Tribute albums can range from the obvious (the recently released The Art of McCartney featuring Alice Cooper singing “Eleanor Rigby”, “Let It Be” by Chrissie Hynde and 40 others penned by the former Beatles /Wings composer/performer) to the obscure (1994’s Brace Yourself:A Tribute to Otis Blackwell with Debbie Harry warbling “Don’t Be Cruel”, Kris Kristofferson performing “All Shook Up” and 13 other songs by various artists either written or co-written by the rock’n’roll pioneer.)
There are plenty of tribute albums on the market but who actually buys them?
I was wondering about this while listening to Chimes of Freedom:The Songs of Bob Dylan.
A friend lent me a copy of the CD that he received from another friend and so on. I couldn’t help but notice the original copy of the CD I was handed was bootlegged (rather appropriate in a subversive way since Dylan is one of the most bootlegged artists in the biz. Unfortunately, money from sales of the tribute album has been earmarked for Amnesty International.)
No matter how sincere or well-intentioned, the cover versions on tribute albums simply serve to remind me how much better the originals are.
I remember seeing Bob Dylan at a long ago concert. As soon as the aging troubadour hit the chorus of “Like a Rolling Stone” the audience, unprompted, began to sing along. The strains of the epic composition swept through the arena as if the song had achieved a life of its own. Even Dylan seemed amazed at its power as he stepped away from the mike. And if even Bob Dylan cannot match the power of his original vocals what chance do Seal, Jeff Beck and a band of fabled L.A. session musicians have on Chimes of Freedom?
I shuddered for a different reason when I heard Bad Religion’s amped-up version of “The Times They Are A Changin'” (although in this case the L.A. punk veterans have a point. As many boomers can attest, to their bemusement and/or horror, the times are changing – again. And what better way to announce the fact than to speak to members of the younger generation in what may be their own musical language.)
Therein lies the rub when it comes to critical approval. If the song covered is true to the original version, reviewers will say the artist covering the song lacks creative imagination. And if the act covering a well-worn original changes the arrangement radically critics may moan that a masterpiece has been defaced and has forever destroyed their memory of that particular song.
The set shows that one of the most surreal of songwriters is also a traditionalist. The meaning of some of the songs may be ambiguous but the lyrics always rhyme, sometimes internally. (“Your long time curse hurts/ but what’s worse/Is this pain in here/ can’t stay in here/ain’t it clear” from 1966’s “Just Like a Woman”) . These days audiences do not demand that lyrics rhyme. The result is some memorable free form verse. It is also an excuse for a lot of poetic-sounding drivel.
The release also shows the astounding depth and range of Dylan’s back catalogue (over 70 songs on this set – all originals).
Still, despite the honest admiration displayed on these tracks, there are only a handful I would play more than once – Bettye LaVette’s gritty, soulful reworking of “Most of the Time” and Thea Gilmore’s haunting, heartfelt version of “I’ll Remember You” stand out from the pack. (Ms. Gilmore is obviously a tie dyed-in-the–wool Dylan fan. She covered every track on Dylan’s 1967 masterwork on an album simply entitled John Wesley Harding and performed at a concert honoring Dylan’s 70th birthday.)
As UK’s Independent on Sunday put it “dazzling songs, dismally sung.”