Monday, December 15, 2008

Tell-Tale Signs

Okay, so the Hold Steady made another solid record this year, and, okay, I enjoy the Fleet Foxes album more than I thought I would, but the best release of 2008 -- that I heard -- is the latest volume in Dylan's Bootleg Series: Tell-Tale Signs. Seriously.

And I know it's a compilation.

And I know it's material that was recorded, in some cases almost 20 years ago.

But nothing else this year can come close to it for consistency, for coherence, for brilliant moments, and for the way that it makes you rethink what the musician (Dylan) is capable of at any given moment.

As a single volume in the series -- technically the "Eighth," but only the sixth to be released as the first three volumes were released as a box set -- this is up there with the original collection and the 1966 Judas Concert. It's that good.

Consider the way that it reinvents "Most of the Time" as an acoustic companion piece to "Wedding Song" from Planet Waves. Or the way that "Someday Baby" becomes viable, becomes an actual song instead of merely a placeholding downtempo shuffle on Modern Times. Or the way that "Born in Time" acquires passion, interest, humanity, and perhaps even beauty. Or the way that the first "Can't Wait," stripped of Lanois' sturm-und-echo-drang, discovers the anguish at its heart.

And on and on. The demo of "Dignity." The Supper Club version of "Ring Them Bells." The wholescale reinvention of "Tryin' to Get to Heaven" (from the special edition third disc, which is, um, available in a variety of ways). The World Gone Wrong outtake "32-20 Blues."

Not everything is magic, of course. The three versions of "Mississippi," while intriguing, ultimately don't make for a completely new listening experience in the same fashion as "Can't Wait" or "Most of the Time."

And, and, AND, you get "Cross the Green Mountain" (otherwise available only on a soundtrack to a movie nobody cares about) and "Huck's Tune" (another soundtrack piece) and, critically, "Red River Shore," one of the finest (and most perfectly Dylan-like) pieces he's recorded in two decades. And if you can listen to "Red River Shore" and not want to hear more from the man, then you probably never will.

Seriously -- "Red River Shore." It's revelatory. It's like hearing "Blind Willie McTell" and wondering how the hell that got left off of Infidels back in 1983. It's that good. As is the whole of the set.

Good enough to create an entire "lost album" just from the last decade of the outtakes and soundtrack work, an album to rival Love and Theft and Modern Times. No easy feat.

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