Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Monday, 27 April 2015

11. New Morning (1970)

New Morning came hard on the heels of the critically (though not commercially) unpopular Self Portrait, and seemed to soothe the fevered brows of rock writers, eliciting responses such as "We've got Dylan back again!". As someone who liked S.P. just fine, I wasn't aware that he'd gone away, but was looking forward to listening to this next album all the same.

It starts well with If Not For You, which of course was later covered by George Harrison on All Things Must Pass.  In fact George himself played with Bob on an earlier take, but the solo version here was selected in favour of it.  This rather twitchy rendition has a nice mixture of organ, guitar and harmonica, but isn't a patch on the A.T.M.P. cover.  Still, it's a very sweet, simple love song and makes a great album opener. (Apparently there's also an Olivia Newton-John version, but I've yet to gear myself up for a listen.)

Not so sweet but equally good is the cynical Day Of The Locusts, where Dylan outlines his feelings about picking up his honorary doctorate at Princeton, where he was compelled to don a cap and gown.  This 'honour' must have been a rather conflicted experience for a college dropout with a mistrust of The Man, but weirder still was the emergence from the ground of thousands of cicadas after a 17-year hibernation period.  It's a soulful song, one I can easily imagine Van Morrison covering, and features some capable piano from Bob.  Most remarkable, which I only noticed when I first listened on headphones, are the cicada-mimicking sound effects that appear at the start and after each chorus.  I'm not sure what instrument was used to achieve this 'stridulation', but it's a nice touch.

The piano is the most prominent instrument on New Morning, and duties are split between Dylan and Al Kooper, whose organ-playing is also a key feature.  On the lovely The Man In Me, which begins with much la-la-la-ing, the organ trickles around Bob's piano and husky voice, while unobtrusive female backing vocals add some pleasant embellishment.  This Rod Stewart huskiness was due to a heavy cold, and appears elsewhere, including the jubilant title track, which also shares The Man In Me's tangible sense of optimism.

New Morning is one of three songs originally composed for a play by Archibald MacLeish called The Devil and Daniel Webster.  Another of these is my least favourite track, Time Passes Slowly, whose title accurately describes my feelings about sitting through it.  Dylan's voice sounds strained, which isn't a good match for the laid-back instrumentation.  He also sounds depressed, with lines like "Ain't no reason to go anywhere", "Time passes slowly when you're lost in a dream" and "We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right".  Not only is it in desperate need of a tune, it makes me think that perhaps the quiet, idyllic country lifestyle is beginning to pale, as even the happy odes to the simple life sound a bit forced.

Sign On The Window seems to document the change in his circumstances from footloose rock star to home-loving family man via the motorbike spill ("sure gonna be wet tonight on Main Street..., Hope that it don't sleet") and is moving in its own way, although that forced, even resigned feeling is there again in the last verse about building a cabin, raising a family and fishing for trout. There's a sense that this period of his life is heading towards a close and that something soon has to shift.  In terms of songwriting he's definitely out of ideas at the moment, as evidenced by the dullness that is Went To See The Gypsy (about meeting Elvis? Do I care?) and the pretty, featherweight waltz Winterlude (rhymed with "dude" - yikes).

More fun is If Dogs Run Free, where Bob flirts with jazz (thankfully it's Kooper on piano here), speaking his way through a nonsense lyric, accompanied by soft drum brushes and Maeretha Stewart's gentle, high-pitched scatting .  Nice.

(Last night I discovered that there's a children's illustrated book of the lyrics to If Dogs Run Free   which could make a nice gift for the child/grandchild of a Dylan fan!)

Also a lot of fun, and a welcome relief, is One More Weekend, whose sleazy electric guitar and blues rowdiness are a flashback to Blonde On Blonde with added Self Portrait backing vocals. My feeling is that a couple more songs like this one dotted through the album would have made it much more interesting, and perhaps put the more reflective ones in a better light.

