It’s easy sometimes to forget the shear amount of works which Bob Dylan has put out. The classic Dylan albums are inherently inseparable from folk music as a whole: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde, Nashville Skyline, and the list goes on; but what about the other 30 studio albums? And even more specifically, what about the music he’s put out in the past 20 years? Tell Tale Signs encompasses live recordings, demos and other unreleased recordings from the past 2 decades, almost all of which have never been heard before.
Often times, when hearing about these “bootleg” or “rarities” collections, it can be assumed that only die-hard fans will enjoy them. Too often, these albums are laden with leftovers from previous recording sessions which were either too odd to get on the original album or just not good enough in general. If this is the case with Tell Tale Signs, it certainly doesn’t show.
In songs like “Mississippi” and “Dignity,” we hear very different versions from what were originally on their individual albums. In “Dignity,” Dylan cleverly uses the poetic device of personification, allowing him to have a “conversation” with the title subject. At the same time, the song demonstrates that Dylan, contrary to popular belief, has retained a great range and surprisingly nimble voice. In “Mississippi,” we hear a heart-broken Dylan accompanied by snappy dueling guitars. Later in the album, we hear Dylan dabbling in bluegrass in “The Lonesome River,” a duet with Ralph Stanley.
It’s impossible to call any Dylan album ‘definitive’, but this collection truly shows how diverse an artist he can be and continues to be up to this very day.
Sometimes it’s easy to dismiss newer groups in old-timey music as some kind of ‘carpet-baggers.’ So, who would think that a legitimate folk/bluegrass group could have emerged from Ithaca, New York in the late 1990’s amongst 5 young men with minimal experience? A few people really did believe in them including Doc Watson who asked for them to play at MerleFest in 2000 and Marty Stuart who wanted them to headline at the Grand Ole Opry. If their fan-base of bluegrass and country greats isn’t enough to let you know that they are legitimate, I encourage you to listen for yourself.
Compared to Old Crow Medicine Show’s previous recordings, Tennessee Pusher adventures into a new lyrical depth and demonstrates that the band has grown more mature musically. The band is not afraid to get serious with subject matters ranging from substance abuse as in “Alabama High-Test” and “Methamphetamine” to the life of Martin Luther King Jr. in “Motel in Memphis.” Still yet, Old Crow Medicine Show can still speed up the tempo in barn burners like “Mary’s Kitchen” and “Humdinger.” Old Crow even revives a song from the forgotten Virginia folk hero Blind Alfred Reed in “Lift Him Up.” Even though the song is a half century old, the message about helping the less fortunate may be even more important today.
Don’t feel out of the loop if you’ve never heard of Chumbawamba. While the band has been around for over 25 years, their extensive catalogue has largely sunk into obscurity with the exception of their only major label release, Tubthumper in 1997 and its first single “Tubthumping.” Originally a major part of the anarchist punk movement in England, Chumbawamba has certainly explored other styles. However, their lyrical content is still as abrasive and unapologetic as ever.
Chumbawamba doesn’t discuss politics as directly as they have been known to in the past. Instead, they tend to tell the stories of those who history has forgotten. In “El Fusilado,” they tell the story of Wenseslao Moguel who was shot 10 times during the Mexican Revolution, but survived his wounds. In “Charlie,” they adopt a traditional tune to sing about Charles Darwin. And in typical Chumbawamba fashion, they describe the hardships of work with Guthrie-esque tact with songs like “Compliments of Your Waitress” and “Bury Me Deep.”
Many times, groups are criticized by their fans for evolving their styles over time. Chumbawamba has certainly changed their sound, but have never done so against their will. For 25 years, it’s apparent that Chumbawamba has been playing the music that they enjoy and is important to them. Undoubtedly, as long as there’s still hardship or injustice to be sung about, Chumbawamba will be there. Along with their socially conscious lyrics, their careful harmonies and stripped-down acoustic instrumentation have made them a surprisingly fitting addition to the Folk Alley library.
Charlie Haden is certainly not known as a folk musician. With almost 50 years of experience, Haden is renowned as one of the most prevalent jazz bassists in the world, playing along with artists ranging from Art Pepper to Ornette Coleman to the Liberation Music Orchestra. He’s also played with John Lennon. But in Rambling Boy, Haden teams up with his immediate family and a host of folk and bluegrass friends to create a 19-song tribute to the traditional music of his youth. Haden’s parents and older siblings were the stars on early country radio programs across the Midwest and the south.
Haden, while renowned for his free-form jazz abilities sticks to the basics in his playing and doesn’t mess with the traditional formula of these songs. The songs are well known and it was obviously a joy for him to play and sing with his wife, son, and three daughters. The only real surprise on this album comes in the form of a wide array of guest appearances. Elvis Costello sings a Hank Williams song. Rosanne Cash sings “Wildwood Flower.” Even Jack Black (who is Haden’s son-in-law) sings along to “Old Joe Clark” accompanied by Stuart Duncan’s fiddle, Sam Bush’s mandolin, Bela Fleck’s banjo and Jerry Douglas’ Dobro.
While this album may not appeal to fans of Haden’s jazz works, it is easy to appreciate the fact that he was performing music that he really wanted to play. And let’s face it – it’s refreshing to hear new recordings of these traditional songs.