A Collection of New Vinyl Releases - December, 2008

Bob Dylan Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 • Columbia Records

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Vinyl Reviews Bob DylanWhat is there to say about Bob Dylan that hasn't been said already? His fans pore over his every word, dissect every couplet, and assign their own meaning to an artist that has made a career out of evading definition. Every release is studied and reported upon in chat rooms, barrooms, and living rooms. Where will we go for material when the Bard finally puts his pen down? To the vaults, of course! It's safe to assume that the man has more songs socked away in storage than most current artists will ever release over the course of their careers. He's like a museum with a sprawling permanent collection,and more works in storage that can be rotated into the exhibition whenever the feeling is right.

"Tell Tale Signs" is the eighth installation in Bob's official "Bootleg Series." It covers an era that had seen the man written off as a "has-been," then saw him return with an outpouring of songs that are every bit as vital and engaging as his earlier, more celebrated work as the "voice of a generation." The vinyl edition of the set has been given a treatment befitting his legend with four pristine, 180-gram records, and a 52-page album-sized book with pictures, extensive liner notes, and an essay by esteemed biographer Larry "Ratso" Sloman. All of this, in addition to the digital download coupon, is housed in a heavy box that could withstand a fall from the highest watchtower.

There is typically a reason that outtakes are edited out of the final release, and Dylan's are no different. "Someday Baby" is superfluous and boring compared to the swingin' take on "Modern Times." There are two versions each of "Mississippi" and "Dignity," and while these versions are not offensive, they are ultimately interesting sketches of finer finished products. Perhaps they could have been replaced with more live material like the incendiary "High Water (For Charley Patton)" which features Dylan's fire-hot tour band from 2003. Some of the stronger offerings on this set don't really fit the "bootleg" mold at all as they were previously released on soundtracks or another artist's albums (such as the sublime collaboration with Ralph Stanley on "Lonesome River"). But there are nuggets to be found and plenty to keep the listener's attention such as the dangerous "Dreamin' of You" which would later morph into at least two other songs,and the live "Cocaine Blues" from 1997 which was a holdover from Dylan's early days in Greenwich Village.

There's no way of knowing how much Dylan has left in the tank or how much longer he intends to work. I have personally held off on exploring some of his works so that I have something to look forward to in the future. But the "Bootleg Series" has produced gold in the past at every turn and there is no reason to expect anything less from future volumes. I saw Dylan cover "Brown Sugar" and "Old Man" in 2002 at Madison Square Garden. That show alone could comprise Volume Nine...

My Morning Jacket It Still Moves • ATO/RCA

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Vinyl Reviews My Morning JacketBy now, the proverbial cat is out of the bag with regards to My Morning Jacket and what they can do onstage as a live band. Their marathon shows are filled with high octane beats, blazing guitars, and lead singer Jim James's physical pyrotechnics. The man can play solos while he's spinning on his feet, sliding on his knees, or jumping on the drum riser. He got so into things at a show in Iowa recently that he fell off the stage and had to be rushed to the hospital via ambulance. Seriously! These guys will peel the paint off the walls and leave you wanting more even after a typical 28 song set. I had heard them compared to Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers before ever seeing them live and I just couldn't find the connection. To me, they sounded more like an alien space band than either of those two iconic jammers, but I came on the MMJ scene a little late and may still have some things to learn...

That's where the vinyl re-issues of their past catalog comes into play. I recently picked up "It Still Moves" (from 2003) on 180-gram double vinyl, and their influences are a little easier to discern than they would be with later releases such as "Z" (2005) or this year's stellar "Evil Urges." "It Still Moves" serves as a kind of blueprint for their future experiments and gives listeners a chance to at least guess at how the band would later turn into the monster that it has become. Many of the songs are still staples of their live sets, and I recognized them immediately from the shows that I've seen over the last couple of years. "Mahgeetah" and "Dancefloors" open the album, and the two songs together make for a prime example of this band's diversity. The former is a jangly sing-along while the latter is a guitar-driven rocker complete with horn section and Stones riffs. Both are executed to perfection and both songs stay with you long after you've put the record back in its gatefold sleeve. From there, they move seamlessly into the country-flavored "Golden," and that's only Side A. Other standout tracks include "One Big Holiday," and the dirge that is "Run Thru." Both songs are still fan favorites and have been used as set closers or encores on recent tours. If there's one knock on the album, it's that James's production skills are a little less developed than his other musical abilities and that the sound is a little uneven in places. The guitars can get a little buried in the mix at times, and the reliance on reverb for the vocals has been well documented elsewhere.

It's easy to look at "It Still Moves" as a pre-cursor to other works by a developing band that is headed towards true greatness. But that would be missing the point, really. The record would stand on its own merits even if they had never released another one. I honestly believe that My Morning Jacket is a band that will endure for many years on the strength of their creativity and work ethic as long as they avoid the two most obvious rock 'n roll pratfalls - needles and plane wrecks. Then, you'd really never hear the end of the Skynyrd comparisons.

Mudcrutch Live! • Reprise

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Vinyl Reviews MudcrutchWhen my cousin called me last March saying that she wanted to come to San Francisco to see Mudcrutch at the Fillmore, I was confused. I had never heard of the band and couldn't imagine anyone flying from Florida to California to see them. Such is the power of Tom Petty. I didn't realize at the time that Mudcrutch was Petty's high school band and that he had reunited the group for a quick run of California benefit shows. This promised to be interesting as Mudcrutch includes current Heartbreakers Benmont Tench (keyboards) and Mike Campbell (guitar / mandolin) in addition to original "Mudcrutchers," Tom Leadon (guitar) and Randall Marsh (drums). Petty was to play bass which was a novelty to me so I snapped up a pair of tickets the second they went on sale and eagerly awaited the show in April.

