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, 30 November 2015

38. Modern Times (2006)

A suitable alternative title for this record might be "Bob Dylan Rocks, But Gently".  Like its predecessor "Love And Theft", Modern Times sticks firmly to the pre-rock'n'roll era, mixing sedate tea-dances with frisky, polished blues and stately ballads, only here the sound is more restrained. Dylan retains Tony Garnier on upright bass (plus on this occasion cello), and they are joined by the latest touring band comprising Donnie Herron on steel guitar, viola, violin and mandolin, Stu Kimball and Denny Freeman on guitar, and George G. Receli on drums.  Once again the words are cherry-picked from a wide variety of sources, including Civil War poet Henry Timrod, Roman poet Ovid, and many snippets of song lyrics, but this time Bob caused some eyebrows to raise with his wholesale lifting of some of the arrangements and melodies without crediting their originators.  Whether you believe that this is simply a part of the long-standing "folk tradition", or in actual fact taking the piss a bit, hopefully shouldn't affect your enjoyment of Modern Times, for it's a very fine album indeed, continuing Dylan's late-career hot streak.

A terrific old-fashioned guitar intro launches the steady R'n'B of Thunder on the Mountain, whose Chuck Berry riff underpins a baffling set of verses, including references to his faith and a startling mention of Alicia Keys.  Six minutes later it ends with a flourish, and we're into the Western Swing of Spirit on the Water, a gentle love song that at twenty verses and nearly eight minutes unfortunately outstays its initial welcome.  This style of song was my favourite on L&T, but there they were all around the 3-4 minute mark, so never got the chance to become this tiresome.  Also the music is a little thin, sounding unfinished or perhaps under-rehearsed.  It's a lovely number though, and the final chorus,

"You think I'm over the hill,
You think I'm past my prime,
Let me see what you got,
We can have whoppin' good time"

is followed by a pretty outro featuring creamy guitar and for the first time in a couple of albums, Bob's harmonica.

On Rollin' and Tumblin' Dylan re-interprets and significantly extends a blues song best known for the version by Muddy Waters.  This is one of the tracks that by being credited solely as 'written by Bob Dylan' got the critics in such a tizz, but when he cries "I've been conjuring up all these long dead souls from from their crumblin' tombs", it strikes me that this is exactly what he's doing on Modern Times; bringing the words of the long dead into the 21st century - albeit using the music of some not-so-long-dead folks.  When the Deal Goes Down appropriates the melody of Bing Crosby's trademark song Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day), marrying it to new lyrics that could be read as devotion to either his god or perhaps a lover, a long familiar theme.  There's no ambiguity as to what 'the deal going down' is, though; clearly the end of life is still a preoccupation for this 65 year-old man, though not on the same scale as on Time Out Of Mind.

Bob further muddies the waters of copyright with Someday Baby, a re-working of the blues song Trouble No More.  Over a shuffling beat and brisk guitar the narrator threatens to kick out, even murder, the woman he hates to love, with the refrain "Someday baby, you ain't gonna worry po' me any more".

He moves from murderous to defiant yet hopelessly resigned on piano ballad Workingman's Blues #2.  There's a rather clunky first verse about the "...buyin' power of the proletariat" and America's low wage economy, that has echoes of the abysmal Union Sundown from Infidels, and it has the same demo-ish quality as Spirit on the Water where the band don't quite gel, but overall it's a classic-in-waiting with a haunting chorus:

"Meet me at the bottom, don't lag behind,
Bring me my boots and shoes,
You can hang back or fight your best on the front line,
Sing a little bit of those workingman's blues".

