Sunday, February 16, 2014

Bob Dylan: Another Self Portrait, post #4

Another Self Portrait is of the opinion that Self Portrait and New Morning were essentially one project, one long series of sessions with only an arbitrary division.  In my previous post I noted that I'm not really sold on this.  But I'm glad Columbia is, because that gave them an excuse to look at the June 1970 New Morning sessions in ASP.  And this is where the set is strongest.

That's partly, of course, because the New Morning sessions themselves were so strong.  By June 1970 Dylan finally had enough new originals to begin thinking about an album for real, and he came up with more as the sessions progressed (the album would eventually comprise not just the June sessions visited in ASP but a last-minute, and very productive, session in August).  The New Morning songs were good, solid songs:  not as haunted as some of those on John Wesley Harding, but more substantial than anything on Nashville Skyline.    When the reviews proclaimed Dylan is Back, it was more than just a reaction to Self Portrait;  it was a justified feeling of relief that after a silent 1968 and a year and a half of dabbling in 1969 and 1970, Dylan had made an album of committed songwriting again.  Of course, it would be his last real album until 1974's Planet Waves (and four years was an eternity in 1970s rock music), but there was no way to know that in 1970;  at the time, it must have seemed like the beginning of something, rather than the end.

But it's not just the welcome new originals that make the June sessions so important.  It's the fact that, as previously noted, he continued to experiment with covers of folk songs old and new.  But in June he was singing with more passion, more grit, more soul than he had been able to muster for years.  March 1970 had some very bright spots, but June was dazzling.

I keep talking about June.  But of course the New Morning sessions began in May, with the George Harrison session.  The initial Bootleg Series release included a seductive take of "If Not For You" from this session, with George's unmistakeable guitar;  ASP includes two more tracks, a previously-uncirculating version of "Time Passes Slowly" and the only new original recorded that day, "Working On A Guru."  The former boasts George and Bob harmonizing on a refrain that was dropped from future takes;  "la-la-la" is all they sing, but it's all they need to sing.  The latter was probably too similar in feel to the other uptempo numbers on New Morning to make the final cut, but it's a gem, and it's nice to finally have it official-like.  And of course one hopes that eventually this whole session will be released;  it's not as uniformly strong as Dylan's previous high-profile collaboration, with Johnny Cash, at least in part because George hardly sings at all, but it has its moments.  Another nice update of "One Too Many Mornings" (it's one of Dylan's most malleable songs);  too-weird-not-to-prize runthroughs of "Yesterday" and "Cupid";  the pre-country moonshine of "When's My Swamp Gonna Catch Fire" and "Fishing Blues". 

But June.  What makes the 1973 Dylan album so essential is the inclusion of several scintillating covers from these sessions.  "Mary Ann" and "Sarah Jane" are the equal of pretty much anything Bob's ever done, as far as pure singing is concerned.  They're that soulful, that assured, that complete.  Some of the other cover choices are too left-field to be truly effective - "Mr. Bojangles," "Big Yellow Taxi" - but he's still in fine voice.  They're more interesting as performances than most of what he was doing in March.  To these, ASP adds one more cover, and it's a beaut:  "Bring Me A Little Water," a Leadbelly tune often known as "Sylvie."  According to Olof, there are still a few more covers missing from these sessions;  I'm glad to have this one, and greedy for more.  (The best of his 1970 self-covers, a bluesy "Tomorrow Is A Long Time," circulates, and should have been here.)

Where ASP really does itself proud is in the alternate takes it includes of New Morning originals.  A few of these, such as the string-laden "Sign On The Window" and "If Not For You" and the electric-piano "Went To See The Gypsy," have been circulating for a while, and I'm honestly shocked to see them here, alongside the horn-overdubbed "New Morning."  The elaborate arrangements of these fly in the face of the stripped-down aesthetic Columbia is trying to sell for the March sessions.  But the orchestral "Sign On The Window" is a particular favorite of mine.  I'm overjoyed to have it legal.  The new alternates of "Time Passes Slowly" and "If Dogs Run Free" are similarly revelatory:  the former has an organ vamp copped from Joe Cocker, while the latter is performed like a regular Dylan song, complete with a chorus, as opposed to the jazz pastiche on the album.

All these alternate takes do precisely what they're supposed to:  give us a completely different way of looking at this album.  Now we can hear just how much experimentation Dylan put in before he settled on the album arrangements.  In many ways the discarded versions are livelier, more colorful than what he settled on;  but they're less intimate, less light-hearted. 

To sum:  ASP is puzzlingly weak in the 1969 portion of its self appointed task.  But in its treatment of 1970 it's stronger than I would ever have expected.  I still have my quibbles.  I still would have preferred a conscientiously complete look at these sessions, a release, say, that concentrated just on the March sessions and gave us at least one version of everything recorded then.  But nothing in Columbia's history with Dylan evinces that kind of methodicalness, so I hardly expect it.  If they're going to be scattershot, one can only hope that they hit as often as they do in the 1970 part of ASP.

But they also gesture toward 1971.  So there's a little more to consider.