Linda Mason, How Many Seas Must A White Dove Sail, 1964

From what I can gather, this seems to be the very first Dylan covers album. Given that it was released in 1964 when Bob Dylan only had three albums out there’s probably not much disputing that claim. In my mind this fact makes it something of a worthy item in any collection of Dylan cover albums on vinyl. Is it any good? Well, that depends if you don’t mind hearing great Dylan songs stripped of all grit and sincerity. Mason’s ‘nice’ feminine folk voice makes Joan Baez sound like Joan Jett. What’s worse is that she’s not a great singer by any stretch. At times she sounds like someone’s teenage sister singing into the hairbrush in her bedroom, especially on the high notes.

The blurb on the front of the album reads, “Fresh, poignant, often stirring interpretations of the poetic works of Bob Dylan, America’s most forceful young writer by a new girl, whose pure and true voice, whose emotional depth speaks the same language as Dylan.” Look, maybe ‘pure’ translates as ‘innocent’, but what these chaps don’t seem to understand is that content and form must meld to create a true work of art. Linda Mason seems to have little faith in what it is she’s actually singing half the time – her cover of “Masters Of War” is a case in point – she ends the song before singing the harsh but crucial final lines, “I’ll stand over your grave / Until I’m sure that you’re dead.” The musicianship is okay if a little timid. There’s a nice little barnyard harmonica sound played by someone called John Sebastian who would form The Lovin’ Spoonful in the same year as this was recorded. Okay, time to tee her up…

The Times They Are A-Changin’…starts with a slow chiming guitar. Mason has a slight nasal quality to her voice. She seems concerned with enunciating the words a little too precisely. This is especially obvious when she sings words that end in ‘in’ instead of ‘ing’. Where Dylan sings “ragin” and clips the ‘g’, it sounds like his natural vernacular, but Mason doesn’t quite get it right. The ‘n’ is hard, final, as if there was never a ‘g’ there in the first place. This makes her sound, sort of, nerdy.  Otherwise, she sings this song in quite a straight folk style.

Corinna, Corinna…I’ve always loved this song precisely for the pretty and delicate arpeggio style of guitar. Unfortunately that seems lost in translation. There’s some neat harmonica here though. I’m not sure if this can really be counted as a Bob Dylan cover anyway, given that he didn’t write it. Again Mason’s too-precise, soulless vocal style steals the warmth out of the song.

Tomorrow Is A Long Time…a good Dylan song not recorded by him in the 60s. Actually this works here, probably because it’s not bastardizing a Dylan version. And her voice seems more suited to the melody this time. It’s true though that Mason’s voice is a touch ‘cold’ in the icy sense, as well as the nasal sense. I’ve enjoyed this version though.

Masters of War…starts off with an ominous bass/guitar line.  Here there’s a serious misrelation between lyrics and vocal. Mason sings it ‘beautifully.’ Lines like “Like Judas of old, you lie and deceive” shouldn’t really be sung beautifully. There should be a bit of snarl and deliberate intensity.  “…young people’s blood / Flows out of their bodies and is buried in the mud” spits Dylan on the original, but Mason makes the mud sound as clean as a fountain of youth.  As noted earlier, she cuts off the final two lines, although she does end on a cool note: “All the money you make will never buy back your soul”, she sings, extending the word ‘soul’ with a slight waver. I do believe I glimpsed a hint of disgust.

Blowin’ In The Wind…ugh, voice too high, too sharp, almost pushing the treble into the red in places. It’s played quite straight, although the verses seem to roll on too evenly, with no pauses. Anyway, we’re all a bit sick of the platitudes in this song, aren’t we? So I’m probably not likely to be kind about anyone’s version.

Farewell…another song not recorded by Dylan for public consumption (only released in demo form on the Witmark boxset in 2010). This is a nice song, and again, it works quite well with Mason’s voice. There’s some neat harmonica on here too, but not the barnyard style; sounds more like a melodica. On all these tracks, the instrumental bass/drums/guitar backing is kept lightly in the background. Mason really hits some impressive high notes here. She’s not the greatest singer though, and I’m trying to pinpoint exactly why that is. It’s something to do with the way the spacing and timing is so perfectly even. It’s pretty and impressive, but lacks rhythm and soul.

