Saturday, February 15, 2014

Bob Dylan: Another Self Portrait, post #3

As we've noted, Self Portrait was comprised of a bunch of songs recorded in April-May 1969, a few numbers from the Isle of Wight, and a bunch of songs recorded in March 1970.  Another Self Portrait ignores the April-May 1969 sessions, although the 1973 Dylan compilation had picked up a couple of outtakes from them.  Conversely the Dylan album ignored the early '70 sessions, while Another Self Portrait lavishes attention on them. 

SP included fourteen tracks from 3/70.  ASP includes 11 more unique recordings, plus "stripped" versions of seven of the SP tracks - that is, the same takes but denuded of the overdubs added for the finished album.  Of the 11 unique recordings:  One is a third take of "Alberta" to complement the two on the original album.  One is another take of "Spanish Is The Loving Tongue," first attempted in 4/69 and then recorded again in 6/70 during the sessions that resulted in New Morning; this last version was released on the flip side of the "Watching The River Flow" single in 6/71, and is the best of the three, I think.  Another is an early take of "Went To See The Gypsy," which of course would be rerecorded for New Morning.  And another is an unexpected revival of "House Carpenter," which he had recorded for his first album.  "Railroad Bill" is another song he used to do back in his folkie days.  But the other six are new:  we've never heard Dylan singing them before. 

Which is, right there, fucking awesome.  This is a major cache of material.  These 11 alone amount to an old vinyl elpee's worth of music.  And they're by and large really good takes.  I still think perhaps the best single recording to surface from these March sessions is "Copper Kettle" from the original album;  "It Hurts Me Too" and "Gotta Travel On" are close.  But of the new ones, "Tattle O'Day" and "Pretty Saro" are brilliant, and the rest are very nice too. 

What about the stripped versions of the previously-released recordings?  I never hated the overdubbed versions, to be honest, and I still think I prefer the gussied-up "Copper Kettle" - I long ago outgrew whatever fetish I may once have had for the lone troubadour with his acoustic guitar, and I actually enjoy hearing Bob experiment with different production styles, different ways to find a rapprochement with pop music.  But I do agree that the unadorned versions of "Days Of '49," "Belle Isle," and "Little Sadie" recover a kind of experimental fragility that's nice to hear.

Because experimenting is what he was doing.  It's never been clear that he was really trying to make an album with these sessions, or with the 4-5/69 sessions.  I'm still not sold on the idea that Self Portrait and New Morning were part of one big project, which is what ASP is suggesting.  But I do think it's likely that from February 1969 all the way through August 1970, he was entering the studio fairly regularly, more or less just because he could, but without necessarily having new songs or a particular project in mind.  Twice, with Johnny Cash and with George Harrison, he was jamming with friends who happened to be accomplished musicians, just as he had done with the Band in 1967;  at other times he was in the studio with session musicians, some of whom (like David Bromberg, Al Kooper, and Charlie Daniels) were fairly strong personalities too.  And always, as in '67, he was rummaging through old songs, trying to find something he connected with, waiting for his swamp to catch fire.  In 1967 this had led to a slew of new originals, culminating in John Wesley Harding.  In February 1969 this unlocked a sudden, small burst of songwriting that became Nashville Skyline, but he has said that this was more or less an accident, and it didn't happen again;  by April 1970 he had only written a couple more new songs, but for whatever reason he decided to put out an album with what he had on hand, maybe to get the record company or the fans off his back, and that was Self Portrait.  But in June he was right back in the studio again, and with the same approach:  lots of covers.  Only this time he had a few more originals, and eventually enough to make an album.  I'll discuss that in a future post.

In other words, if the Basement Tapes of 1967 were Dylan's epic trawl through the murky waters of American vernacular music, quite possibly the sessions that would define his career, seeing him connect his 1964-1966 modernism with his pre-1964 folk roots, then his sessions in 1969 and 1970 can be seen as a continuation of that effort.  Nothing he did in 1969 or 1970 quite equals what he did in 1967, but then I consider the Basement Tapes to be the acme of American music, period. 

And now with ASP we have really a pretty good handle indeed on where he was at, what part of the Basement he was in, in March 1970.  There are still a few missing tracks - Olof lists takes on "Dock Of The Bay" and "Come All Ye Fair And Tender Ladies" that I'd like to hear, among other things.  But to be honest this is more than I ever expected to hear from these sessions.  And the new stuff is good.  It makes me reassess the period, and I liked the original album.  So chalk one up for Columbia.

But the best was still yet to come.

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.

Bob Dylan: Another Self Portrait, post #1

I picked this up when it was released, but it's taken me a while to begin to digest it, and to figure out what I wanted to say about it.  I think I know now.

First, some general remarks.  I've always liked the original Self Portrait album, probably more than your average Dylan fan, definitely more than the punters and the critics.  I agree that, as released, as a unit, it's a mess, probably a fuck-you;  but within that mess are moments of great beauty, if not quite genius.  And bootlegs and whatnot have shown me that there was a lot of good stuff left off the album.  So I was surprised, but not at all dismayed, to learn that the Bootleg Series was going to take a good long look at the sessions.  Great choice.

But the result is just as much of a hodgepodge (if not a fuck-you) as the original album.  Moments of great beauty, but presented in such a disorderly, haphazard fashion that the package ends up obscuring as much as it reveals.  Which is a shame, because it reveals quite a lot.


I'm going to start with two egregious examples of Columbia burying the lede.