Beyond the Horizon is another leisurely love song, this time with a darker undercurrent and set to the tune of Red Sails in the Sunset, a standard recorded by the likes of Guy Lombardo and Bing Crosby in the 1930s, and Nat King Cole and Big Jim Turner in the '50s.  It's followed by probably my favourite song on Modern Times, Nettie Moore.  This moody acoustic ballad uses the title, the first line of the chorus and a partial melody from a 19th century folk song.  Receli provides a simple, heartbeat-like thud as Bob sings of being  "...the oldest son of a crazy man, I'm in a cowboy band", and the "Blues this morning fallin' down like hail, Gonna leave a greasy trail". Muted strings join him on the achingly beautiful chorus, where the quiet yearning and depth of sadness in his voice are devastating:

"Oh I miss you, Nettie Moore,
And my happines is o'er,
Winter's gone, the river's on the rise,
I loved you then, and ever shall,
But there's no-one left here to tell,
The world has gone black before my eyes".

Flood is probably a metaphor for the End Times on The Levee's Gonna Break, the third reworked blues cover on Modern Times (When the Levee Breaks).  Having said that, it's given a very chipper musical backdrop, with some excellent work from the two guitarists accompanying Dylan's piano and croaky drawl.

Like so many albums before it, Modern Times concludes with an epic closer.  Ain't Talkin' is nearly nine minutes long and the chorus borrows its tune from the finger pickin' Highway of Regret by Dylan's beloved Stanley Brothers.  There's finger picking here too, but much more delicate, as well as mournful violin and the occasional soft 'chink' of tambourine.  It's the only song on the album where the music is as unsettling as the lyrics - no chirpy blues or sentimental supper club whimsy accompany this chilling struggle of faith.  The narrator walks endlessly through a world gone wrong, in search of an elusive peace.  I love the phrase "Walking with a toothache in my heel", and feel a bit bad for wondering where Bob might have pinched it from. Faint hope remains as "The fire gone out but the light is never dyin'", and after seventeen verses we leave him still traveling, still searching this garden of Eden that even the gardener has deserted,

"Ain't talkin', just walkin',
Up the road, around the bend,
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
In the last outback at world's end".

Modern Times continues the mood set by "Love and Theft", but has a more mature, dignified air. The band never let loose, but their sensitivity complements Dylan's now frail voice and the most stirring moments are more likely to be provided by the words and their delivery than by the music underpinning them.  Bob no longer pushes his voice; his growl is now a purr, and his phrasing is used to great emotional effect, in particular the odd tiny whimpers that are so expressive and so moving.  The new relaxed, comfortable style that began on L&T suits him in the strange way that his cowboy hat and pencil 'tache do; it doesn't for a moment diminish his ability to powerfully ruminate on sin, love, God, loss and this terrible, wonderful world in which we live.  Some criticised Modern Times for the length of the songs; to begin with I agreed, but as time went on this no longer bothered me as much, and in the case of Ain't Talkin' I'd be quite happy for it to last as long as Highlands, the 16-minute closer on TOOM.  If I were feeling mean I might describe MT as "Love And Theft Lite", as sometimes it feels more sleepy than sparkling, but from an artist of now pensionable age, and after a career of more than forty years, I'm both astounded and grateful for the fact that he's still putting out material of such high quality.

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All prices correct on 30/11/2015

Monday, 23 November 2015

37. "Love And Theft" (2001)

Well he's certainly perked up, hasn't he?  Where on Time Out Of Mind Dylan seemed mostly preoccupied with death, on "Love And Theft" he is very much alive.  He's shed the weariness of the last few albums and sounds vital and more comfortable in his skin than he has in a long time. This has resulted in a record that's witty, confident, relaxed and for the first time in ages fun.  He and his touring band plus organist Augie Meyers (who played on TOOM) are clearly having a heck of a good time, and their mixture of roadhouse blues, swing, country, folk and jazz is for me one of Bob's most immediately enjoyable albums in years.

The lyrics are his most interesting in years, too.  Less personal (overtly at least), they are full of outcasts, criminals and lunatics, plus characters like Fat Nancy, Black-eyed Susan, Aunt Sally and phony Mr Goldsmith, as well as more recognisable names like Charles Darwin, Big Joe Turner, and figures from Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll.

