July 10, 2010

Playlist Week of 7-10-10

* Marais: Suite d’un Goût Etranger (Hesperion XXI/Savall) (Alia Vox 2SACD)
* Geminiani: Cello Sonatas, Op.5 (ter Linden/Mortensen) (Brilliant Classics)
* Vivaldi: Cello Sonatas (ter Linden/Mortensen) (Brilliant Classics 2CD)
* J.S. Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (Holloway) (ECM 2CD)
* Berio: Corale, etc. (Ensemble Intercontemporain/Boulez) (Sony Classical CD)
* Henry Threadgill’s Zooid: Jazz Gallery, New York, NY 2-11-10 (AUD 2CDR)
* Henry Threadgill’s Zooid: Jazz Gallery, New York, NY 2-12-10 (AUD 2CDR)
* Henry Threadgill’s Zooid: Jazz Gallery, New York, NY 2-13-10 (AUD 2CDR)
* Matthew Shipp: 4D (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Kip Hanrahan: Tenderness (American Clave CD)
* Bill Laswell: Imaginary Cuba (Wicklow CD)
* Lee “Scratch” Perry: Apeology (Trojan 2CD)
* Bob Dylan: The Basement Tapes (Columbia 2 LP)
* Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash: The Dylan/Cash Sessions (fan/boot CDR)
* Bob Dylan: Self Portrait (Columbia 2LP)
* Bob Dylan: Dylan (Columbia LP)
* Bob Dylan: New Morning (Columbia CD)
* George Harrison: Cloud 9 (Dark Horse/Capitol CD)
* The Mothers of Invention: Over-Nite Sensation (Discreet/Warner Bros. LP)
* Grateful Dead: Felt Forum, New York, NY 12-6-71 (d.1) (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Winterland June 1977: The Complete Recordings (bonus) (GD/Rhino 9+1CD)
* Grateful Dead: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 9-14-91 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 9-16-91 (SBD 3CDR)
* King Crimson: The Great Deceiver (Live 1973-1974) (d.2) (DGM 4CD)
* Chicago: V (Columbia LP)
* ELO: ELO’s Greatest Hits (Jet/CBS LP)
* ELO/Olivia Newton John: Xanadu (MCA LP)
* The Soft Boys: Underwater Moonlight (and How It Got There) (Matador 3LP+7”)
* ABC: Beauty Stab (Mercury LP)
* Prefab Sprout: Two Wheels Good (Epic LP)
* X: “4th of July”/”Positively 4th Street” (Elektra 7”)
* BR5-49: Bonus Beats (Arista promo-only CDEP)
* The Orb: Orbvs Terrararvum (Island CD)
* Robert Pollard: We All Got Out of the Army (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Robert Pollard: Moses on a Snail (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Circus Devils: The Harold Pig Memorial (Fading Captain LP)
* Circus Devils: Pinball Mars (Fading Captain LP)
* Circus Devils: Five (Fading Captain LP)
* Circus Devils: Sgt. Disco (Happy Jack Rock Records 2LP)
* Gastr del Sol: Mirror Repair (Drag City CDEP)
* Animal Collective: Feels (Fat Cat CD)
* Animal Collective: “People” (Fat Cat CDEP)
* Animal Collective w/Vashti Bunyan: Prospect Hummer (Fat Cat CDEP)
* Animal Collective: Strawberry Jam (Domino CD)
* Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino CD)
* Animal Collective: Fall Be Kind (Domino CDEP)


Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait is widely considered a horrible record and, by some, one of the very worst albums ever made. When it was released in June, 1970, Greil Marcus began his review in Rolling Stone with the obvious question: “What is this shit?” Indeed the opening track is utterly ridiculous, with its incongruous choir of girls chirpily intoning: “All the tired horses in the sun; how’m I supposed to get any writing done?” -- over and over and over, indicating that Dylan’s muse had clearly abandoned him. After a string of unequivocally brilliant and era-defining albums from Freewheelin’ through John Wesley Harding (and even the recently released and seemingly tossed-off Nashville Skyline), Self-Portrait pissed a lot of people off.

