If there’s one lesson music collectors have been relentlessly taught in the last couple of decades of having record companies sell us re-packaged material over and over in slightly expanded editions, it’s that there’s a reason most outtakes were outtakes. I’ve always wanted to believe otherwise, partly because some of the artists represented are no longer still at it, but even more because I just don’t want to believe that major corporations are right about anything; but it’s the same thing as deleted scenes from favorite movies -even when they’re deleted from really good movies, too often the viewer ends up agreeing for one reason or another with the original decision.
In pop music, even the greats didn’t leave behind nearly as much as you’d wish they had. The Beatles and the Stones, for instance, had their catalogs exploited so completely when all that stuff was new that there just wasn’t much left over, to the extent that nowadays people end up listening to alternate mixes with the most minor changes imaginable. Turns out we didn’t really need vaults for most of this stuff after all!
As in most other regards, however, Bob Dylan is a major exception to this depressing rule -not really that surprising when you consider how favorably some of his recent albums (“Love and Theft” and “Time Out Of Mind” both come to mind) compare to his heyday. He should be completely irrelevant by now, but instead, the latest volume of his cast-offs, “Tell Tale Signs, Rare and Unreleased 1989 – 2006”, which is also volume 8 (!!!) of his bootleg series, is amazingly powerful and in fact is in many ways preferable to his last CD of original material, 2006’s “Modern Times”, which wasn’t half bad itself.
I really can’t tell you what I like so damn much about Bob. After all, he’s an incredibly mannered singer, frequently pretentious as all get out, a noted poseur, rootsy to the point sometimes of not seeming to care all that much about melodies at all, and he has always seemed to have a flagrant disregard for the process of making records, using very little of all the studio chicanery available to him and usually seeming pretty happy to get in and out as fast as possible.
Of course, when everybody else was getting real slick there in the eighties and nineties, his steadfast first take approach grew to have a certain charm, just as Neil Young’s did when he and Bob seemed to be the last guys on earth who refused to buy guitar tuners. But I’ve never been a big guy for combing through lyrics that sound like literature, plus Bob’s basically still kind of a folkie who frequently writes songs that are way longer than my attention span. What the hell -why would I care about this?
Well, just because Bob is still one righteous stud, is all I can figure.
First, let’s be practical: there’s some math involved here: the “normal” version of “Tell Tale Signs”, has two CDs and a fucking booklet, all for only $15.99 at Amazon, and the booklet has what they call your extensive (and actually exceptionally good) liner notes by Larry “Ratso” Sloman. Hell, it’s a pretty good deal for 27 mostly high quality Bob tunes and a fucking booklet so lovely yet so chunky that it could fairly be called, a “book.”
So far so good, but check this out: there’s another, different version for rich people! It looks pretty similar, but it has all the same stuff plus another (as usual) exceptional CD (twelve tracks and easily as good as either of the others), plus a vinyl single (two largely redundant selections), plus an additional book(let) or book or whatever, now don’t get me going on that again, OK, but I’d pretty much say “book”, that has a large selection of his single sleeve cover art over the years -no doubt something you don’t need that badly, unless you’re an un-repentant geek or hopelessly wealthy, in which case, line up, Rodney, that’ll be $115.99. Does that seem crazy to anyone else? Like, possibly a hundred dollars is a lot to pay for a CD, a single, and a book(let) or even a fucking book. So I don’t know what the hell you wanna do about that, hey don’t shoot the messenger, I’m just trying to help. His batting average doesn’t change much over the course of the three CDs -christ, he’s old as a hill but still batting about .600 and hitting one out of the park every 3 or 4 at-bats, a great power hitter and definitely still hitting to all fields -an amazing value in any league.
The two CDs a normal person would buy contain: a great, loping “All Shook Up” Elvis version of “Dignity”, which is a song I could swear I’d heard from him elsewhere, but couldn’t find during my extensive research; an incredibly mangy, rabid vocal on a live take of a song from “Love and Theft” (one of my real favorites) called “Lonesome Day Blues” that is basically a seminar in “bad” singing (only in the sense that it always sounds nowadays like Bob is on the verge of losing whatever meager pipes he had, though of course they’re wonderful pipes to me; but still, when he covered “Froggy Went A’Courtin’” or whatever the hell that was, back when he did those one-man trad/folk albums in the nineties, jesus, that was rough, but Bob has always demanded a long rope, and who better to endow with one? I only meant to say omigod what an amazing singer, how can he do all that, all those different voices over the years, what is he a fucking ventriloquist or what?
How does he make himself so compelling? What makes this magic work? Twenty thousand Dylan imitators down the road I should know that I’ll never figure that out, and neither will you. It’s like, agnosticism, or something.
Where was I? Oh yeah: a less-revolutionary-than-usual version of “Everything Is Broken” (from “Oh, Mercy”, which I don’t remember paying much attention to), but this is a nice little rocker; a spooky little acoustic bass and organ number called “Dreamin’ Of You” (as is frequently the case, I don’t really know what he’s singing about here -just haven’t gotten around to it yet -but he sure sounds good doing it)…
The tragic third big money CD that no one could possibly afford contains a ridiculously groovy thing called “Marchin’ To the City” (most of this stuff is from “Oh Mercy” and “Time out Of Mind”, both beautifully produced by Damiel Lanois -I knew the latter was great, and I’m figuring I better check out “Oh Mercy” again, too); the better of the two versions in the collection of a tune called “Born In Time” that’s just a nice pop tune with some slightly Chinese melody lines… and generally lots more whole new songs he’s never released before; but try to forget about that one, you really probably shouldn’t be spending that much money on pop music at your age.
The regular, poor people’s version also has a long, stately, gorgeous tune called “Cross the Green Mountain”, apparently from the sountrack to “Gods and Generals” (there’s a few songs from soundtracks here, but this one is particularly stunning); the better of the two nice mariachi versions of the leisurely, traditional “Red River Shore”; and each CD has one of three -count ’em, 3 – wonderful versions of a “Love and Theft” tune called “Mississippi” that are 180 degrees away from the relatively modern-sounding version they released originally (which still worked -it’s just a great song – but I like all the alternates better); as Ratso says in the notes, “I could listen to a whole album of various takes of it.” Usually, that’s pretty boring in practice, but, like I said, there’s exceptions to rules…
It’s not like this is all great, just most of it. There’s some solo-ish, folky thing I don’t care for much – the live take of “The Girl On the Greenbriar Shore” is pretty bad, as are both takes of one called “Ring Them Bells”; other than that, though, it’s really all at least pretty listenable -which is a little strange, too. You can put on whole sides of Bob’s last few records as background music nowadays, which I never would’ve figured would ever be the case; but somehow, Bob’s kooky-froggy singing is, yes, almost re-assuring at this point, despite how often he’s warning us of the apocalypse. It really has been fun having a little Bob party lately…
See, now in just thinking about these songs I remembered that I hadn’t paid enough attention to the song he sings with Ralph Stanley, “The Lonesome River”, which I loved, a true battle of car-horn singers; and then remembered liking the one before it, a little ballad called “Miss the Mississippi” that features a great, silly/pretty little harmonica interlude where he bulldozes along through these changes that his harp doesn’t really have enough notes for, (or does it?) -jesus I’m really strarting to like this one, too. Looks like I got kind of a Bob fad going here, which is pretty damn fun, for a change.
Bob Dylan, “Tell Tale Signs, Rare and Unreleased 1989 – 2006” – ***and ½ – crazy ol’ Bob, in his latest, most comfy incarnation a la “Love and Theft”, “Time Out Of Mind” and “Oh Mercy”, still provides more high quality music than normal people should expect or afford.