8 Feb 2012

Bob Dylan In The 21st Century - Beginner's Guide ( And Selected Compilations )

Love & Theft ( 2001 )
Dylan's first of the century is also one of his best of the last thirty years. It's got an authentic fifties twang to it, with a whole lot of rockabilly, western swing and the blues. It's also the first album for a long time where Dylan's chosen to use his touring band in the studio, which works a treat here. Of the highlights, Mississippi is a great song which had been percolating for quite some time, Summer Days is a great old fashioned rock n roller with energy to spare, and Po' Boy has one of Dylan's best couplets ever ( you'll know it when you hear
it ). Awesome. ( 9/10 )  BUY IT HERE

Modern Times ( 2006 )
Love & Theft's more laidback cousin, this evokes a similar era but is a much more thoughtful affair and on the whole, more Muddy Waters than Chuck Berry this time around. He's become adept at using established blues material as a launching pad for a total rewrite, as evidenced by Rollin and Tumblin' and The Levee's Gonna Break. Spirit on the Water has a nice relaxed swing to it with some lovely understated guitar work. Someday Baby and Workingman's Blues #2 provide the mid album solidity, while the moody closer Ain't Talkin' delves deepest into his psyche, although how much of this character is a construct of Dylan's, only he probably knows. Intriguing stuff that doesn't quite grab me as much as Love & Theft but is still highly recommended.    ( 8/10 ) BUY IT HERE

Together Through Life ( 2009 )
This had a somewhat muted release and critical response compared to the fanfare that was accorded Modern Times, and while it doesn't live up to the quality of the previous two albums, it's still very entertaining. Los Lobos' David Hidalgo makes his presence felt on accordian, injecting enough tex mex to make opener Beyond Here Lies Nothin' rattle along nicely. Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter has co-written nine of these tracks but the overall impression seems to be that Dylan doesn't have as much to say, or maybe he just doesn't play well with others on the songwriting front. Nevertheless, there's nothing weak on here, and musically it's all great stuff, it just doesn't have anything with the staying power of Ain't Talkin'. ( 7/10 ) BUY IT HERE

Christmas In The Heart ( 2009 )
This is a pretty hard album to recommend, but also a really hard album to not like. Dylan's enthusiasm and sincerity are both quite evident here, and while his voice may not always be quite up to reaching some of the notes you expect on some of the more well known fare here, the arrangements are top notch. Particularly good are the more raucous numbers Christmas Island and Must be Santa. Some of the slower, more traditional numbers on the other hand drag a little, but these are certainly in the minority.  It's not really fair to judge this against other Dylan albums, and while this is admittedly not an album you're likely to play at any other time of the year, it's a fun Christmas album which does exactly what it sets out to do.
( 6/10 ) BUY IT HERE

Biograph ( 1985 )
Aside from the Australasian only Masterpieces, this was the first attempt at a multi disc
( 5LPs or 3CDs ) Dylan retrospective, and it does a pretty good job of compiling a legacy that is almost impossible to compact. The main drawcard for fans though, is a spate of previously unreleased tracks, the best of which, Percy's Song, Abandoned Love, Up Top Me and I'll keep It With Mine, easily vie with his very best. This makes it a great starting point, but a little frustrating for bigger fans that have a lot of this material already. There's a definite market for a large scale Dylan rarities collection of previously released non album material. ( 8/10 ) BUY IT HERE

The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3 : Rare And Unreleased 1961-1991 ( 1991 )
This is an essential set, definitely the most consistently surprising rarities set released by a major artist. The fact that Dylan had this much amazing material which he didn't deem fit to place on his original albums shows just how great a lot of those albums are, but also illustrates that he's not always the best judge of his own material. There's a lot of interesting stuff here from the sixties and seventies, but it's the eighties material which is particularly illuminating, and had the tracks from the last disc of this release been peppered throughout his eighties albums, we may have a very different opinion of his work of that decade. Blind Willie McTell, Foot Of Pride and Series of Dreams are up there with the very best of his work. Essential. ( 10/10 ) BUY IT HERE

