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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Monday, August 04, 2008


Of course I haven't yet heard most of this material, so the comments that follow are necessarily somewhat on the general side - starting with a very general thought prompted by the fact that most tracks on Tell Tale Signs are from Oh Mercy, Time Out Of Mind and Modern Times...

This seems to me a strikingly canny gathering together. I've often heard Dylan's most recent three studio albums referred to as a "trilogy" - which has always seemed utterly wrong: maybe a journalistic convenience but hopelessly clumsy as a way of looking at the work. BUT, take "Love and Theft" out of the picture - as Tell Tale Signs does: no outtakes from "LaT" are included - and put Oh Mercy alongside Time Out Of Mind and Modern Times, and you do have a trilogy of sorts. It isn't just that two of these are hallmark Daniel Lanois productions, either; it's that all three offer, in key respects, the same Bob Dylan: that is, the maintream-acceptable, toned-down, risk-free, respectable version of post-1980s Bob Dylan. A wholly valid Bob Dylan, of course, but not necessarily the one who makes the most interesting or challenging albums or writes the best songs.

So it makes genuine artistic sense to cluster some outtakes from these three together (plus 'Tell Ol' Bill', 'Huck's Tune' and ''Cross The Green Mountain', which to my ears come from that same Bob Dylan), and I look forward to hearing them all. Even the ones I have and think I have already will benefit from the clarity of official release, while the ones of most interest from this trilogy are surely 'Marchin' to the City' - news to us as a title at all - and the ones where the already-released versions come from different albums altogether: i.e. Time Out Of Mind versions of 'Mississippi' (which emerged so exquisitely on "Love and Theft") and Oh Mercy versions of 'God Knows' (which emerged so hectoringly on Under The Red Sky) and 'Born In Time' (Under The Red Sky again).

Then again, the tracks I most look forward to hearing are the others: namely those from the sessions Dylan was doing in the early 1990s following Good As I Been To You. I have written at length about the David Bromberg sessions of 1992, recorded in Chicago - see The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia - and still suspect that this is The Great Lost Dylan Album. Those few tracks already leaked include the shimmeringly beautiful 'Polly Vaughan' and 'Kaatskill Serenade', and now on Tell Tale Signs we are to get a version of Jimmie Rodgers' 'Miss The Mississippi And You' (this has already circulated, though it may not be the same take) and of the traditional 'Duncan and Brady'. Finally, and maybe most alluring of all, we're to get two outtakes from the excellent World Gone Wrong album: a Dylan version of Robert Johnson's '32-20 Blues' - known to exist but never heard - and a version of Paul Brady's 'Mary and the Soldier' - a title never mentioned, let alone heard, as having been recorded by Dylan.

As for the live tracks on offer, well, at one extreme there's the fudged but lovely 'Ring Them Bells' from the Supper Club; at the other, there's the awful sound of Dylan's voice on 'Cocaine Blues' from Vienna VA from 1997 - an embarrassingly bad revisit, every night, to a song he had performed with such incomparably greater personal dignity and artistic surefootedness in the very early 1960s.

Finally, there's the puzzle of what 'Can't Escape From You' will be like - a studio track recorded in Dublin in December 2005. Intended for a film but never used, it is said to feature pipes. I hope so. I like it when Dylan augments his sound now and again. Talking of which, I've been driving round listening to Self Portrait in the car these last two days, after buying it on CD at a stall at the Marciac Jazz Festival on Saturday night. 'Copper Kettle', 'Let It Be Me', 'I Forgot More', 'Blue Moon', 'The Boxer' and 'Wigwam' are all sounding tremendous. Now that's another Bob Dylan altogether.


Blogger The Celestial Monochord said...

How disappointing that we're not getting anything from Love and Theft, which I think of as the Bob Dylan album everybody was waiting for in the 80s and 90s. Maybe they're saving those outtakes for a future set, or maybe we just got the whole pig in LaT.

I like that you appreciate World Gone Wrong so much. It, and GAIBTY, are so important to me, and seemingly only me. But what do I know? I love Infidels!

Hey, when are you going to put me in your links? I get no respect, I tell you, no respect at all.

6:19 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there,

And what about the uncool 'joke' of "High Water"'s location?

PS: Can you e-mail Homer? He's gone away with your old address...

10:59 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Edna G. says that "Marchin' to the City" is an early vesrion of "Till I Fell In Lurrvve With You". Of course it may be such an early version as to be like a different song, the title implies so and surely one must ferverently hope so?


11:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see from that the prices that you quote are correct. That's a pretty cynical marketing exercise by both Dylan and Columbia. I'm afraid that this sort of behaviour by artists and record companies is the cause of widespread pirating of copyright material.

Luckily, experience shows that if one waits a few months the price on Amazon, or somewhere similar, will drop considerably.

9:57 am  
Blogger Judas Priest said...

Interesting piece Michael. I too am keenly anticipating this release. Most looking forward to Red River Shore although it's bound to disappoint simply because part of my brain has already labelled it as the TOOM sessions equivalent to Blind Willie McTell...

I'm also very curious to hear the 2 Modern Times alternate takes.Unlike your good self, it's an album I adore. Yes, the songs may be a little on the long side (when examined objectively- I enjoy it too much to consciously notice when I'm listening) and the writing isn't as sharp as L&T but to my surprise, I prefer it overall. To me, it has a wonderfully cohesive quality and I've come to love its more laid back, relaxed approach. And his voice...for me, his best singing in a couple of decades in the studio and fantastic the way his vocal is recorded-way out front and clear as a bell.

Anyway,October can't come quick enough for me-this should be an essential addition to the canon.


Judas Priest

11:47 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Dear Celeste
Well, Infidels does include the very great 'Jokerman' . . . and as for your parting question, the answer is that I've just done it.

Thanks to others too for these comments. As for preferring Modern Times to "Love and Theft", well, er, to each his own . . . and where I live these days, dogs often do run free. Right into the road. This doesn't always do them any favours.

6:12 pm  
Blogger Ross McCague said...

Is the Red River Shore the extraordinary song that the internet chatter would suggest? Has he left off another classic? The lyrics I've seen suggest he is using Christian imagery without being mired in it. It may be another one of his 'gothic' masterpieces. Would love to see the lyrics and Michael Gray's analysis of same.

3:11 pm  
Blogger Dave Simpson said...

Having just heard Red River Shore I can confirm that it is an amazing song, one that could have only have been inspired by cruellest heartbreak

1:17 pm  

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