The big one is the Isle of Wight set.  This has long been my vote for Next Bootleg Release.  It had all the requirements:  great historical significance, nice performance, notoriety, and yet rarity value because the circulating tapes were so spotty.

Hearing it here in its entirety in excellent sound only confirms me in my love for this show.  In the acoustic numbers it contains some of Dylan's best ever singing - on "Wild Mountain Thyme" he does things that I've only ever heard Aaron Neville pull off.  And on the electric stuff he modulates skilfully between an abandon that looks forward to Tour '74 and a smooth control that recalls (of course) Nashville Skyline.  But with the Band.  I mean, hearing the Band put their stamp on a few Nashville Skyline and John Wesley Harding numbers is deeply, deeply satisfying.  This show is a missing link, a key part of the Dylan story.  So I'm glad they released it.

But shocked and scandalized that they released it only in the super-deluxe mondo-expensive edition of the set.  Meaning only the most dedicated of fans are going to get it.  This is far too good to be bonus material.  This is headline quality music.  Should have been its own standalone release, as far as I'm concerned.

The other buried lede, and this may be even bigger, is the studio version of "Minstrel Boy."  The sole new original at the Isle of Wight show (not counting "The Mighty Quinn," which was known if not previously released), the song was a key part of the Self Portrait album.  So it's a real nice touch that they included a studio take of it here.  Particularly since this comes from the Basement Tapes sessions of 1967, and yet has never circulated (despite the plethora of unreleased material from those sessions that does circulate - and when are they going to release a complete box of Basement tracks?).

But here's where the lede gets buried.  Because Levon Helm's voice is in unmistakeable evidence on this recording - and nowhere else on the circulating Basement tracks.  He had dropped out of the Band (the Hawks) during their 1965-6 world tour backing Dylan, and didn't rejoin until late '67, just as they were gearing up to become the Band.  For decades there have been rumors of Basement Tapes with Levon, but everything that circulates from 1967 of the Band backing Dylan lacks Levon.  So the release of a Basement song that includes him is huge.  It's evidence that Dylan did keep laying down tracks with them after Levon returned - and it suggests that there's more where this came from.  Again, for decades there have been rumors of another reel or two or more of Basement stuff, perhaps in the possession of Garth Hudson.  Maybe it's true.  Maybe there's more where this came from.

But the liner notes are mum on the subject.

(To be honest, I'm not a hundred percent convinced that it is from 1967.  Dylan's voice sounds like '67, but some of his Isle of Wight singing slips back into that Basement vibe, so this could just as easily come from rehearsals for that concert.  It could, perhaps, be 1969.  But I have no reason to think that other than, I guess, a general feeling that Columbia isn't telling this story as carefully as they should.)

More later.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Aubrey/Maturin, revisited

So I think I'm done rereading the Aubrey/Maturin books.  I finished No. 18 today, The Yellow Admiral, and I don't think I'm going any farther.  In fact, this blog post is meant as a warning to my future self, more than anything:  stop with #17.

I more or less agree with the idea that these books are one long novel told in installments.  That's more true of the continuous later volumes than the earlier, which are more self-contained;  and if that's true then one must conclude that it's an unfinished novel.  Patrick O'Brian died early in the writing of the 21st, and nothing about what he left behind resolves the story.  It just ends.  Ends with (as others have pointed out) the characters at sea, on a voyage - not a bad place to leave them, allowing Aubrey and Maturin to sail the oceans of our imaginations forever.  Yeah, I buy that.  Beautiful.

But that last fragment left me with another impression, which I would be lying if I didn't own.  In it I could clearly see a great author's powers failing him, failing rapidly.  So in rereading I had always intended to stop with #20;  but then I suspected I wouldn't be able to.  The temptation to go just a little farther with these characters I love in this world I love would be just too great.

I don't remember feeling that about any of the earlier novels, but now, the second time through, I felt it strongly with The Yellow Admiral.  It's here, I think, that O'Brian reaches a point in his advancing age (he was 82 when it was published) where he can no longer do what he's trying to do.  Not even close. 

Up through #17 the hallmarks of his work had been carefully composed, piquantly antiquarian prose;  plots so carefully contrived that they kept you riveted even when nothing was happening;  a narrative organization that alternated between the finest of fine-grained detail and shocking but well-timed lacunae;  and of course exquisitely realized characters.  All of that disintegrates in this book.  The plot is sketchy and the way it's presented sketchier still - it reads in places, particularly toward the end, like a mere outline for a book.  Except for a wonderful long early description of the common near Aubrey's manor, the details are sparse and at times nonexistent.  And the characterizations are bafflingly inconsistent with earlier books.  Examples?  He makes Stephen the owner of the Surprise again, forgetting that he'd sold her to Jack somewhere in the Pacific.  Out of absolutely nowhere he makes Sophie jealous of an affair Jack had ten books before, bringing their marriage to the brink of dissolution, only to resolve it just as unexpectedly, and with just as little effort.  Jack and Stephen's relationship, heretofore characterized as much by tense and careful silences as much as by verbal communication, turns prolix and downright confessional.  Even that long early description of the common is really only there as a 20-page (!) bit of exposition, with Stephen playing the naif so that O'Brian can explain to the reader what was at stake in the inclosure movement.

If you're reading the series for the first time, of course, you'll want to read it straight through to the end.  But, future Tanuki, if you're rereading it and want to end on a high note, stop with The Commodore.  It ties up everything that had been left hanging at the end of the previous book, doesn't leave much hanging itself, and its ending, though abrupt, is not an inappropriate one for the series:  Stephen and Diana finally reunited, and Diana imploring Stephen never to go to sea again.