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...

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

35. MTV Unplugged (1995)

During the early 1990s stars as big as Clapton, McCartney and Rod Stewart benefited from their appearances on MTV's Unplugged series, both in terms of sales and how they were perceived by the generation below, so when Dylan was asked to take part it must have been an easy decision for him to make.  But of course nothing is simple in Bobland, and his desire to perform a solo set of traditional music à la Good As I Been To You/World Gone Wrong was rejected by MTV bods as not being suitable for a mainstream television audience.  Instead he brought the hits, with a couple of curveballs thrown in for good measure.

In another typical Dylanesque move, he turned up to record his episode of a show entirely based on acoustic values with what can only be described as a semi-electric band; we have John Jackson playing acoustic-electric guitar, Bucky-Baxter skillfully switching between pedal steel, dobro, steel guitar and mandolin, Tony Garnier on upright bass, Winston Watson thwacking a full rock drum kit, and Brendan O'Brien sat behind a vast Hammond.  Bob himself sticks to his trusty acoustic guitar and gob iron.  These musicians constituted his touring band at the time, and this shows in the almost effortless way they gel, and there's the sense that they know exactly what Bob is about to do at any point.  After the Dead's all-at-sea floundering on the previous live album, it's absolutely heavenly.

They begin with Tombstone Blues.  Although I love the garage-band original, the country flavour given to it here suits it well, and the swirling organ is wrapped round a surprisingly good lead vocal.  Dylan is clearly in fine voice right now, and sounds engaged and energised.

We hop from 1965 straight to 1989 next for a beautiful Shooting Star, the final track from Oh Mercy.  Bob provides a decent enough harp solo, and the instrumental outro from the band as a whole is just gorgeous, O'Brien's Hammond gently tangling with Baxter's weeping slide.  With no pause for breath, they're straight into a rendition of All Along The Watchtower that's midway between the acoustic original on JWH and the searing electric Hendrix reading.  Dylan's lead guitar is impressive, but his voice sounds as though it's beginning to falter.

The Times They Are A-Changin', once sung in youthful defiance, is transformed into a country ballad delivered with the weary resignation of a man now on the other side of the generation gap. But Bob is able to reach into his guts for a bitter performance of anti-war song John Brown, which he first recorded in 1963 under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt for a compilation called Broadside Ballads.

An otherwise dreary version of Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 is elevated by drunken lap steel replicating the woozy brass of Blonde on Blonde, and a truncated Desolation Row replaces Charlie's McCoy's delicate counter-melody with a rich, busy sound that's able to remain suitably mellow. The pace picks up again with Oh Mercy outtake Dignity, first heard on Greatest Hits Vol. 3 in its original rockabilly incarnation.  This rockier MTV version was released as a CD single.

The set isn't marred by the annoying audience noise that plagued Neil Young's Unplugged episode, but the European version of Knockin' On Heaven's Door was apparently overdubbed with a section of whooping and whistling, on a repeated loop.  Luckily the CD in the BobBox is the US album, so is free from the 'whoop loop'.  Dylan sounds pretty nasal here, but at least he decided against doing a reggae version.  There's a nice harmonica break, and the heavily textured backing is glorious.

On Like A Rolling Stone he bunches the words up at the beginning of each line, and the phrase "do you want to make a deal?" seems like it's reluctantly forced out - quite amusing from the former King of counterculture as he sells his services to a cable channel.  (I wonder how that feels?)  The remainder is sung with more intensity, and goes on to fill over nine minutes.

The set was recorded over two nights in November 1994 in NYC's Sony Music Studios, and final track With God On Our Side is the only recording from the first night used on the album.  Like Desolation Row it's shortened by a couple of verses; in this case the ones mentioning the Holocaust and the Russians are omitted, and like 'Times' there's a resigned weariness in Bob's voice.

As well as being a relief after the horrors of Dylan & The Dead and Real Live, it's good to hear Bob in full-band mode after two pleasant but rather minimalist studio albums.  The public seemed to feel the same way, rewarding him with his first gold album for six years; I expect the fact that there were no wildly altered melodies or arrangements had something to do with it.  Other songs recorded at the sessions but not used included Hazel, Absolutely Sweet Marie and My Back Pages.  The concert DVD (of course I bought it, I'm not MAD) boasts an additional performance in the shape of a fairly underwhelming Love Minus Zero/No Limit (also included on the European CD release) which again sees him bunching up his words at the beginning of each line.  There's almost no between-song chat and Dylan remains inscrutable behind his shades for the duration. The 80s mullet and designer stubble are gone, and with his spotty shirt and dark jacket he rather resembles his mid-60s self, much as the mixture of organ and Nashville twang resembles his mercurial mid-60s output.

Verdict: A highly enjoyable set of mellow but stirring country rock. More plugs than expected. Opt for the DVD if you can.

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Tuesday, 20 October 2015

34. World Gone Wrong (1993)

World Gone Wrong is essentially Good As I Been To You Part 2, with baffling liner notes.  Arriving on the shelves one year on from its predecessor, this shorter, 10-track collection of covers is more blues-based, and for the most part sustains a more subdued atmosphere.  It too was recorded over a short space of time in Dylan's home studio (reportedly without a single change of guitar strings!), but this time no producer other than Bob himself is credited.

Perhaps because of the outcry over the lack of song credits on GAIBTY, here Dylan provides lengthy, fairly comprehensive and (I suspect) deliberately bewildering sleeve notes, citing his sources and explaining them in his own inimitable style.  These are playfully titled "About the Songs (and what they're about)".

The album opens with the title track, a blues lament learned from the 1930s version by the Mississippi Sheiks.  Dylan's voice is a little clearer on this song than it was on the previous album, but this doesn't last long, as by the second track, Love Henry, it's back to the familiar slur. For some reason I didn't mind so much, perhaps because I'd grown used to it, or more likely because I made sure I had the lyrics to hand from the outset this time.  Whichever it was, I really enjoyed his telling of the murder of Henry at the hands of his treacherous "pretty girl", particularly the last verse about the deeply (and rightly) suspicious parrot, witness to murder and refusing to approach his mistress lest he suffer the same sticky end.

After Willie Brown's Ragged and Dirty is another Mississippi Sheiks number, the lustful Blood in My Eyes.  A video for this was shot in Crouch End, London, with Bob wandering around and signing autographs in the street.  The album's cover image was taken in a cafe during the video shoot.

Bob rounds off Side 1 with a song by Blind Willie McTell, one of his biggest heroes.  He covers Broke Down Engine which he describes in his notes as "a masterpiece" and "about variations of human longing".  It does indeed contain all the blues tropes: poverty, a woman who done left him, and a reference to the Georgia crawl.  He also writes that "it's about trains", which is less clear. The line "Can't you hear me, baby, rappin' on your door?" is illustrated with a few knocks on the body of his guitar, and the croaking delivery is suitably desperate.

Side 2 begins with more loss and betrayal in the form of murder ballad Delia, a story of gambling and unrequited love that ends with the heroine shot down "with a cruel forty-four".  Dylan's voice is tender, and he sings the heartbreaking "All the friends I ever had are gone" mournfully, communicating the loneliness perfectly.  There's more murder next with Stack A Lee, a traditional song also known as 'Stagger Lee' and 'Stack O' Lee'.  This starts with brisk strumming and cheerful harmonica (the only time this instrument gets an outing on WGW) before we learn of Billy Lyons, shot dead in a bar by his friend over a John B. Stetson hat, and going on to haunt his killer's jail cell.  Less seedy but equally tragic are the deaths in Two Soldiers, a war ballad learned from Jerry Garcia, where battlefield promises cannot be kept.  Like Bob, Garcia was a repository for obscure American folk music.  Unlike the rest of the album this song had actually been present in Dylan's live shows for a few years, and he describes it as being from "...before the Wild One, before the Children of the Sun - before the celestial grunge, before the insane world of entertainment exploded in our faces".  For some reason the songs from WGW are not currently available on Youtube (at least in the UK), so here's Two Soldiers on Spotify.

Like Canadee-I-O from GAIBTY, the Tom Paley ballad Jack-A-Roe tells of a young woman disguising herself as a man and following her true love to sea.  It's nice after all the bloodshed to have a story with a happy ending, with the couple marrying after her lover narrowly escapes death.  But the sadness returns for final track Lone Pilgrim, learned from Doc Watson.  Bob sings softly of the pilgrim's death from "contagion" on this most sombre of songs.