He kicks off the new millennium with rumbling retro-rocker Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, a nursery rhyme song better than any on Under The Red Sky.  After a fade-in, this comic, sinister tale begins with:
"Tweedle-dee Dum and Tweedle-dee Dee
They're throwing knives into the tree
Two big bags of dead man's bones
Got their noses to the grindstones",

and the grotesque imagery continues with "Brains in the pot beginning to boil, they're dripping with garlic and olive oil".  Guitarists Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton trade licks easily and naturally, and it's clear that the band's ultra-tight yet laid-back vibe is a consequence of months spent relentlessly touring.  It's a great start, but is immediately upstaged by instant classic Mississippi, an unused song from the TOOM sessions, here re-worked and recorded anew.  This beautiful song sounds like it's always existed, and at the same time, despite it's history, is the freshest, youngest-sounding track on the whole album.  Bob's not fibbing when he sings "Stick with me baby... things should start to get interesting right about now".  It shares the same feeling of disconnect that dominated its intended parent album, thanks to lines like "Your days are numbered and so are mine", "Sky full of fire, pain pourin' down" and "Feeling like a stranger no-one needs".  I love it.

For some reason the "Love And Theft" songs aren't on YouTube, so here it is on Spotify:

Ringing guitar introduces the jump-blues rhythm of Summer Days, and drummer David Kemper sounds as though he's pounding on a dustbin lid - in a good way.  Dylan's attitude is as full-tilt as the music; he's "...drivin' in the flats in a Cadillac car", spending all his money and using all his gas - little wonder as he's " eight carburetors and boys, I'm using 'em all"!  The album is a groan-orama of bad puns and worse jokes, and on Summer Days we're told of a politician who's " on his jogging shoes, he must be running for office".

On Bye And Bye Bob is "...sittin' on my watch so I can be on time", accompanied by Hammond organ and a breezy soft-shoe shuffle.  There are a few of these old-fashioned jazzy smoochers on L&T, and they are probably my favourites.  Dylan crams an unbelievable number of words into the lines of Floater (Too Much To Ask), while slide guitar and fiddle swoon together in the background.  The lilting, swaying ballad Moonlight is set to brushed drums and lap steel, and the romantic, lullaby lyrics take a dark turn as Bob creepily croons:

"Well I'm preachin' peace and harmony
The blessings of tranquility
Yet I know when the time is right to strike
I'll take you 'cross the river dear
You've no need to linger here
I know the kind of things you like",

which made me think of my favourite Dylan meme:

Another old-timey ballad suitable for a tea-dance is Po' Boy, whose lyrics are also packed in tight, seemingly without effort.  The melody struck me as extremely familiar, and made me wonder where he pinched it from.

There's plenty of blues on L&T; he snarls and growls his way through Lonesome Day Blues, over Sexton's meaty, menacing guitar riff and Campbell's buzzing interjections.  The verses don't seem to have anything to do with one another, except they all refer to some sort of loss, or something that's missing.  The most poignant phrase, which seems to come out of nowhere and stands out like a sore thumb, is "I wish my mother was still alive".  Beatty Zimmerman had died the year before, aged 84.

It struck me during High Water (For Charley Patton) what a beautifully produced album L&T is, and I was quite surprised to find that it's a 'Jack Frost' production, Dylan's psuedonym.  Here he pays his debt to Patton (also referencing a couple of other bluesmen) with a doom-laden tale and a country-folk backing featuring banjo and mandolin.  There's dirty schoolboy humour too, my favourite line being the saucy "Jump up into the wagon, love, throw your panties overboard!".  His voice is somewhat drowned out by screeching guitars and thunderous percussion on bluesy rocker Honest With Me, and at almost six minutes it's a bit too long.  Misplaced loyalty and betrayal are lamented on Cry A While, which alternates between a chug and a swing.  To my mind it's the least essential song on the record, as by now there have been several similar sounding ones and it adds little.

Final track Sugar Baby has more in common with TOOM than its stablemates on L&T.  There's no percussion, but lots of atmosphere, with the echo of distant slide guitar and a haunting vocal performance, as well as faint hiss and a few barely discernible crackles.  The dirge-like melody, Lanois-style production and helpless lyrics end the album on a bit of a downer, but it showcases Bob's voice for what it has once again become: his finest instrument.  Not only are his tone and phrasing better than ever, the gravel is now authentic, lending further weight to his words.