Dylan’s motivation in making (much less releasing) Self Portrait has remained inscrutable, with the bard himself offering a series of conflicting rationales. Initially, he insisted on the sincerity of the album’s title and professed a genuine affection for the repertoire of MOR covers presented on this album (which sit rather uncomfortably with a handful of originals and a smattering of live tracks). Years later, perhaps in response to the vicious critical savaging the album received in the media, he dismissed the record as a deliberate attempt to destroy his messianic public persona and escape the prison of celebrity. He disingenuously hoped to accomplish this by drastically lowering the expectations of his most rabid fans. As he told Rolling Stone in 1984:

I said, “Well fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to. They’ll see it, and they’ll listen, and they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s get on to the next person. He ain’t sayin’ it no more. He ain’t givin’ us what we want,’ you know? They’ll go on to someone else.” But the whole idea backfired. Because the album went out there, and the people said, ‘This ain’t what we want,’ and they got more resentful. And then I did this portrait for the cover. I mean, there was no title for that album. I knew somebody who had some paints and a square canvas, and I did the cover up in about five minutes. And I said, “Well, I’m gonna call this album Self Portrait.”

Then again, Dylan told writer Cameron Crowe in 1985 that the album was a response to the rampant bootlegging of his music he was experiencing at the time:

Self Portrait was a bunch of tracks that we’d done all the time I’d gone to Nashville. We did that stuff to get a studio sound. To open up we’d do two or three songs, just to get things right and then we’d go on and do what we were going to do. And then there was a lot of other stuff that was on the shelf. But I was being bootlegged at the time and a lot of stuff that was worse was appearing on bootleg records. So I figured I’d put all this stuff together and put it out, my own bootleg record so to speak. You know, if it actually had been a bootleg record, people probably would have sneaked around to buy it and played it for each other secretly.
Ultimately, Dylan disavowed the album, but forty years later, the record holds up a lot better than you might have been led to believe. And, despite Dylan’s protestations to the contrary, Clinton Heylin’s examination of the session documentation reveals that Self Portrait was, at least initially, an earnest attempt to make a “real” album, preliminarily entitled, Nashville Skyline, Vol.2. Dylan was quite enamored with Nashville, ever since recording Blonde on Blonde there in 1966. By the spring of 1969, he was actively looking at property in the Nashville area, wanting to escape the increasing chaos surrounding his then home in Woodstock, New York. While Dylan was spending most of his time checking out the local real estate, producer Bob Johnston booked three sessions at Columbia Records’ Music Row Studios on April 24, 26 and May 3. Surrounded by the cream of Music City’s session-men, Bob crooned his way a la Elvis through a bunch of hoary chestnuts including “Let It Be Me”, “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know”, “Take Me as I Am (Or Let Me Go)” and “Blue Moon” along with a slight original entitled “Living the Blues.” Dylan’s voice still evinces that Nashville Skyline-style smoothness and he sounds relaxed and the band sounds like they’re having fun. It’s not serious, but it’s still sincere.

Ultimately, Dylan decided not to move his family to Nashville and instead bought a house “sight unseen” on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village near where he’d come up as a folksinger in the early sixties. He later admitted to Rolling Stone (1984) that this was a big mistake: “Lookin’ back, it was a stupid thing to do…The Woodstock Nation had taken over MacDougal Street also. There would be crowds outside my house.” Um, what did he expect? Consequently, it is interesting to speculate what might have happened if Dylan had instead relocated to Tennessee in 1970. It’s possible he could have found the privacy and peace of mind he seemed to crave. In any event, he didn’t return to a recording studio until almost a year later -- this time Columbia’s Studio A in New York and in the company of old cohorts, Al Kooper, Dave Bromberg and Ron Cornelius. At this point, things took a turn for the weird, including a bizarre version of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” wherein Dylan duets with himself: one track the clean-cut Nashville Skyline voice and the other in the shouty, nasal whine that would define his seventies singing. Other songs are subjected to later overdubs by the Nashville rhythm section of Charlie McCoy and Kenneth Buttrey (and occasionally swooning strings and superfluous backup singers), apparently in an effort to return to the album’s countrypolitan roots. But the effect already feels a little bit forced and not altogether convincing. Even so, it all comes together on “Copper Kettle”, an ode to moonshine and tax resistance penned by Alfred Frank Bledoe in the nineteen-forties. The lush (and not a little bit cheesy) arrangement frames one of the most subtle and affecting vocal performances of Dylan’s career.