Although World Gone Wrong suffers from Dylan's same lack of diction as on GAIBTY, and the mood is darker and more sorrowful, I enjoyed it a little more.  Perhaps the more dominant blues theme suited his rough style; the unvarnished, lo-fi approach is certainly preferable to the ham-fisted attempts at modern production that plagued most of his output in the decade before.  Also, his voice sounds less strangulated, which was a surprise - perhaps he'd warmed up a little. Things might have been improved with the inclusion of a couple of more upbeat songs; there's no Froggy Went A-Courtin' here to lighten the load, which makes for hard going at times.  For this reason I feel that like some of the other less outstanding albums in his catalogue, the songs on World Gone Wrong would work best as part of a mixed playlist.

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(I'm sorry that this isn't a more interesting blog post; at this stage in the BobBox I'm definitely flagging a bit, plus after its very similar predecessor I'm finding little to say about World Gone Wrong that I haven't already said about Good As I Been To You.  Hopefully these two albums served their purpose as a recharging exercise for Dylan's songwriting.  I guess I'll find out).

Monday, 12 October 2015

33. Good As I Been To You (1992)

Two years after the release of the disappointing Under The Red Sky, and once again suffering a bout of writer's block, Dylan decided to lace up his boots and get back to his roots in order to meet his contractual obligations.  With producer/guitarist David Bromberg and a semi-electric band he put down enough folk and blues cover versions to fill an album, then went off on tour leaving Bromberg to mix it. On his return he decided to record some solo acoustic numbers to add a bit of light and shade, and it was during these sessions that the thirteeen songs that make up Good As I Been To You were committed to tape, the Bromberg recordings being completely discarded*.

This resulted in his first entirely acoustic album since 1964's Another Side, and here the "seen everything" world-weary tone of voice he was going for then is now real.  With the pressure of songwriting temporarily lifted from his shoulders, over thirteen songs of murder, deceit, adventure and love lost, Bob uses the words of others to recalibrate and to drill down to what's most important to him: age-old truths told plainly, in an intimate setting.

The songs he chose are mostly folk ballads, and one of the best known opens the album; his reading of Frankie and Albert, otherwise known as Frankie and Johnny, is that of Mississippi John Hurt which appeared on the Harry Smith Anthology of Folk Music, a collection much-loved by Dylan.  Rather more obscure is the cowboy ballad Diamond Joe, about a penny-pinching master who treated his employees cruelly, or the sorry tale of Jim Jones, convicted of poaching and transported to Australia.  The former uses an arrangement popularised by Ramblin' Jack Elliott, a man who exerted a significant influence on the young Dylan.  Like several arrangements here, Bob did not credit those responsible in the sleevenotes, and faced criticism (and some legal action) as a result.

One of my favourite of the folk tunes is Hard Times, written by American songwriter Stephen Foster and first published in 1854 as Hard Times Come Again No More.  Listen as Dylan sings "'Tis the song, the sigh of the weary" with his own fatigued moan:

Possibly the oldest of the folk covers is perennial US children's favourite Froggie Went A-Courtin', which has its origins in sixteenth century Scotland.  Several variants and dozens of recordings exist of this tale of marriage between Froggie and his Miss Mouse, one of my favourites being the exuberant version by Bruce Springsteen on his 2006 Seeger Sessions.  Bob plays it deadpan here, but it's not much less enjoyable for it.

Other than folk, the rest of Good As I Been To You consists of the blues, and on Step It Up and Go (a standard otherwise known as Bottle Up and Go or Shake It Up and Go) he makes an entertaining racket.  He even gets his harmonica out for Sitting On Top of the World and love song Tomorrow Night; funnily enough he played harmonica for Big Joe Williams on his 1962 recording of the former.

Dylan's guitar playing throughout the album is rough, but his picking is surprisingly nimble and the style suits the low key, down-home feel of the record, which conjures up images of Bob sitting on his front porch by the screen door, playing to no-one but his dogs and the crickets.  In actual fact it was recorded in the garage of his Malibu home, which although it had a lawnmower resting in one corner, was no doubt a much posher garage than yours or mine.