The band did not disappoint as they played some new Petty originals as well as some of Leadon's songs from the band's heyday. Throw in some tasty covers by the likes of Bob Dylan and the Byrds and you've got yourself a rock 'n roll show. No one would want such an historic occasion to go undocumented, so they recently released an EP of some recordings called, cleverly enough, "Extended Play Live." It's a quick little four-song set culled from the Ventura and Hollywood shows, and it's essential listening for any Petty fan. The recordings clearly capture the intimate feel of the smaller venues and the vinyl pressing is flawless. The record also comes with an audiophile "full dynamic range" CD version of the entire offering which may end up being a collector's item as the track listing is incorrect.

The performances are marvelously loose and fun - just like I remember the show. Petty's rollicking "The Wrong Thing To Do" kicks the set off with it's crunchy classic guitar riffs and swampy mid-song breakdown. "Bootleg Flyer" follows with it's lyrical celebration of smuggling an unidentified cargo via the friendly skies. (The mood is more amusing than dangerous as Mike Campbell makes this tune fly on his own.) Side One wraps up with a good time romp through Jerry Lee Lewis's "High School Confidential," and "Crystal River" makes up the second side entirely. This may be the most challenging track for die-hard Heartbreakers fans as it could just as easily be a Grateful Dead song complete with improvisational jamming and false ending before more jamming. I'm not kidding. It's a fifteen minute Tom Petty original...

As of right now, Mudcrutch has performed thirteen shows in the last thirty plus years. "Extended Play Live" is an excellent souvenir for those of us that caught one, & an admirable fill-in for those of us that didn't. Hopefully, Petty will get the urge to get the old band back together soon, and take this act out on the road for the extended tour that this band and its fans deserve.

Beck Modern Guilt • Interscope

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Vinyl Reviews BecThose of us who have been paying attention to such things know that Beck Hansen can try out musical styles like the rest of us try on clothes. He has released hippie patchworks ("Odelay") and velvet laments ("Sea Change"), gawdy pimp suits ("Midnight Vultures") and baggy low-riders ("Guero"). He never sits still long enough to be labeled and you can't pin him down for more than two songs at a time. His latest album, "Modern Guilt," is a collaboration with DJ Danger Mouse, and it is no easier to describe than anything else that he's offered us in the last fifteen years.

"Orphans" kicks the set off, and it is apparent from the first track that this is not a happy Beck. The song drives itself forward on a heavy bassline and I am reminded of a modernized "Heard It Through The Grapevine" type of paranoia. "Gamma Ray" lightens things up a bit before the album's standout track, "Chemtrails," brings us right back to the struggle. Beck is a slippery narrator as he sings a beautiful melody about a sea of drowning people. This juxtaposition makes the listener a bit uncomfortable as the images are not immediately apparent, but the tone is certainly dark. "Walls" is another danceable track with a less than sunny refrain, and "Soul of a Man" is a full-on rocker with distorted guitars and a hypnotic drum beat.

Any review of "Modern Guilt" would be incomplete without focusing somewhat on Danger Mouse's contributions. He has proven himself as one of the era's top producers through a variety of collaborations (Gnarls Barkley) and solo endeavors (his hit underground "mash-up" of the Beatles "White Album" and Jay-Z's "Black Album"). His production on the Beck record washes over you rather than jumping out at you while the layers and arrangements really lend themselves to the depth of sound on the vinyl release. His beats can be sparse or busy, but never distracting from Beck's melodies which leave you humming his tunes well after you've taken the record off the platter. Just be careful: you might find yourself humming along to a song about a chemical conspiracy or a Japanese girl jumping into a volcano.

Lucinda Williams Little Honey • Lost Highway Records

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Vinyl Reviews Lucinda WilliamsNo one makes sadness sound sweeter than Lucinda Williams. She seems to draw her greatest inspiration from break-ups, death,and life's general imperfection. But she's found a new muse on at least half of her latest offeringand we are living in a brighter world because of it. "Little Honey," begins with a false start before blasting off into a guitar-drenched celebration of a "Real Love" which she's finally found. She revisits drunken angels on the gospel-tinged "Hey Little Rock Star," rolls around in the overt sexual imagery of "Honey Bee," and cries "Jailhouse Tears" with Elvis Costello before finally settling into the slower, more familiar territory that her fans are accustomed to.

The first disc seems almost like a sequel to 1998's Grammy-winning "Car Wheels On A Gravel Road," while the second record gives us the arresting despair and despondency that we've come to expect of late. And it's delivered with the same gut-wrenching vocal style that has become Lucinda's hallmark. Her backing band, Buick 6, is in fine form and the production is gloriously simple. These songs don't require any fancy studio wizardryand her production team (which includes her fiance) let's her play loose and free.

Unfortunately, the packaging is equally as simple. The records are flimsy (not 180 gram) although the pressings are quite clean with few obvious flaws. They are presented in paper sleeves (one of the quickest ways to ruin a record), and they are both crammed into a single outer cover. The lack of a gatefold can be attributed to concern for the environment. The lack of a digital download coupon is inexcusable. It's become the industry standard, and it feels like gouging to have it omitted. I'm glad that things are looking up for Lucinda, and I'm happy to have her newest collection of songs to hear at home. I just wish I could take them with me when I leave without having to plunk down another $10.99 on iTunes. But as the lady herself says, "If wishes were horses, I'd have a ranch."