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...

Thursday, 17 December 2015

40. Christmas In The Heart (2009)

In October 2009, just five months after the release of Together Through Life, Bob took his fans by surprise and released a Christmas album.  Christmas In The Heart is a collection of popular seasonal songs, traditional carols and a couple of slightly more obscure festive covers.

On their own, both Dylan and Christmas can be very polarising subjects, so you can just imagine how the combination of the two split the opinions of critics and the public at large on its release.  Happily, I'm a huge fan of Christmas music, and since I began the BobBox blog back at the start of this year I've steadily become a fan of Dylan too, so you won't be surprised to hear that I loved CITH, which is the most surreal, fun, shmaltzy, likeable and daft thing he's ever recorded, and reveals Bob to be the coolest of Christmas cats, albeit one that sounds as though he's trying to dislodge a series of massive furballs from his airway.

He's joined by the same members of his touring band as appeared on his last album (including David Hidalgo from Los Lobos), with the addition of Patrick Warren on a variety of keys, R&B guitarist Phil Upchurch, and a Mike Sammes Singers-style vocal group of wholesome sounding guys and gals.  Bob, producing under his suddenly very appropriate moniker of Jack Frost, plays it absolutely straight with smooth, traditional arrangements and an old-fashioned, sweet, but not sickly sound.  Steel guitar and violin lend a gentle country air, and occasional sleigh bells add a bit of tinsel about the place.  Those familiar with his most recent work will know that his singing voice is now very gruff and phlegmy, which for me contrasts wonderfully with this conventional backdrop, although it may come as a shock to those unaware that his vocals these days resemble the gargle of someone who's swallowed a packet of razorblades and washed them down with a bottle of Harpic.

On first listen, my main reaction was that of hilarity, from the opening Here Comes Santa Claus with its ching-ching-ching sleighbell intro, brushed drums and Jordinaires-style male backing chorus, to the end of final track O' Little Town Of Bethlehem with its closing "amen", as Dylan weakly croaked his way through all forty-two minutes like a drunken hobo crashing a carol service.  Indeed, the album's comedy value is absolutely priceless.  But this sense of amusement - which didn't wane over subsequent listens - was soon joined by a glow of sentiment and admiration when it became clear that CITH is no tongue-in-cheek, countercultural exercise in irony, but a sincere, heartfelt attempt to share some beloved childhood songs and actual Christmas cheer.

On nearly all of the songs, the boy-girl choir not only provides backing vocals, but also trades lines with Dylan, sometimes taking an entire verse or chorus before handing the reins back.  The best example of this is Winter Wonderland, where the ladies sweetly sing,

"In the meadow we can build a snowman,
And pretend that he's a circus clown,
We'll have lots of fun with Mr Snowman..."

before Bob gleefully chips in: "Until the other kids all knock him down!".

This image of model Bettie Page appears
inside the jewel case version of the CD,

and is included in the hardback book
accompanying the BobBox set.
On a small handful of songs he sings alone.  I was in stitches the first time I listened to his rasping solo rendition of Do You Hear What I Hear?, but accompanied by a marching beat, twinkling piano, swooping violin and velvety guitar, he hits all of the important notes (just), and further listening revealed the croak to be tender, vulnerable, and ultimately moving.  On The Christmas Song Jack Frost tugs at your heartstrings just as hard as he nips at your nose.  There's pathos aplenty in the devastatingly lonely I'll Be Home For Christmas, and on Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas Bob reinstates the line "But 'til then we'll have to muddle through somehow", adding a tinge of sadness.

He comes over surprisingly well on the carols, and even seems to have cleared his throat for the recording of Little Drummer Boy, a suitably solemn performance accompanied by military drum rolls and chiming guitar.

His Latin pronunciation in the first verse of O' Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles) needs a bit of work, but it's charming nonetheless, as are the warmhearted renditions of The First Noel, where the choir take the middle verse, and Silver Bells, which Dylan sings alone.  Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is rather a hoot, with the soft female bvs bringing Bob's wheezy yelp into sharp relief as he strains to hit the high notes.

The most fun to be had is from the less traditional numbers.  "Aloha-ay, aloha-ay" coo the ladies as Dylan sings on Christmas Island of spending the holiday away across the sea.  The gals counter with lines about stockings hung on a coconut tree and presents arriving in a canoe, while Donnie Herron's steel guitar sways in the background like a hula girl.  The Christmas Blues is a tremendous whisky-soaked Dean Martin cover where all Santa brought our hero was a case of the blues.  There's even a now-rare snippet of harmonica before a repeat of the last verse.

