Posts Tagged ‘album review


From the Shelf: Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol. 1 – 3


Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol. 1 – 3 (1991, Columbia/Legacy)

There’s a stock line about Bob Dylan’s bootleg series, his collection of leftovers, outtakes, alternate takes and other detritus. It’s that even his unused tracks, the stuff he didn’t think was good enough to be on his albums, is so good it’d be the best track on almost any other artist’s albums.


I really hate it when a cliché has this much truth.


For years, Dylan was one of the most-bootlegged artists out there. Indeed, he was the first rock artist to be bootlegged – for a longer history of this, check out my review of Clinton Heylin’s Great White Wonders – when a few of his scraps were compiled into Great White Wonder, the first bootleg LP.


And unlike most other artists, Dylan was hit hard with bootlegging because there was so much he wasn’t releasing. After a much-publicized motorcycle crash in 1966, Dylan took a break. He had just come off a world tour where he was constantly being hounded by the media, swarmed by fans and heckled, badgered and generally annoyed by everyone.


He needed a rest. So he encamped to Big Pink, a house up in upstate New York, where he recorded with his backing group (soon to be known as The Band) and spent time playing a little bit of everything and recording it all to tape. These recordings weren’t meant for the general public, though: they were industry recordings, demos for other artists to listen to and cover. This is what The Byrds did with You Ain’t Going Nowhere and The Band did with This Wheel’s on Fire. And when Dylan did finally release a new album in 1968, his new country sound was not only a departure from what he’d been building towards before, but also didn’t contain those tracks. It didn’t take a scholar to realize something was amiss.


Which is where those enterprising bootleg people came in: oftentimes they had connections to insiders and were privy to these demo recordings. Other times, they were completists who tracked down rare singles, mis-pressings and alternate versions. And sometimes they were devoted fans who tracked down other recordings, be it from rehearsals, informal jams or live shows where they could sneak tape machines past security guards.


And with Dylan, there was a lot out there for the devoted: besides The Basement Tapes, there were other recordings: him playing in a Minnesota hotel in 1961, live gigs from The Gaslight Café in New York and the never-issued Carnegie Hall live album. Even before tape trading was a thing, there was a lot of Dylan stuff floating around.


So it makes sense that he was so heavily bootlegged. And over the years, as he issued some material while leaving other stuff untouched, this only grew. Occasionally the demand for something was so great, he’d release a track or two from his archives, but even then it wasn’t the same thing people were usually looking for. He re-recorded some basement tape songs for the second greatest hits collection and Columbia released The Basement Tapes as a double LP in the mid 70s, albeit with overdubs and additional material by The Band. Later, he’d release a couple more rare songs on the compilation Biograph: the 45-only track Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window, the Basement Tapes recording of Quinn the Eskimo.


But it wasn’t until 1991 that Dylan really raided the vaults. That year he released the first album in his Bootleg Series (the first three actually: each CD in the set is considered it’s own volume). Clocking in at 58 songs and nearly four hours, this CD set is a clearinghouse of his outtakes. And like the stock line, there’s some really good material here.


Most of this set is dedicated to his early years: 34 of these songs come from the pre-motorcycle accident period, with the majority of these coming from before he went electric. They show him evolving as an artist, going from someone who played protest songs and classic folk music to someone interpreting the blues and finding inspiration in his own life. On “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” Dylan is at his funniest and on “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” he recites one of his poems. Even before it gets to his electric material, this is an exhaustive look at his first creative burst.


Things kick up on second disc with an acoustic take of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which is strange listening: the album version is iconic, the song that kicked off his electric period, and hearing it so stripped down is like seeing the frame behind a movie set. It’s easier to make out his lyrics, but it lacks the oomph of the electric version. You can hear him stumble on a chord change and his rapid delivery almost seems stumbling. It’s an interesting look at the construction of one of his most famous tunes.


And as it roars into outtakes from Highway 61 Revisited, there’s another behind-the-scenes look: the original piano-driven demo for “Like A Rolling Stone.” A few years ago, Rolling Stone called the Highway 61 version the best rock song of all time. And this version is night as day from the official version: as a demo it lacks the iconic organ riff, but it’s in 3/4-waltz time, a rearrangement that fundamentally shifts the song into something more cramped. Again, a fascinating look at how his songs grew and evolved during recording.


After a brief sojourn into the basement tapes and some album outtakes, the series focuses on the so-called New York sessions from Blood on the Tracks. The story goes like this: Dylan recorded the album in a stripped down fashion in New York and on the eve of the album’s release, changed his mind about the material, finding it too personal. A few songs were re-recorded in Minnesota and swapped into the delayed album. Normally, this would be something of interest to only the hardcore, but it happens that Blood on the Tracks is one of Dylan’s best albums.