Live 1961 - 2000 Thirty-Nine Years of Great Concert Performances ( 2001 )
Essentially a live rarities collection, this is unfortunately only available in Japan at a very high price. It does as good a job of representing the many different live sides of Dylan as it's possible to do with a single disc collection, and the main drawback is that you want to hear more from certain shows than just the one track. highlights for me are Woody Guthrie's Grand Coulee Dam from a 1968 tribute show with the Band ( although Dear Mrs Roosevelt from the same show is even better ), and a great version of Nashville Skyline's Country Pie. Now let's have an expanded multi disc version at a more reasonable price. ( 7/10 ) BUY IT HERE

Masked And Anonymous ( 2003 )
This is an interesting and challenging soundtrack to an interesting and challenging movie. The Dylan covers on here are a middling and very unusual bunch, but what you really need this for is the four Dylan recordings. Great reinterpretations of Down In The Flood and Cold Irons Bound, and nice takes on traditionals Diamond Joe and Dixie. These four tracks are fantastic, but frustratingly only represent a very small amount of the material Dylan and his band recorded for the film. There are a number of tracks featured in the film that we don't get here, not to mention a wealth of material that didn't even make it to the film so one can't help feeling a little cheated by this. ( 4/10 ) BUY IT HERE

The Bootleg Series Vol. 7 : No Direction Home ( 2005 )
The soundtrack to Martin Scorcese's fascinating Dylan documenatry, this covers the same ground as the film, leading up to 1966. The first disc focuses on his acoustic folkie material with some interesting early work ( Dink's Song especially ), but the second disc is where things get particularly interesting. On his fiery Maggie's Farm performance from Newport, complete with blistering guitar leads from Mike Bloomfield you can really see why Pete Seeger thought the apocalypse had hit. A clutch of interesting alternate versions from his first three electric albums are also great, with the Highway 61 material proving particularly illuminating. ( 7/10 ) BUY IT HERE

I'm Not There ( 2007 )
Another Dylan covers soundtrack, this succeeds where Masked & Anonymous ultimately failed by gathering a more unified set of artists - generally a hipper, younger crowd of indie folk and americana stars, with some notable appearances by a few more grizzled Dylan contemporaries ( Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Willie Nelson, Roger McGuinn etc ) fitting in nicely. The star turns go to the younger crowd though, with particular highlights being Jim Jones soaring vocal performance on Going To Acapulco, Iron & Wine & Calexico's mysterious Dark Eyes, and Yo La Tengo channeling Highway 61 era Dylan to perfection on I Wanna Be Your Lover. And to top it all off we finally get an official release of Dylan's title track from the Basement Tapes. Perfection. ( 9/10 ) BUY IT HERE

The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 : Tell Tale Signs : Rare And Unreleased 1989-2006 ( 2008 )
A follow up volume to the original Bootleg Series 1-3, this is a surprisingly revelatory experience. Some great unreleased songs here in the shape of Red River Shore and Dreamin' of You among others, alternate takes which often better the originally released versions ( Someday Baby in particular ), blazing live cuts ( High Water ), early, completely different takes on established classics ( Mississippi and Most Of The Time ) and selected soundtrack material never previously released on a Dylan title ( Tell Ol' Bill, the epic 'Cross the Green Mountain ). The limited edition three disc version is even better, but you need to sell a kidney to afford it.  
( 10/10 ) BUY IT HERE

The Bootleg Series Vol. 9 : The Witmark Demos 1962-1964 ( 2010 )
A great collection of Dylan's original publishing demos. Often primitively recorded perched on a desk in a small office, it's amazing that these sound as good as they do. The fidelity is surprisingly good for the most part, and Dylan's performances while not quite as committed as he would generally present live or on an album intended for commercial release are all very fine. Generally acoustic guitar, vocal and harmonica arrangements with piano sometimes substituted for the guitar, these tracks will appeal to fans of Dylan's first three albums, and offer an excellent alternative chronicle of that early Dylan era. Scattered amongst the familiar gems are plenty of otherwise unreleased oddities, most very good indeed. Ballad for a Friend, All Over You and Gypsy Lou are just the tip of the iceberg. ( 8/10 ) BUY IT HERE

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