Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Brief Review of Jon Bream's Dylan: Disc By Disc

I'm just finishing Jon Bream's 2015 book about the first 36 studio albums of Dylan's career, a career whose influence pervades nearly aspect of modern culture, a culture that itself has been oscillating and ever shifting before our very eyes throughout the course of our lives. The book sets itself up as both a reference tool and orderly critique of the music of the Northland's native son.

The setup is this: each Dylan album, from his first to Shadows in the Night, is presented with a listing of the songs and several paragraphs of context. This is followed by a discussion between Jon Bream and various commentators, selected for their obvious knowledge about and appreciation for Dylan's music and career, Bream asking questions interview-style to two people with sometimes disparate points of view, more than 50 in all, each of them briefly introduced in the chapters and more elaborately in an appendix.

As I see it, this book can be a useful tool for people unfamiliar with Dylan's lesser known albums who wish to start collecting but don't know where to begin. The discussions help acquaint readers with many of the good tracks on these albums, but are also candid enough to shine a bit of light on which albums might not be suitable for first-time listeners. To this end Bream includes an Appendix 3 in which the albums are ranked, based on the opinions of our reviewers.

A partial overview of my Dylan library. 
It would be easy to say that the book could have been expanded, that there is not enough space in four pages per album to adequately cover his greatest albums. As I see it, that's not the aim of this book. Greil Marcus wrote a whole book on Like A Rolling Stone, and you can read Kevin Odegard's A Simple Twist Of Fate for the definitive review of Blood on the Tracks. In short, the book makes Dylan accessible without striving to be comprehensive. All writing involves setting down rules and Jon Bream's process made for an easy-to-follow summation of Dylan's studio history.

Here's an observation from one Amazon reviewer that I could relate to.

One (of the) the fascinating things about this book is the enjoyment mirrors the arc of Dylan's career. The setup, two people from different but knowledgeable backgrounds, commenting on the albums in chronological order from earliest to latest, works. And the first half of Dylan's albums recreate the incredible spark he brought with his genius. As he becomes, let's say nicely, less popular, the reviewers strain to point out the bright spots. It is amazing to have recounted all the songs he did that didn't have legs. But the masterpieces are fun to revisit. I really enjoyed this book.

Not only are the masterpieces fun to revisit, it's a heady experience to count how many truly great songs he produced over the years, right up through to Tempest, the last studio album of his own songs.

When it comes to ranking the albums I can't say I line up with the "experts" other than to note that their top five could safely be considered five of the top ten albums ever produced. Blonde On Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing It All Back Home, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan--in case you want to know. (The other five would include the Beatles Sgt. Pepper, The White Album... what else? Thriller?)

Local Dylan fans might be interested in learning that a number of the contributors have had connections to the Northland's Dylan festivals, including Paul Metsa. Eric Andersen, who put on a concert here last summer with Scarlet Rivera, is also featured, along with the Twin Cities' Kevin Odegard who weighs in on Tempest in addition the album he wrote about, Blood on the Tracks.

I see that I neglected to mention that for the Dylan fan there are a pallet-load of photos throughout, more than enough new and original snaps to satisfy. My only criticism has to do with the marbled paper effect which occasionally makes reading a challenge in low-light conditions.

About the Author: Jon Bream has been a journalist covering the music scene for the Minneapolis Star Tribune since 1974. Here's where you can find Mr. Bream's book on Amazon. He's also written about Hendrix, Neil Diamond, Prince and other notables, most notably Led Zeppelin.

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For what it's worth, Duluth Dylan Fest is three weeks out now. It might be a good time to purchase tickets for the various events that require them, from the Hibbing Bus Tour to the Blood on the Tracks Express, and our kickoff event featuring Robbie Vee and his Rock & Roll Caravan.

This year, our Bob Dylan Birthday Party will begin with a Poets of the North Country event from 6:30 to 8:30 PM at the Spirit of the North Theater at Fitger’s, a suitable tribute for the Nobel Laureate. This will be followed by The Basement Tapes Band from 9:00 to 11:00 PM at The Rex Bar at Fitger’s. Tickets for The Basement Tapes Band can be found here on Eventbrite.

Find the full week's schedule here on Facebook.

It's all good. Will we see you there?

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