So far so good, eh?  Well yes, but Dylan has a habit of chucking a spanner in the works of a potentially great album, and here that spanner is his singing. Not his voice - it's nicely aged, and I'm comfortable with the nasal quality - but his actual singing, namely the lack of enunciation. With the type of music performed here the power lies primarily in the story, and if the words cannot be understood, this power is lost.  To my utter frustration he mumbles, mutters and slurs his way through the majority of the songs.  Listening under normal circumstances, i.e. in a quiet room on the big stereo, I can perhaps make out one word in five.  With headphones clamped into place, maybe one word in three is discernible to me.  I was only able to enjoy the account of love and betrayal that is Black Jack Davey, for instance, when I googled the lyrics, this Scottish border ballad only becoming a pleasure to listen to once I could read along about the lady of means forsaking her husband and child for the love of the blaggard Jack.  Without the lyrics in front of me as a guide, the album goes by in a bit of a homogenous blur.  I'm not looking for Joan Baez or Peter, Paul and Mary levels of clarity, but just enough to be able to sit back and enjoy the story without having to try to translate Bob's incoherent mumbling.  If Johnny Cash could manage to sing clearly with his weathered, often frail voice in his sixties, surely Dylan, in his early fifties at this point, could have too?

Also, there are no particular highs or lows.  This may be because he felt very comfortable in his secluded recording studio (quite literally 'at home'), compared with his recollections of the ego-filled sessions for Under The Red Sky.  Another factor may be the little or no direction from friend and producer Debbie Gold, who is said to have used a "hands off" approach to her job.  Whatever the reason, nothing on here can be described as riveting - although Froggie Went A-Courtin' is rather ribbeting...

The album as a whole has a timeless quality, like it could be a field recording, and for this reason the blues covers work better as they don't have stories that require following.  The tone of the folk songs make for a pleasant listen, but their most engaging aspect is agonisingly lost in translation. I read that the sessions were recorded with no notes or lyrics sheets, so well did Dylan know these songs. If only he'd provided the listener with such materials, or preferably gone beyond levels of Adele-like articulation, Good As I Been To You would have been orders of magnitude more enjoyable.


*Miss The Mississippi from the Bromberg sessions can be found on Disc 2 of the Bootleg Series Vol. 8.  A further track appears on its hard-to-find and overpriced 3-disc set.

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Saturday, 3 October 2015

32. Under The Red Sky (1990)

Under the Red Sky is a curious album.  A glance at the tracklisting reveals the rummest set of titles since the Basement Tapes; Handy Dandy, Cat's in the Well, 2 x 2 - all these, lyrics as well as song names, would have blended in well with those quirky, often nonsensical 1967 home recordings.  But of course it's now 1990 and the music these ten songs are set to is very different, being tight, radio-friendly, R&B-infused rock.

The album was produced by Bob himself (credited on the sleeve as 'Jack Frost') and rock/pop producers and childhood friends Don Fagenson and Davis Weiss, better known as the Was brothers.

Things start badly with Wiggle Wiggle (no, I'm not making this up), which for a song that presumably is about sex ("Wiggle 'til it whispers, wiggle 'til it hums, wiggle 'til it answers, wiggle 'til it comes") is distinctly unsexy, with the return of the doof-doof reverby drums and a total lack of funk or groove.  Even as Bob exhorts whoever he's talking to to "Wiggle wiggle wiggle like a swarm of bees" there's a distinct lack of humour too, and I'm left wondering what exactly the idea is behind this oddest of songs.  Maybe there isn't one, but oh mercy, at least it's short at just 2:10 minutes.

Things pick up with the title track.  The strange lyrical content continues, with nursery rhyme references galore, but the music is much better, with some great slide guitar, a much improved drum sound and some fine organ. In fact it sounded so good that I was immediately moved to look up who was playing on the record, and to my surprise a whole roster of star names was listed, including my teen crush Slash (who apparently played on Wiggle Wiggle but you could have fooled me), Elton John, Stevie Ray Vaughan, David Crosby, Al Kooper and George Harrison, the latter two providing the aforementioned organ and slide.  Bob joins in with some rather decent accordion on this second track, but his vocals are decidedly dodgy at times.  This probably wouldn't be as much of an issue if the words he were singing weren't so lame, but the combination of half-arsed delivery and half-written, repetitive lyrics spoils what could have been a really great song.

(Don't you think the guitar on the intro sounds a lot like Barbra Streisand's Woman in Love?)

