1 Feb 2012

Bob Dylan In the Seventies - Beginner's Guide

Self Portrait ( 1970 )
This is one of the most baffling albums I've ever come across. One popular theory is that Dylan was so sick of being cast as a spokesman for his generation, that he purposefully recorded a terrible album to help break the myth. Realistically it's probably more likely that he was having fun with the material and not letting a spot of writers block get in the way of putting out an album. As to why he would choose to give it a title which makes it sound like some sort of grand statement, we may never know. Dylan's close-lipped on the subject.  Taken with no expectation it's an inconsistent, but often fun listen. Dylan's using his nice crooner's voice again, a carry over from Nashville Skyline. Some of the arrangements are overly schmaltzy and there are some tracks where the band are obviously a little lost as to what they're supposed to be doing, but when it clicks it's there's some good stuff here. Favorites for me are All The Tired Horses, Take A Message to Mary, Copper Kettle and Little Sadie. There are a few live tracks from Bob's appearance at the Isle of Wight on here too, which make me yearn for an official release of the full show. ( 4/10 ) BUY IT HERE

New Morning ( 1970 )
After some particularly vicious reviews for Self Portrait, Dylan was under pressure for some quality new product and unfortunately this does feel like it's been under prepared and rush released. Steering clear of covers this time, the tunes on here range from the inspired ( The Man In Me, Sign on the Window, Day of the Locusts ) to tracks that feel so off the cuff you'd assume they were improvised on the spot ( One More Weekend ). Along the way there are a couple of particularly bizarre detours : If Dogs Run Free is an unexpected faux-jazz scat number, while Winterlude almost sounds like a show tune. Weird, but sporadically interesting. ( 4/10 ) BUY IT HERE

Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid ( 1973 )
It's not really fair to judge this on the merits of a normal Dylan album as it's mostly instrumental music from the film. It's fairly evocative Western music for the most part, but definitely background music. The rewards come on the vocal tracks which suggest Dylan may be getting his mojo back. Knocking on Heaven's Door is the big one on here, but even better in my opinion is the vocal version of Billy, a tough outlaw ballad that seems to be pretty much forgotten by everyone, Dylan included, but is ripe for rediscovery. ( 4/ 10 ) BUY IT HERE

Dylan ( 1973 )
Outtakes from Self Portrait, released against Dylan's wishes by his former record company this has been out of print for years, but is surprisingly listenable and I'd hazard to say, better than Self Portrait. All covers this time, this has the benefit of being half Self Portrait's length and with no live cuts, has a more cohesive feel. The three tracks with girl's names are the best, but it's surprisingly consistent, and sounds a little tidier than it's parent album suggesting some post-production overdubs by a meddling label perhaps. No classic for sure, but worth a listen for the hardcore Dylan fan if they can find a copy. ( 4/10 )

Planet Waves ( 1974 )
Re-enlisting the Band here, Dylan's definitely righting the ship, but he's got a wee way to go yet. This is a pretty unhappy sounding album, but has a few gems. Going, Going, Gone is a beautifully desolate song with wonderful guitar from Robbie Robertson. Wedding Song captures the intensity of the upcoming Blood on the Tracks material, and is as uncomfortable as it is captivating. Elsewhere, Forever Young is a heartfelt song for his children, and Tough Mama, and Hazel are the best of a bunch of songs that tend to veer a little uncomfortably towards boogie territory. definite signs of a reawakening though, and Dylan's best of the decade so far. ( 5/10 ) BUY IT HERE

Before The Flood ( 1974 )
On stage for the first time since his appearance at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1970, this stadium tour with the Band was drummed up to make a bunch of money, and hopefully reacquaint Dylan fully with his muse at the same time. The tour itself had some triumphant shows, but unfortunately not the show's that these songs were lifted from. Sticking with a fairly safe Greatest Hits style tracklisting, the performances here are uniformly gritty but not as inspired as some others from the tour. It would have been nice to hear some of the more unusual tracks Dylan played on this tour too, particularly Hero Blues and The Ballad of Hollis Brown. Still, some nice new arrangements of some otherwise familiar material, and Dylan's confidence was noticeably on the rise. ( 5/10 ) BUY IT HERE

The Basement Tapes 
For those that don't know the story behind these recordings ; Recuperating after his post Blonde on Blonde motorcycle accident Dylan would regularly visit Big Pink, the Band's house in Woodstock and boxes of informal recordings were made. Wheel's On Fire, You Ain't Goin' Nowhere and many others found their way out as publishing demos, but others languished in the vaults until the Band put together this release in 1975. Ostensibly a greatest hits of the sessions, this is just a small selection of the recordings made during these sessions, many others now circulate as bootlegs but there's much speculation as to what's still to be discovered. Dylan's material on here is quirky and often character driven, and nothing like the preceding and following albums ( Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding ). Much has been made of the Band's decision to tidy up these tapes with various overdubs - I'm generally for it, although the consensus seems to be that they should have been left alone. A fun collection of ramshackle americana this is one of the most popular items in Dylan's catalogue, and shows his absurdist side to great effect. It'd be great to see a Bootleg Series release of the rest ( or at least some more ) of this material. ( 8/10) BUY IT HERE