The first track from these sessions is also the best on this set: an earlier version of “Tangled Up In Blue.” This version, barer than the official take, is longer, includes a few extra lines and indeed sounds more personal. Dylan once remarked that it took him “10 years to live and two to write,” this song and it’s not hard to what he meant here, singing about a broken relationship from an ever-changing perspective. The other tracks from the New York sessions included here – “Idiot Wind” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” ­– are also top notch, showing him at his best.


The third disc covers a lot of ground over a few tracks. It goes from Blood on the Tracks to 1989’s Oh Mercy a period of trouble for Dylan: he became a born-again Christian for a spell in the early 1980s, recording three Gospel-influenced albums. But 1983’s Infidels was a return to form for Dylan. As the liners to this set say, he hadn’t been this prolific with material for years and much of it was of high quality: the album included classics like “Jokerman” and “Sweetheart Like You,” but the sessions were rich with material. There’s five outtakes included on this set, including the bluesy Someone’s Got A Hold Of My Heart.


But the best one, and a track good enough to have been the best cut on Infidels is “Blind Willie McTell,” a haunting blues number which has some of Dylan’s best singing ever, even as he says nobody could sing the blues like Blind Willie could. It’s a shame this track only came out on this set: it’s easily one of his best songs.


That’s the irony of a set like this: these tracks are all essentially scrap material and most of it was never really considered for official release at the time. While some of these tracks are gems, some of the best stuff Dylan ever recorded (and he’s recorded a lot over the years) even these castoffs are still good listening: the demos and rough takes show his creative process, the outtakes how strong a songwriter he is and live material how good he is on-stage.


If you want an introduction to Dylan, there’s a few really good compilations out there (and the original albums don’t hurt either). But if you want an introduction to what makes people go out to swap meets, record fairs and listen to dubbed cassettes, The Bootleg Series: Volumes 1-3 is a great introduction.

Originally published July 7, 2012


From the Shelf: Broken Social Scene – Feel Good Lost

Broken Social Scene – Feel Good Lost (2001, Noise Factory / Arts & Crafts)

Back in the day, before there was an indie rock boom in Toronto – indeed, before there even was a thing called indie rock, really – there was Broken Social Scene. They’ve taken some flak over the years for everything they’ve become, spawned and influenced, but you gotta give it to Kevin Drew and Brandon Canning: the guys have stuck around and chased the muse for the better part of two decades now.


Anyway, back in the early part of the 2000s, there wasn’t really a Toronto scene for indie rock. I think. I was a lot younger then and truthfully didn’t start paying attention until a couple years later. But when Broken Social Scene released their first record, now-iconic Canadian acts like Stars, Fiest and Metric were still playing clubs and had yet to release full-length records.


It’s a world that, to be candid, I don’t remember this record coming out into or changing. At this point, Broken Social Scene was still a little ways away from becoming a generation-defining band, still kind of coming together and figuring out their approach. There wasn’t an Indie 88 or CBC Radio 3 back then to play this kind of music and I don’t remember any blogs or magazines championing this record; I didn’t hear of them until a couple of years later, when Much’s alt-rock show The Wedge started playing “Cause = Time” late at night.

At the same time, it makes this record interesting and compelling in ways later Broken Social Scene records aren’t. Here, mostly everything is instrumental. The music’s generally kind of slow-moving, meandering and exploratory. The duo of Drew and Canning occasionally work up some interesting riffs and passages, but it never sticks around long: the music is shifting, constantly moving around. This isn’t as formal as their next record – or any of their other records, really – would ever sound. Which is actually really cool, in retrospect: you can almost hear the band coming into it’s own, figuring out grooves and passages they’d build a reputation and scene on. But it isn’t quite there yet.


My favourite track here is “Love and Mathematics,” where the two play around a circular groove, anchored by some primo live drums. Guitars weave in and out, a bass guitar pushes the music forward and things swirl into a kaleidoscope of colour and sound, fuzz and distortion. I remember listening to this on repeat one time, using it to calm down from a panic attack.

There are other moments that have stuck with me since I first got this record well over a decade ago: the breathy vocal and slow drones of “Passport Radio”, the tricky guitar lines of “Alive in 85”, and the creaky, ancient-sounding guitar wobble of “Feel Good Lost,” which comes in sounding like an old 78 RPM record from another lifetime.


