It’s All Covers Now, Baby Blue
A half decade ago, the world was introduced to troubadour Bob Dylan with the release of his eponymous album on Columbia Records.
A mix of traditional folk songs, such as “In My Time of Dyin’” and “Man of Constant Sorrow,” as well as originals, like “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” the album was modest and understated, considering that the artist who made it would eventually be considered the voice of his generation.
Before the 1960s were over, however, Bob Dylan had been recognized as a songwriting genius, and glorious cover versions of his songs had become Billboard hits. Songs, such as The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowing in the Wind” and Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” set the stage for what would become thousands and thousands of musical artists stepping up the mike to put their stamp on Dylan compositions.
1962 was also the inaugural year of the human rights organization, Amnesty International, and it and Dylan have formed a strong bond over the decades. To celebrate the golden anniversary of Dylan’s career and Amnesty International, musical artists have joined forces to create the four-disc album, “Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan.” Proceeds from the sale of the album will benefit Amnesty International.
Featuring 73 different tracks, “Chimes of Freedom” is like a lot of tribute albums in that your enjoyment of the individual songs will depend on a lot of factors. Are you a fan of this or that artist? Is the song being covered one of your favorite Dylan tunes?
Obviously, on a project this massive, the results are going to be hit and miss. But to my ears, “Chimes of Freedom” is extremely hit and miss, meaning that the difference between the good covers and the lame covers is much wider than anticipated.
First the good news: Some of the highlights of the new tribute album come from the most unexpected of places. Miley Cyrus’ stellar “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” might be the first truly adult performance of her career. And Diana Krall’s lovely, jazzy piano-and-vocal take on “A Simple Twist of Fate” breaks the unbroken rule that you always have to have a guitar a-strummin’ when performing a Dylan tune.
Tom Morello and the Night Watchmen put a spooky electronic spin on “Blind Willie McTell” that lands Morello (and his basso profundo voice) somewhere in Dave Alvin and Leonard Cohen territory. Pete Townsend, M.I.A. lately, accents some beautiful guitar picking with wonderfully fragile vocals on “Corrina, Corrina.”
“Chimes of Freedom” does an excellent job of utilizing artists from the past, along with the newer kids on the block. Some of the newbies definitely sound a little out of their element (Adele’s awkwardly stiff take on “Make You Feel My Love”). Others, however knock it out of the park.
K’NAAN’s Caribbean hip-hop version of “With God on Our Side” is both poppy and powerful, and Ximena Sariñana’s “I Want You” is simply mesmerizing.
The lesser entries in this here Dylan sweepstakes nearly all make the same mistake: trying way too hard to imitate Dylan’s inimitable guitar, harmonica and plaintiff vocal stylings. For example, Brett Dennen’s version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” is an exact copy of Dylan’s original, all the way down to tempo and orchestration.
Some missteps are probably more subjective to the listener, I admit. Hearing what sounds like a young girls chorus providing the background vocals to “Lay Lady Lay” just strikes me as wrongheaded.
One of the problems in the artists’ selections of songs to cover is that they are heavily weighted toward the protest and love songs of his early career. Sure, Dylan’s got a way with words, a poet if you will. But he also has a mean streak (“Idiot Wind”), and his sense of sarcasm can be scathing at times (“Ballad of a Thin Man”). I would’ve like to heard some artists take on Dylan songs, such as “Mozambique,” “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Masters of War” (all missing from this tribute) instead of Susan Deyhim’s unlistenable rendition of “All I Really Want to Do.”
“Chimes of Freedom” is, perhaps, the album that best takes advantage of our relatively new ability to purchase songs or albums online. Dylan aficionados who need to have as complete a collection as possible may want to purchase the four-CD tribute. I suspect most casual listeners will want to pick and choose the songs on an individual basis. Either way, proceeds from the purchase will go to help Amnesty International. And that’s always a good thing.