I just ran back to my college dorm room with TELL TALE SIGNS: RARE AND UNRELEASED 1989 - 2006 in my hands and threw it on the stereo. I’m not going to sit here and complain about the price of the three disc set, because I’m a college student who is lucky he could free up enough money to buy the basic version, never mind the over-priced 3 disc version that just comes with a fancy book. I would love to get it, but unfortunately, I can’t.
So here’s a lengthy track-by-track analysis/review of the basic 2 disc version.
The set kicks off with the first of two versions of Mississippi. The song ended up on “Love & Theft”, as a wonderful, straight-up blues tune that proved to be one of the many highlights of his 2001 LP. This version, recorded during the Time Out Of Mind sessions features just Dylan on acoustic guitar and Daniel Lanois on electric. It feels like a simple in-studio demo and certainly not fully fleshed out.
The version of Most Of The Time is scary – as in scary good. Although I personally like Lanois’s productions on both Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind, this track proves that many of his techniques can get in the way. Listening to this version, it makes you wonder why Dylan would have ever wanted it any other way, but I guess he did. If there is one complaint about it, it might be that he seems to be rushing the lyrics.
Next is a short piano demo of Dignity, recorded during Oh Mercy, but not released until 1994’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 3. The version from that compilation is a lively, upbeat track (at least musically) that was remixed by Brendan O’Brian. Personally, after hearing this bit (it lasts just two minutes) I’m glad Dylan went with such a big band on that great track.
The alternate Someday Baby, one of my favorite track’s from Modern Times, turns the song into a march. The only thing similar to the album track is Dylan’s lyrics. I love the guitar riff on this version. It’s great.
Red River Shore, from the Time Out Of Mind sessions, follows. I don’t get it. How does something like this get deleted? Time Out Of Mind is filled to the brim with good songs, but how does this get knocked off and get to sit in a vault for eleven years? The track truly feels like you are crossing the Red River, as the instrumentation sitting behind Dylan seems to keep pushing him further and further. As the song moves on more and more instruments come out of the woodwork, including an accordion!
Next is Tell Ol’ Bill, a track from the North Country soundtrack. It’s got a groovy little feeling to it, almost like a stomping, rollicking track along the railroad. George Recile’s drumming on it is the highlight for me.
A drastically different version of Born In Time is next. The song would land on the Don and David Was-produced Under The Red Sky and prove to be practically the only highlight, aside from the title track and maybe “Wiggle Wiggle”, of that album. Was produced a simpler version of the song, that, I have to admit, I kind of like a little bit better.
Can’t Wait, squeezed between “Born In Time” and another Oh Mercy take, starts with Bob wandering “What would happen if we did this in B flat?” The track really moves at a crawl, which, considering how slow the album version is, makes it really slow.
The last Oh Mercy outtake on disc one, a take of Everything Is Broken follows. This version is absolutely hilarious, with some great alternate lyrics and a more percussion. Overall, though, it has much of the same feeling as the album take.
Dreamin’ Of You, which has been distributed for free for months on Dylan’s website, is just. Freaking. Awesome. Nothing on Time Out Of Mind feels like this track, so it makes sense why it didn’t make the final cut. I just love it. Hopefully Bob gets some radio play out of this, because every part of it, from the marching drums to the rocking guitar, is great.
Next is Huck’s Tune from the box office bomb Lucky You. The track, based on an old traditional tune, is highlighted by a great steel guitar part.
Starting with some rough piano playing, Marchin’ To The City, yet another Time Out Of Mind cast-off, comes onto the stereo. It sounds like it could be a cover of an ancient gospel song, but it’s not. It’s just another great Dylan original that supposedly laid the framework to “’Til I Fell In Love With You”, although the resemblance is tough to point out.
Following Dylan’s “I don’t know” is a live recording of “Love And Theft”’s High Water (For Charlie Patton). All the instrumentation that made the album version cool and unique is gone and the song is transformed into a concert romp, filled with thumping drums and smokin’ hot guitar riffs.
The second disc kicks off with another version of Mississippi. This one features the full Time Out Of Mind band. Dylan sounds like he’s half-asleep. I definitely prefer the first version, but the “Love And Theft” version still trumps them both.