The final two tracks are the most curious.  On the super-mellow Three Angels, Bob once again speaks rather than sings over hymn-like organ, tinkling guitar and mournful female backing vocals. A quick google of the title reveals that the "Three Angels' Messages" herald the second coming of Christ according to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  In the song, "The whole earth in progression" passes by, including a lady in a bright orange dress, the Tenth Avenue bus and a man with a badge, but no-one seems to notice the angels playing their horns.  On the other hand, the angels, who "stand high on their poles" "In this concrete world full of souls" could equally be referring to a shop's Christmas window display, which wouldn't surprise me at all!

Album closer Father Of Night also has a spiritual quality.  It's the remaining track from the abandoned The Devil and Daniel Webster agreement that fell through - in fact, this is the song that caused Dylan's disagreement with the producer.  Bob's simple, repetitive piano and ooh-ooh-oohs from the two backing vocalists are all that accompany the words of praise.  It's an odd one and a half minutes, but one of the album's high points.

To me, New Morning sounds like Dylan searching for something and not really finding it.  A variety of styles are approached, and although there's nothing wrong with the playing, this is a man in need of inspiration, something to stimulate his songwriting again.  There's a real lack of tunes, and he sounds bored and depressed.  The songs in isolation are quite good (with the exception of Time Passes Slowly), but the album when listened to as a whole is, well, boring. The fact that it was so well received on release (pushing Led Zep III off the top spot in the UK), then largely forgotten about, leads me to the conclusion that the rave reviews were more due to a sense of relief that it wasn't Self Portrait, than the actual quality of the material.

It's not an album I'd rush to listen to again, which makes me a bit sad, as this is first time I've felt this way during the BobBox experience.  Perhaps mixing some of the better tracks into a playlist would give them a longer life.  Anyway, I hope that the next album out of the Box is less of a disappointment.

What do you think of New Morning?  Love it?  Hate it?  Meh?  Let me know in the comments section below.

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Monday, 20 April 2015

10. Self Portrait (1970)

And so we get to Self Portrait, apparently so awful that the opening line of Rolling Stone magazine's 1970 review asked "What is this shit?"  I'd never heard a note of it, so I entered this phase of the BobBox with a combination of excitement (I love a good, bad record) and trepidation.

Unlike the other double album Blonde On Blonde, both of the original discs are crammed onto a single CD, despite Self Portrait being around ten minutes longer.  I wonder why this didn't get the double-disc treatment.  Would it really have been such a waste of plastic?

It begins with a track named All The Wild Horses, an immediate WTF? moment.  If a pleasant, though baffling, three minutes of a female gospel chorus singing the same two lines is Bob trying to wrong-foot us, it does a good job.  Guitar and then rather syrupy strings build gradually into what turned into the earworm of the album for me. The rest of Self Portrait, recorded in NYC and Nashville by a cast of dozens, is made up of cover versions, re-worked traditional songs, live tracks and a few new originals.

Two of these new originals are instrumentals; Woogie Boogie is a nice little blues jam and Wigwam is a guitar and piano number overdubbed with some brass and those strings again. Actually, Wigwam isn't entirely instrumental if you count Dylan der-der-der-ing over the top.  After a while he la-da-da-dees a bit as well.  Apparently it was released as a single in some countries and did quite well.  Hmm.  The other original, Living The Blues, is just brilliant, even with its Andrews Sisters-style backing vocals.

I'm not sure what was going on in Dylan's mind with all these overdubs.  Some really quite good songs are kind of spoiled by this unnecessary Nashville treacle.  I could have done without the Disney backing vocals on Take Me As I Am Or Let Me Go, an otherwise very pleasant cover where Bob employs his Nashville Skyline voice and is accompanied by some lovely steel and piano.  His version of Gordon Lightfoot's Early Morning Rain is happily overdub-free, and he sings in a voice that's halfway between The Croon and The Whine, which works really well.  Cautionary tale I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know is Dylan channelling Jim Reeves.