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall…proves that when Mason sings the more ominous Dylan numbers her voice doesn’t suit the material at all. I mean, come on; “I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it…I saw a black branch with blood that kept dripping.” No you didn’t Linda. Bob may have seen these things, but all you did was hear Bob seeing these things. You have to think about what you’re singing when you sing. I was telling Japanese schoolkids that for years, every time we practiced for the speech contest: you have to understand the words kiddo, and when you say them, you have to be thinking that meaning at the same time as you make the utterance.  As the song wears on, Mason really sounds like she’s struggling with the material, like she’s sick of it, almost as if she doesn’t want to be singing these words. She sounds like she’s in pain.

Don’t Think Twice (sic)…more of that warbly barnyard harmonica in this track. This is a really catchy song, quite upbeat, but again, Mason’s inability to phrase the words with any sense of rhythmic meaning beyond the timing supplied by the beat robs the song of its bitter kiss-off quality.

Boots Of Spanish Leather…opens with a nice loud lone harmonica note. Mason sings the first couple of lines in a very high pitch, but I don’t think she’s quite hitting the notes all that well. Probably better to be an authentically bad singer doing Dylan than a half-decent one trying too hard. Mason’s saving grace is that the melodies to so many of these songs are so good, you can still enjoy them. Although, I would argue that this album is better listened to closely than as background. As background it grates. Foregrounded, you can sort of pick out the horrid phrasing and at least admire the melody.

One Too Many Mornings…it’s possible that some of the recording set-up is to be blamed for the harshness of the recording. Mason’s voice is always very much up front, too much in my opinion, and the balance and recording of the melodic instruments is on the weak side. Lots of that melodica-sounding harmonica in this neat track.

With God On Our Side…yet another great song, the irony of which seems completely lost in Mason’s style. You almost wonder whether she thought it was a patriotic anthem. When she sings “I learned to accept it / Accept it with pride” it sounds like she’s still feeling proud now. And how can you warble “I’ve learned to hate Russians all through my whole life” in such clear, pretty tones? It barely makes sense. This is another example of how whenever a song goes over 4 minutes, Mason starts to tire, and the sentiments become progressively less and less believable.

Who Killed Davey Moore?…okay, so this is totally different. In fact, it’s hilarious.  She’s almost rapping. At least we’re hearing Mason put some kind of energy into her vocals. It totally fails, but that’s not the point. I’m totally blown away by how different this is to every other track. They’ve arranged the music in quite a different way to the original. I’ve always loved this song, but it fails so badly, it’s embarrassing. I can see why they stuck it on last. Again, she ‘raps’ these lyrics without any real merging of feeling and meaning. Here is more than enough evidence that Mason is a singer who is mostly certainly not “ideally suited to tackle the demanding material” as the blurb reads on the back of the album.

Now that I’ve been unwaveringly mean-minded in my review, I will say there is actually something about this record I like; I like the fact that Linda Mason exposes the songs in this way as being so connected to a certain voice and attitude.

Notes

Click once to expand, again to magnify.

Culled from the back sleeve: Linda Mason was the daughter of a Queens, New York, psychiatrist. At age 16 she took private voice instruction. Her other musical training had been on piano, which as a typically rebellious child she was reluctant to practice. She bought her first guitar on a trip to Mexico with her parents in the summer of 1957. In that same year she bought her first album by the Weavers and went to see them and Odetta in concert. She then majored in painting and minored in biology at Hofstra College, Long Island around 1963. With this recording Linda Mason stood on the brink of national recognition (lol). She has had a small and dedicated following in Greenwich Village. Seems at some stage she was the victim of a sexist era. After getting her honours degree in fine arts in 1963, she made a try at the business world (oh Linda, why would you?) but soon discovered “they just don’t care how smart or creative or inventive you are. They just want to know if you can type or take shorthand.” Yup, sounds like the TV series Madmen.

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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