I read that Dylan had poached words and melodies from all over the place to make "Love And Theft", including the title, which is acknowledged by the quotation marks.  This patchwork of stolen and original language gives the lyrics a jumpy cut-up feel that matches the energy of the music.  Bob continues with his homage to early music, in this case American music of the first half of the 20th century, but it's unmistakably a Dylan record.  It has more shape and colour than TOOM; the instrumentation is more distinct, there's more melody, and the whole thing is wonderfully lighthearted.  It's as though he's finished grieving for his youth and all that disappeared with it, and is now revelling in late middle age.  Elder wisdom is mixed with a youthful puerility; he's plenty to say regarding age, but now there's a wicked grin and two fingers up to the Grim Reaper.

Apart from some songs being a tad too long, and Cry A While perhaps being superfluous, there's really nothing to complain about on "Love And Theft".  I read that Bob was much happier with this album than the last one; perhaps its rootsy, pre-rock'n'roll sound was the one he'd been shooting for on TOOM before Lanois got his box of tricks out.  It doesn't matter whether this is the case or not; TOOM was a fine album in its own right, and after all the "comebacks" and false dawns in Dylan's storied career, to have it followed up with an ever better record was an unlooked-for joy. If he keeps this up, the final stretch of the BobBox is going to be plain sailing*.

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*I expect some readers will know better :)

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

36. Time Out Of Mind (1997)

Time Out Of Mind arrived seven years after Under The Red Sky, an unprecedented gap between albums of original material.  This post arrives over a fortnight since the last, an unprecedented gap in the short history of the BobBox blog.  Dylan's reason was likely a lack of inspiration; my excuse is that it took me a long time to get a grip on TOOM (although 10 days of domestic upheaval, plus the arrival of the Bootleg Series Vol. 12 also played their part).

Producer Daniel Lanois returned to oversee this album of brooding modern blues and love songs, his soft, dense music bathing the mostly painful words in a haze of echo, distortion and compression.  At times this drains the songs of energy, but it also lends heft to the weaker material.  The overarching theme of Bob's 30th studio album is loss; that of love, of friends, sometimes of his sanity, of youth, and of time.  There's fear, too, of being left behind, left alone to face what's coming.  It's a record only an older person could write, although I had to remind myself that he was actually only 56 when it was recorded, a mere spring chicken compared with the man currently touring Europe.

His constant touring is reflected in the lyrics - there are many references to traveling: riding trains, being Dixie-bound, wanting to take to the road, people on platforms waiting, walking in the middle of nowhere (there's a LOT of walking), as well as trying to get to some distant place or other.

Love Sick begins with some brief tuning up, then an organ stabs from left to right (TOOM is really a headphones album) before Dylan informs us that "I'm walking, through streets that are dead". His voice is close-miked and growly, dialled up to at least Medium Phlegm. Engineer Mark Howard explained that Bob wanted a retro, '50s sound to his voice, like it was coming out of a radio or a gramophone.  Using old microphones, his vocal was run through a distortion pedal into a small amp, which was itself miked, to provide an "old sound".  This was blended 50/50 with the "clean vocal" to achieve a vintage feel, one that Dylan described as "spooky".  It works well, and sounds like nothing he's done before.

Dirt Road Blues is a fidgety rockabilly number with criss-crossing guitars and a bluesy choogle. It's generic, but enjoyable nonetheless.  After endlessly walking down a dirt road, the motion continues in Standing In The Doorway, which sees the protagonist walking through summer nights and riding a midnight train after losing at love.  Slide guitar, churchy organ and Shadows-style strumming help amplify the hopelessness, and we leave him "...standin' in the doorway cryin', blues wrapped around my head".