My favourite two covers are probably the most polarising ones on the whole record.  Why Bob decided to cover Simon & Garfunkel's The Boxer isn't clear.  Maybe he just really likes the song, or perhaps it's a genuine piss-take, but here he 'harmonises' with himself in two different voices, not very well synchronised so that he's interrupting himself quite a bit.  Aside from the fact that it's a difficult song to ruin, the guitar playing is great, and I find the whole thing playful, charming and amusing.  Ironically, Self Portrait knocked Bridge Over Troubled Water off the no.1 spot on release, albeit only for a week.  Also getting the thumbs up from me immediately was Blue Moon, sung in his NS croon, although it would have been better without those darn b/vs!

Dylan also takes on a couple of Everly Brothers songs; the much-covered Let It Be Me and a fairly cheerful arrangement of the mournful Take A Message To Mary.  The thing about lots of these cover versions, and indeed much of Self Portrait, is that they seem half-baked, a bit "that'll do", almost as if they're rehearsal takes which have then been subjected to some perfunctory overdubs.  There's been much speculation about the intentions behind SP, several put forward by the man himself: material designed to get fans off his back / to fulfill contractual obligations at a time of low creativity / a big old joke / an attempt to make his own 'bootleg' / or simply that this is what he felt like recording at the time.  It's probably a bit of everything, but I like the idea that he's making his own 'official' bootleg; a cobbled together collection of live tracks, covers and deliberately recorded 'rehearsal' takes.  It certainly makes sense when I listen to the album in one go (which I've done several times over the last week) and it's actually more enjoyable when listening with this notion in mind.

There are half a dozen songs here that Wikipedia describes as "Trad.", even though Dylan takes credit for some of them (not exactly a new thing for him I suppose).  Both Alberta and Little Sadie are represented by two versions each for reasons best known to Bob.  There's not a huge difference between Alberta nos.1 and 2, although the second is more upbeat and if pushed I'd say is the best.  The vocals are all over the place on In Search of Little Sadie, seemingly deliberately, and I much prefer the other version.  High points are the superb ode to moonshine Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight) and the shakily-sung Belle Isle, but best of all is gold rush ballad Days of '49, which as well as suiting Dylan down to the ground, also boasts some wonderfully farty bass harmonica.

The four live tracks recorded at 1969's Isle of Wight Festival have come in for some criticism for being sub-par in terms of sound quality and performance.  Luckily I have no problems with ramshackle playing, varying production values and out of tune singing (I'm a Neil Young fan after all!) so for me tracks like the hugely enjoyable Minstrel Boy and The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo) are not only an interesting snapshot, but also have an agreeable ragged glory (pun intended).

I enjoyed this album much more than I expected to.  Yes it's a hodge-podge of material, but perhaps by not being the "self portrait" his fans were expecting, they felt that they were losing him in some way, which makes the harshness of the criticism sort of understandable.  Instead, it's a series of sketches and doodles reflecting Dylan's love of American music; blues, gospel, country, traditional and folk.  Perhaps what I'd heard about it gave me low expectations, making me like it more, but I can definitely see myself picking this out for an evening's listen on many a future occasion.

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All prices correct on 20/04/2015

Monday, 13 April 2015

9. Nashville Skyline (1969)

If John Wesley Harding represented a step away from the crackling, poetic excesses of B.O.B., then 1969's Nashville Skyline is a gigantic leap.  By this time, Mr and Mrs Dylan had three children of their own, plus Sara's daughter from her previous marriage, and another baby would be born by the end of the year.  It's clear that this comfortable, even blissful, Woodstock domesticity was having an effect on Bob's songwriting, as this album is plainly the work of a very happy man.  Just look at the cover photo.

Whereas the earlier Nashville-recorded albums had used crack session musicians to lend a country twang to some very definitely 'Dylan' songs, here Bob uses many of the same guys to produce some very un-Dylan music indeed - much to my delight he goes Completely Country.