Best of all though is Must Be Santa, a demented polka on which Bob plays to his strengths of singing fast and cramming loads of words into each line without tripping up.  He uses the Brave Combo's arrangement (which he played on his 2006 Theme Time Radio Hour Christmas special), pairing furious accordion with jolly call-and-response lyrics, with his own twist of substituting the names of past American Presidents with some of Santa's reindeer.  It's awesome, and the video is pretty great, too.

Christmas In The Heart has been on heavy rotation chez moi over the last week and a half, along with Bing, Frank, Gene Autry and the other usual suspects, and I've come to love it as much as them all.  In fact, I'd put it right up there with my two favourite seasonal albums, Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift For You and the cheesy but fabulous Tijuana Christmas by the Torero Band (if you're a reader of my other blog, you'll know this is high praise indeed!).  It's clear that Dylan is sincere, and I love the way that he's thrown himself wholeheartedly into the album, which is full of Christmas cheer, good will to all men, and an endearing affection for the music of the 40s and 50s.

Yes, his voice these days makes Shane MacGowan sound like Andy Williams, but if you can get past this and surrender yourself to the curious mix of asthmatic lead, angelic backing vocals and traditional instrumentation, it's joyful and triumphant.  Christmas music is now a kind of folk music in itself, including the many secular 'pop' tunes that have become part of the Great American Songbook, so it should have come as no surprise when Dylan chose to record his own set.  He's been doing this kind of thing for the whole of his career (not least on Self Portrait), and those expecting 'Dylanised' reinterpretations may have been disappointed with the straightforward versions here, but as the man himself said during an interview in 2009, "There wasn't any other way to play it.  These songs are part of my life, just like folk songs.  You have to play them straight, too"

His festive spirit extends to the donation of all royalties in perpetuity to various charities around the world, which is another great reason to buy it.  I'll almost certainly be getting it on vinyl before next year - if indeed I haven't already succumbed by the time you read this.  I have to admit that last week, the prospect of listening to this album not only filled me with excitement, but also a small amount of fear; I love Bob and I love Christmas, but what if I hated Christmas In The Heart?  Luckily, it's no turkey at all, but the icing on the (Christmas) cake of my Dylan-filled 2015. As Tiny Tim (almost) said: Bob bless us, every one.

The BobBox will be taking a Christmas break now, and will return in the New Year to finish off the two remaining albums.  I hope you can join me then.  Merry Christmas!  xxx

*****BobBox price check***** - £119.99 (free postage)
Discogs - from £86.98
Spin CDs - £99.99 (free postage)
Bob Dylan Official Store - £175.99
NEW: Sony Legacy UK - £70.00 (plus £10.00 p+p)
All prices correct on 17/12/2015

Friday, 11 December 2015

BobBox Price Drop Alert 11-12-15

It's been drawn to my attention that the BobBox is currently available in the UK on the Sony Legacy website for just £70 (plus p&p, presumably).

Now's the time to strike if you've been waiting for a decent price.  It's unlikely to get lower than this!

***Update: UK shipping is £10.***

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

39. Together Through Life (2009)

Dylan's 33rd studio album came about after a request from filmmaker Olivier Dahan for songs to soundtrack his new movie My Own Love Song.  Bob roped in former collaborator and Grateful Dead lyricist Rob Hunter to give him a hand with the words, and between them they came up with nine tracks, plus a tenth written by Dylan on his own.

I have to say that after the previous three albums, Together Through Life came as something of a disappointment to me.  In its favour, the songs are generally shorter than those on Time Out Of Mind, "Love And Theft" and Modern Times (the longest song clocks in at 5:53), but compared to all of these, TTL is less interesting both musically and lyrically.

Bob continues his 21st century tendency to be tangled up in the blues, but this time there's a more exotic edge.  Three of the musicians from his touring band are joined by Heartbreaker Mike Campbell on guitar and mandolin, and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos on accordion and guitar.  The sound is essentially a bluesy bar band with a Tex-Mex flavour, sometimes with a romantic Cajun atmosphere.  Multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron contributes to the spicy mix by adding trumpet to his armoury, but sadly the album lacks standout songs and catchy tunes.  Subject matter is mainly love and lust, with a smattering of old man's melancholy.  There seems to be a lot less "borrowing" of others' words, which may have pleased some, but the lyrics are poorer for it.