The hopelessness lingers for Million Miles, a funky crawl through the dirt with slinky, jazzy guitar chords, and Bob plagued by voices in the night, trying in vain to bridge the gap between himself and his lover.  Distance is again the enemy in ballad Tryin' To Get To Heaven, as heartbroken and alone he wearily seeks salvation.  The music is a dense fog of compressed harmonica, organ, violin and a whole bunch of guitars.  We're back to the blues for 'Til I Fell In Love With You, boasting jazzy electric piano courtesy of Jim Dickinson, and a sinuous guitar riff.

"Time is running away" during Not Dark Yet, for me the most affecting song on TOOM.  A ghostly tambourine rattles in the distance as Dylan looks over the past while keeping one eye on the future, the end seeming much too close for comfort.  It finishes with the moving "Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer, it's not dark yet, but it's getting there".

Clattering percussion, thunking bass and a cloud of guitars provide the backdrop to Bob's woes on Cold Irons Bound.  He's losing his mind over love, and losing himself in the process: "I'm beginning to hear voices and there's no-one around" and "God, I'm waist deep, waist deep in the mist, it's almost like, almost like I don't exist".  The whole thing is submerged in cavernous, intimidating echo.

I don't know where Make You Feel My Love came from, but it's like nothing else Dylan has written before.  Perhaps its stands out so much because of the the songs that surround it, but this sentimental love ballad has an enormously strong melody.  The lyrics are straightforward, and Bob accompanies himself on piano, joined by just quiet bass and funereal organ.  Depending on your point of view it either nicely breaks up what can be a rather stodgy album, or kills the mood entirely.  I've not quite made up my own mind, but whatever you think of its place on TOOM, its beauty and strength cannot be denied. Little wonder that it's been covered by Billy Joel, Garth Brooks and of course Adele, among others.

Can't Wait is another song of lost love, and a minor one in comparison to the many similar songs here.  With our hero "...walkin' through stormy weather" and strolling through the graveyards of his mind (he must be exhausted by now), it acts as a stepping stone between the moonstruck Make You Feel My Love and the rambling epic that is album closer Highlands.  Partly indebted to Robert Burns' "My Heart's In The Highlands" (1789), once it finds its groove it stays there, drifting airily over a gentle blues riff for 16½ minutes.  There's mention of the king of long songs Neil Young, and a lengthy detour into a restaurant resulting in an odd conversation with a waitress (but thankfully not as baffling as Neil's "hip-hop haircut" in his 28-minute Driftin' Back).  The rest of the time is spent describing a sense of disconnection and a yearning to be elsewhere in both time and space: "I wish someone'd come and push back the clock for me", "Well, I'm lost somewhere, I must have made a few bad turns".  It's an odd combination of depression and playfulness, and the hypnotic quality of the music means that even at over a quarter of an hour it doesn't drag, although I'm glad he didn't use the rumoured 35-minute original!

In an interview for Newsweek in 1997 Dylan confessed that "I don't feel in tune with anything", and this out-of-time figure haunts TOOM with his archaic turns of phrase and fixation on loss and finality.  The death of Jerry Garcia may have influenced the songwriting; although Bob's not exactly fixin' to die just yet, it sounds like mortality has been weighing on his mind.

Lanois' production, though skillful, is sluggish for the most part.  His tasteful soundscapes are like a thick soup, and it took me many listens to appreciate all that was going on beneath the murky surface.  The lack of "fills and frills" can make for a rather shapeless musical experience, which only took on an interesting form with much concentrated listening under headphones - I'd recommend this tactic to those unmoved by first impressions, as the rewards are rich.

Of course the critics went over the top at the time of release, hailing it as a masterful return to form.  I suspect that this had more to do with the prospect of confronting the reality of a world without Dylan (due to a serious illness he suffered between its recording and release) than the actual content of TOOM, as although it marked one of his best albums in years, I don't think it quite deserved the hyperbole it attracted.

TOOM's sense of utter loneliness reminds me a lot of Blood On The Tracks, except that now Bob has been around for much longer, and has lost an awful lot more.  It's often said that the greatest art comes from the deepest pain, and although I really hope he feels happier soon, in a selfish kind of way, I really don't.

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I'd love to know what you think of TOOM.  Do tell me in the comments below.