Friday, March 9, 2012

Covering Our Bases - Bob Dylan

I've already gone on at length about Bob Dylan's cult of inscrutability and mercurial musical career, so I won't bore you with further description. However, despite this reputation his catalog of work due to its amazing depth and breadth has led to him being the second most covered artist after only the Beatles. In recent years multi-disc tributes such as 2007's I'm Not There Soundtrack and this year's Chimes Of Freedom have wrangled nearly everyone whose anyone from the indie rock world (not to mention your odd Miley Cyrus or Jack Johnson) into putting their stamp on one of Dylan's 500+ songs.

On Warmer Music likes nothing better than a good cover and I thought this onslaught of new Dylan tributes warranted a look back at some of my favorite memorable, important or underlooked Dylan covers. As always with these lists, it was a tough choice, especially given the breadth of musical love that Dylan gets but here are ten songs reimaginings of his work that won't leave you hanging.

I Want You - Bruce Springsteen  Buy Live At The Main Point, 1975
It's hard to believe just how derivative Springsteen's early work was. That's not to say it wasn't also brilliant but let's face it, Greetings From Asbury Park's imagistic songwriting over folk-rock backing veered awfully close to mid-60's Dylan cover band territory. By the time he and the E-Street Band rocked Bryn Mawr's Main Point club (capacity approx. 300) in early 1975 for a concert broadcast live over the radio (and thus heavily bootlegged), they'd found much more of their own voice. Bruce is still paying homage to his mentor but now, rather than writing Springsteen songs that sound like Dylan, he's making Dylan songs sound like Springsteen. He and the band stretch "I Want You"'s bouncy pop out over six minutes of wistful violin, tinkling piano and playful accordion. It's a loving exercise in restraint for an otherwise rip-roarin' singer and band.

Shelter From The Storm - Mary Lee's Corvette  Buy Blood On The Tracks Live At Arlene's Grocery
Mary Lee's Corvette was the musical project of Mary Lee Kortes, a Midwestern expat living in New York City with a relatively low profile until 2001. One night in late September, in a small grocery store, she recorded a live song-for-song cover of Blood On The Tracks. It was a bold move, especially for her as a woman singing Bob's breakup songs but it was one that paid off handsomely. The album has several high points but I was always particularly fond of her take on "Shelter From The Storm". Coming right after 9/11, the lyrics about finding refuge must have had particular resonance amongst the New Yorkers and Kortes certainly puts her all into it. Whereas the original was soft and pretty, this one is energetic, almost angry in it's delivery with a lead acoustic guitar picking frantically beneath the singing giving the performance a buzzing energy.

Just Like Tom Thumb Blues - Judy Collins  Buy In My Life
I picked up my love of Judy Collins from my father whose always had a bit of a crush on her (and I don't blame him). In My Life was a bit of a transition away from the pure earnest folk of her earlier releases, with many songs adding sonic touches that place it squarely in the adventurous spirit of 1966. Her take on "Just Like Tom Thumb Blues" leads off the album and announces these flourishes with softly plucked strings and almost baroque woodwinds leading everywhere. Collins' voice is both beautiful and commanding and her delivery gives gravitas to the song, lest it fly away on its fanciful backing. It's a gorgeous version of an easily-overlooked mid-period Dylan album tracks.

Absolutely Sweet Marie - Jason & The Scorchers  Buy Wildfires & Misfires
There's something about the mid-80's alternative scene that felt a need to slap chugging, distorted semi-punk backings onto 60's folk and country classics and thank God for that. Much like Social Distortion gave "Ring Of Fire" an exhilarating kick in the pants, Nashville's Jason & The Scorchers burst onto the national indie consciousness with a cow-punk version of Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie". Much like "Tom Thumb's Blues", this was a song ripe for reinvention, tucked away at the back of a respected album but often lost in the shuffle despite its killer hook. The Scorchers' bar-chorded assault has enough twang in the guitar licks and harmonica in the background to keep things rootsy without being parodic and with their energy and Dylan's songwriting genius that's about all you need.

