Friday, September 18, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #150: If Dogs Run Free

When I've talked about the "jazzy" side of New Morning, I'm usually thinking more about the distinctive piano playing style (compare and contrast with what he's doing on, say, "Ballad of a Thin Man"), the light band accompaniment throughout (never have I heard so many drum brushsticks played on a Dylan album before), and Dylan's loosest arrangements yet (see "Time Passes Slowly", which basically stops on a dime so Dylan can indulge his ivory-tickling side). That's not to say that all jazz can be described that way, just that in terms of how the album sounds, it's easier to use those sorts of comparisons than to suggest Dylan created some brand new genre out of whole cloth or something. And there's no better distillation of the mood of this album than "If Dogs Run Free", one of the few songs Dylan has ever written that could persuasively argued is its own island in his catalog. Sure, the song is in line with the jazz-based styling of much of this album, but none of those songs are so, well, outright jazz; we have scat singing in the background, Dylan banging away at the keys like a lounge singer with a brandy snifter on his piano for tips, a guitar playing random and aimless lines, and Dylan speak-singing his lyrics in the most casual way possible. It's really something else.

Now...does that actually make the song GOOD? That's a little harder to say. On the one hand, you really do want to give Bob points for trying; the song has the relaxed feel down cold, like Dylan really wanted to get some snaps of approval from the engineers after the take was laid down. And it's hard not to love the song's goofy, stoner-philosophy ramblings, one of those post-Electric Trilogy moments where Dylan just lets his mind wander and he babbles on about whatever pops in the ol' melon of his (quite frankly, I don't know how THIS song didn't end up in The Big Lebowski...oops, a little hand-tipping there). On the other, the scatting is more distracting than anything else, and the song might be a little too relaxed, more experiment than actual tune. Experiments are fine, but at a certain point you have to stick the tunes in there, or else you get the Panda Bear album*. "If Dogs Run Free" sorta wanders around the tune, like someone circling a mall parking lot on the final pre-Christmas weekend, but it never manages to pull into a space.

Kudos to Bob for trying, though. In the post for "Wigwam" I made mention of how you could see Dylan reaching for something really big and ambitious with the sprawl of Self Portrait, only for one reason or another it never quite came off. Well, here's the thing: this album actually DOES have effort behind it, and that's what helps put it an extra peg ahead. One of the lazier criticisms people will lob against jazz is that it's intrinsically lazy in its composition, that the free-form nature of the modal stuff Miles Davis helped usher in or even something like "If I Were A Bell" might as well have been put together in the studio 5 minutes before the tape started rolling. Not only this is incredibly simplistic, but rather insulting to guys like Gil Evans, who put together remarkable arrangements thanks to having good ears for what works and what doesn't. And I think that Dylan, both on this album proper and this song especially, had to have his good ears working if he wanted the whole thing to work. This is, after all, uncharted waters for him; if he didn't put in some work and give his arrangements at least a little structure (and I do mean "little" at times), the whole thing would fall apart. If you've heard bad jazz, you know what I mean.

"If Dogs Run Free" is not my favorite song on here, but it might be the most representative. Just like some of the best comedic improvisers get there from hours and hours of practice, a song this relaxed and this surface-level effortless had to have come from Bob using his songwriting instincts to patch together every seemingly aimless element of this tune and duct-tape it all together into something that, while not a classic, at least works. That was one of the great problems of the last album - he patched together a lot of shit there, too, but it just didn't work. Here, though, the arrangements hold together, the wandering goes into interesting (rather than soporific) areas, and many of the songs, at their core, are just straight-up good. Believe me, this album wouldn't have been as well-received as it was in 1970 just based on it not being Self Portrait - there had to be quality tracks for those critics to latch onto. And those quality tracks are there, make no mistake about it. And, for that, I think I'll give Dylan some snaps.

*I've said before that I'd rather take a year off the end of my life than hear Person Pitch again. That's rather harsh, in retrospect, but it's always aggravating when a band takes material that might make a pretty darn good EP and tries to stretch a whole album out of it. At a certain point, you realize you're just listening to fat that should've been trimmed. It's not pleasant.

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12 comments:

João Pedro da Costa said...

The Panda Bear comment is just sad. Truly hope that one day you'll be able to get Person Pitch, a genuine masterpiece.

Anonymous said...

Heh, come on, Mr. da Costa. Telling someone they don't like something because they "don't get it" is one of the laziest critcisms there is -- and it's a wrong critcism 99% of the time. I'm sure that not liking the song isn't meant to be an attack on those who do, so chill.

Anonymous said...

And I managed to misspell "criticism" twice. I totally don't get that word. Truly hope that one day I'll be able to get "criticism" and recognize it as the fine word it is.

Pearce said...

I think you're spot on when you say this song is an island in Dylan's catalog, there's nothing else remotely like it.

Good post.

Anonymous said...

It's actually not a bad song - listen to the various live versions that Bob has played since about 2000. Without those pointless scat singers, it works a whole lot better.

João Pedro da Costa said...

Well, my mum will surely agree with you on the lazy part of your comment. It's not about being right or wrong, though. It's just that Panda Bear comment came out of the blue with no purpose whatsoever. I love Dylan and i love Panda Bear and reading this otherwise fabulous entry, i genuinely felt sad. Sometimes it took decades for people to get Dylan, perhaps the same will happen with Panda's work. But peace, i didn't mean to be offensive (which is a line i use a lot with mum). I gotta say that i loved your 99% figure. How do you calculate that? :-)

Sam said...

That's Bob on acoustic, I'd figure-- not piano.

Anonymous said...

Al Kooper is on piano here; Bob couldn't play that stuff if he practiced for a million years.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, i agree the Person Pitch comment IS pretty misguided. It really should be celebrated, and I would have thought someone in tune with Dylan's catalog could spot that.

Stephen Rose said...

Not Random. Not Aimless.
It's amazing to me that someone who is devoting a big part of their life to a blog called "Every Bob Dylan Song" would actually call the super cool, super groovy guitar playing on "If Dogs Run Free" "random and aimless". I actually got here trying to find out if that is actually Bob on guitar there.

Moose said...

Spell critic. Add -ism. At any rate, another self portrait has a less jazzy more straight forward version of this song. Not better maybe, but arguably more listenable to a casual ear or used to regular Dylan.

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