With around 75 (exact number depends on format)
new recordings available as a digital download ($19.99) or on four CDs
($24.99), this collection of Bob Dylan songs offers good value for an excellent
cause. Proceeds go to Amnesty International, the non-ideological human rights
organization that has sought to free prisoners of conscience around the globe
since 1961, the same year Dylan began performing in folk clubs in New York.
The really picky listener could buy tracks
individually at $1.29 each. But at about 27 cents a track for the whole
download package, you can’t go wrong even though the quality of the
performances varies as widely as one might expect from an endeavor that
includes both 19-year-old Miley Cyrus and 92-year-old Pete Seeger. And you
don’t need to be a card-carrying contrarian to prefer, as I do, Cyrus’ modestly
rendered “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” to Seeger’s
“Forever Young,” which is more about song preference than, you know,
But, of course, it is the vast range and quality
of Dylan’s songs that create a level playing field for such disparate artists.
Since executive producers Jeff Ayeroff and Julie Yannatta – who also helped
engender the 2007 benefit album of John Lennon songs, Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur –
are steeped in the mainstream, major label music business, so that is the heart
of the talent pool here. Classic rock veterans include Pete Townshend
(traditional folk arrangement of “Corrina, Corrina”), Jackson Browne
(perfectly adequate rendition of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”) and
Sting, whose formal enunciating lends more emotional coldness to “Girl of
the North Country” than the song needs.
A highlight reel, or selected “A”
list, would include “Seven Curses” by Joan Baez, Dylan’s most
eloquent folk interpreter for almost as long as Bob’s been writing, and Patti
Smith, who so deftly inhabits the spiritual territory of “Drifter’s
Escape” that one craves an entire album of Smith/Dylan covers, or a
concert version of the “John Wesley Harding” album. Thea Gilmore did release
a version of “JWH” last year, songs in reverse, for some reason; her
contribution to this project, “I’ll Remember You,” doesn’t do much to
elevate one of Dylan’s least memorable songs.
A few artists do lift some of Dylan’s odder
compositions, though none is definitive as Lou Reed’s insanely fearless version
of “Foot of Pride” was on the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert.
(One performance that is definitive is the brilliant opener, “One Too Many
Mornings,” by Johnny Cash with the Avett Brothers.) The Carolina Chocolate
Drops round out the edges of “Political World,” and Fistful of Mercy,
a kind of second generation Wilburys (Dhani Harrison, Ben Harper and Joseph
Arthur), breathe zesty life into “Bucket of Rain.” Charlie Winston’s
lean but passionate take on “This Wheel’s On Fire” had me promising
to dig deeper into his catalog. (Winston’s, not Dylan’s). Ditto for the Belle
Brigade, who do a spectacular eight minute version of “No Time to
Think,” and the Gaslight Anthem performs “Changing of the Guard”
with the vengeance missing from Dylan’s original. The latter two performances
verify my belief in the underrated Street-Legal as Dylan’s most poorly arranged album of songs that deserved much better. I
also wanted to find out more about Ed Roland and the Sweet Tea Project (Roland
is late of ‘90s alt-rock hitmakers Collective Soul) thanks to their nuanced
version of “Shelter from the Storm.” And one develops new respect for
Mick Hucknall, of Simply Red fame, whose “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or
Later)” is one of the album’s peerless performances.
Other veteran Dylan covers sometimes work,
sometimes don’t. Kris Kristofferson take on “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty
Quinn)” is slow, somber, and very wry; Bryan Ferry’s torchy, orchestrated
version of the early folk song “Bob Dylan’s Dream” is terrible.
Younger performers, whose music grew far from
the folk/blues roots of Dylan and his first (and second) generation of
interpreters, don’t fare as well. Michael Franti’s ego gets in the way of
“Subterranean Homesick Blues”; one would have liked to hear a
well-established hip-hop artist, like Snoop Dogg or Eminem on this rap
precursor. So while Eric Burdon gets the gospel blues of “Gotta Serve
Somebody” just right, one can’t say the same for Band of Skulls (“It
Ain’t Me Babe”), Cage the Elephant (“The Lonesome Death of Hattie
Carroll”), Bad Religion (“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”) or
Silversun Pickups (“Not Dark Yet”).
Also weak: Sinead O’Connor’s “Property of Jesus,” My Morning
Jacket’s “You’re A Big Girl Now,” or Rise Against’s “Ballad of
Hollis Brown.” The Airborne Toxic Event’s “Boots of Spanish
Leather” makes one wonder why, and Ke$ha’s version of “Don’t Think
Twice, It’s All Right” is an embarrassment for the artist, who sounds like
she is weeping into the microphone; this should have been left on the floor in
the cutting room. Perhaps that’s why the only duplicate on the album is Kronos
Quartet’s version of “Don’t Think Twice” immediately following
Ke$ha’s audible breakdown.
There’s plenty more good and bad. The great
middle is occupied by tracks such as Jack’s Mannequin’s “Mr. Tambourine
Man.” What’s best about this version is that it got my teenage daughter, a
Jack fan, interested in Dylan. And that, like the bargain price of this benefit
collection, is a win-win.
DOWNLOAD: Among those not mentioned: Queens of the Stone
Age, “Outlaw Blues”; RedOne: “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”;
Flogging Molly, “The Times They Are A Changin'” WAYNE ROBINS