Wednesday, October 24, 2012

No Direction Home: A Bob Dylan Soundtrack Becomes A Worthy Alternative "Best Of" The Early Years!

The Good: Great lyrics, Some decent performances, Good mix, Interesting sound/interpretations on some tracks
The Bad: A few truly lame tracks
The Basics: A worthwhile collection of the music of Bob Dylan represented in the form of alternate, live and demo takes of some of his best early works.

Despite what some around here would have you believe, it is not my job to support the reputation of any musical artist. It is not my job to protect the history of music or tear down the works of any artist; I get c.d.s, I listen to them and I evaluate them based on that I hear, not what their reputation was when they were released or how devoted fans would view the album. This has gotten me hate mail, like when I panned The Ghost Of Tom Joad by Bruce Springsteen. Devoted fans often have a problem with any critique of an artist they love when it does not net a high rating and a recommendation. I don't find that to be terribly useful myself and rather than rate based on another's hype of an album, I rate based on what I hear.

So, as with any album, when I picked up the double-disc Bob Dylan set No Direction Home, a quick review of the booklet inside revealed that it was a pseudo-soundtrack to the Martin Scorsese documentary by the same name. This is not a review of the movie, nor anything but the two-disc set. The context is its own, this is a review of this work on its own.

And it's good.

With two discs clocking in at over two hours worth of music, this eighteen track collection is culled from alternate takes, live performances and demo tracks from his earliest albums and that time period (1956 - 1966). As a result, most of the tracks appear on other albums in more finished forms and this album has little that is truly new, save for the sound of the tracks. Interestingly, most of the tracks on the first disc have a very stark, underproduced (live) type sound and the second disc contains tracks that have arrangements that have more production or instruments to them than the traditional versions. As I have been going through the Bob Dylan collection, this was the first time I had heard drums accompanying some of Dylan's songs!

Bob Dylan is inarguably a great writer and No Direction Home is a compilation that includes some of his best, most recognizable songs, like "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," "Blowin' In The Wind," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "Mr. Tambourine Man," and "Like a Rolling Stone." The value of this two disc set - in addition to the incredibly well-written liner notes - is that these arrangements are not available elsewhere, so the avid collector or fan of Bob Dylan who likes the traditional songs by Dylan they know can hear something new in them with this set.

So, for example, one of my favorites by Dylan, "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," is presented in the Demo form, so the sound is more stark with Dylan and his guitar than in the version that appears on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Interestingly, his vocal performance is less expressive in this recording, too. He does not convey the emotion, the passion, the yearning sense of loss that the studio version presents. The different resonance makes for an interesting listening experience and allows the listener to take something different away from the song than they might have with the traditional recorded version.

And with an double album full of tracks that are similarly reinterpreted, it makes for an interesting collection. Dylan does not alter many of his lyrics, so there's still the classic sense of poetry to each of the songs preserved. As he notes on his version of "Blowin' In The Wind," "The words are the same." Many of the tracks have introductions that range from the obvious (the engineer telling Dylan to lean closer to the microphone on one track) to the intriguing - Dylan calling an audience member a liar to open "Like A Rolling Stone" which is baffling out of context and that sense of weird spontaneity unites the discs, making the experience seem like one long, intimate concert.

And generally that works and the tracks are good. But this is far from a perfect album. "Sally Gal" is an outtake that was kept off The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and it's clear Dylan and his producer made the right choice on that track. It's a weak track that is repetitive and somewhat pointless and it lacks both the political activism and the personal resonance that makes so many of Dylan's tracks work. Similarly, "Leopard-skin Pill-box Hat" just falls flat when compared to classic tracks like "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Mr. Tambourine Man."

But the intriguing thing for those who have been listening to early Bob Dylan is to hear how some of these live versions or alternative tracks diverge from the usually solitary Dylan sound. "Maggie's Farm" sounds like it could be a tune by The Beatles, whatwith the electric guitar, drums and tambourine accompanying Dylan's voice. Sadly, it's a very repetitive song that uses rhymes that aren't quite up to the standards of many of Dylan's best songs.

That said, this is a worthwhile musical outing, and not just for musical historians or Dylan fans. Fans of Oasis are bound to like the cut of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," which sounds like it could have been a cut off Heathen Chemistry (reviewed here!). I mean, how often can one suggest that Liam Gallagher might sound like Bob Dylan?! Musically, the song is very rich with the accompaniment, but it is Dylan's voice that guides the song.

And on this set, Dylan's voice is truly an instrument to be appreciated. Unlike some of the albums and performances that suggest the parody of Dylan that pop culture is happy to present in virtually every context, Dylan's voice on these tracks is smooth, clear and articulate. On "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," for example, Dylan seems to make an additional effort to be heard as he sings with great precision over the piano and organ. "Like A Rolling Stone," one of the most parodied - and frankly, easy to parody - Dylan tracks is presented live with Dylan easily overcoming the audience and speaking and singing with perfect clarity.

The result is something of a "Best Of" the early years of Bob Dylan for those who might be tired of the versions of his early works that they have heard on the radio for years. And while some of his classics from this era like "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "It Ain't Me Babe" are absent, so too are the duds that made some of those early apolitical albums unmemorable. Indeed, the only song from Another Side Of Bob Dylan that was included in this anthology was a live version of "Chimes Of Freedom."

In short, this gives the listener an opportunity to appreciate Bob Dylan, his lyrics and music, in a new way with a collection that is not quite what we've heard of Dylan before . . . but still with his exceptional lyrics. The best tracks are "Masters Of War" (disc 1) and "Like A Rolling Stone" (disc 2). The weakest tracks are the repetitive "Sally Gal" (disc 1) and the pointless story/song "Leopard-skin Pill-box Hat" (disc 2).

For other Bob Dylan reviews, be sure to check out my takes on:
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
The Times They Are A-Changin’
Another Side Of Bob Dylan
Early Album Boxed Set


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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