It opens with king of country, friend and label-mate Johnny Cash duetting with Dylan on a version of Girl From The North Country, originally from 1963's Freewheelin' album. Accompanied by Cash's band the Tennessee Three, the pair recorded a substantial amount of material together, but this is the only song from these sessions to appear.  The first thing to hit me was Dylan's VOICE!  Gone is the rough, nasal whine, to be replaced by what can only be described as an actual croon; a deep, rich, honeyed tone that completely threw me to begin with - "Is he going to keep this up for the whole album?", I asked myself.  Well, yes, he does.  For the first couple of listens this odd, unfamiliar voice sounds rather mannered (and it probably is; I don't believe for one minute that it's purely an effect of giving up the cigs), but once I got used to it, it seemed a lot more natural.

After this slightly stilted start, we're treated to a fine old spit and sawdust instrumental with Nashville Skyline Rag before the album proper begins.  To Be Alone With You opens with Dylan asking producer Bob Johnston "Is it rolling, Bob?", before launching into a funky little number where "arms" are rhymed with "charms", and "whole night through" to "with you" in the simplest lyrics he'd ever written.

Wait a minute - simple lyrics?  Country music?  Crooning?  Excuse me while I have a quick lie down.  Actually, this shouldn't be that much of a surprise.  So far in his career Dylan has done exactly what he's wanted, when he's wanted to.  He's already been more than happy to piss off the rather serious-minded folkies by playing drug-fuelled rock music, so there's no reason for him to fear pissing off a few longhairs by making some 'square' country, if that's what's currently floating his boat.  It might even be a deliberate attempt to keep the more intense contingent of his fanbase at arm's length.  But he's a words man, isn't he?  True, but for now it seems he's content to write about love lost and found with much simpler, more direct language that bypasses the brain and goes straight to the heart.

Thankfully there are some strong melodies, such as the ace One More Night where Bob is lonesome having done lost his woman, and the beautiful regret of I Threw It All Away.  The musicianship is a real pleasure too; although the band includes members of the "Nashville A-Team" in Buttrey, Drake and McCoy, the sound owes more to down-home Bakersfield than it does to the syrupy Nashville Sound.  The crowning glory is of course Lay Lady Lay, a hit single originally written for the film Midnight Cowboy, but not submitted in time.  I love the echoing vocals and Pete Drake's seductive pedal steel.

All of the songs here are short but sweet; Peggy Day is a trifling tidbit that ends with the question "What more can I say?", the answer to which is "Clearly not much".  The slightest song of all is Country Pie, not just for its 1.39 length but for its almost nursery rhyme words; "Raspberry, strawberry, lemon and lime, what do I care?" (though an ode to country music, my grubby little mind has since ruined it by furnishing it with pervy overtones).  On an album of ditties, this is the dittiest.  More substantial are my current favourites Tell Me That It Isn't True, with its gloopy organ and heard-it-through-the-grapevine lyrics, and final song Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You, in which Dylan throws his train ticket out of the window to remain with the love of his life.   As he sings about throwing his troubles out after it because "I don't need them any more", I'm inclined to believe him.

If you couldn't tell, I really enjoyed Nashville Skyline.  What about you?  I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Wednesday, 8 April 2015

8. John Wesley Harding (1967)

After the wild electricity of the previous three albums, John Wesley Harding initially felt like a bit of a downer on the first listen.  Although like Blonde On Blonde it was recorded in Nashville, here Dylan is accompanied by just Charlie McCoy's bass and Kenny Buttrey's muted drums, plus some pedal steel from Peter Drake on the final two tracks.

With this in mind, it might have made more sense for me to listen to The Basement Tapes first, which contains 24 tracks from his 1967 Woodstock sessions with The Band that yielded over 100 songs. But as this didn't come out officially until 1975 I must abide by the rules of BobBox and listen in strict chronological release order - just eight more albums to go before I get to it!

One of the first things about JWH to strike me was the short length of the songs.  There are no 11-minute epics here; in fact half of the dozen tracks clock in at under three minutes.  Also the language, although featuring many biblical themes and using lots of imagery from American folklore, is very plain and stripped-down compared to that of his previous albums.  This economy of language was a deliberate attempt to not waste any words; Bob is quoted as saying "each line has something", and this resulted in an album of songs that where although the stories seem simple on the surface, you just know there are oceans of meaning lying beneath.