The Man In Me - The Clash  Buy The Vanilla Tapes
The Clash were known to keep a jukebox full of American country, rockabilly and R&B in their rehearsal studio that they'd play between sessions. This lead to numerous covers including their versions of "Time Is Tight", "Stagger Lee" and "I Fought The Law". As they were working out material for what would become London Calling, they decided to combine their ever-increasing reggae chops with a Dylan album track that few in America would notice until it got its moment in the sun in The Big Lebowski. As he often did live (even with his own material) Joe stumbled through the verses and warped the chorus a little bit in this practice take, but don't let that mar it for you. The Clash's brand of punky reggae was perfectly suited to Dylan's song about wounded pride desperate love. It's an absolute shame that the band never actually worked a version of this all the way out because it would surely rank high among their already-impressive list of covers.

Mama You've Been On My Mind - Rod Stewart  Buy Never A Dull Moment
Bob Dylan is an ridiculously prolific songwriter, so much so that, by the mid-60's he was practically shitting amazing songs and could afford to toss off a classic like "Mama You've Been On My Mind" without releasing it. Everyone from George Harrison to Johnny Cash to Ms. Collins took a crack at it at the time but the most endearing version has to come from Rod Stewart's 1972 solo album, Never A Dull Moment. Recorded with the Faces as backing band, the song starts with that upbeat organ before Rod's gravely voice starts moaning the lyrics. It's an offhanded, almost forgetful take on a song that others pack with heavy emotion. His take seems no less heartfelt, but its casualness gives it a charm and reality that somehow make it seem all the more honest.

Highway 61 Revisited - PJ Harvey  Buy Rid Of Me
This was a cover that I discovered while writing this post and have become addicted to in short order. Harvey recorded this for her sophomore album, Rid Of Me, and it just reeks with bona fide early 90's hallmarks. Low-fi intro, loud-quiet structure, abrasive guitars, it's all there and no wonder with Chicago's favorite asshole-savant Steve Albini behind the boards. In her hands, the song's gender dynamics get pushed to the front as lyrics about "sixth daughter" and "second mother" become bitter indictments in this telling. Combine her singing with an ongoing assault on the drum kit and manically distorted guitars and you've got Bob all flanneled up and ready for grunge. As odd at that sounds, believe me, it works.

You Ain't Going Nowhere - The Byrds  Buy Sweetheart Of The Rodeo
The Byrds were ahead of their time in 1968 as they became the first hipsters to abandon modern music and "rediscover" country. But you can't argue with the results as Roger McGuinn added Gram Parsons and a bunch of pedal steel to wonderful effect miles way from their early Rickenbacker'd Dylan covers. At the time, Dylan hadn't released "You Ain't Going Nowhere" so the Byrds' version was the original for many people and they forsook Dylan's folk-pop route for straight-up country. The steel guitar and laid-back singing here actually match the downbeat lyrics far better than Dylan's eventual version and it provides a nice soft entry point into a sweet, end-of-the-day kinda album.

One More Cup Of Coffee - The White Stripes  Buy The White Stripes
I hadn't listened to the White Stripes 2000 self-titled debut for years until a week ago and it was a revelation. It's easy to forget that before they were rock saviors with huge guitars and studio embellishments they were just a dinky little blues-rock garage band. Still, they were a really good garage band and that album has just the right mix of low production values and great ambition to make it a charming listen. Clocking in near the end, the Stripes' cover "One More Cup Of Coffee" sounds natural enough to barely register as a cover. Gone are Emmylou Harris' gorgeous vocals, in is spiky, palm-muted electric guitar. White gives us just enough emotion to convey the song's drama while holding back on the big release. It's a move we'd see little of in the Stripes' later work and serves both the song and the album incredibly well.

Knockin' On Heaven's Door - Warren Zevon  Buy The Wind
Poor Waren Zevon, always a musician's musician (also, a record nerd's musician), disliked by many due to the overplay of "Werewolves Of London", taken too soon by lung cancer. After learning of his diagnosis, Zevon worked hard to complete his final album The Wind. Given his humor and eternal cynicism, it's hard to tell just how much of this cover is earnest and how much is done with a sly wink, but either way, he pulls it off. Complete with a backing chorus, heavy bass and an almost sweet, almost saccharine lead guitar spewing color throughout, this is a lush take on a simple song. But while I'm sure that Zevon understood the cliché of performing this song at this time in his life, I think part of him also earnestly embraced it. Above all else, Zevon was a humanitarian and a cockeyed optimist and this was his love letter to... music? Life? Something.

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