If we are to believe the story, Bob Dylan or someone close to him recently discovered a stash of his old lyrics, written during the time he was knocking them off at lightning speed, recorded the famous Basement Tapes in 1967. I express some skepticism about this convenient story, as it magically timed up with the release of the full Basement Tapes this month, and this isn't the most honest industry in the world. Bob Dylan's been telling tales since he showed up in New York too. He's always liked embellishing the whole Bob Dylan character, the one he considers another person.
That's minor griping. Even if these have been sitting around for decades, or don't even belong to the Basement Tapes period, it doesn't matter. These are fun, old-fashioned and plain-spoken, certainly in the spirit of the Basement Tapes words. Instead of recording these himself (which would have been cool too), he gave them over to producer T Bone Burnett, who assembled a group to write music and record them over a two week period. Funny, that sounds exactly like what happened with Dylan's idol, Woody Guthrie, and the old lyrics he had left behind. That project turned out very well indeed with Wilco and Billy Bragg doing the duties, so maybe Dylan liked the thought of that too.
The musicians assembled to write and perform were long-time Burnett buddy and Dylan appreciator Elvis Costello, plus a group of relative newcomers from the Americana field. There's Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Marcus Mumford from you-know-who, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. They worked either along or in small combos on the music, then backed each other up in the studio. Wisely, Burnett didn't try to recreate the lower-fidelity situation where Dylan and The Band worked. This wasn't about the interplay of incredible musicians working on the fly, but rather about the chance to bring to life twenty songs.
For the most part the songs have that Basement Tapes spirit though, celebrating the vintage American music, from 1850 to early rock, whatever worked. Instead of his beat poet wordplay, Dylan was using cliches and vernacular, such as "getting out while the getting's good", and making up stories based on phrases he liked. It's simple, he'd think about the Florida Keys for instance, and there would be a song called Florida Key. Or he'd take Cab Calloway's old chorus from Minnie The Moocher, and create a new song called Hidee Hidee Ho. Another is a fish tale, about the most dangerous one in the sea, the shark. In this case, he's writing about the Card Shark -- "get him on the nose!"
The music is certainly not Dylanesque, and that's fine as well, the performer has to bring something to the table. Costello handles the title cut, one of the best songs here, and brings a lovely gospel quality to it, but Dylan wouldn't have had so many nice notes in his melody. There probably would have been more blues as well. But there's not one song here that disappoints me, and quite a few that delight me. I don't know quite where to put this in the Dylan archives; I don't think you should look at it as a lost collection to place in his late 60's work. It's a novelty really, a very enjoyable one.