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Roots and Branches

Bob Dylan and The Climax Golden Twins Go Crate Digging

Deanna Staffo

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 2/13/2008

The past isn't always safe. But it isn't always really weird, either. Often, what fades into history does so because it wouldn't stand out anytime. But for anyone who loves digging into pop music's past, there's always something that got unfairly left behind. Sometimes it was something that was huge but then forgotten, and sometimes it was something that was barely heard in its time; both sides are played out on a pair of new double-CD sets--one instigated by the most iconic living popular musician, the other by a duo that's ridden the fringes for over a decade.

Listening to The Best of Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour, a recent double-CD compilation on the British Chrome Dreams label, won't help you suss out Dylan's own thinking on those matters. Like a few other indie labels, Chrome Dreams specializes in public-domain material, stuff that's older than 50 years, on a series of compilation CDs exploring the early inspirations of various artists: The Rolling Stones' Jukebox, Songs That Elvis Loved, and even the 2005 volume Songs That Dylan Loved. Most of those selections are strong but fairly obvious, and their sourcing can be suspect. That's true of the Theme Time set as well: There are audible tape stretches at the beginning of Eddie Boyd's "Five Long Years," and J.B. Lenoir's "Don't Touch My Head" sounds as if it's sliding off the turntable it's playing on.

But this collection's framework differs from Chrome Dreams' other exploitations in ways that benefit it. Instead of choosing obvious "roots," the compilers simply picked a song from each episode of the first season of the XM Satellite Radio program Dylan hosted from May 2006 through April 2007. (Season 2 began last September.) The concept of Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour is right in the title: each week, an hour's worth of records and commentary from Dylan. So the songs on The Best of are as apt to be killer novelties (Slim Gaillard's buoyant "Matzoh Balls") and oddities (a minute-long snatch of Lead Belly singing "Christmas Is A-Comin'") as tried-and-true classics. Sequencing the songs according to show chronology robs the compilers of the opportunity for made-you-look segues, or to draw thematic comparisons of its own: Duke Ellington's immortal "Take the `A' Train," from Episode 50, surely misses its rightful companions, episodes 47 and 48's Little Junior Parker's "Mystery Train" and Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "This Train," from which it's separated by "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Such are the perils of Dylanism.

Nevertheless, that balance between obvious and not enlivens all the songs, especially the classics: Putting Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" between the long-forgotten big-band R&B brother-sister act Buddy and Ella Johnson's "Alright, Okay, You Win!" and western swingers Jimmie Revard and His Oklahoma Playboys' "Lose Your Blues and Laugh at Life" reshapes it nicely. And the lesser-knowns are uniformly superb. Right now the personal favorite is "(Everytime I Hear) That Mellow Saxophone," by New Orleans studio player Roy Montrell, who only made a couple singles of his own. In a month, it may be something different--which is to say that even if he didn't authorize this compilation, it nevertheless proves Dylan a grade-A record geek, which bodes well for the sequels Chrome Dreams is doubtless planning.

Rob Millis and Jeffery Taylor, the Seattle musicians who record and perform together as Climax Golden Twins, have just put together some vintage recordings of their own, and it actually is a sequel, to a series of cassettes they dubbed "Victrola Favorites." Most of those were thematic, but not so Victrola Favorites (Dust-to-Digital), a new hardcover art book (most of its images are from old catalogs and early record labels) packaged with two CDs featuring 48 tracks from all over the world. If Dylan's sensibility--funny lyrics, purposeful rhythms, Americana imagery--can be heard throughout his selections, so can CGT's. They're after the uncanny, and for American listeners, plenty of Victrola Favorites fits that category. The reason is partly because Millis and Taylor spread their net wider than most of their fellow sonic antiquarians: As veteran West Coast residents they've found plenty of Asian and Pacific 78s in their digs, and there are a hefty number of Indian, Burmese, Chinese, Thai, and Hawaiian sides included on Victrola Favorites.

Still, the most haunting piece here might be the 53-second recording of London street sounds that leads off the second disc. It's a key to the rest of the album: Millis and Taylor love pure sound as much as they do content, once considered a postmodern quirk that's settled into the way music is perceived by an entire generation of listeners. It seals the difference between Dylan's approach and their own: He likes sound, too, but it's a band sound, a particular instrumental mesh, he goes for. Millis and Taylor are more into ambiance-in-itself--which can mean anything from tonal palette to particularly enticing overlays of static to foreign music that, through its foreignness, becomes sound-in-itself by default.

Were these hits in their native lands? Sure shots? Since we don't really know their milieus enough to know what the norms were, it isn't too presumptuous to guess they weren't, not obviously so. Some of them are thrilling, but some of them sweep you up so hard that it's difficult to tell where the response is coming from--is the moment when bird sounds come trilling into the middle of "The Crow Flies Back to the Forest," by Guangzhou Cantonese Opera Troupe, intrinsically beautiful or is it the novelty in the period instrumentation and making aural contact with a world not like this one? But responding to novelty is part of what makes music exciting; it's why we crate-dig in the first place. And Millis and Taylor have found a wealth of stuff worth rediscovering.

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