Saturday, October 06, 2007

Music Review: Bob Dylan - Dylan (Three-CD Compilation)

I’ll be completely honest here: there is absolutely no reason for another Bob Dylan “best of” compilation. Except, of course, for the obvious financial reasons: such packages cost next to nothing for Columbia to produce, there is a considerable segment of Dylan “completists” who will buy every release of Dylan material no matter how many times it has already been repackaged and recycled, and maybe, just maybe, a few new listeners will discover Dylan for the first time. Of course, this last group primarily consists of approximately four people in the United States and a remote band of primitive hunters living in the Andes Mountains who have never heard of Bob Dylan, but no matter. Nearly 120 years after his debut album, Dylan remains one of Columbia’s major cash cows.

The latest Dylan compilation is creatively titled Dylan (and no, it’s not a reissue of that infamous self-sabotaging album released decades ago). The obvious knee-jerk reaction to any such collection is to dismiss it as an easy cash grab, a cynical way for the music label to feast on the musician’s core fan base and their compulsion to either “support the artist” or to own the musician’s complete catalog. In an era where album sales continue to decline and music packages as artifacts are becoming, at best, part of a small niche market, such releases often come across as thoughtless, hasty, and low-cost ways for the record labels to combat these factors, at the expense of the artist’s loyal/dedicated/psychotic/deranged fans. Unfortunately, Dylan fits this bill.

To be fair, this compilation does have some qualities that might justify it as a purchase for those who get all hot and bothered by album packaging, those who are either unfamiliar with Dylan’s work, or those who only own the “classic” Dylan albums, like Blonde On Blonde, Blood On the Tracks, and, um, Empire Burlesque. For example, the deluxe “limited edition” version (in this case, “limited” means “limited to the number of copies Columbia can sell”) has attractive packaging, including a red cloth-covered box, CDs designed like vinyl albums, a nice booklet with decent liner notes and photos, and several postcards. However, it should also be noted that many of the photos seem vaguely familiar to those included in other Dylan compilations and books. And while this packaging is quite good, it is sometimes eerily reminiscent of Scorpio’s glorious Genuine Live 1966 box set. Nothing more than a coincidence I’m sure; Columbia would never “borrow” ideas from scumbag bootleggers. Right?

To Columbia’s credit, the prices set for this release are fairly reasonable; the deluxe version can be had for under $40 (for those without connections, advance copies for review on blog sites require a fair amount of begging, pleading, and soul-selling at a to-remain-nameless retail outlet). In addition, Columbia is also offering a single-disc version at a substantially lower cost. For those who only want to date occasionally for amusement, I suppose.

This is where praise for this compilation ends; the shortcomings and faults are significant and ultimately make this release an overall disappointment and a non-essential release. The first and most obvious drawback is that the majority of these songs have already been made available on previous Dylan greatest hits packages. Sure, many of Dylan’s best songs are represented here (but for chrissakes, why does the god-awful “Silvio” constantly show up on these Dylan compilations, and where is “Visions of Johanna?”), but many of these have been represented on Dylan compilations since Biograph. We can all bow and genuflect and put these songs on the cultural and historical pedestal where they belong, but at the end of the day, “Like a Rolling Stone” sounds the same no matter how many times it’s reissued and repackaged.

The second problem with this release is that some of the song choices are odd at best. Certainly, it is difficult to include all of Dylan’s best songs over three discs. The man has been recording music since William Howard Taft was president, so some omissions are probably unavoidable. Nevertheless, it’s hard to understand why some of the more slight/throwaway songs were included, including the previously-mentioned and loathed “Silvio,” “All I Really Want To Do,” “On a Night Like This,” and my personal least favorite Dylan song included in this compilation, “Everything Is Broken” (which in my vision of Hell is endlessly played on repeat). The remaining songs are all solid choices, though Columbia missed an opportunity to include some of Dylan’s overlooked or more challenging tunes (“Desolation Row” is just one example).

The final and biggest flaw with this release is that all three discs contain nothing but previously-released material. This is why Dylan fans who have been held by their ankles and had their pants pockets turned inside out by Columbia time and time again can rightly piss and moan about Dylan. In addition, the argument that this release is best for new Dylan fans also seems specious at best; most of the songs included can easily be found on other still-in-print compilations, at a similar or lower price.

With the massive amount of quality unreleased Dylan material that currently only circulates among the dedicated hoard of Dylan collectors and traders, it is difficult to make a rational argument that justifies another Dylan compilation such as this one. Although Columbia has in recent years improved in documenting and releasing archival Dylan material through its Bootleg Series release, there remains a staggering discrepancy between such releases and the color-by-numbers Dylan compilations that are still in print. Hardcore Dylan fans are by and large a collective hungry beast; they devour Dylan material like vultures to a rotting carcass. There have been enough Dylan compilations; now is as good a time as any for Columbia to focus on Dylan material that isn’t already officially available.

Both hardcore Dylanphiles and casual Dylan fans will likely already have these songs in their music collections. Fancy packaging and pretty pictures aside, it’s hard to recommend Dylan for purchase, despite the reasonable price tag. With so much unreleased Dylan material still locked in the vaults or only available via non-official routes, another easy compilation of previously-released material comes across as nothing more than a quick cash grab.

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