CD review: ‘Chimes of Freedom’ has got Dylan covered
As tribute projects go, “Chimes of Freedom” is a massive one: four CDs – 76 tracks, all newly recorded – of songs written by Bob Dylan, and performed by artists ranging from … well, how do you even go about this? There are classic rockers (Pete Townshend, Mark Knopfler, Elvis Costello) and people I had not previously heard of (Natasha Bedingfield and her brother Daniel Bedingfield, who get their own separate tracks, which leads me to wonder if their father financed this project); singers young (Adele, Brett Dennen, Miley Cyrus), old (92-year-old Pete Seeger) and dead (Johnny Cash); artists of many nationalities (Angelique Kidjo from Benin, Ximena Sariana from Mexico, K’Naan from Somalia, Zee Avi from Malaysia, Sussan Deyhim from Iran). Stylistically, there are punks, folkies, bluesmen, jazzers, country dudes, pop stars, reggae singers and a string quartet.If you want to find a problem in this sprawling effort, here it is: “Chimes of Freedom” was created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Amnesty International, an organization devoted to protecting human rights the world over, and which was launched right around the time the former Robert Zimmerman arrived in Greenwich Village with his guitar, harmonica and ideas. And while many of Dylan’s songs, especially in his early years, were tightly aligned with Amnesty International’s mission – in fact, “I Shall Be Released” was the de facto anthem of Amnesty International’s 1981 benefit concerts – the majority of Dylan’s output, and the majority of what is included here, is not politically aimed. It’s hard to see the connection between Amnesty International and the mocking kiss-off “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” Perhaps a tighter, single disc with the likes of “When the Ship Comes In,” “With God on Our Side” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” would have been more appropriate to the occasion.Another way to look at this project is that no one brought a sense of freedom to pop songwriting like Dylan did. Start with the fact that Dylan, feeling constrained by the politically oriented songs he first made his mark with and by the audience who wanted him to do nothing but topical songs on an acoustic guitar, defiantly threw off those shackles. He saw himself as an artist free to express himself however he saw fit: singing country ditties, surreal epics, fundamentalist Christian warnings, omens of death, sweet and sour love songs. He made movies, wrote poetry, participated in the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, penned a memoir – all without an apparent care for anything other than unfettered self-expression. (I suppose this is not really the place to pin Dylan down on something, but what about that second volume of the memoir “Chronicles?” Freedom is one thing, but the freedom to break one’s promises isn’t so clear-cut.)Along with the unsurpassed catalogue of songs he has amassed, Dylan unlocked the gates for everyone else to pass through. As Bruce Springsteen put it in the 1988 speech that accompanied Dylan’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, when he heard “Like a Rolling Stone” for the first time, “on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” But that was the effect Dylan had on the 15-year-old Springsteen, the effect Dylan’s music had on any ordinary listener who suddenly felt like there was a new world to explore. What about the vast land that Dylan pointed the way to for other artists? Again, Springsteen in that induction speech: “He invented a new way a pop singer could sound, broke through the limitations of what a recording artist could achieve, and changed the face of rock ‘n roll forever. Without Bob, the Beatles wouldn’t have made ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ the Beach Boys wouldn’t have made ‘Pet Sounds,’ the Sex Pistols wouldn’t have made ‘God Save The Queen,’ U2 wouldn’t have done ‘Pride (In the Name of Love),’ Marvin Gaye wouldn’t have done ‘What’s Goin’ On,’ the Count Five would not have done ‘Psychotic Reaction’ and Grandmaster Flash might not have done ‘The Message.’ To this day, whenever great rock music is being made, there is the shadow of Bob Dylan.”Other notes:• Not a rapper in the bunch? Not one? Weird, bordering on shameful.