Biograph by Bob Dylan

July 27, 2009

Biograph, released in 1985, was the first Bob Dylan box set and one of the first box sets to be released in the CD format.

Recently, The Bob Dylan Bootleg Series, now at seven volumes, has been releasing every live performance, alternate take, cough and clap that Bob Dylan ever recorded on tape. The producers of Biograph had the advantage of being the first to do so and have the entire Dylan catalogue at their disposal. The producers chose well. The 53 tracks contained on three CDs comprise most of Dylan’s well-known songs plus 22 previously unreleased performances. Biograph, released in 1985, covers what is now the first half of Dylan’s career, 1959-1985. The last album represented is Shot Of Love; thus, Dylan’s later material, a lot of which does not measure up to his earlier efforts, is not included.

One of the highlights of Biograph is the accompanying booklet. This large size booklet is filled with rare pictures, a Dylan biography and notes about each song.

The only real problem with this collection is that the tracks are not presented in chronological order. While there are several groupings of similar songs that make sense, it would have been nice to have been able to follow Dylan’s development as an artist, singer and songwriter rather than hopping around through the years.

The first disc contains many of Dylan’s better and most famous recordings, beginning with a series of love songs: “Lay Lady Lay” from
Nashville Skyline, “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” recorded in 1961, “If Not For You” from New Morning and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” from John Wesley Harding. These tracks all establish a mellow mood and good feeling for what is to follow. Next up is a lost gem, “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” which was originally recorded with Judy Collins in mind, featuring just Dylan singing at the piano.

Three of Dylan’s most famous protest songs are also grouped together. “The Times They Are A Changin,’” “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Masters Of War” have all gone down in history as three of the most famous protest songs in American music. Simple melodies and casual lyrics show forty-five years later just how important Dylan’s music was to the anti-establishment.

Disc two travels in a different direction than the first, containing a number of previously unreleased songs. A live 1966 rendition of the concert staple “Visions Of Johanna” shows Dylan’s increasing sophistication as a songwriter and performer. Meanwhile, we also have Dylan’s first recorded interpretation of the now well-known track “Quinn the Eskimo,” a huge hit for Manfred Mann. “You’re A Big Girl Now” was left off of Blood On The Tracks and it is interesting to speculate why, as it is classic Dylan of the period.

Likewise, “Abandoned Love,” which was cut from Desire, shows Dylan’s mind during the recording process but never really has the feel of a finished song. A 1966 acoustic live version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” shows how a song can change and in many ways evolve when presented live with minimal backing.

The third disc centers on additional unreleased performances. The subtle, introspective “Up To Me,” also from the Blood On The Tracks allows the listener a rare glimpse into the inner workings of Dylan’s mind. “Baby, I’m In The Mood For You” from the Freewheelin’ sessions harks back to the long gone very early Dylan. The live version of “Romance In Durango” shows that Dylan knows how to improvise and work a song.

Biograph draws to a close with classic seventies Dylan: “I Shall Be Released,” “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” “All Along The Watchtower,” “Solid Rock” and “Forever Young” all re-establish the mood of the first songs.

The variety of material contained on Biograph meanders along with twists and turns that find delight at every stop. It is a wonderful look at the legacy and catalogue of an American musical legend.

The Bootleg Series Volume 7: No Direction Home by Bob Dylan

July 27, 2009

And the Bootleg Series goes on and on and on and on………………and on.

No Direction Home: The Soundtrack is the seventh volume of Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series. Originally begun as a way of releasing rare and never-released archival material, it has reached the point of redundancy and is quickly becoming inconsequential.

The extended title, No Direction Home: The Soundtrack, is misleading as it is not really a soundtrack to the biographical Dylan film of the same name. Rather it provides a jumping off place to explore similar material that was recorded during the same time period.

No Direction Home is a 26 song two-CD set that is filled with live versions of mostly well-known songs (nine), alternate takes of again well-known songs (12), plus a few demos, home recordings and the like. The music is not bad. If you are a hardcore Dylan fan this set may amuse you for awhile. Oddly enough, if you aren’t familiar with Dylan’s material from this era, the live tracks can provide a good introduction.

The best of No Direction Home comes early. “When I Got Troubles” is a home recording made in 1959 by a high school friend. It is primitive and has poor sound quality but is historically important as one of the earliest Dylan recordings in existence. The 1961 live performance of “This Land Is Your Land” is probably the single most outstanding track on the album. Accompanying himself only with an acoustic guitar, Dylan slows the song down and provides a mellow talk-singing performance that is mesmerizing. Following this performance with “Song For Woody” is a worthy double homage to probably the greatest influence on Dylan’s musical life. The home recordings, “Dink’s Song” and “When I Was Young” show how far Dylan’s musical evolution had come in just a couple of years. He has taken traditional folk music and its lyrics as far as they can go and is now striking out on his own; a musical journey that continues today.