A World Gone Wrong outtake, 32-20 Blues follows. This is a nice track, in vein with all the other traditional material on that wonderfully underrated album.
Versions of Series Of Dreams and God Knows, both songs recorded during the Oh Mercy sessions but not on that LP, follow. Now, I don’t have the Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3 yet (and I know I should), so I really can’t judge “Series Of Dreams” against that version, but it’s still a really cool song and listening to this version really makes me want to hear the Vol. 1-3 version. I love the drum/percussion effect. “God Knows” is the other Oh Mercy reject that was re-recorded for Under The Red Sky. This version’s pretty rocking. I didn’t really care for the song in the first place and this really doesn’t change my opinion! I mean, of course, I can’t write a song, so how can I criticize the greatest songwriter ever?
Can’t Escape From You was written for a movie that was apparently never made. Bob appears to really like to jump on writing quick one-off songs for movies. Anyway, this is kind of a pedestrian track, at least when comparing it to the songs that surround it. Dylan’s vocal is pretty weird, but there are a few really nice lines.
Next is an odd version of Dignity. It’s like the O’Brian version, with a full band, but instead of playing all electric instruments, all the guitars are acoustic! The only electric instrument on it is the bass guitar. It’s pretty cool and I got to say, I like it more that the O’Brian version.
The parade of Oh Mercy related tracks concludes with a live version of Ring Them Bells, one of my least-favorite songs from that album, follows. I guess I just thought it was kind of slow and I didn’t really like his vocals. This version, though, is a little bit more ‘lively’ and it certainly helps you realize how great those lyrics are. The cool thing is the audience really getting into it. It must have been a great night at The Supper Club!
Three of the remaining tracks are live versions. The first is Cocaine Blues, a mostly acoustic traditional song. It’s a painful track as Dylan gives it a heartbreaking reading. There’s a wonderful slide guitar riff that floats around the song.
Ain’t Talkin’ follows “Cocaine Blues”. This alternate take of the closing number on Modern Times is much shorter by almost three minutes. Musically, it’s very similar, but it appears that the main difference is Dylan’s lyrics, which he probably was still tinkering with. I love the guitar on this track, by the way.
The Girl On The Greenbriar Shore was recorded at a concert in France, where they probably had little idea what the hell he was singing. There are some cheers once Dylan goes into this acoustic traditional track, but I’m not really sure if that’s because they recognized it or they were just happy to see Dylan. I’m guessing the latter. Great performance here, though.
The last live track is a version of “Love And Theft”’s Lonesome Day Blues. Funnily enough, it feels just like the album track, with little to no variances, although the band does sound like they veer off, breaking the song into a jam session.
Miss The Mississippi, another traditional track, comes from the fabled 1992 sessions with David Bromberg that were scrapped. Dylan recouped from the sessions, and recorded Good As I Been To You all by himself, stripping away the idea of any backing band. The song is a really beautiful track and a lovely piece of work. Of course, it makes me want more from these sessions, if there’s any more that is releasable.
Next is a track with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley (who I had never heard of before this…now I’m embarrassed) called The Lonesome River Blues. Stanley is pretty much held to the choruses, but their voices mix so well together, you’re going to wish Stanley had a more prominent role. (But then it wouldn’t be on a Dylan compilation, would it?)
The final track is an oppressively long song (but then again, an eight minute song is nothing for Dylan) called ‘Cross The Green River, written for Gods And Generals. It’s a heart wrenching Civil War song with beautiful instrumentation and certainly a great way to end the set.
The packaging is wonderful. The book is filled with some nice pictures of Bob from over the past seventeen years. Larry Sloman’s essay is interesting, but not very good. He leans too much on quotes from Dylan, something that my journalism professors tell me not to do so much of.
Overall, I would say this definitely is a necessity for Dylan fans. There’s some great material. My one issue is, though, its dependence on Oh Mercy outtakes. I would love to have heard more from the “Love And Theft” and Modern Times sessions. I am kind of undecided though about the live recordings being mixed with studio takes.
Also, there’s the title. I guess it’s cool that they came up with a title, sort of to give you the idea that it is actually an album. If Sony wanted us to get that feeling, they would have dropped the live cuts (and made the three CD set cheaper). I like the title, but you know…I still would have bought it without one.