What really makes Self Portrait such a schizophrenic listen is the addition of three live recordings from the Isle of Wight Festival on August 31, 1969. Not that they’re bad performances, it’s just that hearing a relatively desultory delivery of “Like a Rolling Stone” within this context undermines the album’s very purpose (such as it is) and diminishes Dylan’s aspiration to somehow reinvent himself. As Heylin observes:

If it had been Dylan’s intention to put together a pleasant single album of country/folk standards, a handful of the New York recordings could have been slotted in with the best of the spring ’69 material. It was his decision to integrate cuts from his Isle of Wight appearance (scrapping the planned Isle of Wight album) and to persevere with the covers process that ultimately condemned Self Portrait to its brutal reception on release.
More material from this period later appeared on Columbia’s so-called “revenge” album, imaginatively titled, Dylan, which was released in retaliation for his (briefly) signing with David Geffen’s newly-formed Asylum Records in 1973. This album is generally considered to be even worse than Self Portrait (if such a thing is possible), given the fact that Dylan had less than nothing to do with its compilation. Nevertheless, there are some interesting performances here, including covers of two of Elvis Presley’s signature tunes, “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, and “A Fool Such as I”, along with Jerry Jeff Walker’s hit single, “Mr. Bojangles” and Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” Sure, it’s all pretty ludicrous, but honestly, Dylan has made worse albums since then.

Whether intentional or not, Self Portrait was more revealing than it at first appeared. Like The Basement Tapes, it provides a disconcerting but necessary step in Bob Dylan’s mercurial evolution during the late sixties and early seventies. In a very real sense he succeeded in destroying the mythical Bob Dylan by releasing a bunch of “bad” albums. But at the same time, he succeeded in liberating himself from the unwanted role of “spokesperson of a generation.” This enabled him to survive the ensuing decades and now at almost seventy years old, Dylan continues to make good-to-great records and tour the world as an indefatigable troubadour. This would not have been possible without the supposed disappointment of Self Portrait. So, for this, it should be duly appreciated.


Sam said...

I enjoyed your take on this album. I've never heard it, and have only been mildly curious. What you don't address, however, is how it stacks up to "Xanadu"! Come on, now!

Here's my (short) list for this week--didn't do much listening at the beach!

Playlist 2010-07-12

*Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion
*Beach Boys: Good Vibrations box set, disc 3
*Beatles: Something New, Something New (Capitol CD)
*Beatles: Beatles '65 (Capitol CD)
*Beatles: Beatles For Sale (2009 mono remaster)
*Sam Cooke: greatest hits CD compilation
*Elvis Costello: This Year's Model
*Elvis Costello: Armed Forces
*Elvis Costello: Get Happy
*Grateful Dead: 1972-05-04 Paris (CDR) selections
*Grateful Dead: 1972-05-18 Munich (CDR) "Dark Star"
*High Llamas: Snowbug
*George Jones: Cup of Loneliness, disc 2
*Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin III
*White Stripes: De Stijl
*XTC: Transistor Blast, disc 3

Reading log 2010-07-05

*Theobald, Lewis. Double Falsehood (Arden Shakespeare ed.) (started)
*Prose, Francine. Blue Angel (started/finished)
*Parker, T. Jefferson. Iron River (started/finished)
*Morgan, Richard K. Thirteen (finished)
*Heatley, David. My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (in progress)
*Larson, Gary. The Complete Far Side (in progress)
*Musil, Robert. Man Without Qualities (in progress)
*Palmer, Robert. Blues and Chaos (in progress)

Rodger Coleman said...

As we played Lizzy's copy of "Xanadu," I remarked that you were sure to find that particular piece of cheese on my list. It's actually not a bad album! What can I say? I like cheese sometimes!

Jon said...

Excellent piece - just heard Self Portrait in an abridged version, having avoided it all my life (and I've been a Dylan fan for a quarter century). It's damn fine.