Friday, October 10, 2008

You Don't Miss Your Water Until Your Well Runs Dry

Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol 8: Tell Tale Signs (Columbia, 2008)
Various Artists – Take Me to the River: A Southern Soul Story (Kent, 2008)

For those of us who have been waiting patiently for The Bootleg Series to catch up with the contemporary Dylan, ‘Tell Tale Signs’ ought to be an essential purchase. Sadly, Columbia’s ludicrous multi-format strategy has perversely made it unaffordable – with an unnecessarily lavish 3CD set on sale for prices varying between £80 and £110. Not even the most obsessive of Dylan devotees would consider spending quite that much money on one product, especially when the box is so large that it won’t even fit on your average shelf. Thanks but no thanks Columbia.

The standard £15 2CD edition is, if we exercise critical acumen rather than slavish icon worship, a bit of a mixed bag. Its highlights are superb, and demonstrate that Dylan’s now ravaged voice has a caustic power all of its own, communicating wisdom and experience more than the defiant rage of the young Dylan. Perhaps the best example of this is the solo piano and vocal version of ‘Dignity’, one of those half-finished Dylan recordings that suggest he shouldn’t have bothered experimenting with more full blooded arrangements. His vocal is attacking and aggressive, but also full of compassion. The band version that eventually appeared on ‘Greatest Hits Vol. 3’ is nowhere near as assertive or compelling. The two additional versions of ‘Mississippi’ included here also give a clear impression of how Dylan never sees songs as malleable objects. The bare version which opens the first CD is remarkable – a lightly shuffled blues that seems more hopeful than resigned - much more striking than the slightly MOR plod of the ‘Love and Theft’ version.

There are, however, a number of superfluous alternate takes that were clearly consigned to the cutting room floor for good reason. There’s a radically different version of ‘Someday Baby’, a reverb-drenched U2-esque trudge that sounds like a totally different song from the slight but appealing barroom boogie of the ‘Modern Times’ version. Dylan sounds bored – and one can hardly blame him given the uninspired musical context. Only the delicate brush drums seem to complement the lyric. The punchier version of ‘Ain’t Talkin’ included here somehow sounds darker but less mysterious. The alternate versions of ‘Series of Dreams’ and ‘Everything is Broken’ are only superficially different from the previously released versions and don’t add quite so much to our understanding of Dylan’s songwriting process.

The collection continues to give credence to the argument that Dylan can frequently be a poor editor of his own work. There’s plenty of evidence here to suggest that both ‘Oh Mercy’ and ‘Time Out of Mind’ could have been even better albums. Not only this, but the versions of ‘God Knows’ and ‘Born In Time’ included here from the ‘Oh Mercy’ sessions are significantly superior to the less imaginative takes that eventually made it on to ‘Under The Red Sky’. Similarly, it’s hard to believe that the epic, rambling and haunting narrative of ‘Red River Shore’ was left off ‘Time Out of Mind’ in favour of some of the more lightweight blues numbers that peppered that album. Laced with accordion, the song is a meandering, languid delight.

There’s actually a relative paucity of completely unheard material here, although the small number of selections are certainly intriguing. ‘Can’t Escape From You’ seems inspired by vocal group music – perhaps The Platters or the early Drifters material. It sounds, pleasingly, like it could easily feature on one of Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour programmes. ‘Dreamin’ Of You’ is perhaps a little too characteristic of Daniel Lanois’ murky swamp and perhaps therefore suffers from over-familiarity. It’s an effective enough lyric, but not as melodic or as stirring as the best songs included on ‘Time Out of Mind’ and it covers similar thematic ground to some of the best tracks on that album. There’s a surprisingly mellifluous duet with Ralph Stanley on ‘The Lonesome River’, and Stanley deserves great credit for coping with the unenviable task of harmonising with Dylan.

There are a handful of soundtrack selections and live recordings padding out the set. Given the sheer volume of Dylan live recordings in recent years (what a shame the regular offerings streamed on the official website stopped with no warning), ‘Tell Tale Signs’ doesn’t seem to delve deep enough into this area. There’s a sterling, dramatic, tempestuous reading of ‘High Water’ but the version of ‘Lonesome Day Blues’ is a little perfunctory, Dylan hastily barking out the lyrics and obscuring his enunciation, as he does all too often in concert these days. Given the quality of his fresh readings of songs like ‘Hattie Carroll’, ‘John Brown’ and ‘Shelter From The Storm’ in recent London shows, I wonder whether some recent live performances of older songs might have been more valuable in this context, particularly in emphasising the changeable nature of Dylan’s songs, however sacred their original versions might seem.

