Gotham String Quartet, The Immortal Songs of Bob Dylan, 1966

I read somewhere that this was one of the strangest Dylan cover albums you’d ever hear, and so I braced myself for weirdness. Instead this delivered what I thought the Golden Gates Strings were all about—Dylan done as classical music. This reminds me of one of those string quartets playing quietly in the background at an outdoors wedding reception. But a few listens has revealed one of the most inventive re-envisionings of Dylan’s work I’ve heard yet. The best one word summation I can think of is ‘stirring,’ which in itself is a bit of a cliché in the context of string music, but then like all clichés it has a basis in reality; something about this album stirred a feeling that few of the others in this category thus far have. The versions here are delicate, adaptive, evasive, poignant, inventively arranged and yes, even moving. Each track takes the essence of a Dylan tune and toys with it in fresh ways, expanding and contracting them, slowing them down or speeding them up, always adding poignancy in unexpected places. I’m no classical fan by any stretch, but I’m entitled to say these are not corny in the way the Golden Gates Strings versions were. There is too much going on, too many neat frills and adornments, and radical changes of motion, such that the Gotham String Quartet manages to successfully transform Dylan into a new mode.

The liner notes draw your attention to this fact: “An album of contrast only an age of contrast like ours could have produced. ’The times, they are a-changin’–rapidly.” Judith Saylor, the writer of these notes could hardly have known she was articulating post-modernism in its infancy. Yet her final comment is revealing. Regarding ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ she writes, “The instrumentation of this melody…is undeniably a contrast to Dylan’s own bittersweet version. Here the melody is airily batted about like an innocuous balloon by the two violins, viola and cello of the Gotham String Quartet.” ‘Innocuous’ huh? But get this; “The contrast? No hard rain falls—not even a single drop—in their pleasant rendition. In fact, all of The Immortal Songs of Bob Dylan are herein pleasantly rendered and nice, very nice…particularly nice is ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’.” Now, I have to ask—one ‘innocuous’, one ‘pleasant’, and three ‘nices’—is she being ironic? I suspect not, which opens up a whole new irony. One imagines that for Saylor, the original Dylan’s a hard listen. Diamond down, Bumstead.

Mr. Tambourine Man…chorus comes on immediately, the melody played by one of the violins while the cello keeps thrusting the rhythm, until they switch places. The cello plays the chorus while the violins provide support. Meanwhile on something else, the viola perhaps, someone plucks these kind of cartoon-mouse footstep sounds. They keep it interesting from start to end. The only thing about this tune is that having heard it a zillion times, I can’t help finding even this version a bit sappy.

When The Ship Comes In…same as before—violins play the melody for a chorus with cello ‘bouncing’ a rhythm and then they trade places. After two runs through, the speed picks up to almost double with lots of high-speed see-sawing going on. That stops, a new part of the melody picks up at an intermediary pace and the first thing I think of is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which, uh, reminds me of ‘punk’ (lol) violinist Nigel Kennedy. Remember him?

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall…this is much more tender and subdued, with more delicate touches. A lone violin keeps the tune, but the other three instruments are being used in almost percussive ways, all playing intricate little parts in counterpoint to each other and the main melody. This is quite beautiful. It never bursts its seams. It always holds back, almost coyly flirtatious. There are at least five or six changes in tack, rhythm, melodic phrasing, and a really pretty non-studio engineered fade out.

It Ain’t Me Babe… is played firstly on cello, at quite a slow pace, which is soon picked up by violin until the chorus, when everyone briefly joins in and the volume doubles. What I love about all of these is that while one or two instruments are keeping the melody, the others add really cool sound effects in the background. They’re all doing their own individual thing. It’s intriguing. I’m quite taken by this.  I like how they take a vocal melody line and play part of it, but just as you might be about to sing the next line, they drift away and bridge to a new part of the tune, always maintaining that element of surprise.

All I Really Want To Do…for some reason I’ve gone off hearing this one covered. This version is quite low-key, quieter, viola carrying the main melody at first. Something about the chorus to this song is too simple to work as an instrumental. It really needs its lyrics. Having said that, the GSQ seem aware of that, and they refrain from repeating the main theme, instead wavering off into fresh territory, almost kind of how jazz bands improvise on old melodies by sticking to the original chords but playing completely new tunes. I’m sure the GSQ aren’t quite doing that, but there is a certain newness to this version that neither Duane Eddy nor Hugues Aufray were able to pull off.

Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35…how great it is to hear a new Dylan number, finally, not covered by anyone else, although we have moved onto 1966. Cool opening and then the main line being played by a brilliantly wonky combination of cello, viola and violin. “They’ll stone you when you’re trying to make a buck / They stone you and then they’ll say good luck.” There’s something quite comical about this version. The song always had a comical element with its wacky fairground brass band instrumentation.

Don’t Think Twice (sic)…opens with a fairly faithful rendition of the main chorus but there’s quite a few neat little tics thrown in here and there, wild squiggles, sudden pips and jolts, high notes that suddenly sink to low notes, which may or may not be corny depending on how much classical music you listen to. But there are more significant changes towards the end before the song fades out quickly.

One Too Many Mornings…is the first time they’ve played one which I don’t hear much of the traditional melody. No doubt they’re keeping to the chordal structure but it’s not until the end of the song when the main melody comes in, undercut by some heavy jabs on the cello strings.

The Times They Are A-Changin’…sounds good, a moving performance with a little vibrato, all musicians playing the melody together near the start followed by a series of radically different changes. Perhaps the whole thing is a bit disjointed but it’s never boring. This is what they do on nearly every song here. They start with the chorus and then make major alterations, switching parts, constantly reinventing the way the song can be played. I find it fascinating.

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue…is another ‘moving’ kind of piece, a product of the unusual minor-chord melody of this song. It’s really unlike any other of Dylan’s early work. It always stands out for me because of that, although I must add that for a very long time, from about 1986 until I discovered Dylan properly in 2005, my only knowledge of this song was Falco’s horrid version on his album Rock Me, Amadeus. Urgh. The strings play together a little more here, but there are major changes of volume and intensity throughout.

Like A Rolling Stone…is their best track here by far. The first time I heard it I could barely hear the melody, but after a few spins, the subtleties slowly unwound, and when the lines, “And now you don’t talk so loud / And now you don’t seem so proud / About having to scrounge for your next meal,“ come on, it’s just beautiful. Stunning. They slow it right down as they play those three lines each with a different instrument, altering registers and tempos. I find this amazing. It’s so inventive. There’s so much happening here with only four instruments it blows my mind. It’s a treat, a delicacy and very stirring.

Blowin’ In The Wind…is played the straightest of any of the songs here. Maybe they didn’t want to desecrate the song seeing it was regarded as a classic of its time. There are some neat little twists and curlicues in the middle of the song, and then it finishes with a big all-together-now string serenade. I’ll forgo my usual grumbles with this track and say, hey, not so bad.

I don’t know what it is about this album that I like so much. I think there’s two things this has got going for it, that I needed about this point in time (that is, 8 reviews into my Dylan covers project). 1) It’s a very fresh sound (which I suppose is true of most string quartets if you’re coming from a rock background). 2) It’s consistently inventive, but short and sweet. Longest track here is ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ at 3:03.  3) They retain the ‘pop’ quality just enough for you to enjoy the tunes, but not so much that it sounds tacky. Nice work GSQ.

Notes

Click once to expand, again to magnify.

Alas, here is another outfit who’ve managed to escape the all-seeing eye of the world wide web. I can find no information about them or this release, apart from recording data. This was an American conceived recording, arranged and conducted by our man with the baton, Irv Spice. Yeah, well done, Irv.

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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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