Having experienced something of a critical renaissance, the eighth volume in Bob’s Bootleg Series took a more recent look back. While not arranged even remotely chronologically, Tell Tale Signs picks up roughly where the first Bootleg Series box set left off, covering embryonic takes and unreleased songs from the better Dylan albums of the previous twenty years, plus a few soundtrack items here and there. This reassessment of his progress shows that for the most part, he’s still got talents to tap, particularly if he keeps his touring band around.
Many of the studio takes come from the two albums produced by Daniel Lanois. Oh Mercy is represented by six tracks, including a simple acoustic-with-harmonica demo of “Most Of The Time”. What sounds like a rehearsal of “Can’t Wait” has a great vocal and live room sound. “Born In Time” is nicer than the inferior take recorded a year later for Under The Red Sky and it’s equally interesting to hear early stabs on “Dignity” and “Series Of Dreams”, songs which were drastically remixed before their eventual release down the road.
Two versions of “Mississippi” from the Time Out Of Mind period show how much the song changed over time. “Dreamin’ Of You”, despite a good band performance, sports lyrics that were later spun off into such superior songs as “Standing In The Doorway” and “Not Dark Yet”. The same can be said for “Marchin’ To The City”, which starts out in church but turns into “’Till I Fell In Love With You”. The lovely “Red River Shore” would have only added to an already long album, but you can hear a foreboding of his Tex-Mex style.
Interestingly, there’s nothing from the “Love And Theft” era, suggesting that everything already appeared worth having. Instead, we get a burning live version of “High Water” that’s miles away from the back porch original, and a staticky take on “Lonesome Day Blues”. He must have been similarly pleased with Modern Times, as only “Someday Baby” is featured, in a take that sounds less like “Trouble No More” and more like a Lanois production, plus an earlier version of “Ain’t Talkin’” with different lyrics.
As he was able to spin the occasional odd track onto a movie soundtrack, a few of those (but not all) are collected here. “Tell Ol’ Bill” bubbles with a menace, while “Can’t Escape From You”, listed as “written for a film that was never made”, boasts an amazing twist on his usual gravel. “‘Cross The Green Mountain” is a long but pretty relic of the Civil War.
Coming on the heels of the redundant DYLAN compilation, which covered the same old ground as pretty much every other hits collection put together, Tell Tale Signs was mostly a nice collection to have. But in a truly annoying move by some sadist at either the label or his office, a third disc of outtakes was made available as part of a very pricey limited-edition package, creating the potential for bootlegs of bootlegs. Among the gems included here are a fascinating live rearrangement of “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”, further alternates of “Most Of The Time”, “Born In Time” and, oddly, “Marchin’ To The City”, and a third version of “Mississippi”.
Bob Dylan Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8—Rare And Unreleased 1989-2006 (2008)—3½