For all the riches on ‘Tell Tale Signs’, I still suspect that a complete Dylan live album covering 2000 onwards would be a more rewarding addition to the catalogue, albeit with the reservation that the selections would need to be judicious. Some of ‘Tell Tale Signs’ feels a little too much like the scraping of a very deep barrel.

Putting the excessive asking price for the Dylan box set into very clear perspective is ‘Take Me to the River: A Southern Soul Story’, another new soul compilation from Kent Records. Frankly, the market is saturated with soul compilations, from the Motown Chartbusters series through to Dave Godin’s peerless Deep Soul collections. With this package though, Kent have taken the art of compiling to a whole new level. Lavishly packaged with a hard book filled with photographs and informative liner notes, the compilation is unique in spanning several labels and veering from predictable essentials to more obscure collectors’ gems. Priced at a very reasonable £28, it exposes Columbia’s greed and idiocy all too starkly.

If this is your first introduction to the heady, fervent world of southern soul music, it’s an ideal primer. It includes, amongst others, Al Green’s gospel-informed track that gives the set its title, two solid gold classics from William Bell (‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’ and ‘I Forgot To Be Your Lover’), Percy Sledge’s ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’, James Carr’s awesome ‘Dark End of the Street’ and Otis Redding’s staggering ‘Try A Little Tenderness’, possibly the best directive ever addressed to men in song form. These selections, familiar to anyone already immersed in this glorious music, are just the tip of the iceberg here though.

I can’t add much to David Hepworth’s perceptive and authoritative review in The Word magazine, other than to reiterate his point about the radicalism and sheer provocation of this music. Nothing that has come since – be it punk, acid house, hip hop or grime, has been quite as revolutionary as this remarkable combination of the sacred and profane. Clearly emerging from a gospel tradition, but shot through with desperation, lust and immoral urges, southern soul is as intense and passionate as popular music gets, dominated by compelling narratives and assertive personalities.

These statements of love, desire and heartbreak veer from the highly principled to the baldly insensitive. Arthur Alexander’s ‘Go Home Girl’ finds its protagonist weighing up the value of his love for a friend and his desire for said friend’s girlfriend and opting to sustain the friendship. By way of contrast, there’s Denise LaSalle’s promise to break up your home. Believe me, it’s no idle threat. In between, there’s plenty of good old fashioned adultery and musings on the bittersweet pain of unrequited love. All the emotions and longings fundamental to great pop music are here in droves.

It’s also great to hear some less predictable selections from great singers. We all know Eddie Floyd for ‘Knock on Wood’ but his ‘Got to Make a Comeback’ (actually the flipside to that stellar hit) is a languid hymn to steely determination that demonstrates his versatility and deserves a wider hearing. Similarly, Wilson Pickett is familiar for ‘Mustang Sally’ and ‘In the Midnight Hour’, but ‘Ninety Nine and a Half (Won’t Do)’ is an equally stirring piece of dirty blues still based on that unflappable backbeat.

I normally reject arguments that dismiss all modern R&B in relation to its earlier counterparts, not least because some of that contemporary music is so rhythmically exciting. Yet, listening to this wonderful compilation, one has to wonder if any of today’s divas or young males full of tedious bravado have had the kind of life experience that informs the great stories being told here. If there’s a comparable determination in the modern variations of soul music, it often seems to focus on money and material wealth. And whilst the music is still so often preoccupied with sex, very rarely does it now seem sensual or intimate. Many modern singers could do with listening to some of these confessions - be it Barbara and the Browns’ exquisite ‘If I Can’t Run To You I’ll Crawl’ or Doris Duke’s wonderfully uninhibited ‘To The Other Woman (I’m The Other Woman)’.

In fact, one of the strongest features of this collection is the volume of authoritative, artful performances from women. There’s the low down groove of Laura Lee’s ‘Dirty Man’, and gleefully accusatory performances from June Edwards (‘You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man’) and Candi Staton (‘Another Man’s Woman, Another Woman’s Man’). Add to this two of the essential masterpieces of the form with Aretha Franklin’s ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’ (one of Dan Penn’s best compositions) and Etta James’ ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’.

Perhaps what makes soul music one of the most accessible and enduring of all contemporary musical forms is its ability to absorb the best elements from a variety of traditions. Present within every song here is the sheer force and conviction of gospel music, the melancholy and pain of the blues and the unashamed vulnerability of country music. It is some of the greatest music ever recorded, plus the continual unearthing of more rare treasures suggests that soul music’s deep well may turn out to be bottomless.

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