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Pop reviews — week of Sept. 1

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Another Self Portrait (1969-1971):
The Bootleg Series Vol. 10

Bob Dylan

In the latest entry of his ongoing vault-diving releases, Bob Dylan revisits one of his least-heralded albums. Self Portrait, released in 1970, is remembered less today for its music than the classic first line of a Rolling Stone magazine review by Greil Marcus that greeted it: “What is this [expletive]?”

It was hard not to see why. The cultural icon baffled his fans with a badly produced collection of minor compositions, some live cuts, covers of traditional folk and blues songs and even contemporary songs like The Boxer. Marcus, who writes the liner notes for this four-disc box set, wisely doesn’t step back from that assessment. He shouldn’t. Time doesn’t improve the work.

It seems amazing four decades later that an artist of Dylan’s caliber would take such a hands-off attitude toward his art, packing up his basic tracks and sending them to a Nashville producer who added some truly cringe-worthy arrangements. Maybe that was precisely the point.

Two discs are primarily Dylan’s original recordings with several outtakes, most with minimal arrangements. They’re almost uniformly better than what was on the original Self Portrait. There are a handful of interesting curios: a version of If Not for You with a haunting violin accompaniment, an unreleased studio session with George Harrison and a full band version of I Threw It All Away.

Disc three is a recording of the 1969 concert at the Isle of Wight festival, which interrupted a period of seclusion for Dylan. Hard to go wrong with a recording of Dylan performing with The Band, but the performance has a tentative, almost rushed feel to it.

Although the Self Portrait sessions seemed strange at the time, Dylan’s subsequent work gives it more context. Still performing regularly at 72, his concerts keep his formidable catalog alive along with an American blues, rock and folk tradition that predates him. These 1970 recordings make clear that even back then, Dylan was constantly inspired by it.

Marcus has another theory to explain Self Portrait, suggesting it was Dylan’s attempt to step away from people who worshipped him as a musical genius, a voice of his generation. “He was trying to quit, but no one would accept his resignation,” he wrote.

Fine. So why would anyone want to buy a four-disc resignation statement? Through the years, Dylan’s bootleg series has provided some real thrills and new perspectives. This one doesn’t. Only completists will find something interesting.

— David Bauder

Associated Press

The United States of Paranoia:
A Conspiracy Theory

Jesse Walker

Americans have always feared secret cabals.

In three successive decades in the mid-20th century, a “Brown Scare” swept through this country, followed by a “Red Scare,” and finally a “Lavender Scare,” Jesse Walker tells us in his bold and thought-provoking new book, The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory.

Americans heard so many stories that described Nazis, communists and homosexuals nefariously trying to take over our government, our minds and our bodies, they began to see them everywhere. In an earlier era, they feared murderous slaves and libidinous Native American kidnappers. And more recently, UFOs and satanic nursery schools.

“This is a book about America’s demons,” Walker writes. “Many of those demons are imaginary, but all of them have truths to tell us. A conspiracy story that catches on becomes a form of folklore. It says something true about the anxieties and experiences of the people who believe and repeat it …”

Walker wrote Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America and is an editor at Reason magazine. Giving the reader an “exhaustive” history of all conspiracy theories is not Walker’s mission. Instead, The United States of Paranoia is an oddly entertaining exploration of the roots of “paranoid” thinking across several centuries of American history.

— Hector Tobar

Los Angeles Times

Right Thoughts, Right Words,
Right Action

Franz Ferdinand

It’s been four years since Franz Ferdinand released an album, and a full eight since the Scottish dance-rock foursome, named after the Austrian archduke whose assassination triggered World War I, sounded as vigorous and as entertaining as they do on RT, RW, RA.

When last heard from, on 2009’s sluggish Tonight, torpor was setting in. But this time around, the band is clearly on again, making music for all the correct reasons. The guitars are razor-sharp, and locomoting tunes like Treason! Animals sport jagged grooves and lacerating self-criticism. “I’m in love with a narcissist,” Alex Kapranos sings as he gazes into a mirror of self-awareness.

Add a previously undiscovered knack for melody to go with the band’s trademark rhythmic flair, and this album amounts to a stylishly energetic comeback of the first order.

— Dan DeLuca

Philadelphia Inquirer


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