From here, it was a hop, skip and a jump to the explosive and still-exciting You Forgot It In People, a record that still gives me feelings and one I’ve made sure is always close at hand. There, the experimenting and jamming of Feel Good Lost has paid off: the songs are built around solid frames, additional players add tonal colours to the music and the lyrics added a sense of purpose to the band’s music. But you can still hear echoes of Feel Good Lost be it on instrumentals like “Pacific Theme” or “Shampoo Suicide,” the fractured alt-rock of “Cause = Time” or the hazy rock of ‘Stars and Sons.”


In one sense, Broken Social Scene never made another record quite Feel Good Lost, but in another, everything else can be traced back to it’s mix of fuzzy guitars, hazy post-rock and genuine sense of experimention. It’s not my favourite of theirs, but it’s one I pull out every now and then and I’m always glad I do.


Rating: 4/5




From the Shelf: Yokokimthurston – Yoko Ono, Kim Gordon & Thurston Moore

Yokokimthurston – Yoko Ono, Kim Gordon & Thurston Moore (Chimera., 2012)

A recurring feature where I pluck a record off my shelf and write about it, hoping eventually I’ll have a bank of writing for everything I own copies of!


It sounds like a fascinating meeting of the kinds on paper: Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore and Yoko Ono. All three have a rich history of making experimental, genre-pushing music, not to mention a distinct art sensibility. After all, before they turned to music, both Ono and Gordon were visual artists. The thing is, Yokokimthurston is an interesting listen and one that certainly pushes into the extremes, but it’s kind of a letdown at the same time.

Continue reading ‘From the Shelf: Yokokimthurston – Yoko Ono, Kim Gordon & Thurston Moore’


Mark on Music Classic: Frank Zappa’s Road Tapes, Vol. 1

It’s an exciting time for a Zappa fan. The long-awaited Roxy and Elsewhere movie is on its way; a soundtrack album is too. And, just a couple of weeks ago, The Zappa Family Estate released the second volume of their Road Trips series, capturing the 1973 band over three shows in Finland. It seems as good a time as any for me to re-run this Mark on Music post reviewing the first of the Road Tapes series, capturing the original Mothers of Invention in 1968.

When a band spends a lot of time of the road gigging, especially if they thrive on improvisation, their best music will inevitably be performed on the road, not on their albums. That’s just a fact: some bands were much better live than in the studio.

But not every group could afford to record every show: magnetic tape was expensive and some groups that recorded their shows didn’t always save the tapes: the Grateful Dead used to re-use theirs and Frank Zappa was known for splicing parts out he liked and recording over the rest.

Indeed, Zappa was often dismissive of his bands performances, even with his most talented groups. When he released a live album, it was usually heavily overdubbed in the studio: Roxy and Elsewhere had new vocals, Zappa in New York had new solos and Sheik Yerbouti has more or less re-recorded in the studio. They were nice listens, but not really representative of his live shows. Hence a large bootleg market.

Later, he released a series of live albums, free from overdubs, the six-volume, 12-CD You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series. But Zappa filled them with tape edits and splices: in the same song, Zappa would cut between performances recorded a decade apart. Some songs contained as many five different performances. They were a nice start, but hardly ideal.

It took years after Zappa’s death for full concerts to start making their way out of his vault. The first was FZ:OZ, a 1976 concert in Sydney, Australia. Later came Wazoo, a show from Boston in 1972 and Buffalo, originally recorded in 1980. A little over a year ago, the estate released Carnegie Hall.

The thing to keep in mind with those releases is their sonic quality: by and large, they were recorded under ideal circumstances: Buffalo on Zappa’s mobile studio, Wazoo by a professional mobile studio. Even Carnegie Hall, which comes from a mono recording, used recorded two, linked tape machines, meaning there wouldn’t by anything lost during a tape flip. These are all good sounding recordings, free from any large defects.

But what about everything else? Zappa used to play gigs all around the US, Canada and Europe. A bunch of these shows were by Zappa himself. After all, these guerrilla recordings (as he once called them) have briefly popped up on live albums. They don’t sound as good, but they have some of his best moments. And they’ve never appeared as a whole. Until now, anyway.

Road Tapes is a new series of concerts being released by the Zappa Estate through their Vaulternative label. They promise to capture what was “impossibly out there on the road in some of the worst audio terrain imaginable.” And the first volume is certainly out there: it’s a live recording of the original Mothers of Invention, live in Vancouver in August 1968.

The concert starts with Zappa talking to the audience and conducting them in the same way he’d conduct his band, through a series of yells, grunts and chants. Soon the band kicks into gear on Help, I’m A Rock, a cut from Zappa’s first album and one of his more experimental numbers. And this segues directly into Transylvania Boogie, a guitar-led number that’d only see release a couple of years later. Let’s recap: in the first 10 minutes of this gig, the band roared from one of the oldest and oddest numbers into full-on rock, barely missing a beat, as we’re treated the first of many guitar rockouts.

