Friday, February 14, 2014

Bob Dylan: Another Self Portrait, post #2

Aside from a few Isle of Wight tracks, the original Self Portrait was comprised of studio recordings made between April 1969 and April 1970 (although the last new recordings for it were made in March '70 - the April sessions were just for overdubs, according to Olof).  Another Self Portrait casts a wider net than that, including quite a few tracks from the New Morning sessions of May and June '70, and even a few '71 tracks.  I'll address that decision in a future post.


It also includes a small number of outtakes from Nashville Skyline, and that's what I want to take up now.  The set gives us alternate takes of "I Threw It All Away" and "Country Pie."

The rationale for this is unclear, to say the least.  Nashville Skyline was recorded in February 1969 and released in April;  Self Portrait contains nothing from these sessions.  They were separate projects.  There are a number of revealing outtakes from the NS sessions that could have been included on SP if SP had been meant to include the NS sessions, but they weren't. 

I insist on this distinction because the set, and its liner notes, explicitly argue that the SP sessions were indistinguishable, indivisible, from the New Morning sessions (I'll address that in a future post).  And by including these NS outtakes they're implicitly arguing that the SP sessions were indivisible from the NS sessions.  Which isn't true.

Or maybe (more likely) it's that they mean us to conclude that the SP sessions are best heard in the wider context of what Dylan was doing in 1969-1971.  And that I agree with - by all means, more context.  But then I wonder:  why these outtakes?  I have nothing against alternate takes, and the more released Dylan the better I always say, but these alternate takes of "I Threw It All Away" and "Country Pie" don't really reveal much, to be honest.  Not about NS, and not about SP.  And meanwhile they fail to pick up the alternate "Lay, Lady, Lay" that was released as an iTunes bonus track on preorders of Together Through Life a few years ago.  That's no longer available, and it is revealing:  Dylan's vocals are pretty similar to the album version, but without the steel guitar and bongos, and with a more prominent Hammond, the arrangement is altogether more muscular.  It's a shame that this has disappeared into the netherworld.

It's about choices.  I rejoice to have these tracks, unrevealing though I find them.  But at the expense of what?  There's a whole album's worth of circulating outtakes from Nashville Skyline - the session he did with Johnny Cash and Cash's band - which included Carl Perkins!  A Million-Dollar Trio, more or less (although Carl doesn't sing anything).  This is where the NS remake of "Girl From The North Country" comes from, of course, and about 55 minutes of it circulate.

It's a great session.  Sometimes Dylan lays back out of deference to Cash, and sometimes he leans into it a bit more;  but it all has that casual, sunny, sincere bonhomie of the released track.  And repertoire-wise it's very interesting, including quite a few Cash tunes, but also some other Sun Records rockabilly numbers, and some ancient, ancient country songs such as "Mountain Dew" and "Careless Love" and two of Jimmie Rodgers' Blue Yodels.

Bob yodels.

And nothing has been released aside from "Girl From The North Country."  If you want to make the case that the SP idea - an album of country-ish covers - had its start in the NS period, then this is your argument right here.  Bob Dylan futzing around in the studio with a bona fide country giant and his cowboy band, somehow finding his way all the way back to Bascom Lamar Lunsford and the Singing Brakeman.

Another Self Portrait ignores it completely.


If Self Portrait (before it became a fuck-you) had an idea at its heart, that was probably it:  a covers album.  Classic country numbers done straight, together with trad folk and folk-revival originals done in a country style.  Dylan was in a songwriting slump, but he also had roots in the, duh, folk tradition, so the idea of a covers album probably didn't seem as strange to him as it did to his audience, which by this time had wholly embraced the ethic of original songwriting that he himself had done a lot to establish.

The Johnny Cash session was clearly just a lark, or an attempt to reconnect with the Basement-rummaging vibe he'd enjoyed with the Band in '67.  But later in the spring of 1969 he entered the studio and began laying down covers in somewhat more earnest.  Sessions in April and May produced one new original, the pastiche "Living The Blues," plus covers of "Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go)," "Take A Message To Mary," "Let It Be Me," "I've Forgotten More Than You'll Ever Know," and "Blue Moon."  All of these made it to Self Portrait.  Two more covers, "Spanish Is The Loving Tongue" and "A Fool Such As I," were released on the 1973 Dylan comp (another fuck-you but this time from Columbia to Dylan, who had just jumped labels).

These sessions have to count as the first Self Portrait sessions, right?  They produced a significant part of the final album, and unlike the Cash session it was clear that they were meant for something - a big, professional band, elaborate arrangements.  The SP elaborate-production aesthetic starts here.  And from a historical point of view they're interesting, in that they show Dylan persevering with his Nashville Skyline voice, that silky croon.  In 1970 he traded this in for, usually, something closer to his old folk voice.

Artistically it must be admitted that these aren't the strongest of the SP sessions.  A lot of it I put down to his decision to stick with the croon:  what sounded fresh and playful in February is by this point starting to sound unnatural.  On a few tracks he finds his old joy in rhythm and phrasing - "A Fool Such As I" is pretty successful.  But for the most part these are the tracks that gave SP a name for blandness, and the '73 album a reputation as more of the same.

So I guess I'm not surprised that Columbia didn't take this opportunity to collect the two Dylan tracks - otherwise available only on the Complete Albums Collection, since Dylan is out of print as a separate album.  Not surprised, but a bit disappointed.

In fact, Another Self Portrait ignores the April-May sessions entirely.  And that is a surprise and a disappointment, because the two circulating unreleased songs from these sessions are, predictably, the strongest:  raucous covers of two Johnny Cash songs, "Ring Of Fire" and "Folsom Prison Blues."  The sound is fuzzy on the circulating recordings, so it's hard to know if the performances are really as wild and garage-like as they sound, but what's not obscured is the rockabilly drive of the arrangements, and the corresponding aggression of Dylan's vocals.  These should have been released.  They would have utterly changed people's perception of 1969 Dylan.


In sum, Another Self Portrait is motivated by a fine and generous impulse to include 1969 in its overview of the album, but makes really bad choices.  Leaves the interesting stuff in the can.

No comments: