

Man of Constant Sorrow - Another standout from the debut record, very much in the Woody Guthrie tradition.

Corrina, Corrina - A bit looser than than the official release on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, always an underrated song.

Song to Woody - Maybe Bob's first great song about saying goodbye his idol and going his own way.

All in all, The New York Tapes presents a vivid portrait of early Dylan emerging as a songwriter and performer. 

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Bonus Post: Bob Dylan in the 80s Volume One

Release Date: March 25, 2014
In 2014 ATO records unveiled a collection of Bob Dylan songs from the 1980s featuring reinterpretations by an assortment of Indie Rock artists. Novelist Jonathan Lethem contributed the liner notes. As Lethem explains, Dylan was a sort of "bad companion" to his fans during the 1980s, as each album left even his most ardent admirers with varying degrees of disappointment. The project was made with the intention of sparking some discussion on Dylan's work during this period.

The decade began with Dylan recording religious music. The born again fervor of Saved (1980) faded into more upbeat Shot of Love (1981). Infidels in 1983 signaled a renewed interest in Judaism and world events. At the same time Infidels became known for what did not appear on it like "Blind WIllie McTell" and "Foot of Pride." Dylan shed his born again image for good with a triumphant appearance on Late Night With David Letterman backed by the L.A. punk band The Plugz. In 1985 Dylan took part in the iconic "We Are the World" session and recorded the excessive Empire Burlesque. He toured with The Grateful Dead and Tom Petty, yet many were wondering if Dylan had much left in the tank after two unremarkable records of mostly covers, Knocked Out Loaded (1986) and Down in the Groove (1988) both flopped with critics. Then Oh Mercy arrived in 1989 to high acclaim, featuring some of Dylan's strongest material in years. So the 1980s were wild ride of different personas combined with the uncomfortable reality of becoming an elder statesman of rock.

The collection begins with "Got My Mind Made Up" from Knocked Out Loaded. Langhorne Slim took a blue grass approach with a primal vocal performance. Built to Spill gave "Jokerman" a post punk treatment that enhances the song's fantastical imagery. Reggie Watts does a complete reworking of "Brownsville Girl" into a Reggae beat box hymn. Craig Finn of The Hold Steady offers a playfully rocking version of "Sweetheart Like You" and even changes the lyrics.

Ivan and Alyosha bring a modern folk sound to "You Changed My Life", an outtake from Shot of Love. A rarity from Dylan's 1987 film Hearts of Fire "Night After Night" gets a 60s pop overhaul from Deertick. "Dark Eyes", the sadly beautiful closing track on Empire Burlesque is wonderfully recreated by Bonnie Prince Charlie with a stirring vocal from Dawn Landes, totally changing the impact of the song. "Waiting to Get Beat", an obscure outtake from Empire, gets a makeover from San Francisco jam band Tea Leaf Green.

Not all the songs are from the 80s, two from Dylan's 1990 LP Under the Red Sky also appear. "Wiggle, Wiggle" with Aaron Freeman and featuring Slash on guitar (who also played on the original) is a tad slight. Blitzen Trapper provide a lo-fi version of "Unbelievable." Singer-Songwriter Elvis Perkins added a fairly standard rendition of "Congratulations" Bob wrote for the Traveling Wilbury's. An instrumental version of "Every Grain of Sand" by Marco Benevento speaks to the song's sense of peace and renewal. Hannah Cohen delivers a dreamy vocal of "Covenant Woman" and Glen Hansard performs a soulful version of "Pressing On."

"Series of Dreams" performed by The Yellowbirds sounds close to Dylan's own version, a tough one to cover since its one his most modern sounding tracks. One of the most inspired moments comes from Lucius in their rousing version of "When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky," reimagined as a New Wave epic of melodic jangle rock. Appropriately, the collection concludes with "Death is Not The End" from Carl Broemel (former member of My Morning Jacket) played as a gentle folk ballad.

Bob Dylan in the 80s is a worthy collection of eclectic interpretations of some of Dylan's lesser discussed work. By now it's passe to claim the decade was a lost one for him. These songs hold up and are amenable to a new generation of artists taking inspiration from their inspiring and sometimes strange power. The spiritual songs sound more secular and the secular ones seem more spiritual. A worthy project, Bob Dylan in the 80s will allow any fan to look at decade in a new light.