I'm the first to admit that I tend to be a bit of a rock cheerleader on this space when it comes to writing about music. I suppose, though, that it should be fairly apparent that I use this space to write only about the stuff that I'm really into, and that every glowing hyperbole I use is genuine. Over the years, my tolerance for stuff I'm not into has dwindled, and there's a reason I ended my formal "career" in rock criticism after one assignment.
Right now, though, I take a break from my usual "positive prose" to perform a public service. For more than a year, I've been anticipating the release of the soundtrack to the new Dylan biopic, I'm Not There. I've been anticipating seeing the film as well, but given that the soundtrack was due to hit the streets first, that was first on the list. I mean, come on, look at the freaking lineup of artists: Sonic Youth, Stephen Malkmus, Cat Power, Yo La Tengo, Mark Lanegan, Jeff Tweedy, the Black Keys, Tom Verlaine, John Doe, etc. And they're all covering Dylan songs!
Think of all the great Dylan covers we've been blessed with over the years. Jimi Hedrix's transformation of "All Along The Watchtower." Nico's "I'll Keep It With Mine." The Byrds' folk-rock igniting version of "Hey Mr. Tambourine Man." The Turtles' version of "It Ain't Me Babe" (seriously). Manfred Mann's version of "The Mighty Quinn" (kinda seriously). Jeff Buckley's sparse live version of "I Shall Be Released." Hell, the Band's version of "I Shall Be Released." And throw in the Beach Boys' version of "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and the Dreadful Yawns' live version of "She Belongs To Me" for good measure. Now, think of how great a compilation of some of today's better rock artists interpreting Dylan's work should sound. If you're a Dylan fan (I am), it sounds good, right?
Unfortunately, it sounds better on paper than on disc/hard drive. A lot of this stuff sounds like half-spirited attempts at trying to replicate the original backing track for whatever song is being covered, and having Singer X throw in vocals in his/her usual manner. I guess this is good for fans of, say, Stephen Malkmus (I’m one) who have always wanted to hear him do a karaoke version of “Ballad of a Thin Man” (I’m not one). I guess I thought there'd be a lot of creativity on this record, but any kind of departures from the original versions are few and far between.
In fact, there's a good amount of unlistenable stuff on here. Jack Johnson's "Mama You've Been On My Mind / A Fraction of Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie" is so bad that I had to skip the track before I even got to figure out what "A Fraction of Last Thoughts of Woody Guthrie" constitutes. It's probably a bit of Dylan's spoken word piece thrown over a backing track . . . but guess what? I'm not going to go back and listen to it. I don't know what Karen O (apparently of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who, I admit, I've never heard anything by before) was aiming for with her version of "Highway 61 Revisited", but it doesn't do anything for me. I'd rather hear Craig-O sing it. Sufjan Steven's "Ring Them Bells" starts off ok, but gets a little too overindulgent in the end, essentially begging you to hit "skip" again.
The majority of the stuff is ho-hum, and really the only people who are going to dig it are dedicated fans of the original artists. I'm talking Eddie Vedder's "All Along The Watchtower", Jeff Tweedy's "Simple Twist of Fate", and -- gasp! -- the Stephen Malkmus stuff. For whatever reason, it seems The Million Dollar Bashers pops up on a lot of these mediocre tracks, which is especially disappointing. Again, on paper, the Bashers is a classic all-star group: Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo on drums and guitar, respectively. Dylan's longtime bassist Tony Garnier on, well, bass. Nels Cline on guitar. TOM VERLAINE ON GUITAR! Maybe I was wrong to expect these guys to come up with inventive arragements, since they were basically assembled just to be the backing band for a bunch of singers on this comp. These guys can basically do no wrong in my eyes, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't bummed to hear relatively stale backing track after backing track.
But there are some tracks worth salvaging. In the interest of brevity, I'll give ya a quick list (in no particular order) of the good stuff:
- The Black Keys, "Wicked Messenger". If any song on this album surpassed the original in a way akin to Hendrix's "Watchtower", it is this one. Summit County's native sons put together an epic, bluesy take on the John Wesley Harding track (for whatever reason JWH is a popular source on this comp). They give a sorta apocalyptic feel to Dylan's original, developing the song in the process. A+ for Carney & Auerbach. Would you expect anything less from Ohioans, though?
- Tom Verlaine, "Cold Irons Bound". A little more plodding (in a good way) than the Time Out of Mind original. Desolate and dark, too. Why couldn't Verlaine have convinced the rest of the Bashers to arrange every song as well as this one?
- Cat Power, "Suck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again". This one also remains pretty true to the original, but there's some kind of extra bounce in this version that I can't quite put my finger on that's not there on the original (which is one of my favorite Dylan tunes).
- Yo La Tengo, "Fourth Time Around" & "I Wanna Be Your Lover". I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that Yo La Tengo exceeded my expectations. Both tracks (Georgia Hubley takes lead vocals on "Fourth Time Around" and Ira Kaplan sings on "Lover") are fresh and you can tell the trio gave the songs the attention and energy they warranted. Yo La Tengo's always been great at doing covers, and these two are keepers.
- John Doe, "Pressing On". His version of "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" is nice too, but this one works really well, for whatever reason. It's a bit on the karaoke side (a gospel version of . . . a gospel song), but it hits in a way the more fully karaoke stuff doesn't.
Also noteworthy are the inclusion of Dylan & The Band's original "Basement Tapes" version of recording of "I'm Not There" and Sonic Youth's cover of the same song. The original is a nice treasure for those of us who don't scavenge the Earth for Dylan bootlegs. It's not "This Wheel's on Fire" or "Tears of Rage," but it's still a great song. Sonic Youth's version (basically the original with the Sonic treatment) is cool as well.
It's a good thing the retail price is fairly modest on this one, or I'd honestly be feeling ripped off for the two-cd set. For those who haven't gotten the package yet and are interested, I'd say just go on iTunes or your digital weapon of choice and download the Black Keys and Yo La Tengo tracks, and then pick and choose from the tracks by bands you're already fans of.