Bob Dylan & The Band – The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete
In 2011 The Beach Boys released The Smile Sessions. The definitive collection of the bits and bobs that went to make up the great lost album of all time. Some of the material was already well know. Versions of ‘Wind Chimes’ and ‘Vegetables’ appeared on Smiley Smile in 1967. ‘Cabinessence’ and ‘Our Prayer’ were officially released in 1969. And if you were collector, any amount bootlegs had been circulating for decades. For the first time, though, everything was officially brought together. A total of 139 items, many of which were snippets that could happily have stayed on the shelves. And yet within there were wonders. Not least ‘Mrs ‘Leary’s Cow’ in all its pristine, fire-helmeted glory. Fundamentally, though, the release of The Smile Sessions was never really about the music. It was a memorialisation of the very idea of Smile; a commemoration of the ultimate musical what might have been. The Basement Tapes Complete is similar. From the unexpected appearance of cover versions of new Dylan songs in late 1967, to the overdubbed release of some of the tracks themselves in 1975, to the circulation of innumerable underground versions over the years, The Basement Tapes are part of contemporary musical mythology. Their allure only increasing as rumours of newly discovered recordings emerged over time. Now, all the existing tapes have been fully restored, properly curated, and finally released. A total, coincidentally, of 139 tracks. The sound quality can be pretty poor. (There’s a clue in the title as to why). The performances are sometimes approximate, to put it kindly. Some of the offerings last less than a minute, keeping only the most ardent Dylanologist satisfied. And many of the other tracks, particularly the cover versions on the early discs, fall into the ‘it’s-clear-why-there-was-no-rush-to-release-them’ category. Yet, still there are treasures. To hear ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’, ‘Tears Of Rage’, and others without the 1975 overdubs is worth the entrance fee. Some of the alternative takes are compelling, including ‘Open the Door Homer (Take 3)’, corpsing and all. There’s the odd unreleased nugget. ‘Sign On The Cross’ for one. And it’s true that the lo-fi quality chimes nicely with a certain 21st century recording ethos, making the imperfections somehow contemporary. In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter. Like The Smile Sessions, The Basement Tapes Complete isn’t really being released as a piece of music, it’s being released as a piece of musical history. And that’s just fine.