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“All The Merry Little Elves Can Go Hang Themselves”:
Dylan Returns

30 October 2008

“Tell Tale Signs: Rare And Unreleased 1989-2006”, the latest installment in Dylan’s Bootleg Series is finally here, and it does not disappoint – I would go as far as to say it even surpasses his latest “official” album, but that’s a claim that has been made every once in a while about the king of bootlegs and is purely a matter of taste.

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Let’s start from the facts: “Tell Tale Signs” is available as a single CD, as a double CD with a booklet, and as a triple CD with a hardcover book; there is no track reprogramming for the various versions, i.e. the single disc version only includes CD 1, and the 3-CD version has two extra discs. There’s also a vinyl version, and the first two CD’s seem to be available as mp3 downloads as well, with the exception of one track – “Miss The Mississippi” off CD 2 which appears to have been reserved for “album only”. Whew!

However, all that amounts to an arrangement most fair, for it’s the first disc with the most consumer-friendly price that is completely and totally essential. Yes, a true fan will need them all, but strictly for everyday listening, CD 1 is the one, standing up well as a complete album in its own right where CD’s 2 & 3 gradually drift off into anthology territory.

The three jolly kings that populated the sleevenotes of “John Wesley Harding” once advised us that the key is Frank, but the key to this set must be in “Mississippi” – for all three discs include a version of that particular song. To me, they all sound better than the poppish original that appeared on “Love and Theft”, but the one that opens the first disc is really “it”. It is followed by a folksier version of “Most Of The Time” off 1989’s “Oh Mercy”, a powerful piano demo for “Dignity”, a version of the recent “Someday Baby” that unlike the album version bears little resemblance to a certain blues classic, and the deceptively mellow-sounding “Red River Shore”.

Next up is “Tell Ol’ Bill” (the lost twin of that other soundtrack jewel “Things Have Changed”?), followed by intriguing alternates of “Born In Time”, “Can’t Wait” and “Everything Is Broken”. “Dreamin’ Of You” and “Marchin’ To The City”, tracks 10 and 12 respectively, are well worth the price of the single CD version by themselves both musically and lyrically, and should send every Dylan fan back to discovering “Time Out Of Mind” all over again: which lines from these outtakes ended up in which song?! Apparently, when
Tom Waits told an interviewer he uses left-over songs for spare parts, he was speaking for the lot of them.

Track 11 “Huck’s Tune” provided this review with the vitriolic title quote, and the disc closes with a live reading of “High Water (For
Charley Patton)”, the funky guitar-heavy attack of which probably jumps the furthest of them all where band performances are concerned. If rock is dead, someone sure neglected to inform Mr. Dylan…

CD 2 adds a few more blues covers, notably a solo version of
Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues”, more live, more brilliant alternates, and more obscure soundtrack cuts. The lost gem on CD 3 is the opening number “Duncan and Brady”; with more than a passing resemblance to “Stagolee”, it starts off with “twinkle, twinkle little star” and includes what I in my ignorance took to be a Johnny Cash reference in “shoot somebody just to see them die”. Sounds like another great Dylan original, right? Wrong - turns out it’s an old Leadbelly song, also performed by the late Dave Van Ronk.

All in all, “Tell Tale Signs” is filled with great music and brilliant imagery, but I guess that goes without saying. Hopefully, this set will help draw attention to the often overlooked 1989 classic “Oh Mercy”, but also to the good stuff on the much-criticized “Under The Red Sky” and the wonderful solo covers albums “World Gone Wrong” and “Good As I’ve Been To You” – acoustic blues fans please take note! Most importantly, however, these outtakes show that not only has Dylan been touring more actively than ever, he has managed to maintain the hectic studio pace that characterized his 60’s work, even if he occasionally makes us hunt down strange soundtrack compilations to taste the fruits of his labour. Long may he run.


Bob Dylan: Tell Tale Signs: Rare And Unreleased 1989 - 2006 (3 CD). Columbia, 2008

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