Tell Tale Signs: the Bootleg Series Vol. 8
Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series has set an unprecedentedly high standard for outtake collections. It is a testament to his artistry - and often dubious judgment - that the collections have had many songs on par with, as good as, and even better than previously released ones. The big question mark, though, had always been recordings from the last twenty years, as very little was known about them. However, the excellent Tell Tale Signs proves that these outtakes are as good as prior ones. Tell quite simply has some of the best music of the last few decades and is absolutely essential.
It makes more sense to discuss the album categorically rather than track-by-track, especially since, unlike prior entries, the running order is not chronological. Drastic differences in songs, especially vocals, are occasionally jarring, but it generally flows well and is certainly more interesting than a chronological order would have been. The first group is Dylan songs previously unreleased in any form, though a snatch or two may have turned up elsewhere, of which there are four. One might have expected more, but superb quality - far higher than one could have ever hoped for - more than atones. "Red River Shore" is nothing less than one of Dylan's best songs, an absolute masterpiece that would be nearly anyone else's peak. A Time Out of Mind outtake, it has much of that album's feel plus a Tex-Mex undercurrent pointing to later Dylan. "Marchin' to the City" is nearly as good, one of Dylan's best blues. It is also a Time outtake, and like several others, is notable in being recorded early in the sessions and thus free of the heavy Daniel Lanois production values that turn off many. The same goes for "Dreamin' of You," which while not quite as good, is excellent and noteworthy in being very uptempo - a distinct contrast to every other known Time recording. "Can't Escape from You" is a 2005 song and yet another near-masterpiece. A fully new venture, it mixes an R&B feel with the Rat Pack balladry Dylan has lately been fond of and has one of his most interesting vocals.
The second category is alternate studio versions of Dylan songs so different that they are practically new, of which Tell generously has nine. "Mississippi," Dylan's best latter-day song, is here in two versions; neither are as good as Love and Theft's, but both are very high quality. The first is simply amazing - a spare acoustic cut with a very different feel. The second is a Time sessions take with a very large band. "Most of the Time" is solo acoustic with substantially different lyrics - a drastic contrast to Oh Mercy's Lanois-drenched piece that many will prefer. The first "Dignity" is a solo piano demo with a highly gospel feel and somewhat different words - so excellent that its truncated nature is highly frustrating. The second is a full band take with a sort of rockabilly feel and many altered lyrics; it is inferior but quite good and a very interesting contrast. "Someday Baby" is also piano-led but with a band; a dramatically different vocal and alternate lyrics give a vivid contrast to Modern Times' straight blues version, and many will prefer this. The already obscure "Tell Ol' Bill" is here in an infinitely better version. Dylan shows his unparalleled ability to sing the same words so differently that the whole meaning is altered. His vocal blows the first out of the proverbial deep blue sea, and the music is also almost totally rewritten and greatly improved; what was pedestrian has moved into greatness. An Oh Mercy "Born in Time" predating its Under the Red Sky makeover is one of the few cuts to have circulated in bootleg form; diehards have long raved about how much better it is, and here is proof. The music, vocal, and words are so superior that the song moves from forgettable to near-sublime. "Can't Wait" has almost nothing in common with the Time song; the lyrics and vocal are better, and most will prefer the music. This may be the most revealing example of how Time might have sounded sans Lanois - a genuine revelation.
Category three is live versions of previously released Dylan songs, of which we get three. Two are Love and Theft songs, presumably to make up for the lack of studio outtakes from that album. "High Water" is a truly incredible 2003 version; Dylan's band then was perhaps the best he had had since 1975, and they truly rip it up on this jazzy blues jam. "Lonesome Day Blues" is closer to the original and less great but still very worthwhile. "Ring Them Bells" is another amazing performance; the music is totally remade, and Dylan gives one of his best latter-day vocals, leading the band through crescendo after crescendo. The cut comes from the legendary 1993 Supper Club acoustic shows, increasing the already strong desire to have the full concerts released.
The fourth category is live versions of traditional folk songs, of which two are here: "Cocaine Blues" and "The Girl on the Greenbriar Shore." They are the least remarkable tracks, and some may question their inclusion, but they are important in representing the many such songs Dylan has played in the last twenty-plus years.
In the fifth category are alternate studio versions of previously released Dylan songs that are not substantially different; four are included. "Everything Is Broken" has more prominent bass and altered words - a slight improvement. "Series of Dreams" is the same take as on Bootleg 3 but with later overdubs removed and a complete outro - small but telling distinctions making a notably better cut. "God Knows" is the other Oh Mercy song redone for Under; the lyrics are somewhat different, but it otherwise changed little and is comparable in quality. "Ain't Talkin'" seems early and incomplete - the only cut far inferior to the first release. The arrangement is not nearly as epic but has strengths all its own, and alternate lyrics make it worthwhile.
Category six has two previously unreleased studio covers. Though of course known for writing, Dylan is one of the all-time great interpreters, and these are milestones. Robert Johnson's "32-20 Blues" is better than anything on the World Gone Wrong album from which it was withheld - a truly memorable solo acoustic rendition. Even better is Jimmie Rodgers' "Miss the Mississippi," which is one of the album's highlights. Featuring some of Dylan's best recent harmonica, the acoustic arrangement is beautiful, and the vocal is profoundly moving. The cut comes from the full-band, David Bromberg-produced acoustic sessions preceding Good as I Been to You. It has long been rumored that the sessions were better than the two solo acoustic albums that followed, and this certainly suggests it. We seem to be getting a peek at the Great Lost Dylan Album, whetting already substantial appetites for full release.
The seventh and final category has previously released tracks, of which there are notably only three, all somewhat obscure. "Huck's Tune" and "Cross the Green Mountain" were buried on soundtracks to flop films. The former is one of Dylan's weakest recent cuts but not without strengths, and diehards will be glad for its wider release. Conversely, "Cross" is a monumental epic of true greatness. Dylan's intense Civil War interest has recently become known, and this is the best evidence - eight-plus minutes of nostalgic, history-drenched mastery that may well be the best Civil War song ever. Many reviews have touted it as the true highlight, and it is easy to agree. It is a major song and definitely deserved more exposure. Finally, we get "The Lonesome River," a bluegrass classic Dylan did for a Ralph Stanley album before O Brother, Where Art Thou? gave him renewed fame. Dylan reminds us that he is a great country singer, and Stanley joins on the choruses for a truly hair-raising duet. Some Dylan fans will be turned off by Stanley and the bluegrass music, but they are very well done as far as they go.
One can unfortunately not discuss Tell without mentioning the ultra-expensive three-disc version with extra songs. My review is restricted to the two-disc because I strongly believe the three-disc is a great rip-off - so much so that I did the unthinkable and did not buy it. This is truly remarkable in that I have nearly everything Dylan has released on album and in print plus bootlegs, have seen multiple concerts, own several related books and other merchandise, and have even written a book about him. The three-disc is simply not worth the cost and is one of the most shameless examples in the long, sorry record company tradition of milking hard-cores. I boycotted it and urge all others to; this is the only way such travesties will cease. It will hopefully be re-released in cheaper form, at which point I urge everyone to buy it; if not, I strongly suggest obtaining it by whatever means possible. Columbia deserves such deviousness and does not deserve our money; Dylan fans are some of the most loyal of any artist and should be treated with more respect and decency.
As for the two disc, it is in Dylan's top tier, which is to say that it has some of the greatest music ever made. This is really all that need be said. No fan can be without it.