Bob Dylan’s new album, Tell Tale Signs: the verdict

Thanks to Martin Cowan:

I thought now the dust had settled it would be a good time to take a look in detail at the latest volume of Dylan’s Bootleg Series.

Having had the opportunity to live with this CD set for the last few months, it seems to me that Sony have wanted their cake and to eat it too. I believe that pickings are too thin to spread across three discs and while there are some gems on Disc 3, it is disgraceful that Sony saw fit to charge such an inflated sum for the 3 disc version.

My view is that there is a cracking 2 disc set here and one can only speculate on what further gems still remain in the archives. If anything, what this set suffers from is uncertainty about what it is.

Is it a collection of unreleased songs? Is it a set of “never ending tour” live versions? Is it a set of “never released before on a Dylan album” songs? Well, some of all these, and that could be the problem.

Funny also that the cover photo recycles an image previously in the deluxe version of Modern Times!

CD1

1) Mississippi #1
The pick of the versions of this song. The lyrics are in place (as heard on the later Love and Theft) but the simplicity of the twin guitar arrangement suits the song perfectly. An intimate vocal which shows how poorly served Dylan was by Lanois’ production of his voice on Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind. Superb.

2) Most of the Time # 1
Possibly the most radical thing here, Dylan sounds fresh out of the 70s, with heartbreaking harmonica to match. Again, the intimate vocal is superb and it is remarkable to hear this song in an acoustic setting.

3) Dignity
Again, the best version of this admittedly slight, Dylan-by-numbers song. This version gains immensely from the intimate vocal (he sounds like he’s in the room with you!) and the solo piano accompaniment.

4) Someday Baby
Hypnotic, with Dylan’s older than God vocals. The melody line is flattened to the point of being one note throughout, but as this has a more up to date backing, it hides its origins as Muddy Waters’ Trouble No More – the Modern Times version was too much of a straight lift for my liking.

5) Red River Shore # 1
One of the gems of this collection, this is classic Dylan. Again, the vocal is intimate and demonstrates that rumours of the demise of his voice are greatly exaggerated. The arrangement of the songs builds as it progresses and it is hard to find any fault with this at all. It reminds me of Angelina, and again you have to wonder how this didn’t find its way onto Time Out Of Mind.

6) Tell Ol Bill
Marvellously out of kilter piano, and a fine, understated vocal. Again, this is an improvement on the previously released version of this song. Lyrically, this is one of the more interesting songs on this collection as it eschews Dylan’s recent habit of recycling old blues lyrics.

7) Born In Time
Here is the Under The Red Sky gem dressed up in its Lanois shimmer. Not as good as the previously released version as it has none of that performance’s light and shade.

8) Can’t Wait
Another of this set’s gems, we hear Dylan suggesting they “do it in B flat” before a Dirge-like piano signals the opening of the song. Again, a superb vocal performance from Dylan, naked without Lanois’ studio trickery, and a song that makes more sense lyrically than the released version.

9) Everything is Broken
There’s not much to recommend the inclusion of this – a slight song in Dylan’s canon in any case. The lyrics are not as polished as the Oh Mercy version and much of the backing track sounds the same as the previously released version. Very much a work in progress.

10) Dreamin of You
This kicks off with a snap of snare and a hypnotic piano figure, before Dylan’s upfront vocal launches into what clearly sounds like a dry run for the (inferior) Standing In The Doorway which saw the light of day on Time Out Of Mind. This version is head and shoulders above that – Dylan in total control vocally, some fantastic lyrics, and a great production. Superb.

11) Huck’s Tune
This sounds like an old folk song – a beautiful melody, a sensitive arrangement, and Dylan’s superbly cracked vocals. One of the gems of this set, this song packs a huge emotional punch in the way the wistful lyrics, the folky tune and Dylan’s heartfelt vocals all come together.

12) Marchin to the City
Another highlight, this is an early version of Til I Fell In Love With You but is greatly superior to the TOOM version. Shorn of Lanois’ production, the vocal is vintage Dylan – up close and in your face – and kicks off like a song from Saved. The lyrics are mysterious and magical and vastly superior to the rather ordinary cliche-ridden Til I Fell In Love With You. Another of Dylan’s “why on earth didn’t he release this?” moments.

13) High Water
A smoking live version of this “Love And Theft” tune. It takes Dylan a few lines to get going, but once he is warmed up he attacks the lyrics with gusto. A showcase for his live band, 2003 vintage, Dylan leans into the vocals and whoops and hollers in the finest way possible.

CD2

1) Mississippi # 2
Again, lyrically intact, but the arrangement is all over the place here. Dylan seems to be singing in a key which doesn’t suit his voice – way too low – this version of what is probably Dylan’s last great masterpiece makes you realise why he didn’t release it on Time Out Of Mind.

2) 32-20 Blues
A great outtake from World Gone Wrong. Nice to have this at last.

3) Series of Dreams
This is where the pickings start to get slightly slim. This is in every way inferior to the previous Bootleg Series version. In fact, the vocal take sounds to me exactly the same as the Bootleg version (I don’t believe Dylan would be able to sing a song the same way twice even if he wanted to.) The only thing this includes is a second verse which was obviously excised from the previously released version.