Unbelievable is a neat little rocker, again with some great, lively organ from Kooper and solid drumming from Kenny Aronoff.  Dylan's voice is for the most part good, but it occasionally veers off into an inexpressive "going through the motions" manner, and when at the end he sings "It don't matter no more what you got to say", I believe him.  Born In Time is the only ballad on Under the Red Sky, and although Bob's singing is invested with plenty of crackly emotion, sometimes it's hard to discern, as if he's not properly facing the mic all the way through.  The song was originally intended for Oh Mercy and an outtake can be found on the Bootleg Series Vol. 8.  I actually prefer this newer version though, particularly for David Crosby's beautiful harmony vocals and some touching lyrics like "In the foggy web of destiny, you can have what's left of me".

Presumably inspired by a visit to Hyde Park, TV Talkin' Song is a story about Speakers' Corner, where an anti-television orator eventually causes a riot.  In an echo of Black Diamond Bay the observer watches the incident "later on that evening", ironically on his TV.  This song doesn't work well at all, the difference in quality between the band and the singer coming over like a karaoke session.  I think it would have been more successful had it been done as a talking blues, as its title suggests.  Perhaps it did start off this way but Dylan changed it for some reason.  It certainly wouldn't be his first instance of last minute self-sabotage.

We return to the realm of nursery rhyme on 10,000 Men, a single-take bluesy rocker that sees Bob's vocal all over the place, and ends with possibly the worst verse of the album:

Ooh, baby, thank you for my tea!
Baby, thank you for my tea!
It's so sweet of you to be so nice to me

2 x 2 is a counting song that has the feel of a spiritual, and benefits from Elton John's electric piano and some more lovely backing vocals courtesy of Crosby.

These last two songs mark the beginning of the second half of the album, which to me is by far the better side, especially as it contains my favourite track, a statement of faith called God Knows.  It begins gradually, slowly building momentum before bursting into a melodic, energetic rocker with powerful, bluesy guitar licks from Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Even Bob's wobbly warbling can't drag it down.  It's another leftover from Oh Mercy, and again I prefer this newer version, as the one on Bootleg Series Vol. 8 lacks the terrific intro and guitar riff.  Like a lot of songs on Under the Red Sky it seems as though Dylan wasn't sure how to end it, so as a result it doesn't fulfill its potential, simply fading out after three minutes.

The first ten seconds of Handy Dandy are thrilling and full of promise, mainly because Al Kooper's squealing organ intro is reminiscent of Like A Rolling Stone.  But then in come dull, thudding drums and some off-kilter accordion farts.  The promise is broken and the story of Handy Dandy (Prince? Reagan? Dylan himself?) with his "...stick in his hand and a pocket full of money" disappoints, becoming just so-so.  Luckily, closer Cat's in the Well is on hand to round off the album with some simple but dynamic R&B where Bob's accordion playing and his singing both sound full of vim.  Stevie Ray's brother Jimmy takes over lead guitar with an equal amount of spirit, and even the horse " goin' bumpety-bump". It's a great finish, and more often than not makes me want to put the record straight on again - perhaps skipping over the opener, though.

Under the Red Sky is a great sounding record with a fair share of decent tunes.  However, despite the presence of its star players, it still somehow lacks a spark, and has an anonymous, generic sound that really could be any set of talented session musicians.  Also, Dylan's vocals let him down; frequently unfocused and often set to Full Phlegm, they generally fail to get his message across, although when that message is "Wiggle wiggle wiggle like a bowl of soup", I don't suppose it really matters.  In fact some of the time he really does sound as if he's embarrassed by the words coming out of his mouth - and I don't blame him.

Having said this, I think that some of the criticisms used to write off the album at the time of its release were a bit unfair; those about "childish" or "nonsensical" lyrics.  Of course Under the Red Sky is full of them, but I bet if some of these songs had been recorded in a basement with a bunch of Bob's cool mates 25 years before, many fans and critics would be raving about their 'naive charm' and 'topsy-turvey nursery wit', or some such other bollocks about old, weird America.

I don't have a problem with the lyrics on their own, it's just that they don't sit well with the type of music underpinning them here.  If you can get over this curious dissonance, it's a really enjoyable record; if you can't, then it's still a pleasant noise to have playing inoffensively in the background. If the songwriting were as tight as the playing, and if Dylan had injected more energy into his delivery, Under the Red Sky would have been an incredible album.  As it stands, it's merely very good.

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