Let’s start with a quotation from the back sleeve: “At first, it may seem startling to hear a full orchestra play the songs of Bob Dylan, whose own singing tends toward the rough, blisteringly authentic style of the honest folk singer. Yet it makes sense here, as The Golden Gate Strings capture the wealth of melodic invention in Dylan’s work.” –Mm, makes about as much sense as Derridean cornology up a dope rope.
This has to be the first ever instrumental Dylan covers album. A cursory listen revealed an unusual mix of strings and guitars which is slightly better than the full orchestral effect I’d been expecting. The violins and cellos carry the tunes, while the guitars and drums play rhythm. What makes some of these awful instrumental Dylan cover albums palatable is the 60s sound quality. Sure, it’s a horrid bourgeois attempt to appropriate an iconoclast and make him less threatening, but that hardly matters in 2011. Having said that, string versions of any rock music are usually awful, and funnily enough string recordings don’t really date like rock recordings do. Thus, the fact that this has rock elements mixed with orchestral is what makes it ever so slightly redeemable to my ears, because I quite enjoy that sixties sound.
Not a single track here goes over three minutes, so kudos to the Golden Gate Strings for keeping these mercifully short. Some general observations about these are that each song might begin melodically with the first verse and chorus, after which they try out various alterations on the chorus/main theme or melody, and throw in one or two different instruments; a harmonica here, a dulcimer there, banjo, flute and what have you. Is it awful? Mostly. Yes, mostly it’s bloody awful. The Golden Gate Strings transform Dylan’s songs into meaningless, easily consumed orchestral-pop, as lovable, cute and bouncy as a cartoon kangaroo. The strings always soar; never content to use a lone violin or a deep menacing cello, there’s an entire orchestral pit of violinists elbowing their bows across the heavens; choirs of angels high on the gas of Cloud Nine, that kind of nonsense. That’s the basis of my general review. Let’s get that straight. Track by track however I’m going to try to dig for something likable. Of the 1965 recordings I’ve reviewed so far, this is by far the kitschiest. Lay the diamond down, Bumstead, and cut that wax.
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall…possibly the best sounding track here. There’s some really high pitched violins and trombones playing the melody, but there’s this totally cool grungy sounding bass underneath it all that nearly rocks. It’s a pity they didn’t use that bass again. This is the first and last time we’ll hear it. We don’t get much of the song really, maybe three melodic lines tops, played in various combinations. I do like the way they build up the chorus and release it. That sort of works with a string section. You can be sure this is about as bubblegummified as it gets.
Blowin’ In The Wind…rhythm played on bass and strummed guitar, tune played on flute and dramatic strings. This sounds widescreen, you can just picture wide green fields, wind blowing through trees. It’s awfully ‘nice’ and horrifically corny, and delivers exactly what you’d expect.
Subterranean Homesick Blues…nice opening on picked steel string guitar, which soon gets swamped by a train rhythm, a muted harmonica, vibrato strings, flute and a faster, insistent rhythm, but nowhere does this sound like the Subterranean Homesick Blues that I know. I can’t hear a single semblance of the original tune in this. There’s a really cool strummed banjo sound and the sound fades out on a tightly wah-wahing harmonica, and it’s over. If it hadn’t been for the title, I’d have never known what this was.
Farewell…given that the only version I know of this song is the one done by Linda Mason this comes across as a luvverly little sop-ditty. A little too many violins and cellos for my tastes, and some rinky-dink vibraphone playing. Cinematic, but not terribly interesting.
With God On Our Side…starts with a strummed acoustic guitar. The tune is played on woodwind, which is a fresh sound. The strings only come in after the first verse. There’s some pretty cool toms being bopped in the background. Many of these tracks have just enough peripheral tones and instruments to keep this from being an all out brass and string-fest.
Tomorrow Is A Long Time…another song that I really only know through other people’s covers of it, namely Odetta and Linda Mason, meaning that as an orchestral version, I can barely recognize the tune. Like ‘Farewell’, this too is a bit on the sappy side. They use a lot of that shimmery violin vibrato and something that could be a dulcimer. Too pretty for its own good.
Mr. Tambourine Man…ach, this starts off sounding like the theme to the Beverly Hillbillies, with a bouncy farmyard, chicken coop banjo. Juxtapose that against the strings, and then the tubas, and oh man, this is Disney music. Seriously. I can see it now—fireworks exploding behind a castle as Mickey and Donald come on dancing a jig, while Goofy follows behind beating a tambourine in time. They really only play the chorus.
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue…very guitary opening, which gets swamped by violins set at a very high timbre. I like this tune though. Some kind of brass instrument playing one of the verses. I think this song may actually suit this kind of treatment, maybe, just slightly, like, a smidgeon. Or, er, maybe not. Yeah, sorry. I loved the opening. Why ruin it with all those farflung orchestra-matics?
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right…another that opens on guitar and sounds really good until the strings Disneyfry the oomph out of it. This is ‘Dylan—the musical’ or ‘Dylan-for-tinytots’. Only redeemable because the song has such a good tune.
It Ain’t Me Babe…slightly more tasteful…or have I spoken too soon? A bird-like flute comes warbling out of nowhere. What they do manage quite effectively is to take what are vocal melody lines in the original and play them on different instruments, alternating voices, setting lines off from one another. I guess that’s what you call ‘arranging.’ It does keep the music fresh, and like I said earlier, by the two and a half minute mark, when they’ve run out of ideas, they kindly stop the song.
When The Ship Comes In…like the song before it, the violins are kept at a lower, more subdued kind of volume. Mostly this is just strings though, and a light rock rhythm. It’s quite pretty this one, and the longest song here, clocking in at a whole 2:51. They’re really only playing the chorus line over and over in slightly varying colourings and groupings of musicians/instruments.
The Times They Are A-Changin’…but to finish the album on a tacky note, let’s have some more of those high pitched violins. Oh, and let’s make the verses sound like we’ve borrowed some harp-plucking angels to finger out the melody. Nice ending though, on guitar.
According to the sleeve, this is the Golden Gate Strings debut recording for Epic Records. They would later inflict the same kind of sonic terrorism on the Monkees songbook in 1967. Otherwise, it’s virtually impossible to find any other information about this version of the Golden Gate Strings and indeed this album, on the world wide web (a new ‘Golden Gate Strings’ seems to have formed in 2005) .