4) God Knows
As with Born In Time, this is Lanois’ version of what became a vastly superior song in the hands of the Was brothers on the criminally underrated Under The Red Sky LP. Forgettable.

5) Can’t Escape From You
This kicks off like Can’t Help Falling In Love – Dylan growls and croaks in his best Tom Waits fashion, and the lilting melody recalls the folky nature of Huck’s Tune. My only reservation about this is that is that he does sound in trouble vocally and there is perhaps one too many verses. But overall, an interesting selection.

6) Dignity
Dreadful rockabilly version of this Dylan-by-numbers song. Horrible rubbery sounding bass, with Dylan sounding like he couldn’t care less – a clunker.

7) Ring Them Bells
Dylan’s 1992 Supper Club shows have gone down in folklore, especially as the shows were billed as Dylan unplugged (before he recorded his contribution to that franchise) and were allegedly filmed. It was widely hoped that an audio/visual release for these shows would make up a future Bootleg Series release. The fact that this heartfelt version of this song appears here would seem to suggest that this is all we are going to get. Dylan is vocally committed and this performance highlights Bucky Baxter’s sympathetic steel guitar. Lovely.

8) Cocaine Blues
A similar version to this has been previously released on the Love Sick CD singles, and this version adds nothing.

9) Ain’t Talkin’
Very similar in pace to the Modern Times version, though this has a rockier edge – in fact, the backing track sounds very similar to What Was It You Wanted. Not sure that this adds much to the previously released version.

10) The Girl On the Green Briar Shore
A nice live version. Remember when Dylan would play acoustic guitar on his own? This is a reminder of those days.

11) Lonesome Day Blues
This sounds like a field recording – somewhat tinny – and collectors have already got this version as it used to be available as part of the now sadly defunct performances section of the official Dylan website. That said this is a smoking version of the “Love And Theft” song, with Dylan attacking the vocals and the soaring guitars kicking up a right old racket behind him.

12) Miss the Mississippi
More sessions that have gone down in folklore, those recorded by Dylan with Dave Bromberg in 1992 – before he released Good As I Been To You. This has been available to collectors for some years but is a very good song – nice production and superb singing from Dylan. Not sure where this leaves us for the rest of the Bromberg sessions ever being officially released.

13) The Lonesome River
A nice recording, with Dylan on fine form vocally. However, this has been previously released on a Ralph Stanley album.

14) Cross The Green Mountain
Another late-period Dylan gem. Stirring lyrics, sympathetic arrangement, and a superb vocal performance from Dylan. This song exudes the American Civil War from its every pore – emotional, a cinematic tour de force. Superb.

CD3

1) Duncan and Brady
A stonking cover from the Bromberg sessions – has much of the gut-bucket flavour of Under The Red Sky. Loose as a goose vocal from Dylan, great smears of guitar, great fun, fantastic. A superb way to kick off the most expensive disc Dylan has ever released!

2) Cold Irons Bound
A great live version of this Time Out Of Mind classic – Dylan is fully focussed as he attacks the vocals, and the backing from his band swirls and soars like a great rattling stagecoach – fantastic.

3) Mississippi # 3
A dreadful reggae lilt adorns this, the weakest version of this song collected here. Lyrically all over the place, Dylan has yet to focus his late great narrative. One for completists only.

4) Most of the Time # 2
Rather like the version of Series of Dreams over on CD 2, this sounds to me like exactly the same vocal as the released Oh Mercy version. The phrasing and intonation is identical – the only difference is a couple of lyric changes, which were obviously “dropped in” prior to the release of Oh Mercy. In fact, listening again to this, it sounds like the new words are actually “dropped in” to this version. Superfluous.

5) Ring Them Bells # 2
A longer intro, less cluttered, naked vocal from Dylan – this kicks off starting like a superb alternate take. However, we’ve been had. While the first verse is clearly a different version, the rest of the song is the same vocal track as the officially released Oh Mercy version. Shame.

6) Things Have Changed
I’ve never been as much of a fan of this song as Dylan obviously is and this version is a case in point. The backing from the band is great, but the vocal is lacklustre – not a great performance, Dylan sounds on autopilot here.

7) Red River Shore # 2
Another version of this masterpiece, more muted than that which appears earlier on CD1. Dylan sounds like he’s maybe sung it one time too many, and the arrangement is not as sympathetic as the earlier version.

8) Born In Time
Another Lanois stab at this tune, long available to collectors and inferior in every way to the superb Under The Red Sky version.

9) Trying To Get To Heaven
This is one to get my pulse racing as Dylan does that which he is often accused of – completely reworks a song’s melody so it becomes another song. This is Dylan as Sinatra, a lounge version of the Time Out Of Mind masterpiece. Committed vocal, superbly realised alternate tune, he’s done to this what he did to I Want You and Tangled Up In Blue during the 1978 tour – magical and heartbreaking.

10) Marchin’ to the City # 2
Kicks off with some Rainy Day Women drums, and bounces along to an organ-driven back beat; not as good as the version that graces CD 1 but intriguing none the less.

11) Can’t Wait # 2
Spooky organ intro, spooky Dylan vocal. Mesmerising, this meanders along in mysterious and moving ways. Dylan as supreme blues singer, just great.

12) Mary and the Soldier
Another fantastic and touching performance from the sessions that spawned the superb World Gone Wrong album. Flawless.

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