It’s more than that, though: Zappa taunts the crowd, asking “Ten dollars to any hippie who’ll cut his hair right here on stage tonight. Do we have any desperate hippies who wanna take it off?” and conducts the band through an Edgard Varese-esque improvisation, titled here as Flopsmash Musics. It’s a showcase for Don Preston and his early synthesizers, which  sound like a pissed-off electric piano.

After a quick run-through of Hungry Freaks, Daddy, Zappa pauses to tune his guitar and introduces the next tune, The Orange County Lumber Truck, as some familiar music plus “some other stuff you won’t recognize.” It’s a whole suite of music long familiar to long-time Zappa fans, consisting of four songs, stretched with some extended soloing from Zappa, Preston and some of the other Mothers, winding down with more fooling around: snorks and Bunk Gardner talking about childhood piano lessons.

This is the kind of thing that longtime fans are here to listen to: the band in full flight, playing it’s asses off and going straight into chaos onstage, with strange noises and talking over improvised music. It’s the sort of thing that couldn’t happen anywhere but on stage, spontaneously. If it was rehearsed and sanitized for a studio recording, it just wouldn’t work.

The second disc picks up right at the end of the first, as the band segues into another number from their first album, Trouble Every Day. And right away you can see why this tape wasn’t used before: there’s a big, ugly tape cut right in the middle of the song. It’s dubbed over with a door slamming (nice touch) and we come back right in the middle of a harmonica solo. It’s a flawed recording, but I’m glad they kept it in.

Next up is the oddly titled Shortly: Suite Exists Of Holiday In Berlin Full Blown, which isn’t really different from Holiday in Berlin as released on Burnt Weeny Sandwich. It’s another tune with a nice Zappa guitar solo, plus some nice playing by Underwood and Gardner, but it’s not quite as revelatory as one might expect. It already sounds fully formed.

From there, it’s two Zappa tunes that hadn’t seen release at this point: Pound for a Brown and Sleeping in a Jar (Uncle Meat wouldn’t come out until next spring, maybe a reason this gig was so heavy on Freak Out-era material). There’s a short guitar section in Pound, but it’s far from the monster solo launching pad it’d later mutate into. Both songs are actually somewhat restrained by Mother standards: no freeform playing, snorking or other zaniness.  Both are a nice reminder how talented this band was.

The zaniness comes up next, with Roy Estrada singing in falsetto on the cheesy doo-wop tune “Oh, In the Sky.” Sample lyrics: “Oh, in the sky / Oh, in the sky / In the sky.” This song closed off the concert, but Zappa brings the band back for an encore, playing an Edgard Varese composition, Octandre, telling the audience “we’re going to ruin it for you,” in typical sardonic fashion.

Of course, they don’t. Varese was a cornerstone of Zappa’s music, arguably the composer who influenced him more than any other. It’s a muscular, menacing-sounding piece. And it’s not all dissimilar from the bombastic intro section of the final song of the concert, King Kong. This song, one of Zappa’s signature songs, is little more than a vehicle for soloing and improvisation and exactly the kind of place where the Mothers flexed their collective muscle: a monster keyboard solo, wild saxophone playing and a thumping rhythm section. It’s performances like this that gave the Mothers their reputation.

So, is the album worth it? Content wise, there are two songs previously unreleased. And it’s a previously unknown recording: it’s never circulated as a bootleg or in the underground trading circles. It’s not often something this old comes out, sounding this good, that’s never seen the light of day before.

But a glance shows it’s not much different, content-wise, from earlier releases like Ahead of the Their Time (recorded just two months later in England) or the YCDTOSA series. Is it better than those albums, even if you already have them?

Surprisingly, yeah, it is. One wouldn’t really guess by listening, but Ahead of Their Time is full of small edits. Songs were moved around from their original order, a track has been omitted, and the rougher edges were smoothed out; there’s no tuning between songs, for instance.

This is part of the appeal of a series like Road Tapes: it’s a look at the full show, not just the parts Zappa thought sounded best. It’s not only as close as you’ll ever get to seeing this band on stage, but it’s full of the little things that make seeing any live act fun: the occasional dropped beat, the odd bum note. The band tuning while Zappa introduces a new song and an appreciative Zappa thanking a grateful audience.

The live albums released in Zappa’s lifetime showed what he wanted his music to sound like under ideal circumstances. There’s no problem with that. But with the new Road Tapes series, you can hear it like it actually happened. It’s essential for any Zappa fan.

Originally published Dec. 12, 2012 at