Friday, November 02, 2007

I'm Not There

Bob Dylan is such a distinctive singer and songwriter that it can be problematical trying to cover his songs. Of course, this doesn’t stop people from trying (the songs are too magnetic and powerful for that)…I must have at least a dozen CDs of Dylan covers (with Dylan songs sprinkled liberally amongst many, many other discs) in my personal collection. More than perhaps with any other singer-songwriter, those attempting to cover Dylan need to dig in and find their own way of coming at the songs or else they probably shouldn’t bother.

This collection…the soundtrack to Todd Haynes’ upcoming movie where 5 different actors (including Cate Blanchett) play Dylan…is a slightly mixed bag but there are more than enough highlights to make it a very worthwhile listening experience. The set gets off to a worrisome start with the epic “All Along the Watchtower”…the music (by the Million Dollar Bashers, a group that backs several performers over the course of the 2-disc set) is biting and fierce but Eddie Vedder’s vocal is strangely distant, as if he was afraid to really try to connect to the words. But then things pick up with Sonic Youth’s muscular take on the title track and then My Morning Jacket's Jim James (backed by Calexico, who also back up several artists on the set) takes a fine turn on “Goin’ to Acapulco”. The great Richie Havens inhabits “Tombstone Blues” with vigor.

Stephen Malkmus (backed the Million Dollar Bashers) threatens to get close to getting caught up in doing a parody of Dylan’s idiosyncratic phrasing on “Ballad of a Thin Man” but in the end he manages to avoid that trap for the most part. He also covers “Can’t Leave Her Behind” in a clipped, singsong way that is plaintive enough to suffice. Malkmus also sings “Maggie’s Farm” but his wan vocals are not up to the level of the killer rock-steady backing that the Million Dollar Bashers give him.

The amazing Cat Power kills on a throbbing, horn-driven romp through “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” while John Doe is equally impressive on the soulful gospel of “Pressing On” (Doe later also sings “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” with soulful conviction) and Yo La Tengo offers up a delicate, lilting version of “Fourth Time Around” (they kick it up into higher gear later on a rollicking version of “I Wanna Be Your Lover”.)

Calexico appears several times: backing up Iron & Wine on an atmospheric version of “Dark Eyes”, offering up sweet Latin flavored support (including some sublime horn and string work) to Roger McGuinn’s lovely “One More Cup of Coffee”, providing supple support to Willie Nelson’s potent cover of “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” (which features a powerful Spanish verse sung by Salvador Duran), and effectively underscoring Charlotte Gainsbourg’s ethereal, whispery reading of “Just Like a Woman”.

The Million Dollar Bashers (featuring Tom Verlaine on guitars, John Medeski on keyboards, Wilco's Nels Cline on guitar, and Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley on drums) also a couple of other appearances: providing stellar support on Karen O’s feisty cover of “Highway 61 Revisited” and presenting an appropriately dense and spooky version of “Cold Irons Bound (with Verlaine on vocals).

Mason Jennings’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (accompanied only by his acoustic guitar) is well-intentioned but it lacks bite and therefore comes off a pale imitation of the brutally acerbic original (he fares a little bit better later on “The Times They Are A-Changin’”.) Los Lobos’ gently-driving take on “Billy 1”, on the other hand, is a full-bodied gem. Jeff Tweedy, accompanied by drums, bass, and fiddle, takes on Dylan’s phrasing to good effect on “Simple Twist of Fate” while Mark Lanegan is deliciously foreboding on the ominous “Man in the Long Black Coat”.

Mira Billotte is a wonder of vocal economy on her quietly shimmering “As I Went Out One Morning” and Sufjan Stevens turns Dylan’s gospel dirge “Ring Them Bells” into an almost baroque fantasia (complete with a soaring horn section) that works wondrously when you imagine that it shouldn’t at all. Jack Jackson is his soothingly laconic self on “Mama, You’ve Been on my Mind/A Fraction of Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” which features some of the best acoustic guitar playing on the CD.

Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (of the Swell Season) play a fine acoustic (guitar, harmonica, banjo, bass) version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” while The Hold Steady rock out on a potent take of “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott offers up a ragged but heartfelt “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”. The Black Keys rock a thick, bluesy “Wicked Messenger” while Marcus Carl Franklin (the youngest of the actors playing Dylan in the film) is surprisingly assured on “When the Ship Comes In” and Antony and the Johnsons are subdued (to haunting effect) on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”.

Dylan and The Band tie up the CD with “I’m Not There”, recorded during the fabled Basement Tapes sessions.

Dylan afficianad0s may argue the merits of these covers but there is, as I said before, much to be enjoyed on this soundtrack.

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