• Nice to see “Street Legal,” Dylan’s unfairly disdained 1978 album, get some love. Three songs – “Changing of the Guard,” “No Time to Think” and “Seor (Tales of Yankee Power)” – are covered. The brother-sister duo the Belle Brigade does all however many verses of “No Time to Think,” covering eight minutes. • Sure would have loved to hear Springsteen (who you’d figure to be an Amnesty International supporter) do “Like a Rolling Stone.” More tracks that might have landed on “Chimes of Freedom” had they consulted me: Leonard Cohen’s “Visions of Johanna,” Wilco’s “Jokerman,” Gillian Welch’s “Red River Shore,” Bill Frisell’s “Every Grain of Sand,” Railroad Earth’s “Mississippi,” Rufus Wainwright’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” Amadou & Mariam’s “I and I” and Aaron Neville’s “Baby Stop Crying.” And definitely Public Enemy doing “Maggie’s Farm.”• Vying for the title of which musician takes doing a Dylan cover as an opportunity for artistic expansion are Diana Krall and Elvis Costello, who happen to be married to each other. Jazz-woman Krall moves comfortably into singer-songwriter mode for an un-jazzy take on “Simple Twist of Fate.” Costello does a quiet, cool version of “License to Kill” that doesn’t remind me of anything I’ve heard Costello do before.• The Kronos Quartet’s track is cool and lovely – but I still think it’s mislabeled as “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” I had a lot of trouble hearing that melody.• Blake Mills turned heads last year, as guitarist for Lucinda Williams’ Belly Up show. Nice to see him get a boost here, playing “Heart of Mine” with a Caribbean lilt. Go online to find the clip of Mills’ appearance on “Conan” from this past Tuesday.• Plenty of candidates for who took the most extreme liberty with the source material, including Canada’s Silverstein, who go hardcore with “Song to Woody,” Dylan’s early, acoustic homage to Woody Guthrie; My Chemical Romance’s contribution, which is practically unrecognizable as “Desolation Row” (partly because it lops off mare than half of the original’s 10 verses); Bad Religion’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which is thrashing and pounding (but manages to retain the lovely sadness of the signature line); and Angelique Kidjo’s interesting rearrangement of “Lay Lady Lay.” But the award for radical reconstruction goes to the Los Angeles outfit Mariachi El Bronx, whose version of “Love Sick” throws in elements of Mexico, punk and choir.• Worth skipping forward to: Carolina Chocolate Drops’ neo-Appalachian “Political World”; Raphael Saadiq’s inventive take on “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”; Sussan Deyhim’s “All I Really Want To Do,” which adds seductive meaning to the refrain, “All I really want to do is baby be friends with you”; a spare, dreamy “It Ain’t Me, Babe” by England’s Band of Skulls; • Kris Kristofferson’s contribution sounds like a death groan, as if he’s croaking out his final words. What makes this almost funny is that the 75-year-old Kristofferson is covering what might be Dylan’s silliest lyric, “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn).” The track is good, but if Kristofferson had recorded, say, “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” it might have been epic.• Coming closest to the blueprint of the original is Steve Earle’s “One More Cup of Coffee.” Earle even borrows the idea of making the song a duet; where Dylan was accompanied by Emmylou Harris, Earle is joined by Lucia Micarelli.• Good as “Chimes of Freedom” is, for Dylan cover projects I prefer the two-disc soundtrack to the quasi-biographical film, “I’m Not There.” Overall, it was more adventurous and features my favorite Dylan cover, Jim James & Calexico’s “Goin’ to Acapulco.”• Most representative of the theme goes to Kentucky rockers Cage the Elephant, whose “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” about the 1963 killing of a black barmaid by a wealthy young tobacco farmer, is appropriately unsettling.• If Dylan gets this kind of tribute while he’s still going strong and touring hard, what happens when he finally does knock on heaven’s door?• Still not enough Dylan covers? Try the recent “A Nod to Bob 2,” which narrows things down to one disc, 16 tracks, all from the folkie/rootsy realm. There’s no overlap in artists with “Chimes of Freedom,” and amazingly little overlap in songs. “A Nod to Bob 2” leans toward obscurities, with versions of “Dirt Road Blues” (by Pieta Brown); “Born in Time” (Meg Hutchinson); “The Days of Forty-Nine” (Spider John Koerner); “Mozambique” (Peter Ostroushko); and “Walkin’ Down the Line” (Robin & Linda Williams). Among the more interesting takes is Hot Tuna’s swinging version of “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” rewritten as “Mama, Let Me Lay It on You.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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