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Published: 2007/11/18
by Chris Gardner

I’m Not There OST – various artists

Columbia/Sony 88697 12038 2

What do you say about a 34 song tribute to the work of the most important musical artist of an era? Well, I'm supposed to start by saying something about how hard it is to cover a legend, about the daunting task of tackling the work of America's Greatest Living Songwriter, about the courage required to even undertake such a Herculean task. Trouble is, I think that's all bunk. I think instead that—if you pick well—Bob Dylan is the easiest man in the world to cover. First of all, the songs are killer, so that's covered. More importantly though, Bob cranked out so damn many songs that you can find a great abundance of sketch work, half-finished tunes put down on tape as rough drafts, tracks which point to the Ideal song through hints and suggestions. You dig around like a scholar, find the authorial intent, and do—to the best of your ability—what you think Bob wanted to do but couldn't or didn't. By that logic, Bob's under-catalog is ripe for the picking as are a great many tunes recorded in the '80s which suffered from—well—from being recorded in the '80s. In short, it's not that hard. If you follow a few simple rules, Bob's easier to cover than most. This compilation reminds us of a few old rules and necessitates the creation of a few new ones. Here is a sampling.

Rule 1: Know what to avoid. Stay away from "All Along the Watchtower" and "Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door." We’ve had more than enough of that by now. "The Times They Are a Changin’" is likewise off limits. If you’re a woman, avoid "Highway 61 Revisited"—PJ Harvey already did that better than you will. Best to keep your hands off "Moonshiner" too; it’s got Jay Farrar’s fingerprints all over it now.

Rule 2: Follow Bob’s lead. Seriously though, dude knew what he was doing. There are a great number of mostly faithful renderings that work here. "Ballad of a Thin Man" jumps to mind. Stephen Malkmus spits a uncharacteristically restrained vocal track, swapping verses with John Medeski’s Hammond B-3 in one of the collection’s finer moments. It works because Malkmus’ vocal patterns stray so slightly from Bob’s that you can hear each side-step. Chan Marshall (that’s Cat Power to you) likewise karaokes Bob perfectly on "Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again)," which features a beautifully shimmer-shiny brass section. Most importantly, she knows the best moment of Bob’s original is the ridiculous way he pronounces "Mama." She doesn’t copy Bob there; instead, she drops her own idiosyncratic Ma-Ma and makes it feel like a perfect in-joke. The best example of divining Bob’s intent though comes from Los Lobos, who finally give "Billy 1" the accordion Bob tried to feebly to conjure with his harmonica on the original cut. It’s not a perfect version, but it’s good at least to know that someone can read between the lines.

Rule 3: Pick what suits you. Jack Johnson might win the award here. He’s so perfectly suited for "Mama, You Been On My Mind" that, if it were mixed into one of Jack’s own records, you’d be hard pressed to guess which track was the cover. The Hold Steady pull off a similar feat. Unfamiliar with the original of "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" I presumed the good-rockin’ indie bar-banders had just appropriated the song and rendered it in true Hold Steady fashion, but in truth it’s almost entirely faithful. The track works not because they made it their own but because they found a Bob song that could have been theirs. The same could again be said for Yo La Tengo’s "I Wanna Be Your Lover," a garage-stompin’ rave-up that’s right in the Hoboken Three’s wheelhouse and again almost a direct take on a tune I’d never heard. Seems as good a place as any to mention two things: 1) This collection covers the spectrum of years (with perhaps a heavier focus on the latter years) as well as the gamut from classics to obscurities and 2) it kinda proves that Dylan did a little bit of everything, considerably more than I ever knew he did despite considering myself pretty well versed.

Rule 4: Have fun. That sounds easy enough, right? But there are some sad-sack, super-serious wankers on this record. Mark Lanegan gets all gloomy on "Man In the Long Black Coat," which makes sense but is still an unnecessary bummer. Roger McGuinn is worse still on "One More Cup of Coffee." The track was too heavy-handed when Bob first recorded it on Desire, but Roger’s so damn pretentious here not even Calexico can save him (more on Calexico later). Most of these fans (and all the participants do seem to be fans first—how else could they get this absolutely ludicrous line-up?) have a good time with their tracks, but perhaps no one has as much fun as Stephen Malkmus and the Million Dollar Bashers on Dylan’s Stick-It-to-the-Manthem, "Maggie’s Farm." The guitars (Lee Ranaldo, Nels Cline, Tom Verlaine, and Smokey Hormel) burble and dart about—popping, plunking, picking, and caterwauling with unmistakable glee. They twine around each other like they’re playing keep away until the song reaches its seditious peak, at which point they start stabbing right through one another’s lines, stepping outside the tonal and textural boundaries they’ve rigorously adhered to and generally starting a riot of sound.

Rule 5: Make sure Calexico backs you up. The Arizona collective appears first on "Goin’ to Acapulco" with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, and it may be the album’s best cut. Even after the staggering, swaggering version of this cut off Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy put in on this Basement Tapes beauty last year, this one’s a revelation. Among the strengths of Dylan’s version is the delayed gratification of the chord change at the conclusion of the chorus, and here the Calexico boys burnish that protracted "yeah" like the sun painting sand. But it’s their pairing with Willie Nelson on "Se(Tales of Yankee Power)" makes me greedy. This "Sequot; is everything I wanted Willie’s "Stella Blue" (recorded by/with Ryan Adams last year) to be. I know I’m biased (hell—I wrote Willie in for President in ’96), but no voice could deliver this better. So let me add my voice to a rising chorus: the Calexico kids need to come over to Willie’s place and help him make his best record since Teatro. This needs to happen.

All that chatter and I didn't even find a place to mention the Black Keys ass-kicking "The Wicked Messenger" or Glen Hansard's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," which would be a note perfect Old Crowe Medicine Show knock-off if he didn't precede them. I didn't get to talk about how damn smart Jeff Tweedy was to choose the revised (post 1975) lyrics to "Simple Twist of Fate." He turns the "She would have staaaaaayed with me" line in such a way that I felt "Twist" in a way I never had before. I didn't get to talk about Jack Johnson's clever distillation of the first twenty-five or so lines of Dylan's poem "Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie," an interpretation through which he finds a perfect crescendo in Dylan's crescendo-less prattle. I didn't get to talk about Richie Haven's "Tombstone Blues" (perhaps my favorite cut on either disc) that leaves you wondering where the hell Havens has been and why he doesn't just cover a record's worth of Bob and cash in. I didn't talk about Iron & Wine's "Dark Eyes," which moves perhaps further from the original than any other cut here and grooves so deeply in the grain of Sam Beam's The Shepherd’s Dog that it’s hardly Dylan at all when he’s done with it, and I didn’t get a chance to mention that Sufjanize is a verb that means "to make a song both disarmingly poignant and two minutes too long." I didn’t get to…ah hell.

If you made it this far, I should give you no-prize. You know by now that I could babble about this set for days, but you need to know too that it's worth babbling about for days. Thirty-four tracks and the vast majority of them work. I don't recall a more effective tribute. I've tried twice to distill it to a single disc, and it can't be done. Last things last I suppose: despite the title, Bob is here. He has the final say with his version of the title track, and his is damn near as good as Sonic Youth's version of it on the first disc.

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