Bob Dylan: Tell Tale Signs

Recently I’ve been listening to the latest chapter in Dylan’s Bootleg Series (Volume 8) –  Tell Tale Signs –  a  27-track compilation that gathers alternate takes and unreleased songs from the past 19 years, a period that produced the albums Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, Modern Times and Oh Mercy. It’s a great collection,  loaded with alternate takes of songs such as ‘Mississippi’ and ‘Born In Time’ (in both cases, the first one on the album is the best, in my opinion) and unreleased gems like ‘Marchin’to the City’ and ‘Red River Shore’ .

With some of the songs, such as the first version of ‘Dignity’, you get the feeling that Dylan himself was trying to decide if he even had a song. It is as if he is still writing the song while singing it. The same is true with ‘Mississippi’. This song previously has been spun as a ballad on Love and Theft. Here, Dylan delivers it both in Robert Johnson style as well as the lovely version that rolls and flows like a river. This song has the same sense of time passing and moving on from place to place as ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ did:

Every step of the way we walk the line.
Your days are numbered, so are mine.
Time is piling up, we struggle and we scrape.
We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape.
City’s just a jungle, more games to play.
Trapped in the heart of it, trying to get away.
I was raised in the country, I been working in the town.
I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down.

One of the surprises on Tell Tale Signs, is the original version of ‘Born in Time’ that was an outtake from the Oh Mercy sessions. It seems amazing that a song as good as this could be discarded,  just as ‘Blind Willie McTell’ was rejected from the Infidels sessions; it is here in the original version Dylan left on the cutting room floor:

In the lonely night
In the stardust of a pale blue light
I think of you in black and white
When we were made of dreams

I walk alone through the shaking street
Listening to my heart beat
In the record-breaking heat
When we were born in time

On the rising curve
Where the ways of nature will test every nerve
I took you close and got what I deserved
When we were born in time

‘Red River Shore’  is a song that session musician Jim Dickinson said was the best song recorded during the Time Out of Mind sessions:

Some of us turn off the lights and we live
In the moonlight shooting by
Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark
To be where the angels fly…

Another song heard here for the first time is ‘Marching to the City’, which appears in two dramatically-different versions, the first starting out with just Dylan and gospel-style piano:

Well I’m sitting in church
In an old wooden chair
I knew nobody
Would look for me there
Sorrow and pity
Rule the earth and the skies

In other tracks, Dylan pay homage once again to the vast expanse of America’s musical heritage. He pays tribute to the ‘Singing Brakeman’ Jimmie Rodgers, on Miss the Mississippi. He does a duet with legendary Appalachian mountain music singer Ralph Stanley. He plays ’32-20′ by the blues master, Robert Johnson.

Here is the review at Allmusic:

Tell Tale Signs is perhaps the most appropriately titled of all the volumes in Bob Dylan’s official Bootleg Series thus far. Containing 27 tracks, the material here dates from the albums Oh Mercy through to 2006’s Modern Times. It presents a carefully prepared sonic treat of a genuine enigma’s musical world-view. Dylan may be an icon, but if it wasn’t already obvious, he seems to perceive the modern world as a strange place that he no longer understands, nor wishes to. The music here is startling in its depth and presentation. It begins with one of the two versions of “Mississippi” included; the song first appeared on Love and Theft, but was written for the Time Out of Mind sessions five years earlier. This one, with only Daniel Lanois’ electric guitar as backing, shows Dylan in full voice, and performing it as a midtempo blues. It’s jauntier in tempo, but harder, leaner, and wearier than the released version. Even more shocking is “Most of the Time,” which has become a signature of Lanois’ production style with its warm, thickly padded guitars and muffled drums. This one features Dylan solo with harmonica and guitar. It comes off as a statement of actuality about strengths and weaknesses rather than as a treatise of denial in the aftermath of lost love. It feels like a back-porch country song here, with different lyrics that underscore the singer’s steely determination. There are some truly amazing stops along the way. The unreleased “Red River Shore” would have shifted some of the darkness on Time Out of Mind to some declaration of empathy and even tenderness had it been released. Likewise, “Marchin’ to the City,” one of the best slow blues Dylan has ever written, offers a respite from the desolation on that album. Soundtracks get represented, too: the alternate take of “Tell Ol’ Bill,” from North Country, is a semi-rag tune with rambling honky tonk piano, and “Huck’s Tune,” from Lucky You, creates a more complex look at the male lead in the film with a Celtic undertow in the melody. Disc one closes with a burning live reading of “High Water (For Charley Patton),” with overdriven electric guitars replacing the banjo.

A real surprise on disc two is a dynamite reading of Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues” that was originally recorded for the covers-only World Gone Wrong, but left in the can. A completely unreleased tune, “Can’t Escape from You” portrays Dylan the folksinger as a lover of early rock & roll ballads. In his own wrecked way, he pays homage (in waltz time) to the Platters, Doc Pomus, Leiber & Stoller, and Cisco Houston with a lonely B-3 and trebly guitars. There are two takes of “Dignity” here as well (one on each disc), the first a prophetic gospel solo piano version and the second a full-band roots rock rave-up. The version of “Ring Them Bells” recorded live at New York’s Supper Club is so utterly moving that it raises goosebumps and leaves the studio version in the dust. The disc closes with the greatest moment on the whole set: “‘Cross the Green Mountain,” from the Gods and Generals soundtrack. Veteran Dylanologist Larry Sloman claims in his truly brilliant and incisive liner notes that this “might be his finest hour as a songwriter.” The amazing thing? It’s not just hyperbole. In all, even in some of its familiarities, Tell Tale Signs feels like a new Bob Dylan record, not only for the astonishing freshness of the material, but also for the incredible sound quality and organic feeling of everything here. It’s a carefully presented set, but it’s full of life and crackling energy and offers yet more proof — as if any were needed — that Dylan remains as cagey, unpredictable, and yes, profound and relevant as he ever was.

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