The live tracks are fine but there is nothing groundbreaking or even much different here. Do we actually need more performances of “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Maggie’s Farm?” These songs have been performed by Dylan thousands of times, and while I enjoy Dylan, I don’t need to hear these same songs yet again.

I have never been a fan of alternate takes. Many times the reason an alternate is unreleased is that it does not measure up to the version originally released. Small differences in such songs as “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Highway 61 Revisited” are just not interesting enough to be included on an album under the proclamation of truly unreleased. Are these takes number four or fourteen? It doesn’t matter. The only alternate take that comes across as essential is the old coffeehouse staple “Sally Gal.” Maybe it’s because I have not thought of or heard this song in a long time but it does hark back to a long-gone simpler time.

The accompanying booklet, which is top notch, is not enough to save this set. Unless you are trying to assemble every recording that Bob Dylan has ever issued, you money would probably be better spent elsewhere.

On and on and on and on………………….and on.

Modern Times by Bob Dylan

April 23, 2009

Bob Dylan released Modern Times on August 29, 2006 and it became his first number one album since 1976’s Desire. At the time, he was the oldest artist to reach the top position on the National charts. Neil Diamond has since surpassed that record.

Dylan borrows heavily from traditional blues tunes of the 1920s and 30s and adapts some interpretations of those songs to his unique style. While he does not credit some of these performances, the folk and blues traditions in the USA are filled with copying and interpretation of songs. Dylan received some criticism for this tactic but people have been copying him for years. The other often forgotten point is that all the songs were in the public domain. However he came to these songs, the updated versions would give the release a sound rooted in Americana by way of a modernization of pre-rock ‘n’ roll blues. The result was an accessible and brilliant release that was one of the best of his career.

“Thunder On The Mountain” is the first track and is a call to the faithful. Whether you interpret the song as revelation or a love song, it just rocks along. The precise phrasing of Dylan’s vocals would set the tone for the rest of the performances.

“Rollin’ and Tumblin’” has appeared under a number of titles throughout its history. Dylan’s version comes closest to that of Muddy Waters although Robert Johnson would provide a raw and sparse version. Other modern interpretations would include Johnny Winter, Cream, and Canned Heat. Dylan strips the lyrics back and adds two new original verses.

“Someday Baby” is based on the old Muddy Waters tune “Trouble No More.” It would win the Grammy Award as the best rock performance of the year and deservedly so.

Dylan takes the old Memphis Minnie blues tune, “When The Levee Breaks” and changes it to “The Levee’s Gonna Break.” He fills in the sound which pushes it toward rock ‘n’ roll and also adds new lyrics which moves it from a natural disaster theme to more apocalyptic in nature.

“Workingman Blues #2” is presented as an easy flowing blues tune. Political, spiritual, and love themes are all mixed together.

“Ain’t Talkin’” is a somber song that borders on depressing yet was a fitting conclusion to the album.

Bob Dylan is now 67 and it remains to be seen how many albums he has left in him.

Love and Theft by Bob Dylan

April 23, 2009

Bob Dylan released “Love and Theft” on the memorable date of September 11, 2001. The quotation marks are an official part of the title. It was his first album since 1997’s Time Out Of Mind. While that album would be dark and even fearful at times; Dylan would return to his blues and folk roots in a positive manner. Though far different from each other, both were successful in their own way. It would be Dylan’s highest charting album in years reaching number 3 on the National charts. Rolling Stone Magazine would place it at 467 on their 500 greatest albums of all time.

I can’t help but think that Dylan had fun writing and recording the songs for this album. There is an old time feel to it, especially on the blues numbers. The lyrics were strong and the song structures tight. The music itself has a beauty. Dylan was also wise enough to use his touring band in the studio rather than assembling different combinations for each track. The fact that they had been playing together regularly shows. The only problem I have with the album is his voice. It has a gruffness and sounds lower than in the past, but he manages to get by.

This is not as personal or as thoughtful as many of his past efforts. Instead the focus is upon the songs themselves and this was a wise decision. Dylan, who was now forty years into his career, had decided to just create some music with no hidden agenda or at least very little.

It is the blues songs that dominate the album. “High Water (For Charley Patton)” is Dylan paying homage to a man who influenced not only his music but American music in general. Also known as Charlie Patton, he was one of the originators of The Delta Blues sound. The song looks at southern racial history as well.

Other original blues tunes dominate this release. “Po’ Boy” is right out of the 1920’s. “Sugar Baby” can almost be imagined as being played at a funeral procession in New Orleans. “Bye and Bye” has been used in his live act and the sweet music provides shelter from the intensity of the lyrics. “Summer Days” almost makes a turn into an early country swing sound.

The most memorable track on the album is “Mississippi.” It is a melodic folk ballad of alienation and regret. Both Sheryl Crow and The Dixie Chicks would change this song around and create memorable versions.

“Love and Theft” is an album I do not play enough. When I do give it a spin I find new delights. Bob Dylan proved, that even as his life entered its sixth decade, he is still a master of his craft.

