Various Artists – [Album]

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

I have often professed my love of cover songs. There are various reasons for this. One is what they reveal about an artist’s influences and tastes but another, more important reason may seem like a contradiction: I love cover songs because I love originality.

"How does that work?" I hear you asking. I appreciate the challenge of taking someone’s song and owning it yourself; making it sound new. An artist’s ability to do this is a strong indication of how much they have their own sound.

So there is a definite attraction to a set like this – four CDs of cover songs. But there is also an equal possibility of disappointment. Sadly, Chimes of Freedom disappoints more than it impresses. It’s a narrow decision, but there it is.

The questions of influence and taste become mostly irrelevant here. The fact that they could find some seventy artists willing to cover Dylan doesn’t prove much. There is a bit revealed by which songs the various artists chose to cover – but, again, what artist doesn’t have a favorite Dylan song? And that is independent of the question of how much choice the artists really had; since there is only a single song repeated on the entire four CDs, there must have been some limitations, but they haven't really been clearly revealed here. Since it seems pertinent at this juncture in the review, one of my major problems with this CD set it the lack of complete liner notes. Sure, there is a nice essay about the connection between Dylan and Amnesty International, the beneficiary of the CD's sales, but there are no notes on when or where any of the songs were recorded or how many were already extant, and where they might be found, and how many were recorded specially for this collection. Maybe that’s nitpicking, but on a collection this extensive, it would sure be nice to know.)

That's one thing, but it is on the second count that the collection disappoints. There just aren’t enough interesting versions here. In fact, it is easy for the CD to slip into the background, with nothing grabbing the ear as it slides by. And the notion of Dylan being background just seems wrong.

On the other hand, there is also very little on Chimes Of Freedom which threatens to grate on listeners, and there are hardly any out-and-out bad covers included; they are mostly just kind of bland. The biggest offense is how many of them sound too close to Dylan’s version. Many of them not only copy his arrangements, but imitate his vocal inflections. Lenny Kravitz even throws in some similar carnival sounds into his version of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.”

There are exceptions, of course. While retaining the basic structure of the song, K’naan turns “With God On Our Side” into something totally his own. Steve Earle (with Lucia Micarelli) and Tom Morello get deep into the souls of “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Blind Willie McTell” respectively. Silverson Pickups, with “Not Dark Yet,” and Queens of the Stone Age, with “Outlaw Blues,” make each sound like songs they were meant to play. Taj Mahal turns “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” from a talking blues into a real song, while Michael Franti finds the reggae infused rap inside “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

Several live tracks also allow the artists to put their own stamp on the tunes. Dave Matthews’ extended take on “All Along the Watchtower” manages to sound like neither Dylan nor Hendrix, and My Chemical Romance’s punk version manages to squeeze “Desolation Row” into three minutes.

Ironically (or perhaps not), the one song with two versions, “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright),” reveals the full potential of what this collection could have been. The two versions are not only extremely different from each other, neither resembles Dylan’s take. Just in case you miss the point, they are placed together on the CDs. First, Ke$ha turns in a version which confounds all expectations. Rather than the glammed up pop/rap one might expect from her, we get a sparse, almost whispered version. I’m still undecided on how I feel about it. On one listen, it sounds heartbreakingly raw and honest, on the next, entirely contrived. Either way, the Kronos Quartet’s instrumental, string version is the perfect response/antidote. If you found Ke$sha’s version cloying, it cleanses your ears; if, on the other hand, you found hers emotional, this one eases you down.

Still, even those highlights are only a fraction of the material here. Even some of my favorite artists – Sting, Pete Townsend, Elvis Costello, Airborne Toxic Event – turn in perfunctory performances. And I probably shouldn’t go near the versions some of my least favorite artists provide.

I started out this review asking what their versions say about the artists represented here, but that is almost certainly the wrong question. What do they reveal about Dylan? His influence is obviously pervasive, spread across the entire spectrum of popular music today. They is hardly a genre, except hard core rap, not represented here. And yet, however wide that influence is, it isn’t always that deep. While there are a number of artists here who have absorbed Dylan deep into their musical being, there are many more who can do little more than reflect him.

Certain aspects of Dylan’s work get more attention here than others. A number of artists take the obvious political angle; there are quite a few of his political songs here. Of course, that also fits in with the Amnesty International agenda. Others approach the folk song side — a number of the artists here seem to treat his songs as if they have always existed, as if they come out of a hundred years of Americana, and not a single mind.

But only a few are willing to tackle his lyrical complexity. For the most part, the songs covered here are his most straight forward. Yes, there are takes on “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “115th Dream,” but no one seems willing to tackle “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” or “Stuck Inside of Memphis” or much else from his mid-60s speed-freak era.

Which gets at the essence of what I truly find disappointing about the collection. Dylan was a musical revolutionary. In just the first decade of his career, he revolutionized music at least twice, maybe three times (giving energy to the folk music boom, then inventing folk-rock, and finally helping bridge the gap between rock and country). Yet most of the musicians here treat him as a mere songwriter – a brilliant one, for sure, but someone who could have easily come out of Tin Pan Alley or the Brill Building. And that, to me, decreases rather than respects his place in contemporary music.



Chimes Of Freedom – The songs of Bob Dylan
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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