Whenever I hear a cover of Dylan’s I immediately reach for the original. This was the case with his most recent cover version, Mark Ronson’s re-version of ‘Most Likely You Go Your way and I’ll Go Mine’ when my ears were immediately soothed by the second track on the disc, which just so happened to be the original.
Of course there are exceptions to the rule, Jimi Hendrix has done a nifty ‘All Along the Watchtower’ (anyone else heard that ?) and Richie Havens has a habit of making vibrant and interesting covers of Dylan, but for the most part, these cover versions merely enhance Dylan’s reputation. The old adage is indeed true, “Nobody Sings Dylan like Dylan”. And I guess it also puts to rest those ridiculous theories which have been floating about since he first emerged onto music’s radar in the early 1960s, that somehow he’s a rubbish singer.
This collection is slightly different however. Instead of releasing yet another cover album of the old classics, the guys at Columbia decided to ask the crème de la crème of American indie and alternative rock to cover some of Dylan’s famous and not-so-famous songs. They’ve also added some of the usual suspects to the mix too.
The occasion is the release of Todd Haynes’ Dylan biopic, ‘I’m Not There’ in which six different actors play Bob Dylan. Yes six, including a small black kid and a woman. So it’s rather fitting that the collected soundtrack is as eclectic as the premise behind the film.
Happily enough the disc is a pleasant trawl through Dylan’s career with numerous standouts that can indeed stand on their own two feet. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco’s take on ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ is astounding, his velvety vocals suite the slower cadence of the version while a violin softly rises and fades. He puts emotion into the song seemingly connecting emotionally with the song while remaining true to the original’s musical spirit. A lovely song which blends the right amount of originality to a faithful and respectful cover.
The Hold Steady’s ‘Can You Please Crawl Out of Your Window’ becomes a Springsteenesque bar-room stomp of a tune. Craig Finn even gets brownie points for adding lines from ‘Positively Fourth Street’ and substituting ‘Crawl’ to ‘Come’ by the end of the song which changes the whole complexion of the song. Hold Steady fans will not be disappointed and neither will the Dylan fans who will no doubt hear many classic guitar riffs nicked from Dylan’s mid-60s electric output.
Sonic Youth attacks the title track, ‘I’m Not There’ with typical electric feedback inspired aplomb. However, their cover is overshadowed by the best song on the album, the first official release of ‘I’m Not There’ which previously only featured on bootlegs. The track was part of the sessions which brought us the Basement Tapes when Dylan was in exile in Woodstock in upstate New York with the Band. It’s a lovely, meandering, song with the usual oblique lyrics from that era which are clouded in confusion and poetic wonder.
Other standout tracks on this collection include two from Yo La Tengo, ‘Fourth Time Around’ and ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’, Ritchie Havens attempting a new cover of ‘Tombstone Blues’, while Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s acoustic guitar based version of ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ is at first rambling and by the end a mesmerising performance. Meanwhile Cat Power remains faithful to Dylan in her velvety version of ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’. The Black Keys really do tear into ‘Wicked Messenger’ and it sounds like a tearaway blues train crashing into a wall made of rock. A brilliant tune. Another standout is Jim James (of My Morning Jacket fame) covering ‘Goin’ to Acapulco’ with his trademark voice brought to the forefront of this lovely tune from the Basement Tapes.
However there are a few covers which are downright wrong. Sufjan Stevens adds so much of his trademark sound to ‘Ring Them Bells’ that it feels as if he’s ripped the soul out of the song and then trodden all over it. Mark Lanegan’s ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’ is painful and Anthony Johnson’s ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ is just plain weird. Still at least it’s better than the Guns and Roses cover of the same song (which isn’t included here Axl/Slash fans). And many of the other songs are largely unforgettable, neither here nor there – just tunes which, as mentioned beforehand, make you turn to the original songs.
Overall this is a collection of varying quality. There are real highlights and absolute dross on this album. It is interesting to see some of the more modern band’s takes on classic Dylan songs. But ultimately it leaves one longing to hear Dylan and that just reward comes with final song, ‘I’m Not There’ which is as Dylanesque and twisted as the premise for the biopic for which this collection was created.