Blood On The Tracks  ( 1975 )
Dylan's personal life may have been on the skids at this point, but his rapidly disintegrating marriage certainly provided some great songwriting fodder. Lyrically compelling and vocally the most driven he's ever been on record, this is Dylan at his very best. There's certainly an element of voyeurism involved, with some of the most personal, starkly confessional lyrics of Dylan's career, but that's part of the appeal. He generally keeps his cards pretty close to his chest, so when he does approach us with some candour it's hard not to pay a little more attention than is perhaps healthy. Dylan certainly seemed to think a great deal of these songs - he liked them enough to completely scrap a finished version of the album which he didn't think felt quite right, and rerecord the entire album, which is completely at odds with his normal recording process. It's a great album too, starkly recorded with sparse instrumentation and plenty of room for the lyrics to breathe, with the riveting narrative of Tangled Up In Blue standing out. Only the bouncy bassline of Lily, Rosemary & The Jack of Hearts breaks the mood ( the one track where the original session version is clearly superior to the released version ). ( 10/10 ) BUY IT HERE

The Bootleg Series Vol. 5 : Live 1975 - The Rolling Thunder Revue
1975's Rolling Thunder Revue tour was another important step in Dylan's creative revitalization, and for this listener anyway, the very peak of his live output. With a great band spearheaded by Mick Ronson, this fascinating document is full of creative reimaginings of some of Dylan's greatest material - often better than their studio counterparts. Dylan's delivery is full of conviction too, often more so than on the source material. The full band arrangements are energetic, and the acoustic tracks sparkle with the intimacy that Dylan had perfected with Blood on the Tracks. Outstanding and the best officially released example of live Dylan.
( 10/10 ) BUY IT HERE

Desire ( 1976 )
This follow up to Blood on the Tracks seems to have come very easily, with Bob's creative drive running overtime. Quite a few long songs with a strong narrative drive here, several co-written with playwright Jacques Levy who also worked with Dylan's Rolling Thunder colleague Roger McGuinn. Musically, this has the same informal, communal feel to it as the Rolling Thunder Revue. Emmylou Harris' makes her presence strongly felt on harmony vocals here, and Scarlet Rivierra's violin playing is a revelation. The overall impression is of a man throwing himself into his music, and having a blast doing so. Great stuff. ( 10/10 ) BUY IT HERE

Hard Rain ( 1976 )
Documented here, the second leg of the Rolling Thunder Tour has a weaker reputation than the first part, but is still very entertaining. There's a much heavier guitar presence here than on the previous year's show, although this is exaggerated somewhat by the decision to not include any acoustic material ( which did feature in this tour ) on the album. As a result this is the closest you're likely to find to a heavy rock Dylan album, the harmony guitar arrangement of Maggie's Farm being particularly successful. The track selection doesn't allow this to function as an accurate overview of the diversity of this tour, but as a snapshot of this line-up's ability to rock vigorously, it's pretty unbeatable. ( 8/10 ) BUY IT HERE

Street Legal ( 1978 )
Judging by it's near permanent residence in second hand stores sales bins, this was either one of Dylan's best selling albums when it first came out, or the one that people are most happy to wheedle out of their collection.
I'm hoping for the former, but realistically expecting the latter. Certainly, there's a noticeable drop in quality from the previous two studio albums, but with them being two of the best albums of the seventies, that's to be expected. The main problem people seem to have with this album is not with the songs themselves, but with the sound.. Apparently Dylan insisted on the musicians performing in a circle with no baffling, so there's bleed through on every channel - an engineers nightmare, and as a result the original version of this album is pretty muddy. Fortunately, the more recent CD release has been remixed and is allowing this misunderstood gem a chance to gather the reputation it deserves. It's a much darker, more mysterious album than Desire. Side one is great from start to finish with Changing of the Guards standing out in particular, but side two lets things slide a little towards the end. Senor is fantastic, but elsewhere you're left with the impression that Dylan's grasping at something epic but not quite reaching it. Good stuff, but not quite as grand as he was intending, I'm guessing. A fascinating, but flawed album. ( 7/10 ) BUY IT HERE

Bob Dylan at Budokan ( 1979 )
Another live Dylan release with a patchy reputation, this is unfortunately another case of the tapes not rolling on the right night. While certainly not a bad performance, it's not as ambitious as later dates on the tour, and has a fairly safe tracklist. There are some fascinating rehearsal recordings circulating as bootlegs of this band working up this material, but on the night's documented here it doesn't really fire up. The arrangements are very interesting however, with familiar songs rendered almost unrecognizable with it's unusual melting pot of female backing singers, reggae rhythms and various horns. Never boring, but not quite as successful as it could have been. ( 6/10 ) BUY IT HERE

Slow Train Coming ( 1979 )
Dylan's conversion to Christianity was greeted with such hostility ( probably more to do with the fact that he refused to play any of his secular material at his live shows at this point ), that it's a wonder that this album is as popular as it is. While the views Dylan expresses in these songs are certainly enough to make a large percentage of listener's uncomfortable, you can't question the conviction in their delivery. Musically, this is very solid too. Recorded at the famed Muscle Shoals Studio, with Mark Knopfler on hand this is definitely Dylan's most professional sounding album up to this point. Occasionally a little too smooth perhaps. Much like Street Legal, it's also frontloaded with the best material in the first half, especially I Believe In You and Slow Train ( great guitar from Knopfler on this one ), although it manages to regather some steam for the finale When He Returns. In between there's plenty of good stuff, just held back from greatness by a message that a lot of listeners didn't want to hear. ( 7/10 ) BUY IT HERE

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