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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bob Dylan: Good As I Been To You


1) Frankie & Albert; 2) Jim Jones; 3) Black Jack Davey; 4) Canadee-I-O; 5) Sitting On Top Of The World; 6) Little Maggie; 7) Hard Times; 8) Step It Up And Go; 9) Tomorrow Night; 10) Arthur McBride; 11) You're Gonna Quit Me; 12) Diamond Joe; 13) Froggie Went A-Courtin'.

«Going back to one's roots» is a trick that's tried and true, but, to be perfectly honest, Dylan never really strayed too far away from his roots in the first place — that solid foundation of folk, blues, and country styles had always remained at the core of every «original» song the man went on to write. From that point of view, the stylistic and emotional distance between the much reviled Under The Red Sky and the much lauded Good As I Been To You is not really that far. But yes indeed, on a formal basis, here we have Dylan going back to his roots in a way he'd never gone back before — thirty years on, revisiting the exact same territory he'd started out upon, with his self-titled debut of old blues and folk covers.

It does make sense to play those two albums back-to-back and see the difference. In 1962, Bob Dylan was an inexperienced Jewish kid from Minnesota, arrogantly challenging himself to rival old weathered black bluesmen. The only way he could rise to that challenge was by radically re­inventing the songs, recasting them in his own new image, with a little extra irony and an already strong beatnik flavor. Time goes by, and now, in the early 1990s, he goes back to that same well, digging in the archives and selecting even more tracks from the past for publication as part of The Bootleg Series — but by now, he is fairly weathered and battered himself, and a little washed up and low on ideas, and the solution presents itself: why not try it again, but this time in a perfectly «authentic» manner? Given that he really really loves those old melodies and all? Wouldn't thirty years be a sufficient learning period?

Totally stripped down and reduced once again to pure acoustic guitar and harmonica, dumping everything that could be dumped, Bob handpicks himself thirteen oldies from the depths of the folk and blues tradition — a few of which will be easily recognized even by amateurs (ʽSittin' On Top Of The Worldʼ, for instance, or the old jazz ballad ʽTomorrow Nightʼ, done by Lonnie John­son, LaVern Baker, Elvis, and probably a dozen other artists), but many of the rest are relatively obscure sea shanties or jug band dance numbers where the listener would have to do some serious digging to uncover the prototypes. This is quite easy in the Internet era, of course, but in 1992, access to golden oldies was still limited, so for many a Bob Dylan fan, Good As I Been To You must have contained plenty of revelations.

There is no serious point in discussing individual highlights or lowlights here. Any review of an album like this begs for an answer to just one question — does it or doesn't it? Most critics have agreed that it does, and I sort of agree as well. «Sort of», because nowadays we can all scrutinize these acoustic monuments of popular genius the way they were recorded by various artists in pre-war times — cleaned up, remastered, still a bit crackly, but preserving some of that old spirit for us all. Whether we really need them so faithfully redone by Bob Dylan is a complex question.

Naturally, it all sounds great. It's been a long time since Bob rode the old six-string with so much verve and passion — his technicality hasn't improved all that much since 1962, but it wasn't too bad to begin with, and most of the time he is being well in tune and throwing around inspired lead lines every now and then. His voice, having played such a mean trick with him around the time of Under The Red Sky, is now perfectly suited to these shanties and nursery rhymes — grandpa music, played round the fire for the grandchildren to frolick around to. And there is enough sty­listic and emotional diversity, from the unvarnished dark balladry of ʽFrankie & Albertʼ to the medieval kiddie folktale stuff of ʽFroggie Went A-Courtin'ʼ.

Whether it would have significant replay value, though, is a different matter. Like Bob's born-again stuff, this is something that had to be done, and it could be argued that without this album or its sequel, we would not have seen and enjoyed the true late period revival of Bob Dylan. It is also well worth studying for all those who only have a vague idea of where all those wonderful Bob Dylan songs are coming from — he even went all the way to include several prototypes of his own classics, e. g. ʽBlack Jack Daveyʼ is the true father of ʽBoots Of Spanish Leatherʼ, and ʽJim Jonesʼ would eventually become ʽDesolation Rowʼ. But the record is really more of a well-meaning lesson in folk musical history, now given by a seasoned pro, than an original musical creation in its own right.

No question about it — on the general curve, Good As I Been To You was a great improvement over the previous album, and in terms of its minimalistic production and intimacy, probably the best-sounding Dylan record since at least his Christian period. Yet I do not see myself coming back to it very often: its impact is really at its highest if it is taken in the strict context of Dylan's entire career. In that context, it gets an assured thumbs up; out of that context, it is merely a curiosity. But on a positive note, if you memorize all the verses to ʽFroggie Went A-Courtin'ʼ, that's at least one hell of a useful mental exercise.

Check "Good As I Been To You" (CD) on Amazon

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