Tuesday, October 14, 2008
TELL TALE SIGNS
"Well the sun went down on me a long time ago," Bob Dylan sings on "Red River Shore," one of the many unearthed gems on "Tell Tale Signs," the eighth volume of his superlative "Bootleg Series." When the song was recorded in 1997, it could have been seen as an accurate statement, even if taken out of context in a song about lost love. But hearing it now, more than a decade later, the outtake from the career-reviving, Grammy-winning "Time Out of Mind" seems like just the latest in a long line of jokes that Dylan got before anyone else. His recent trilogy of albums serves notice that Dylan remains one of the most relevant songwriters alive, and "Tell Tale Signs" reinforces something else that has held true for much of the last 45 years: Dylan's back pages aren't mere curiosities but essential listening.
"Tell Tale Signs" covers 1989-2006, when Dylan reestablished himself as a voice of wisdom and took on a new role as caretaker of classic American music traditions, many of which are showcased on this double-disc set. There's "The Lonesome River," his lively collaboration with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley; a straightforward, solo acoustic take on Robert Johnson's "32-20 Blues"; a rough-throated rendering of Western swing standard "Cocaine Blues" (taken from a 1997 Wolf Trap performance); and two versions of the unreleased "Mississippi," one of which is a dusty back-porch blues and another that's a slightly swampy, laid-back shuffle.
Dylan's constant desire to reinvent his own songs is accounted for with a half-dozen alternate takes, including the gently galloping "Someday Baby," which is superior to the version on "Modern Times." A handful of live tracks are also well-chosen; the searing "High Water (for Charley Patton)" and a vulnerable "Ring Them Bells" will astound Dylanphiles and casual fans alike.
-- David Malitz
DOWNLOAD THESE: "Ring Them Bells" (live at the Supper Club, Nov. 17, 1993), "Someday Baby" (alternate version, "Modern Times"), "Mississippi" (Unreleased Version No. 2, "Time Out of Mind")
Much has been made of how finding "real love," as this record's hurtling leadoff track puts it, has spurred Lucinda Williams's productivity. But even prior to finding her fiance and producer, Tom Overby -- and arguably as early as 2001's "Essence" -- Williams had quit fretting over every chord and rhyme and started loosening up. "Little Honey" is but the latest, and most cohesive, installment in her commitment to forgoing self-consciousness and rocking out more.
The languorous "Circles and X's" opens with her singing a cappella, worrying neither about intoning a cliche like "It's raining cats and dogs" nor about the nakedness of her craggy -- and richly emotive -- alto. The raucous "It's a Long Way to the Top" revisits familiar travails of the rock-star life but does so with a performance worthy of the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main St."
"Plan to Marry" begins with an unexpected political turn, only to pluck our heartstrings with testimony about how love between two people can spark hope for the possibility of harmony on a national and global scale. Echoes of Williams's earlier alt-country triumphs are here as well, notably the gorgeous "Tears of Joy," an undulating, blues-steeped ballad redolent of "Still I Long for Your Kiss."
Yet most of this record finds her stretching. Doubtless, some will find the unabashed eroticism of the title track a bit over-the-top, but given how exultant Williams sounds, it would be churlish to begrudge her any lack of subtlety.
-- Bill Friskics-Warren
DOWNLOAD THESE:"Real Love," "Tears of Joy" and "Plan to Marry"