BOB DYLAN: THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 8: TELL TALE SIGNS (1989-2006; 2008)
1) Mississippi (alt. version #1); 2) Most Of The Time (alt. version); 3) Dignity (piano demo); 4) Someday Baby (alt. version); 5) Red River Shore; 6) Tell Ol' Bill; 7) Born In Time; 8) Can't Wait (alt. version); 9) Everything Is Broken (alt. version); 10) Dreamin' Of You; 11) Huck's Tune; 12) Marchin' To The City; 13) High Water (For Charlie Patton) (live); 14) Missisippi (alt. version #2); 15) 32-20 Blues; 16) Series Of Dreams; 17) God Knows; 18) Can't Escape From You; 19) Dignity; 20) Ring Them Bells (live); 21) Cocaine Blues (live); 22) Ain't Talkin' (alt. version); 23) The Girl On The Greenbriar Shore (live); 24) Lonesome Day Blues (live); 25) Miss The Mississippi; 26) The Lonesome River; 27) 'Cross The Green Mountain.
The next installment in The Bootleg Series returns us to the original format. Since the release of the original triple package, more than 15 years had elapsed, and in the interim Bob had managed to recapture the hearts of fans and critics alike one more time — clearly, the entire fruitful period in between the «pre-comeback» of Oh Mercy and the super-success of Time Out Of Mind, Love & Theft, and Modern Times needed some extra coverage, to bring collectors, completists, and cultists up-to-date with the latest developments. Sure the third disc of the original series had some duds on it, but that was the Eighties, you know — surely Bob's blistering comeback had to lead to its own precious leftovers in dust bins?
Well, to tell the truth, this one's been a little over-hyped. First, although two discs for 18 years of music making does not feel too disproportionate compared to three discs for the previous 28 years of music making — one should not forget that back in the 1960s, each year counted for five in comparison. Look at this track listing and you will see that approximately half of these songs are alternate versions of officially released counterparts (demos, rejected takes, live versions, the usual stuff), whereas much of the other half gathers leftovers that had been officially released — on various movie soundtracks (North Country, Gods And Generals, etc.). Altogether, you only get something like five or six completely new songs. This is still a treat, but one that gets diluted in a sea of all too familiar voices and melodies.
Second, Tell Tale Signs presents very little, if anything, in the way of actual big-time «surprises». Most of those years Dylan spent reconnecting with his heritage — the dark side of Americana, in so many different, but nearly always similar, ways — and these outtakes mostly just offer more of the same. Blues, folk, country-oriented tunes with predictable melodies and the usual hoarse singing: no wonder the liner notes are mostly busy discussing the wonders of the lyrics rather than anything else. This is not a jarring criticism, though — merely a warning that if you already have the original official LPs, Tell Tale Signs will not be opening your eyes in a manner of which the old Bootleg Series was sometimes capable.
That said, this is still Dylan's Bronze Age here, and the album is consistently listenable throughout, and there are even highlights a-plenty. Particularly treasurable are the Time Out Of Mind outtakes: ʽDreamin' Of Youʼ is an atmospheric guitar lover's paradise, with several haunting, weepy lines flowing in and out of each other, perfectly complementing the main lyrical message ("I'm dreamin' of you / That's all I do / And it's driving me insane"); ʽRed River Shoreʼ is a nostalgic ballad with a Texmex flavor (the accordeon strikes again) that was, perhaps, deemed too happy-sounding for the album; and the two early versions of ʽMississippiʼ (one almost purely acoustic, one with a full backing band) are arguably better than the final take on Love & Theft, which seems a little overproduced in comparison.
Of the soundtrack tunes, ʽTell Ol' Billʼ is pretty good, even if the melody is basically just a rewrite of the verse melody for ʽMan Gave Names To All The Animalsʼ (well, we wouldn't expect Bob to overtax himself for a goddamn soundtrack) — nice «dark boogie» atmosphere smelling of unexplored alleys and unseen dangers. But the real highlight is ʽ'Cross The Green Mountainʼ, a song commemorated to the Civil War (only too appropriate for a movie about the Civil War) that somehow manages to get a unique sound going, courtesy of Tony Garnier playing a minimalistic «doom-style» bassline and Larry Campbell contrasting it with a romantic violin part, while Bob is telling us a not-too-sophisticated moral tale on the evils of war. This is probably the greatest song on the album, so, not coincidentally, it is also set at the very end — and it gives a deeper impression than any song from Love & Theft (both were recorded in 2002).
Honorable mention should also go to the live cuts — so far, Bob has not released a single complete live album from the Never Ending Tour, so this is the easiest way to check out his band on a good night (other than actually buying a ticket to the next show, of course). On Disc 1, there is a really gritty, nasty rendition of ʽHigh Waterʼ, with Bob's guitarists raising hell and, overall, turning the formerly moody-creepy song into a kick-ass blues-rocker (not necessarily a «good» thing per se, but a good example of how Bob can still radically reinvent his new songs even at this late date). ʽLonesome Day Bluesʼ on the second disc is closer to the studio version and also featured in surprisingly lo-fi quality, but the acoustic rendition of the old ʽCocaine Bluesʼ from 1997 is hard to beat, with Bob's «whining» voice perfectly fit for the whiny occasion.
Finally, there are just some extra nice touches here and there — the versions of ʽBorn In Timeʼ and ʽGod Knowsʼ, for instance, will be a drop (two drops) of pleasure to those who hated the keyboard-heavy production of these songs on Under A Red Sky (as it turns out, they sounded so much better under the original supervision of Lanois during the Oh Mercy sessions). A couple extra acoustic oldies, recorded in the 1992-93 «back-to-rootsiest-roots» period, would have made a good addition to the original Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong. And ʽDignityʼ has a more interesting and flashy arrangement than on the live Unplugged version. In short, some of these alternate versions can outshine the originals — the final list depends on the listener, but I guess you could say that is the privileged advantage of an album of outtakes from your not-so-revolutionary period.
Overall, this is a fine supporting companion to Dylan's latest creative renaissance, as long as you do not set your expectations unjustifiedly high or join the salivating crowds of worshippers, ready to overpraise each scrap as soon as it is found and laid out on the table. One thing that it proves is that it always makes sense to pry into the man's vaults, no matter from which epoch they date. But the quality of the vault in question is tightly correlated with the quality of its epoch — thus, if your favorite Dylan album is Love & Theft, for some reason, then run, don't walk, to get this stuff. Otherwise, just walk. A walking man's thumbs up here.