There’s little denying that Bob Dylan is one of the master songwriters of the rock era. His voice, however, is a polarizing factor, a nasally, gritty instrument that people either love or hate. For this reason, covers of Dylan songs have often had more impact than the originals. Go through a list of Dylan songs and other names come to mind. “Blowin’ in the Wind” brings to mind Peter, Paul and Mary. “It Ain’t Me Babe” brings to mind the Turtles. “All Around the Watchtower” belongs to Jimi Hendrix. “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” brings to mind Van Morrison with Them.
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” summons Eric Clapton, Bob Marley, Guns ‘n’ Roses and Warren Zevon all at once. So, it seems only fitting that for the soundtrack of Todd Haynes’ ambitious-looking biopic of Dylan, “I’m Not There,” a movie in which multiple actors (from Richard Gere to Christian Bale to Cate Blanchett) play the man himself at different stages., would contain virtually nothing but covers. Dylan himself only appears on the title track performed with the Band.
If you are a Dylan fan, these covers are a recommended listen. The two-disc, 34 track collection spans nearly the maximum 160 minutes available, so it’s quite an economic buy. Most of the artists here are either alt-rock or alt-country bigwigs, with a few elder-statesmen figureheads thrown in for good measure.
Some tracks pair singers with backing bands. Calexico show up a number of times, as do the Million Dollar Bashers, a supergroup featuring Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley, Wilco’s guitar-master Nels Cline, John Medeski, Beck’s occasional sideman Smokey Hormel, Television’s Tom Verlaine and bass-player Tony Garnier.
Mostly the artists stick to Dylan impressions. These covers are mostly by the book with few radical changes. Perhaps the two best Dylan impressions here come from women. Cat Power does a dead-on rendition of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” Unlike Dylan, though, her southern drawl is authentic. Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs does a similarly fine job on “Highway 61 Revisited” backed by the Million Dollar Bashers.
Eddie Vedder, again with said Bashers, delivers another iconic cover of “All Along the Watchtower.” Sonic Youth, led by Thurston Moore’s half-wounded slacker-voiced warble, add a few layers of darkness to their cover of the title track. Jeff Tweedy from Wilco nails the country storyteller vibe of “Simple Twist of Fate.” Richie Havens adds a strong chunk of deep-fried soul to his standout cover of “Tombstone Blues.” Jim James of My Morning Jacket wraps his high, cupped-sounding wail around “Goin’ To Acapulco.”
Former Pavement leader Stephen Malkmus does Dylan proud not once, not twice, but three times, spookily covering “Ballad of a Thin Man,” sweetly crooning “Can’t Leave Her Behind” and firmly and effectively capturing the anger in “Maggie’s Farm.” His signature bemused snarkiness has here become mightily Dylanesque.
The original version of “Just like a Woman” comes off as sort of sleazy and sort of condescending, but here, as whisper-sung by Charlotte Gainsbourg, the song has an intimate, sensual sense of whimsy.
As he did on the Sublime tribute album, Jack Johnson melds two songs together, successfully blending “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind” and “A Fraction of Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.”
Yo La Tengo show their range with both the Georgia Hubley led dream-pop cover of “Fourth Time Around” and raucous, revival-like boogie of the Ira Kaplan-led “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”
Mason Jennings gives the standard troubadour cover of “The Times They Are A Changing.”
Marcus Carl Franklin, the youngest of all the actors to play Dylan in the film, delivers a show-stopping rendition of “When the Ship Comes In.”
Willie Nelson gives an effectively grizzled performance of “Senor.” The track has the distinctive touch unique to the “red-headed stranger.”
Mark Lanegan’s low, gravelly baritone adds an effective chill to “Man In The Long Black Coat.”
How nice it is, too, to hear the stars of the movie “Once,” Glen Hansard and Marketa Inglova, singing a joyful version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” It sounds like it was fun to record.
Antony & the Johnsons’ soft take on “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is decent, though it doesn’t quite hold up compared to the classic versions listed above, mainly because of its too slow pacing and Antony’s vibrato-heavy, almost operatic voice.
Yes, Dylan, especially as of late, has gotten a lot of critical love he didn’t quite deserve. He’s treated as a flawless rock god by too many critics. For instance, his most recent album, “Modern Times,” was marred by an album cover he stole from the band Luna, a name he stole from Charlie Chaplin and by his claims that he wrote a number of old blues standards. Such moves reek of hackery.
The Dylan represented here, however, is a classic songwriter worthy of such royal treatment. I must admit though, the Dylan impressions do become tiresome.
It’ll be interesting to see how the movie is received when it hits theaters later this month. Hopefully it will be a fiercely innovative film and not just an empty exercise in hero-worship.
My question: How come no one covered “Like a Rolling Stone”?