Opener Beyond Here Lies Nothing gets things off to a decent start, its swampy blues rock recalling 'Black Magic Woman', Bob gruffly proclaiming "Well I love you pretty baby"and Herron's trumpet jostling with Campbell's lead guitar for top billing. Unfortunately the sequencing means that this initial energy is immediately squandered by it being followed up with Life Is Hard, a beautifully wistful but slooooow lament on lost love.  Dylan sings each syllable carefully and deliberately (struggling with the high notes), accompanied by trilling mandolin and sleepy Hawaiian steel.  It's a very pleasant song, but really belongs at the end of the first side at the earliest.

My Wife's Home Town is next, and it was at this point on my first listen that exasperation set in, firstly due to the placing of another excruciatingly slow song so early on, and secondly because of the lyrics, of which the expression "lame-ass" would be a charitable description.  I enjoy Dylan's sandpaper voice, but the music is sparse, dull and sounds bored with itself.  The tune is clearly that of 'I Just Wanna Make Love To You', and writer Willie Dixon is given credit in the sleevenotes, perhaps due to the litigious nature of his descendants, not to mention previous criticism of Bob's appropriation of material.

Hidalgo takes centre stage on the accordion-led If You Ever Go To Houston, which has a much fuller sound thanks to the combination of pedal steel, organ (played by Dylan) and mandolin.  It also provides a welcome increase in pace after the last two draggers, although the accordion riff becomes wearing long before the song fades out after nearly six minutes.  Much better is Forgetful Heart, which begins in a shambling manner with a sour, Neil Young-ish guitar chord and shimmering percussion.  The accordion takes more of a back seat, embedded in the dense mix of fuzzy guitar, organ and violin that's almost Lanois-esque but not as soupy.  Despite the slight melody it's the best song yet on TTL, and shares a darkness with Time Out Of Mind.

The band really gel on Jolene, Dylan's mucoid ruckle underpinned by a solid rhythm section, his own organ-playing and a fabulous Bluesbreakers riff from Campbell.  The lyrics are perfunctory, but just right for this lusty blues number.  This Dream Of You is my favourite track on TTL.  It was written by Bob alone (yet bears more than a passing resemblance to Save The Last Dance For Me), and I must say that this shows in the lyrics, which are the most interesting on the album. The subject matter is again of a love lost, and has a romantic Parisian street cafĂ© feel, with violin and accordion swooning and swaying together like tipsy lovers.

Shake Shake Mama is another sleazy blues song, with lyrics as simple and earthy as Jolene.  It's followed by I Feel A Change Comin' On, a meditation on relationships late in life that's plastered in accordion and shot through with Dylan's lusty snarl.  It's a great-sounding song with an almost funky rhythm and licks aplenty from Campbell, but there's not much of a tune to be found.  The best line is "Some people they tell me, I've got the blood of the land in my voice", to which I can't help adding "Yes, and the phlegm of the world in your throat".  Final track It's All Good marks a brief return to social commentary, with a vague list of the world's ills summed up with the sarcastic title line.  It's a well-played, groovesome blues, but not the best song to end with, recalling for me his feeble socially conscious material from the 1980s.

Together Through Life was recorded with the whole band live in the studio, Dylan's favourite way of doing things and one that suits this kind of material.  Like much of his recent work it's fairly reliant on standard blues templates, which coupled with the more straightforward lyrics co-written with Hunter makes for an amiable but somewhat generic sound.  It does represent a dip in quality after the last few records, but comparison is probably unfair, as it was a quickly-evolving project instigated by a soundtrack request, with no songs or even ideas stashed away in the bank to make use of.  Taken on its own terms, it's not a great album by any stretch of the imagination (no matter what some breathless critics would have had you believe on its release), with no real musical hooks or memorable lines, and of the latter, certainly none that have the power to move. I'm sure I'll listen to it again, but it won't be among the first to be pulled out of the BobBox.

I'm expecting no shortage of tunes in the next album, as it consists of many well known and much-loved songs.  Yes - up next, and just in time for the festive season is Christmas In The Heart!  As a fan of Christmas music both good and wonderfully dreadful I've been looking forward to this for some time, and have had to be very strict with myself since December the 1st in not adding it to my seasonal listening.

*****BobBox price check***** - £108.90 (free postage)
Discogs - from £86.41
Spin CDs - £119.99 (free postage)
Bob Dylan Official Store - £175.99
All prices correct on 08/12/2015