Time Out Of Mind by Bob Dylan

April 21, 2009

Bob Dylan would return in 1997 with his first album of all new original material in seven years. Time Out Of Mind would reach the top ten on the national charts and achieve platinum status with over one million units sold. Daniel Lanois was brought back to produce this release and under his guidance it would win the Grammy for best album of the year.

1997 would find an aging Dylan, who was now well over thirty years into his career. He was not the same person as he had been in the early 1960s and his songs would reflect that fact. His compositions were more philosophical as he continued to explore the world around him, but now from the perspective of a mature, and in some ways a world weary, individual. As such, he would continue to redefine and solidify his legacy.

“Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” find him contemplating his spiritual journey as many people do when they reach his age. Dylan is just able to put his thoughts and feelings into words and music. “Not Dark Yet” would find him thinking about death which is another topic that invades the mind as people age.“Make You Feel My Love” is a straight forward and passionate love song. “Standing In The Doorway” is an emotional track that is wistful and shows a longing.

“Highlands” would be the longest track of his career clocking in at over sixteen minutes. It is a novel set to music, and while it does drag at times, it has enough imagery and parables to keep the listeners attention. It is a song of looking back that gradually moves toward acceptance with the words: “And that’s good enough for me now.”

Time Out Of Mind was a comeback album commercially but a repositioning album personally. Dylan had new things to think and talk about and would bring them to life through his words and music. This album of mature subjects and stories would be a superior effort. It really should not be compared to his best work of the 1960s and 1970s as it is far different in vision and scope. It is enough to just appreciate it on its own terms.

World Gone Wrong by Bob Dylan

April 21, 2009

The positive reception for his album, Good As I Been To You, prompted Bob Dylan to release another album of traditional folk and blues songs. World Gone Wrong was released October 26, 1993 and received another round of positive reviews. Both albums would find Dylan accompanying himself only on acoustic guitar and harmonica.

His choice of material would be darker this time and he would write his own liner notes explaining the songs. This may have been due to the fact he had been successfully sued for using arrangements that were not original to him without providing compensation or recognition. Also the album cover shows him wearing what appears to be the same top hat as on the jacket of Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid.

What has always been amazing to me is that Dylan was familiar with so many and different types of traditional songs. These songs would literally define him as a person and musician just as well as most of his own compositions. The songs chosen for this album may be more intense and less positive than his past selections but they are performed with passion and sincerity. It all adds up to the fact that, at his best, he is a folk singer.

He takes two old blues songs from the 1930’s, originally performed by The Mississippi Sheiks, and simplifies them back to their basics. “Blood In My Eyes” is an intensive love song while “Delia” is a ballad of murder, prison, and death.

“Two Soldiers” has appeared in Dylan’s stage act, off and on, for years now. It portrays death in war and the pain of a mother left behind. “Lone Pilgrim” contains some of the most expressive vocals of his career.

World Gone Wrong contained a set of songs that meant something to him. He proves here that good songs are never dated when recorded and sung well. The tunes contained on this album will always be good company.

Good As I Been To You by Bob Dylan

April 21, 2009

Early in 1992 Bob Dylan went into the studio with David Bromberg and recorded an album’s worth of material. None of these tracks would be used on his next album. Dylan would return to the recording studio and record a large number of cover songs that would become Good As I Been To You.

The first thing that I noticed about this album was the personnel listed on the jacket. It read Bob Dylan-vocal, guitar, harmonica and that was it. This was far different from the multitude of singers and performers that had been appearing on his recent albums. The original Dylan had returned.

Producing an album of cover songs worked well for him. This return to his simple folk roots seemed to rejuvenate his career. He began as an interpreter of songs and remains one of the best in the business when he selects the proper material, which he does here. He may not have written these songs but they are his nonetheless. His use of only his acoustic guitar and harmonica served to accentuate the performances.

“Frankie & Albert” has been recorded hundreds of times, but he takes the song in a blues direction by using Mississippi John Hurt’s version. “Jim Jones” was an old Australian ballad. He had a penchant, at times, for using other artist’s renditions without acknowledgment or compensation. This time he got caught as Marc Slocum sued him and won for copying his version of the song.

There are a lot of stellar moments on this album. “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” is the old blues tune by Walter Vinson. He strips this 1930’s blues classic to its basics. Just compare it to the version by the group Cream. “Tomorrow Night” has some classic harmonica playing. “Black Jack Davey” is a folk ballad from the early 1700’s and “Canadee-i-o” is from Canada. Both come to life as wonderful story songs. “Arthur McBride” is a violent Irish protest song and on it goes.

The album concludes with a six minute version of “Froggie Went A Courtin’” which generations of grade school children have sung in music class. This 16th century traditional Scottish song was a wonderful way to end the album in a fun and relaxed manner.

Good As I Been To You was an excellent release and proves that sometimes simple is best. Somewhere Woody Guthrie is smiling.