In Drifter's Escape a man is ostensibly saved from a miscarriage of justice and mob rule by lightning striking the courtroom, but there's clearly a heck of a lot more going on besides.  Even though Dylan's language is pared down from the oddly juxtaposed words and complex lyrics of the electric trilogy, we're still, as ever, left wondering what he's really getting at.  As well as the drifter, other outsiders make an appearance, such as the outlaw of the title track; a ballad loosely based on a real American gunfighter, and another drifter in I Am A Lonesome Hobo; a morality tale about greed and envy via the wisdom of a vagrant looking back on his life, wishing he'd known his own mind better.  The  protagonist of The Wicked Messenger is given the cold shoulder as a bringer of unwelcome truth.

The sparse lyrics are matched by the music, which has a quiet, rural nature, accentuating the reflective tone of the songs.  McCoy's buoyant bassline on the unsettling As I Went Out One Morning takes some of the chill off what is quite a foreboding tale, and Dylan's drowsy harmonica on I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine is just wonderful.

Another notable difference is the change in Dylan's singing.  His voice is deeper and fuller, and there are far fewer of the stretched vowels that were so apparent on B.O.B.  That familiar nasal quality remains, but is much reduced.  His "new" voice is at its best during I Pity The Poor Immigrant, where the misdemeanors of the villain [which to me sounds more like a reference to the colonisation of the US in general (building his "town with blood" ) than a particular person or group] are offset by a gentle tune and Dylan's soft vocals.

At just over four minutes long, this latter song is a saga in comparison to much of the album.  The only one longer is The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, which runs to 5.35 minutes and appears to be another morality tale, this time on desire and the grass being greener elsewhere.  I say "appears to be", as I get the feeling Bob is messing with the listener.  The words seem playfully cryptic, especially the "nothing is revealed" from the mouth of the young boy at the end.

Dylan is known to have been reading the Bible a lot during this period of his life; whether he was religiously inclined at this point or whether he just enjoyed the language and storytelling is not for me to say, but it certainly inspired much of JWH.  All Along The Watchtower has references galore, and the lyrics stand out far more over the spare accompaniment than on Hendrix's blistering re-imagining, so that the final verse where,

 "Outside in the distance
  A wildcat did growl
 Two riders were approaching
 The wind began to howl"

is terrifically ominous.

Acoustic guitar is replaced by piano on Dear Landlord, which Bob plays while wearily pleading with someone "Please don't put a price on my soul".  This stylistic change comes as a welcome relief halfway through the album, but isn't the only one.  The final two tracks are very different, featuring Peter Drake's sublime pedal steel and some simple, lighthearted lyrics.  On Down Along The Cove, Dylan sings about his "true love" and his "bundle of joy", clearly about his wife and their new baby, born in the summer of 1967.  I'll Be Your Baby Tonight is just as sweet; a bare bones love song that even UB40 (with Robert Palmer) couldn't ruin in 1990.  This endearing pair of country songs manage to stay the right side of hokey, and make a refreshing end to a fairly serious record. 

As I've worked my way through the box, I've generally liked each new album more than the last. This isn't the case with JWH; although I admire it and am able to appreciate it, I don't enjoy it as much as what's come before.  This could simply be because it comes immediately after the immense Blonde On Blonde, a hard act to follow by any measure.  Also, it had to happen sooner or later, didn't it?  And let's not forget that I've only lived with it for about a week - I'm as sure that JWH will grow on me over time as I am that the BobBox holds many more surprises for me.

Dylan has not yet shown himself to be someone who follows the herd, and in releasing such a low-key album (apparently with little or no promotion) with simple instrumentation and a rootsy, subdued flavour in a year that boasted adventurous musical experimentation from The Beatles, Stones, Moody Blues and many others, he continues to follow his own path.  I can only guess at where that will take him next.

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All prices correct on 08/04/2015